Author Archives: David

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

Despite the best efforts of the Beast from the East 1 Spring is definitely on the way.

The snowdrops and crocus have been out for some time, willow is looking good, large queen bumble bees are searching for nest sites and the temperature here in Fife has consistently reached double figures during the warmest part of the day for the last week.

Consistently … but only just and only briefly.

Pollen boost

Pollen boost …

Consequently it’s too cold for full inspections and the only colonies I’ve been ‘in’ are the two described below. However, I’ve not ignored the others. I’ve lifted the crownboard on most colonies to determine their approximate strength (or just peeked through those with perspex crownboards which is even less intrusive) and have continued to heft colonies to see if they have enough stores. Those that were feeling a bit light have had a fondant top up. I’ve also given several colonies a pollen boost to help them rear early season brood.

Other than that – and moving colonies to the new bee shed – I’ve left them well alone.

Early season checkups

On the warmest part of the warmest day of the week I visited the apiary to check the colony strength. With the exception of two, all were flying well with foragers returning laden with pale yellow pollen.

However, two were suspiciously quiet, with only a handful of bees going in and out 2.

A pretty small handful.

Almost none of the bees returning to these two colonies carried pollen.

One was a five frame poly nuc in the bee shed. This had been made up in mid/late summer while the parental colony was requeened. The old queen, a frame of emerging brood with the adhering bees and a frame of stores had gone into the nuc box. The little colony had built up reasonably well going by my infrequent peeks through the transparent crownboard, but not well enough to move them to a full hive for the winter.

The other suspiciously quiet colony was a full (or full-sized 🙁 ) hive headed by one of the older queens in my apiary. Most colonies are requeened annually or every other year, but this one was reared in my first year in Scotland (2015) 3.

I popped the lid off both colonies and examined them in greater detail. It wasn’t the recommended ‘shirtsleeve weather‘ by a long-shot, but I feared the worst and didn’t think a bit of cold would do these two any further damage.

Unfulfilled promise

The nuc contained about a cup full of bees and a small, unclipped pale queen.

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

This definitely wasn’t the queen I’d put in the box last August. For whatever reason, the colony had clearly replaced the queen late in the year. It hadn’t swarmed, so it looks like they’d tried to supercede the old queen. Going by the total absence of worker brood I presume the new queen hadn’t mated successfully, or at all, and that she was a virgin.

She wasn’t running about skittishly like new virgin queens do, but she wasn’t doing anything very useful either.

There were a few drones in the colony and one or two sealed drone cells. Whether these were from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, or laying workers, is largely irrelevant 4. The colony was doomed …

Worn out

The full sized colony was only full sized in terms of the hive it occupied. Inside there was another rather pathetic cupful of bees together with a very tatty, marked and clipped queen 5. There was more paint on her head than her thorax and I remember marking her with a very ‘blobby’ Posca pen. This was the queen I’d expected to find in the box.

Old and tired ...

Old and tired …

There were no drones in this colony, but no eggs either. There was also no sign of a second queen or evidence of attempted supercedure. I suspect the ageing queen simply ran out of sperm, stopped laying and never got started again.

Sometimes old queens turn into drone layers and sometimes they just stop. I’m not sure why they exhibit this different behaviour. It might actually reflect when they’re detected. I think I usually find drone laying queens a bit later in the Spring. Perhaps a failed queen starts laying (unfertilised) eggs only once the ambient temperature has risen sufficiently to help the much-reduced numbers of workers keep the brood nest warm enough?

That’s guesswork. It’s still cold here, with frost most nights. The small number of bees in the colony would have been unable to maintain the mid-30’s temperatures required for brood rearing. It’s surprising they’d survived this long.

Health check

Neither colony had any obvious signs of disease. The floor of the full hive was thigh-deep – if you’re a bee – in corpses.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses …

However, a good poke around through the cadavers failed to find any with signs of the deformed wings that are indicative of high viral loads. I hadn’t really expected to … the Varroa loads in this colony in the late-summer and midwinter treatments had been very low.

Corpses ...

Corpses …

Lose them or use them?

Clearly both queens had failed. Both were despatched. To keep them in the vain hope that they’d miraculously start laying again would have been a waste of time and, more importantly, other bees. The virgin would now be too old to get mated and there won’t be drones available here for at least 6 weeks.

This left the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bees. Both colonies were apparently healthy, but too small to survive. In the autumn the obvious thing to do is to unite small healthy colonies with large healthy colonies. This strengthens the latter further and helps them get through the winter.

However, this is the Spring. There were probably no more than 300 bees in either of the failed hives. All of these bees would have been at least 3 months old, and quite probably significantly older. They were unlikely to live much longer.

Furthermore, uniting these small colonies with larger colonies in the apiary would have caused disruption to the latter and increased the volume of the hive to be kept warm. Neither of these are desirable.

I therefore shook both small colonies out allowing the healthy flying bees to redistribute themselves around the half dozen strong hives in the apiary. Before shaking them out I either moved the original hive altogether or – in the case of the nuc from the shed – sealed the entrance, forcing them to look elsewhere for a colony to accept them.


Colophon

The term dud is used these days to mean a “thing that fails to function in the way that it is designed to”, with this usage dating back to the 1914-18 war where it referred to shells that failed to explode. However, the word is much older. Its original meaning was a cloak or mantle, often of coarse cloth, with references to the word dudde dating back to the 14th Century. Over the next few hundred years the meaning, in the plural duds, evolved to mean clothes and – more rarely but more specifically – ragged, shabby clothes or scraps of cloth. This seemed appropriate considering the tatty state of the old marked queen …

 

 

The new bee shed

It’s not often a backhoe digger and dumper truck are required for apiary construction. Certainly, most of the sites I’ve used over the years have needed little more than a few breeze blocks, Buster (my trusty hivebarrow), some sweating and swearing 1 and a spirit level.

And the spirit level is only required because I want my foundationless frames drawn out straight and true.

Mid December 2017 - foundations and base installed ...

Mid December 2017 – foundations and base installed …

However, our new research apiary has involved some rather impressive ‘boys toys’. It is now nearing completion and we will shortly be moving bees onto the site.

One day all this will be under tarmac

Our original research apiary was located in an idyllic spot in the corner of open mature woodland. It was sheltered from prevailing winds, had water nearby – very nearby during some localised flooding – and housed the first ‘bee shed‘.

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn …

However, a planned extension to the town, the relocation of a large school and the need to keep Council budgets to a minimum, meant that a ‘feeder’ road was proposed to be routed through this apiary in early/mid 2018.

Not near, not around … literally through.

Even if it had been near or around, the prospect of working hives next to a route used by hundreds of children was not appealing. I also didn’t fancy re-drafting risk assessments to include lots of sweaty roadbuilders and their heavy machinery during the construction phase.

So, sometime last year we started scouting around for a new location for the research apiary.

The water table

The one issue we’d had with the old site was minor flooding during winter … and spring, summer and autumn (!) rains. This never threatened the bees, but washed away an access footbridge several times and made wellingtons a necessity in most months I can remember.

To avoid this in the future 2 we opted for a site on a small mound of earth that would place the hives and the bee shed safely above the water table.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

‘Small’ if you have access to a backhoe digger that is … 😉 3

The site was extended and levelled, an access road installed, the base was prepared with a few (very large) lorry loads of hardcore and was then topped with compacted gravel. There’s probably a technical term for this sort of groundwork. It was completed with impressive speed just before an extended cold spell in mid-December.

The frozen ground delayed the installation of security fencing 4 but this, and installation of the new shed, was finally completed a few weeks ago.

Bigger is better

I’m convinced of the benefits that a bee shed offers in solving some of our beekeeping problems. These are primarily security, storage and shelter in increasing order of importance. These might well not be problems you face, but the ‘shelter’ is likely to benefit many who keep bees in temperate and, er, damp climates.

With bees in a shed you can open the colonies and inspect them whatever the weather. This is a huge benefit if time is important; either your own or – and this is why it is critical for our research – so we can harvest larvae and pupae at particular times for experiments.

Before we used a bee shed I’d had to harvest brood during weather totally unsuited to beekeeping, including howling gales or thunderstorms. Now, other than periods when the colony is clustered tightly, hives can be opened whenever needed.

Our first bee shed was 12 x 8 feet and turned out to be a bit cramped at times. The new shed – at 16 x 8 – is the largest routinely supplied by the excellent Gillies and Mackay. Larger still would have been better, but there were some financial constraints and we needed to keep space on the site to relocate the old shed in due course.

The new bee shed ...

The new bee shed …

The new shed can house seven full colonies.

Fitting out

We’ve learnt a lot since building the first shed in 2015. The old shed suffered from poor lighting and a range of different shapes and styles of entrance. We’ve partly addressed the former by having windows all the way down the South facing side of the shed and we’ve fixed the latter by standardisation.

Where have you heard that before?

The bees enter the shed through a hole in the wall and reach the hive via a simple rectangular section tube (extractor fan ventilation ducting). All the entrances are now identical, consisting of a simple supporting bracket on the inner wall of the shed to cradle one end of the ducting. The other end of the duct is supported by a thin strip of softwood tacked to the front of the hive floor.

Standardised entrance ...

Standardised entrance …

The same entrance design, omitting the ducting, can accommodate nucs if needed.

All our floors are of one design 5 and compatible with most National brood boxes. None of the boxes are fixed to the stands and, unless the hives are badly bumped, this entrance arrangement is essentially ‘bee proof’.

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor …

Hive stands

The hive stands are very robust, separated into two (three and four hives respectively) and protrude through the floor to the rest on the slabbed foundations. Consequently, vibrations are minimised. Ideally, I’d have preferred individual stands, but that increases complexity and cost.

A significant change made with the new shed is to raise the height of the stands by 3-4″ making inspections a little less backbreaking. This will make working a double brood box topped with 3 supers a challenging experience, but the colonies very rarely get that big … and the nectar flows simply aren’t good enough.

Welcome home

I like landing boards. Of course, they’re largely unnecessary, but on what would otherwise be a uniform wall punctuated with seven 1″ holes, they provide a good opportunity to make the individual hive entrances readily distinguishable to returning foragers.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

The landing boards are folded black Correx painted with some surplus-to-requirements bright yellow Hammerite paint. Correx is tricky stuff to get glue or paint to adhere to, so I’m not sure this will have sufficient longevity. However, it’s neater than painting big patterns on the shed wall.

The distinctive colours and patterns were based broadly on the known abilities of bees to discriminate between shapes. The intention of course is to minimise drifting between colonies.

Lightening things up

The windows are of exactly the same design as those used in the first shed. These are formed of two overlapping sheets of polycarbonate, enabling any bees flying in the shed to readily exit simply by crawling upwards to the ‘slot’ at the top of the window. These are an excellent solution to a shed full of bees following an inspection. There’s nothing to open or close afterwards, it’s largely draught-free and totally maintenance-free. Result.

But they probably still don’t allow sufficient light in on a very dull, overcast day. Amazingly, these aren’t unheard of on the East coast of Scotland.

I’ve therefore installed a 12V solar-powered lighting system. This charges a large leisure battery which powers six LED bulbs. It’s like Blackpool illuminations when they’re all fired up. The final tests of this system – and the timer that (should … there are some teething problems here) automatically turn the system off – are currently underway and I’ll post about them separately.

The immediate environment

The apiary has the new bee shed together with sufficient space to accommodate at least half a dozen additional hives – for splits, nucs, queen rearing or teaching – as required. We’ve also installed a separate levelled base to take the old bee shed once the original apiary is vacated. This will primarily be used for storage, but can also accommodate four full colonies if needed.

The site is a little more exposed than I’d like, though it is sheltered from the coldest winds from the North and East. To improve shelter and, more importantly, early season pollen we’ve planted 150 native hedging plants around the site 6. As 80 cm bare-rooted ‘whips’ they look a bit pathetic, but they’ll soon fill out. Two thirds are native goat willow (Salix caprea) which will be coppiced and should provide good quantities of pollen.

Willow and native hedging ...

Willow and native hedging …

With the snow now largely gone and the temperatures slowly increasing I expect to move bees into the new bee shed in the next fortnight.


 

Two out of three ain’t bad

Beehives are full of things that get all over your hands – honey, propolis and bees. Most beekeepers therefore wear gloves.

Gloves provide protection from the sticky stuff that’s easy to remove (honey), the sticky stuff that is both hard to remove and gets everywhere else (propolis) and the sticking of stings into your delicate digits by the bees.

How to get stung

Perhaps surprisingly – at least for beginners – protection from stings is probably the least important thing that gloves provide.

Gauntlets

Gauntlets …

Surely not? What about those huge leather welders gauntlets? Thick impenetrable leather, heavily stitched seams along the sides of the fingers, protection up to the elbows. You’re certainly not going feel the stings through those.

Yes … but you will get stung.

You’ll get stung because you’ll have “hands like feet” as my graduate students used to say of my laboratory skills. You will have little manual dexterity, no real tactile ability and – probably – poor grip as the leather becomes hardened with age.

You’re like a brain surgeon wearing mittens.

Consequently, the bees will sting the gloves (but not you) as you fumble about handling the frames, inadvertently squashing bees under your fingers, or the frame lugs. The alarm pheromone released will agitate the colony and you – or rather the gloves – will get stung again. And again.

What’s more, unless you carefully wash the gauntlets between inspections, the lingering alarm pheromone will agitate the next colony you inspect … before you’ve even had an opportunity to squash a few more bees.

How not to get stung

Paradoxically, I think the best way to avoid being stung is to use thin gloves. You’ll have better grip, much better dexterity and a hugely enhanced tactile awareness of what’s happening in and around your fingers.

You’ll be able to feel individual bees. Unsurprisingly, they buzz in an agitated way if you start to squash them. You probably won’t hear it above the noise of her 25,000 half-sisters that are also in the hive.

But you’ll feel it.

Consequently, you’ll be able to move your fingers slightly, allowing the bee to move before you lower the frame back into position.

Thin gloves aren’t enough

Of course, the other two things that help you not get stung is having well-tempered bees and learning how to carefully inspect a colony. These points should be self-evident. If your bees are naturally belligerent or you bash the frames about clumsily you are much more likely to get stung.

The combination of thin gloves, gentle bees and good beekeeping makes weekly inspections a real pleasure … for you and the bees 1.

Marigolds

Marigold gloves

Marigold gloves …

Standard washing up gloves provide a good combination of protection and sensitivity. Buy them so they’re a reasonably snug fit. I usually buy the bright yellow “Extra Life” kitchen gloves which you can find for less than £2 a pair. With care and with minimal washing they’ll last half a season. Of course, there are hundreds of alternative kitchen ‘rubber’ gloves. Try several. I like the makes with the rolled cuff as they don’t ride down my arm as much, so protecting that super-sensitive (to stings) wrist area. The Lidl ones I’ve tried lack this rolled cuff and were a poor fit.

I strongly advise you do not buy the Marigold Extra Tough outdoor gloves. Yes, they’re thicker and so provide even more protection. But that extra thickness markedly reduces sensitivity. More importantly, they’re black so your hands look like the paws of a bear and the bees will give you a hammering anyway 😉

Bees can sting through standard Marigolds. However, the sting cannot usually get embedded into your skin. Consequently, you feel a tiny pinprick – a reminder that you’ve been a bit clumsy perhaps – but little else.

Nitrile and latex gloves

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

Even better in terms of sensitivity are gloves made from latex or nitrile. These are very thin, provide excellent grip and still give some protection. Powder free nitrile are probably to be preferred as repeated use of latex gloves can lead to allergic reactions.

You can buy long cuff nitrile gloves in boxes of 50 or 100 for about £10 per hundred, or much cheaper if you arrange to buy in bulk through your association.

Do buy the long cuff versions. Some of the nitrile gloves sold through beekeeping suppliers are short cuff (and are much more expensive per pair if bought in small amounts). The longer cuffs pull over the cuffs of your beesuit and protect your wrists.

Nitrile gloves can be reused time and again, though they’re much less resilient than Marigolds. They eventually lose their slight stretch and either go super-baggy at the wrist, or you pull your hand through the glove when putting them on.

Propolis, apiary hygiene and sweat

Gloves get dirty. Propolis gets caked on the outside and, particularly on a sweltering hot midsummer day, you’ll fill them with sweat if you use them for prolonged periods. I rinse them in washing soda solution after use and then turn them inside-out to dry … usually stuffed into my beesuit pocket or dropped in the bee bag.

I use separate pairs for each apiary, not each hive. This probably isn’t ideal in terms of apiary hygiene, but I rationalise it because I’m aware of the very high level of drifting of bees between adjacent colonies.

It’s also much, much more difficult to pull on a new pair of nitriles if your hands are soaking wet with sweat … so not changing them is also a pragmatic decision.

If they’re heavily soiled with propolis it’s probably best to simply chuck them out, though you can freeze them and then easily peel it away.

Psycho bees

I’ve never worn gauntlets for beekeeping. I’ve tried them on many times. Since I can’t easily pick up a pen wearing them I’m not going to try picking up a frame by the lugs. In contrast, with nitriles you can easily pick up the queen, for example for marking. You can also usually pick her up with a bit of care when wearing Marigolds.

So, if thin gloves provide sensitivity with protection, what about the rare times when you want protection with protection? The times when the colony are truly psychotic.

Not my bees of course 😉

What about the colony you’re asked to requeen for a nervous beekeeper? The colony that dive bombs you from across the garden. The colony you’ve been warned is a bit ‘hot’. The colony you’ve donned a thick fleece under your beesuit for.

The colony that goes absolutely postal when you lift the crownboard 2.

Under these circumstances I simply wear two pairs of Marigolds. I’ve never needed anything more. They’re effectively impenetrable to stings.


Colophon

Bat out of hell

Bat out of hell

Two out of three ain’t bad is a track by Meat Loaf from his 1977 album Bat out of hell. It seemed appropriate as two of the three types of gloves described “ain’t bad”. Bat out of hell, the first of a trilogy of albums that together have sold more than 50 million copies, was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and the lyricist Jim Steinman. It was produced by Todd Rundgren. It’s a great album to crank up loud and sing (badly) to driving back late at night from beekeeping talks.

 

Apivar & Apitraz = Amitraz

The range of miticides available ‘off the shelf‘ to UK beekeepers has recently been increased by the introduction of Apitraz and Apivar.

‘Off the shelf’ because, until recently, these were only available with a veterinary prescription.

Considering the extensive coverage on this site of oxalic acid-containing miticides and more recent posts about the – regularly ineffective – Apistan, it seemed fair and appropriate to write something on the active ingredient and mode of action of these new products.

Mites on drone pupae ...

Mites on drone pupae …

Conveniently, because the active ingredient is identical, these can be dealt with together in a single post. The similarities don’t end there. The amount of the active ingredient is the same and the way it is administered is very similar. They are different commercial products; Apitraz is distributed by Laboratorios Calier, SA and sold by BS Honeybees, Amitraz is distributed by Veto Pharma and sold by Thorne’s. The strips have a different appearance and a slightly different mechanism by which they are hung in the hive.

They even cost about the same – a single packet of 10 strips (sufficient to treat 5 hives) costs £30.50 and £31 respectively for Apitraz and Apivar.

Amitraz

The active ingredient in both Apitraz and Apivar is Amitraz.

Yes … I find these three names confusing similar as well 😉

Amitraz is a synthetic acaricide – a pesticide that kills mites and ticks. It was discovered and developed almost 50 years ago by the Boots Co. (the drug development predecessor of the Boots the Chemist 1 found in most high streets). Amitraz is the active ingredient in a range of medicines approved by the Veterinary Medicine Directorate, including Aludex and Certifect, both of which are used to treat mange in dogs.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

For completeness I should add that Amitraz used to be used by US beekeepers and was sold as a generic pesticide under the name Taktic, though this was withdrawn in about 2014. I believe that Apivar is now available as a slow-release Amitraz-containing Varroa treatment in the US.

Mechanism of action

Amitraz has to be metabolised (essentially ‘modified’) before it is active. This modification occurs much less well in bees than in mites. In fact, the toxicity of Amitraz for bees has been determined to be about 7000 times less than in mites.

Once converted into an ‘active’ form the most important mechanism of action for Amitraz is through interaction with the alpha-adrenoreceptor and octopamine receptors of Varroa 2.

OK, since you asked … octopamine receptors normally bind a neurotransmitter called – rather unimaginatively – octopamine. Quelle surprise as an apiculteur would say. It’s likely that occupancy of these receptors by Amitraz triggers a series of so-called downstream events that change the behaviour of Varroa. Similarly, amitraz also acts as an agonist 3 when binding to the alpha-adrenoreceptor which normally interacts with catecholamines. This results in neurotoxicity and preconvulsant effects.

That all sounds a bit vague. Essentially, amitraz binds and activates receptors that are critically important in a range of important aspects of the Varroa activity and behaviour. Remember here that the mite is entirely dependent upon proper interaction with the bee to complete the life cycle. For example, if the mite fails to enter a cell at the correct time or doesn’t hitch a ride on a passing nurse bee for a few days, it will likely perish.

Amitraz changes behaviour and so exhibits miticidal activity. It has additional activities as well … these multiple routes of action may explain why resistance to amitraz is slow to develop. More on this later.

Usage of Apitraz and Apivar

Both Apitraz and Apivar are formulated as plastic strips impregnated with amitraz. The bees must come into contact with the strips to transmit the amitraz around the hive. Two strips are therefore placed between frames approximately one-third of the way in from each side of the brood box – typically between frames 4 & 5 and 7 & 8 of an 11 frame box. This assumes the bees occupy the entire box. If they don’t, arrange the strips in the appropriate part of the box with 2 frames separating them. Both types of amitraz-containing strips have a means of securing them hanging between the frames.

The recommended treatment period is 6 (Apitraz, or Apivar with little/brood present) to 10 weeks (Apivar with brood present). As with Apistan, treatment should not be applied during a honey flow or when honey supers are present. Further details are included on the comprehensive instructions provided with both products. There’s also a reasonable amount of information on this New Zealand website for Apivar.

Efficacy

This is the good bit … very, very effective. When used properly, amitraz-containing miticides can kill up to 99% of the Varroa in a colony.

Toxicity and wax residues

The good news first. Amitraz does not accumulate in wax to any significant extent. It is not wax-soluble. This is in contrast to Apistan which is found as a contaminant in most commercially-available beeswax foundation.

And now the bad news. Beekeepers also have alpha-adrenoreceptors and octopamine receptors. So do dogs and fish and bees. Although amitraz has increased specificity for the receptors in mites and ticks, it can also interact with the receptors in other organisms. Consequently, amitraz can be toxic. In fact, if you ingest enough it can be very toxic. Symptoms of amitraz intoxication include CNS depression, respiratory failure, miosis, hypothermia, hyperglycemia, loss of consciousness, vomiting and bradycardia.

And it can kill you.

Admittedly, the doses required to achieve this are large, but it’s worth being aware of what you’re dealing with. Amitraz-containing strips should be used only as described in the instructions for use, handled with gloves and discarded responsibly after use.

Resistance

Multiple modes of action makes it much more difficult for resistance to evolve. But it can and does. Resistance to amitraz is well-documented and is understood at the molecular level. However, this is in cattle ticks, not Varroa.

At least, not yet, though there are numerous anecdotal reports of Varroa resistance.

I’ll deal with resistance in a separate post. It’s an important subject and avoiding it is a priority if amitraz-containing compounds are going to remain effective for Varroa control.

Cost

At about £6 per colony, amitraz-containing treatments are not significantly more expensive than the majority of other approved miticides, perhaps with the exception of Api-Bioxal which is appreciably less expensive (though more restricted in the ways it can effectively be administered 4).

Apivar ...

Apivar …

When you purchase a couple of packets of Apivar – enough for 10 colonies – it might feel expensive 5. However, it’s worth remembering that this is still less than the likely ‘profit’ on a couple of jars of your fabulous local honey per colony per year, which seems pretty reasonable in the overall scheme of things.

And, if you look after your colonies well, you are maximising the potential yield of honey in the future … so you’ll be able to afford it 😉


 

All the gear, no idea

The new Thorne’s catalogue came out a few days ago. I picked up a copy during a visit to the Newburgh store when I bought frames for the upcoming season and some more queen excluders.

Required reading

Required reading

I’ve always enjoyed reading the Thorne’s catalogue. Browsing the 2018 copy brought back memories of my introduction to it a decade or so ago. That was after my very first “Beekeeping for Beginners” evening class with the Warwick and Leamington beekeepers. Everyone left the class clutching a catalogue and an order form for a discounted BBwear suit. 

It was clearly effective and well-targeted marketing. I still spend more than I should (though less than I could, thanks to my catastrophic DIY skills) with Thorne’s and I still use BBwear suits.

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

The abiding memories of my first experience of the catalogue were the myriad choices … of hives, frames, foundation, tools and – perhaps more than anything else – labels and moulds.

Remember, this was before even the basics of the hive had been introduced in the beginners course. That first evening was probably spent on the distinction between queens, workers and drones, or perhaps ‘the beekeeping year’.

Back to the catalogue … surely there wasn’t the need for all those different frame sizes and styles? DN1, DN2, DN4, DN5, 14″ x 12″ and BS Manley.

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 1

And then the hives … National, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Langstroth … Aargh!

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warré 2 etc.

Of course now, a decade or so later, I know the answer. There’s no logical need for anything other than medium Langstroth boxes and one type of frame 😉

But I and most other beekeepers also know that logic is something in short supply in most beekeeping.

Indeed, logic is almost as rare as adhering to standards.

Which is why I use BS ‘British Standard’ National hives 😉

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue3 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

Eight different types of smoker. Eleven different types of uncapping knives, forks or rollers. Eighteen different types of hive tools. Eighteen! And I daren’t even look at the labels or moulds.

This isn’t a criticism. Choice is great … but is can be really confusing. Particularly when you don’t know the difference between your Bailey, Horsley, Snelgrove, Cloake or Snuggle boards.

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 4 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

For many, this catalogue is an integral part of their beekeeping education.

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

And then, schooled in basics from their winter training courses and simultaneously confused and enticed by their nightly perusal of the ‘essentials’ in the Thorne’s catalogue, come the two biggies.

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

Like lions waiting to ambush an unsuspecting baby wildebeest, the two biggest trade events in the beekeeping year allow all those essential items in the catalogue to be seen, inspected, caressed, agonised over and – finally – bought.

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

In my case sometimes bought, caressed, inspected and then agonised over 🙁

What on earth possessed me to get a Combi-Brush?

All the gear, no idea

Those early beekeeping days were characterised by limitless enthusiasm – in part fueled by the annual Thorne’s catalogue – and precious little practical experience.

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

I’ve still got stuff I bought in those early days. There’s all sorts of bits and bobs stored away which ‘might come in’.

It hasn’t and probably won’t 🙁

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 5. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

I now carry less to the apiary than I did five years ago. The bee bag is slimmed down and much more manageable. My record keeping is more organised – or at least less shambolic. I’ve given away the frame rests, mouseguard magnet … and the Combi-brush.

But, most significantly, I’ve pretty-much standardised on the equipment I use. I buy the boxes ensuring that they’re all compatible with each other. I buy the replacement frames and I buy less and less foundation.

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes etc.6

And I reckon my beekeeping is better for it. My bank balance certainly is 🙂

What’s new?

Nevertheless, I’ve still enjoyed a quiet hour or two (as the Beast from the East roars outside) with a cup of tea and the 2018 Thorne’s catalogue.

I’ve marvelled at the Adapta hive stand and floor which, by my estimates, would cost an eye-watering £422.92 if you were to buy it with all the accessories.  Actually, I’ve mainly marvelled at their ingenuity in designing all those accessories. This floor has been out a year or two now, but new for 2018 is the Adapta eke.

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

Undoubtedly well made, indubitably multi-functional, but costing £107.50 with all the add-ons.

Eek!

My first hive was a secondhand Thorne’s Bees on a Budget National bought from an association member who had had to give up beekeeping due to allergies. The boxes are still in regular use. It’s still listed in the catalogue and thousands have probably started their beekeeping with one of these hives.

While the basic hive hasn’t changed there are lots of new choices of floor, half-size supers and insulation, polish containers, queen introduction cages and – inevitably – candle moulds.

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course 😉

Horsley board

Horsley board

A year or two ago Thorne’s started selling Horsley boards (PDF) – an interesting method of swarm control consisting of a split board with an upper entrance, removable slide and queen excluder panel. I built my own a few years ago and have used it successfully. Mine is bodged together from bits of scrap wood and a butchered tin baking tray.

It’s a monstrosity.

They had one in the Newburgh store and it was beautifully made.

I was very tempted.

But I managed to resist … though I’ve looked at it several times in the new catalogue 😉


Colophon

In the interest of literary accuracy I should add that the bit about the Combi-Brush is not entirely true. I’ve never bought one. It was chosen as the most ridiculous piece of beekeeping equipment I could find in the catalogue that readers might appreciate.

However, there are a few things I have bought that, years, months, weeks or just days later, I’ve wondered … “Why?”

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret 😉

Sublimox spares and repairs

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

I’ve been using a Sublimox sublimator (vaporiser) since late 2014. In that time it’s worked faultlessly. There have been only two things that have needed any attention. These are the screws that hold the heat shield in place and replacement of the ‘O’ rings on the nylon cup you load with oxalic acid.

Actually, the other thing that needed attention was the heating chamber that became coated with caramelised glucose when I first used Api-Bioxal … but I’ve posted on that separately.

Screws

The heat shield protects the operator and your easy-to-melt poly hives from the metal heating chamber within which the oxalic acid is vaporised. It’s made out of folded, perforated metal and is held in place with two small retaining screws on the underside.

The heat shield can get a bit of a battering. The sublimator rests on it when the machine is laying on the side. More significantly it can get twisted or pulled if it gets caught on the edge of the hive when inverting it to deliver the oxalic acid. Inevitably, it is also subjected to repeated cycles of heating and cooling.

All of this tends to mean that the grub screws work loose over time. If the machine is cool they can be finger-tightened, but they’ll eventually loosen off again.

Retaining screws ...

Retaining screws …

To rectify this and prevent their permanent loss in the apiary mud I gave them each a dab of Loctite 243 and tightened them up properly 1. This appears to have done the trick and they’ve remained in place without loosening.

O rings

The nylon cup you preload with oxalic acid has an O ring seated in a groove. This provides a gas-tight seal with the metal chamber in which the OA is vaporised.

It’s a tough life being an O ring.

It is subjected to a very harsh environment consisting of both high acidity and high temperatures. With repeated use the O rings become less able to form the gas-tight seal. They get thinner, crack and/or stiffen. Eventually they fail completely.

Once they have failed there’s a significant risk of vaporised oxalic acid escaping. Aside from potentially increasing operator exposure this also means that all that mite-destroying goodness is not being delivered where it does most harm (to the mites in the hive).

Here's two I wrecked earlier ...

Here’s two I wrecked earlier …

Replacement O rings can be purchased from the various suppliers of the Sublimox. Icko used to list them on their website but they appear to have disappeared for the moment. Abelo list them at £2 each.

As an alternative I’ve purchased and am testing some Viton O rings from eBay. Viton 75 is a “DuPont-manufactured fluorocarbon elastomer that exhibit excellent resistance to high temperature and many organic solvents and chemicals over a temperature range of -25°F to +400°F”.

Which sounds ideal for something that needs to work with oxalic acid at a temperature of about 160°C. The documentation from Dupont indicates that Viton has excellent resistance to oxalic acid.

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings ...

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings …

I’ll post on how well these work sometime in the future.

Essential accessories …

Although not really a “spare or repair” it’s worth noting here that the Sublimox requires a 240V supply and so should always be used with an RCD (residual current device). This is particularly important since the apiary in winter is probably a damp (or worse) environment. An RCD, together with a bottle of water for cleaning the vaporiser, can just about be squeezed into the carry case. It’s therefore available whether you use a portable generator or an extension lead to the mains voltage supply.

Spring (or late winter) vigilance

As the season slowly starts, colonies will begin rearing more brood. You don’t need to open the colony up to determine this. Instead, insert a Varroa tray under the open mesh floor and look for thin rows of “biscuit crumbs” that are the cappings from emerging brood.

All is well ...

All is well …

And, while you’re looking at this evidence that the long winter will soon be over, look carefully for any Varroa that have dropped from the colony. Mite drops should be very low if your autumn and midwinter treatment regime was effective.

You need to monitor for at least a week. With low mite numbers in the colony and small amounts of sealed brood the drop can fluctuate a bit.

If the mite drop is not low or non-existent there’s probably no need to treat immediately 2. However, make a note to monitor the colony at regular intervals – both for mites and overt DWV disease – and intervene if necessary.


 

The Goldilocks principle

The Goldilocks principle refers to the concept of “just the right amount” of whatever is being considered.

In this case, honey bee colonies.

Beekeeping is a fascinating pastime. During the season – say April to September – there’s lots to keep you occupied and lots to keep your interest.

These are not always the same thing.

Weekly inspections for a start. Swarm prevention as the season properly gears up. Queen rearing. Swarms. Harvesting the early season honey. Possibly more swarms. The summer honey harvest. Autumn Varroa management. Uniting colonies and preparing colonies for winter.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 1. Fondant top-ups for underweight colonies. Cleansing and sterilising equipment.

And all of the above needs to be done for every colony you have.

One is not enough

I’ve previously written of the importance of managing more than one colony.

The comparison is invaluable. Is the colony you’re worrying about really doing badly, or is it just that there’s a dearth of nectar and all colonies are struggling at the moment?

In addition, if there really are problems with one colony – queenlessness or bad temper for example – you can ‘rescue’ them by taking appropriate action and a frame of eggs from your other colony. Or you can unite the colonies if it’s too late in the season to rear another queen. Frankly, it’s a no brainer …

Two National hives and Himalayan balsam

Two will do …

Logically, the amount of work involved in managing two colonies is double that of one colony.

Except, it isn’t.

Quite a bit of beekeeping is preparation and clearing up afterwards. For example, travelling to and from the apiary, preparing syrup, lighting the smoker, cleaning the extractor and so on. Most of these tasks take little or no more time if you’re dealing with two colonies rather than one.

The actual inspections may take twice the time, but that’s about it.

Even then, you’ll be getting twice the practice when you do inspect, so you’ll probably get more efficient, faster, with two colonies rather than one. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s a no brainer.

From too few to more than enough

Beginners often struggle in their early years of beekeeping 2. Sometimes they have too few bees in the hive. The colonies are weaker than they should be to exploit the forage or to overwinter successfully. Or they lose queens during the season, suffer an extended broodless period, and need to beg or borrow a queen from elsewhere to keep the colony together. It all looked so easy in the books or in that midwinter theory course.

Except, it isn’t.

But, assuming they don’t give up, all this time they’re gaining valuable experience – week by week, month by month and year by year.

And then they pass some sort of invisible inflexion point in their beekeeping ‘career’. This is the point after which they will always have enough bees. Their colony management skills are now good enough to keep large, prolific hives. These crowded colonies necessitate careful swarm prevention and control. Colony numbers can be increased easily.

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

From having too few bees they can now rapidly reach the point of having too many. They learn how easy it is to make increase 3 using a well-timed vertical split of a vigorous, healthy colony, or by not reuniting after using the Pagden method for swarm control.

And then they learn to graft, to use mini-nucs, to overwinter 5 frame nucs and – before you know it – they’ve bought a truck 🙂

But is (many) more than two, too many?

And then, at some point, sooner or later, it can become a bit of a chore.

In my experience the swarm season and extremes of weather are the two most testing periods.

During the peak swarming period – mid/late May to mid-June here, but earlier further South – beekeeping can be a ‘full-on’ experience. Timing is critical. Miss a late open queen cell and they’ll swarm on the next available good day. You’ll run out of equipment. You’ll get phone calls in the office asking you to retrieve a swarm from a tree/swing/classroom 4.

And, at the same time you’re coping with all this, it’s also the best time of the year to rear queens.

Your agenda and that of your bees is partially overlapping, but almost certainly not in sync.

And then there’s the weather  … we live in a country where the weather report regularly uses the phrase ‘mainly dry’. Without specifically saying it, this means it will be wet. Almost certainly on the day you need to do your inspections, move the grafted larvae, collect a swarm and feed the mini-nucs. Too many bees and bad weather are a testing combination.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But so are too many bees and spectacularly good weather.

Beekeeping is considered a gentle and relaxing pastime. The reality, on a bright sunny day with the temperature reaching 29°C, with full honey supers to remove is rather different. It is physically demanding and exhausting work. In a beesuit and veil you will sweat buckets. Literally. I’ve had to work so hard I could pour out the sweat that had pooled in my boots.

The pain will soon be forgotten, but there will be pain.

The Goldilocks zone

But somewhere between the too few and the too many (colonies) is the sweet spot. Enough that you can experience the wonderful and fascinating variation possible in bees and beekeeping. Sufficient to engage you and allow you to experiment and try new strategies out. Enough to cope with poor seasons and still to produce some lovely honey to give to the family at Christmas and to friends at dinner parties.

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

This is the Goldilocks zone.

Quite where that sweet spot is will depend upon a whole host of different factors. Your interest in bees vs. other competing hobbies and pastimes 5, how full-time the full-time job is, your abilities as a beekeeper and the pressure others 6 put on you to take holidays mid-season 😉

It might be two colonies. Not ‘just’ two, with the sort of dismissive implication that that’s not what being a real beekeeper is. There are some outstanding beekeepers I know who have a couple of colonies in a good area for forage and who consistently produce spectacular honey yields per colony. They are excellent observers, skilled practitioners and really understand what’s happening in their colonies at all times of the season.

Or it might be 200 … in which case you’ve got a stronger back and a bigger truck than me 🙂

For me it’s about a dozen. I can produce enough honey to sell or give away and still have sufficient colonies to dabble or experiment with. Not ‘experiment’ as in my day job (I have more hives for that), but to investigate different ways of improving my stock, alternative approaches to queen rearing and introduction, other types of mite control etc.

Cell bar frame with three day old queen cells, The Apiarist.

3 day old queen cells …

Not all these experiments work. Some are an unmitigated disaster, others are no better than the way I previously did whatever ‘it’ was.

Have you used a Taranov board? Me neither. But I’d like to this season.

Space and spares

The Goldilocks principle can also be applied to having ‘just the right amount’ of equipment and space to manage your chosen number of colonies. This includes, but isn’t restricted to, apiaries, brood boxes, supers, split boards, crownboards, stands, clearers, hive tools, more supers, dummy boards, roofs, frames, more frames, yet more frames etc.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who has managed to achieve this 😉


Colophon

Goldilocks and the three bears fairy tale book cover

Look who is sleeping in my bed!

The Goldilocks principle is named after the well-known 19th Century fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which Goldilocks, a little girl, always chooses the ‘just right’ option – of bed, porridge, chair etc. when lost in the forest and finding a house owned by three bears. In each case the ‘just right’ option is the one in the middle e.g. the bowl of porridge that was not too hot, or too cold, but was just right. Goldilocks, the little girl, was introduced in a variant of the original tale “The Story of the Three Bears” in place of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed old woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was preferred by the target audience 😉

The Goldilocks zone has a  specific meaning in astronomy where it indicates the habitable zone around a star. This is defined as the range of orbits within which liquid water could occur if there is sufficient atmospheric pressure.

 

Urbane bees

Urbane as in ‘of the city‘ as well as ‘polite and courteous‘.

Over 80% of the UK population live in towns. Although it’s unlikely that beekeepers are evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, it still means that most beekeepers (or wannabe beekeepers) probably live in towns. With the increase in the popularity of beekeeping over the last few years this inevitably means that more bees are being kept in towns than ever before.

Bees can do very well in towns

Cities have higher ambient temperatures 1 which effectively extends the season, starting earlier and finishing later in the year. These higher temperatures also provide more protection from extended cold periods during the winter.

Despite the depressingly obvious acres of grey concrete, cities can be remarkably ‘green’, with large parks and gardens in even some of the most densely populated areas. Satellite mapping analysis shows that cities like Liverpool, London and Edinburgh have 16 – 49% ‘green space’.

Many towns and cities have large numbers of well established trees, including lime and sycamore, both of which can give great honey. In addition, there are thousands of suburban gardens with a wide range of ornamental flowering plants.

As a consequence, city bees have access to a range of nectars throughout the season, helping create some strikingly good honey. There are entire businesses built around supplying honey from bees in the city – or cities – including the London Honey Company, Bermondsey Street Bees and the Sheffield Honey Company.

City rooftop bees

City rooftop bees …

But it’s not all roses … or begonias or geraniums

However, a quick look at the honey sold by ‘city’ honey companies shows that only some of it originates from, er, cities. They also sell Suffolk coastal honey, heather honey, borage honey etc. Of course, this probably – and rightly – reflects demand. There’s a wonderful range of different honey produced in the UK, so why not sell it alongside honey from the city?

Except there isn’t any honey from the city available at the moment. All gone. Neither of the two London-based companies listed above have any London honey for sale 2. Demand clearly outstrips supply.

And this is probably because supply is limited. Cities are surprisingly green, but many of the ornamental flowers favoured by gardeners are poor nectar producers and the trees are often planes, which produce no nectar for bees. With the increase in interest in beekeeping it’s been suggested that there are too many bees in cities 3.

I don’t think the data to support this conclusion is good enough (yet). Hive numbers are certainly up significantly, but perhaps not as high as some think. Whether they’re at saturation level for the forage available will require analysis over several years, taking account of the actual honey yields, the weather and accurate information on colony density.

It’s interesting to note that Fera’s Beebase report the apiary density around my local apiary in rural Fife is 1/25th that of Central London (29 vs. 710 within a 10km radius). These figures aren’t reliable or even accurate … each apiary may have very different numbers of hives and significant numbers of beekeepers (perhaps as many as 50%) aren’t even registered on Beebase. Nevertheless, it probably gives a general indication of the relative density of hives.

Being neighbourly

There are more important issues than potentially poor honey yields with urban bees. Bees aren’t domesticated 4 and they can’t really be controlled. They forage where nectar and pollen is available, they drink water when they need it, they swarm when the colony is doing well and – there’s no real way to be delicate about this – they crap wherever they want. They can also get tetchy when forage becomes limiting, during stormy weather or when poorly handled.

All of which means that your bees might cause problems for your neighbours.

Poop target ...

Poop target …

They’ll forage freely in their gardens, drink water from the bird bath or jacuzzi 5, swarm en masse and hang pendulously from the climbing frame, and they’ll defecate repeatedly on the neighbours recently waxed and polished BMW.

These are not insignificant issues and they shouldn’t be ignored.

If you’ve got bees, whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.

Swarm on a swing ...

Swarm on a swing …

Guilty until proven innocent.

Good urban beekeeping practice

I’ve kept bees in an urban garden and, while I can’t really advise on how you establish and maintain good relations with your neighbours 6, I can provide some beekeeping hints to make their life – and yours – a bit easier.

These are more or less in order of importance …

  1. Make sure you have access to an out apiary over three miles away. Perhaps the training apiary for your association, or a friend with a large rural garden. Arrange this in advance, not when an angry neighbour is remonstrating with you about his toddler and anaphylaxis. Seriously. Some problems are only solved by moving bees away and you might need to do this in a hurry.
  2. Put out a bait hive at the beginning of the season. You might stop a swarm from your own bees disappearing over the fence (but see 3). More importantly, another swarm from the neighbourhood might neatly hive themselves rather than ending up in the neighbours garden. Brownie points 7 for you and no blame can be attached! I’ve never failed to catch swarms with bait hives in urban or semi-urban gardens … and they weren’t mine because I always clip my queens. Which brings me to …
  3. Always clip your queens. Although clipping the wing of a queen does not stop swarming, it does stop the swarm flying off. They’ll usually end up on the hive stand or underneath the floor.
  4. Learn, and get good at, swarm prevention and control. Provide space for the colony before it’s needed, replace queens regularly, control colony expansion by taking off a nuc, conduct timely splits to control swarming and reunite to requeen. If you don’t yet know what these things are then there’s quite a bit to learn. Are you ready to keep bees in your town garden?
  5. Keep well-tempered bees and keep them well-tempered (see 8). Aggressive bees are unpleasant at the best of times. They make beekeeping a chore if you’re in the corner of a remote field. In town they’re an abomination. Requeen or move them immediately with any repeated tendency to show signs of bad behaviour.
  6. Engineer the flight lines to force bees up and away. If you situate the hive(s) in a corner facing into a fence or wall the foragers will be forced to fly up and over the obstacle, ideally well over head height. I’ve seen this done very successfully using an open-topped netting cage. My bee shed is surrounded by security fencing with 2″x6″ mesh … >95% of the foragers choose to fly over this rather than through the mesh 8.
  7. Be sensible about when you conduct your weekly inspections. Not when there’s a children’s party next door, not on the first warm, sunny day for a fortnight (when everyone is outside) and not when there’s a thunderstorm predicted and the bees are already agitated. You’ll find this is surprisingly restrictive. You’ll want to inspect your colony on the same day everyone else is enjoying the good weather. I used to keep my bees about six feet from where my neighbour parked their car to unload the shopping … I lost count of the number of times I had to abandon an inspection as they returned from Sainsburys. And they seemed to do a lot of shopping 🙁
  8. Learn to inspect your colonies well. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve for a beginner. The idea is that you conduct a thorough inspection while causing the minimum disruption to the colony. ‘Thorough‘ so you’re confident about what’s happening in the colony (and so don’t need to do it too frequently). The ‘minimum disruption‘ is important so you don’t leave agitated bees flying around for ages afterwards. This is a skill and is generally only learned with lots of experience – minimal smoke, gentle handling of the frames, proper examination of each frame, no crushed bees (so no alarm pheromone) … with all this being achieved quickly.
  9. Good Varroa management. Controlling Varroa means your colonies are likely to stay strong, so they are less likely to be robbed out by the dozens of other colonies in the area. This is both responsible beekeeping and stops the sort of frenzied mobbing of bees around the hive that are likely to really worry the neighbours.

Forewarned is forearmed

As I’ve said before, the principles of beekeeping are really rather simple. It’s practice – lots of it – that is needed to acquire the necessary skills to keep bees well. I’d argue that good beekeeping is particularly important in towns because your mistakes, or the intransigence of the bees, don’t just cause you a problem. They potentially cause problems – or at least concerns – for your neighbours.

That’s neither fair or responsible.

Some of the best beekeepers I know keep quite large numbers of colonies in surprisingly small suburban gardens. Do not underestimate the skill needed to achieve this. All of them have somehow arrived at a method of beekeeping that addresses all of the points above.

But I’ve also been asked to urgently requeen double brood colonies in tiny town gardens that were so aggressive they needed a double beesuit over a fleece for protection, where the garden was off-limits and where inspections had been completely abandoned.

I hate to think of the problems this caused their neighbours … or the additional bad publicity for beekeeping in general.


Colophon

Urbane means (of a person, especially a man) courteous and refined in manner. It’s derived from Middle French urbain which meant both polite, courteous, elegant and belonging to a city. This in turn is derived from Classical Latin urbanus meaning much the same. For an article about bees in towns the word seemed remarkably appropriate, referencing both cities and the need for courteous and refined behaviour.

Of the bees … and the beekeeper 😉

About the only thing wrong with the current use of the word is that it is usually applied to males.

🙄

 

Fondant topups

Perhaps surprisingly if the weather is still very wintery, inside your hives brood rearing has probably started 1. It’s about half way through the winter, there’s no forage available and the colonies are surviving on the stores they laid down in the autumn last year.

But now they have a few more mouths to feed … as a consequence, they’re likely to start using the stores at a higher rate.

I’ve recently written about the importance of hefting hives in the winter to judge (very approximately) how much stores they have remaining. It’s an imprecise science at the best of times, but it is important to ensure they don’t run out.

If they do, the colony will starve to death.

Fondant topups

If the colony is feeling a bit light you need to give it sugar as soon as practical and as close to the clustered bees as possible. The most convenient type of sugar to give is bakers fondant. This is the same stuff you get on Chelsea buns. You can buy fondant in 12.5 kg blocks for about a tenner (in bulk … one-off purchases are likely to be more expensive) from wholesale suppliers.

Fondant keeps well for several years and so it’s worth stockpiling some for emergencies. Since I use fondant for all my autumn feeding as well I buy in bulk (200+ kg) every year or two and stack it somewhere safe, dry and protected from vermin (and other beekeepers 😉 ).

Feeding fondant can be as simple as cutting a thick slice of fondant off the block and laying it across the top bars of the hive. You’ll need an eke or a reversible crownboard to provide the ‘headspace’ over the colony. Replace the roof and any insulation and the colony should be OK … but don’t stop checking for the rest of the winter.

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

Don’t be stingy and don’t delay

It’s not worth adding a measly few ounces of fondant. If it’s midwinter and the colony is already light, a couple of hundred grams is going to only last a few days.

Don’t be stingy. Add at least a couple of kilograms.

Don’t wait for a balmy midwinter day to add the fondant. Add it as soon as you realise they’re light. It won’t harm the colony to open it up for the few seconds it takes to add the block.

Wear a veil … some colonies can be semi-torpid, others can be quite feisty. How would you feel about having the roof ripped off on a grey midwinter afternoon? You might be trying to save them from starvation, but their reaction might be something a little less than appreciative 😉

Add the fondant as close to the clustered bees as possible. A small cluster cannot move far in very cold weather. Even inches is too much. There are few sights more tragic than a cluster of starved bees just a few centimetres from lashings of sealed stores or a large lump of fondant.

Finally, don’t spend ages clearing bees off the top bars with little puffs of smoke. The colony will be getting chilled and the disturbance will be worse than the loss of the few bees you might inadvertently squash under the fondant block.

Think of the greater good … speaking of which.

Takeaways

When I feed colonies in the autumn I simply slice a complete block of fondant in half with a spade, open it like a book and lay it on top of the colony. With smaller amounts you can use a breadknife to (carefully … mind your fingers!) cut the block up. It’s a lot easier if the block is at room temperature.

For real convenience you can pack plastic food trays with fondant, wrap them in clingfilm and take a couple with you when you visit the apiary. If needed, simply unwrap them and invert them over the top bars of the hive. Large takeaway food containers or one of the many semi-solid types of plastic packaging used by supermarkets are ideal. Tortellini packets are good and just about fit the ekes I’ve built.

Preparing fondant

Preparing fondant …

Wash them thoroughly before use rather than subjecting your bees to last nights Chef’s Special Chow Mein 😉

Finally, remove the clingfilm completely before use. Bees tend to chew through clingfilm and drag it down into the broodnest, even incorporating it into the bits of brace comb they build. Getting rid of the traces of clingfilm during the first spring inspection is a pain, and best avoided.


 

Weighty matters

During irregular midwinter visits to the apiary you need to check if the hive entrances are clear and to determine whether the colony has sufficient stores for the remaining winter. The rate at which stores are used depends upon the number of bees in the colony, the strain of bees, the temperature and whether they’re rearing brood or not.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The easiest way to ‘guesstimate’ the level of stores is to gently lift the back of the hive an inch or two, and to judge the effort required. Beekeepers call this ‘hefting‘ the hive. Colonies should feel reassuringly heavy. After all, you’re only actually lifting half the weight of the hive – the front remains on the hive stand – and if that feels light it might indicate a problem.

Be gentle

The hive will be full of torpid bees on a freezing cold winter day. On really cold days the wooden floor of the hive might actually be frozen onto the stand. Don’t force it and jar them. And if you can gently lift one side, don’t just drop the hive back onto the stand afterwards. Ideally you want to judge the weight of the colony without the bees being disturbed at all.

Be gentle ...

Be gentle …

However, judging the weight takes experience. Is it a lot less than last week? Is it less than it should be? In the picture at the top there are 5 hives, only two of which (those on the closest stand, and above) are comparable. You can’t easily compare hives if you have only one or if they’re not made of the same material.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Over time you will get experience for what feels OK, and what feels a bit light.

And if any do feel dangerously light then you need to intervene and give them more stores – in the form of fondant – as soon as possible. At least, you need to intervene if you don’t want to risk them starving to death. I’ll discuss topping up the fondant in a future post.

Technology to the rescue

You can get a much better insight into changes in the weight of a colony by, er, weighing it. Luggage weighing scales are widely available, cheap and accurate. With a little ingenuity you can fashion a means of attaching them to the side of the floor. I drilled a 6mm hole through the side runners of the floor and securely tied an eye bolt to some strong polypropylene attached to the scales.

In a similar way to hefting a hive, lift each side carefully, but this time note the weight and add them together. It’s helpful to use scales which automagically record the maximum stable weight. Note the weight down in your hive records and see how it compares over time.

As before, be gentle with these colonies in winter. Don’t go bouncing them up and down. The bees will not appreciate it. With care you can weigh the colony and barely disturb them at all.

What? You want even more accuracy and even less work? Look at the hive monitoring equipment from Arnia, SolutionBee or others. These use under-hive scales hooked up to a mobile phone to upload weights (and lots of other data) for analysis from the comfort of your armchair.

At a price  😯

Frugal bees are better bees

Different strains of bees use their winter stores at different rates. ‘Black bees’ (Apis mellifera mellifera, or Amm) are well known for being frugal. In contrast, some Italian strains chomp through their stores like there’s no tomorrow (and if you don’t feed them, there won’t be).

My Heinz strain 1 of locally-reared bees exhibit variation in the amount of stores they use. The two comparable hives on the same stand in the top picture both started the winter packed with stores. By Christmas one of them remained reassuringly heavy, whereas the other one was feeling light and was given a fondant supplement.

All things being equal, I’d prefer my bees use less rather than more. When the time comes to rear queens later in the season the thrifty colony will be favoured.

Some beekeepers take a harder line than this … if a colony can’t store enough to get it through the winter they let it starve and so allow ‘natural selection’ to operate.

I’d prefer to have the luxury of an additional colony in Spring. I won’t rear queens from it and I’ll minimise drone brood to prevent it contributing to the next generation. Instead, I’ll build it up in the spring and then split it for nucleus colony production in late May or early June.

Unnatural selection perhaps, but it’s a solution I’m comfortable with.

Given the choice, I suspect it’s what the bees would prefer as well 😉

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary