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.

Doors

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?

Apidologie

Apidologie

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.

 

Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

Some would argue that it’s the time of the year when you prepare colonies for the winter. After all, without good winter preparation there’s unlikely to be a beekeeping season. Others might consider it’s the beginning of the calendar year, just after the longest nights of the year when beekeeping is but a distant memory and all you can do is plan (and build frames).

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

However, perhaps a more logical start of the beekeeping season is the first full hive inspection. This varies from year to year, depending upon the weather. Many consider the full flowering of Ribes sanguineum, the ornamental flowering current, to be a good indicator that the season is underway and that colonies can be inspected. However, the time this plant flowers appears to vary depending upon how sheltered its location is (and possibly the particular cultivar). There’s some in a very sheltered spot approaching the bus station in St. Andrews that was flowering in mid-February this year. Too early by far.

Macho beekeeping

It’s worth stressing here that not only is there season to season variation, there’s also geographic variation. It gets warmer in the South before the North (at least for the ~95% of the readers of this site who live in the Northern hemisphere). If you’re fortunate enough to live in the uncluttered, quiet, pollution-free, traffic-free and scenic (clearly I’m biased 😉 ) North, don’t be misled by the discussions on the online forums of 8 frames bursting with sealed brood in late March.

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

Firstly, the poster might actually live in Northern Spain. You can be anything you want on the internet … and anywhere you want. Secondly, some contributors exaggerate when describing their activities and successes (or failures for that matter). Some who, while stressing the fantastic build-up of their Carniolan colonies, conveniently omit to mention they are an overseas breeder and exporter of – you guessed it – Carniolan queens. An omission, but also as the late Alan Clark said, somewhat economical with the actualité. Finally, there’s also a sort of chest-beating macho amongst some where the poster describes pulling colonies apart very early in the season – essentially bragging about the strength of the colonies and their beekeeping prowess.

Use your own judgement about when to open a colony in the early part of the year. Don’t blindly follow the recommendations of others (or me for that matter). The ‘when’ really needs to be informed by the ‘why’.

Not when, but why?

Opening colonies is disruptive. The propolis-sealed crownboard is removed and the colony – even with the gentlest manipulation – is disturbed. There needs to be a good reason to go rummaging through a brood box. That isn’t a justification to not inspect colonies. Just make sure there’s a good reason to compensate for the disruption.

The first inspection should be a quick progress check. Is everything OK? It shouldn’t be a full-blown inspection in which every frame is carefully scrutinised for signs of brood diseases. You’re simply trying to determine whether the queen is laying well, that she’s laying worker brood rather than drone brood and that the colony have sufficient stores and space to expand

All that can be determined in a couple of minutes. You don’t need to see the queen, though it’s not unusual to spot her as the colony is probably relatively sparsely populated. If the box is stuffed with stores consider replacing a frame on the side of the brood nest with a frame of drawn comb. It’s almost certainly too early to only provide foundation.

Outside and inside

Spring is appreciably later in Fife, Scotland than in the South of England. At the time of writing (~8/9th of April) it’s rarely been much above the low teens Centigrade. Colonies are working well during the warmest part of the day, but there’s still a chill in the wind and little point in opening the majority of hives.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The exception are the hives in the bee shed. Based on my experience last year these colonies are 2-3 weeks more advanced than those outside. On a warm day – yesterday just reached 15°C – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20°C. Three of the colonies were giving me cause for concern. One was a poly nuc that seemed very active. The other two were hives headed by purchased queens from last season – these had gone into the winter well and had been flying on borderline days in midwinter. However, having been away for most of March, I’d noticed they were much quieter than other hives when I checked the entrances in early April.

The strong nuc was doing reassuringly well. It had nearly four frames of brood and last years’ marked and clipped queen laying well. The brood pattern was a bit patchy, but I’ll reserve judgement until later in the season when there’s ample pollen and nectar coming into the hive, together with a full complement of workers to support the queen.

In contrast, the two hives were almost devoid of bees. Both queens had clearly failed in the winter as there was no brood. There was no sign of overt disease (in the few remaining bees) and mite drop had been low in autumn and during the midwinter treatment. I suspect that the queens were poorly mated. Disappointing, but these things happen.

Looking back

I have yet to look in any other colonies. It needs to warm up significantly before I do. It’s interesting to compare the development of this season with previous years – and to have some notes I can refer back to in the future. As I write this (remember, it’s the 8/9th of April):

  • Fieldfares are still present, although clearly in reduced numbers and drifitng North.
  • I have yet to see any house martins or swallows (update – saw both mid-morning on Friday 14th, but still only 9°C).
  • Only about 5% of the oil seed rape is flowering (not necessarily a good comparison as different strains can flower at different times).
  • Primroses are at their peak but neither bluebells or wild garlic are flowering yet.
Primroses ...

Primroses …

Regional climatic differences are a significant influence on colony development. Remember this as you plan your early season inspections and – particularly if you are a relatively new beekeeper – when you compare how your colonies are doing with those reported by others elsewhere.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering the importance of relative colony development between colonies in the same apiary. A single colony that is developing slowly might be being held back because of poor weather. However, if you have two colonies to compare, one that is obviously retarded might be cause for concern … and should be checked for disease or a failing queen.

This is a good example of when it is beneficial to have two colonies to compare.


Too much, too soon

Too much, too soon was a 1958 biographical film about the actress Diana Barrymore starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn. The film, based on a best selling book of the same name, describes the life of the alcoholic movie star and was pretty-much panned by the critics.

Not one to set the recorder for …

Upstairs, downstairs?

There are two common hive manipulations that involve stacking two brood boxes on top of each other – the vertical split and uniting colonies. Should the queenright colony go on the top or bottom when uniting colonies over newspaper? What about when conducting a vertical split? Does it make a difference?

In the following discussion I’m assuming the colonies being stacked are originally in single brood boxes. This is so I don’t have to qualify how many boxes are involved every time. For convenience, let’s also assume that you are uniting a queenless and queenright colony, rather than getting into a discussion of the benefits or otherwise of regicide.

Uniting colonies

There are a number of methods to unite (merge) two colonies. The simplest, the most often taught during beginners courses and – in my view – the (almost) foolproof method if you are not in a rush is uniting over newspaper.

All gone ...

All gone …

To unite over newspaper the roof and crownboard from one colony are removed and one or two sheets of newspaper are laid over the top bars of the frames. One or two small holes are made through the newspaper and the second brood box is placed on top. Replace the crownboard and roof. The only precaution that needs to be taken is to ensure there isn’t brace comb on the bottom of the frames of the top box – this would puncture the newspaper and allow the bees to mix too quickly. This is also why I stressed a small hole in the paper.

Over the next 24-48 hours the colonies slowly chew holes through the paper, allowing the bees to gradually mix. It’s best not to interfere for a few more days. One week after uniting the frames can be rearranged and the bees cleared down to a single box if needed.

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

You’ll read three bits of advice about uniting using the method described above:

  1. The queenright colony should be on the bottom.
  2. The weaker colony should go on the top.
  3. The colony moved should be at the top.

Frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference whether the queen is in the top or bottom box. I’ve done it either way many times and never noticed a difference in success rates (generally very high), or the speed with which shredded newspaper is chucked out of the hive entrance. I think you can safely ignore this bit of advice. I can’t even think of a logical explanation as to why it’s beneficial to have the queen in the bottom box. Can you? After uniting I usually find the queen in the top box a week later.

If colonies differ markedly in strength I do try and arrange the top box as the weaker one. I suspect this is beneficial as it stops the foraging bees from the strong hive trying to get out or return mob-handed, potentially overwhelming the weaker colony.

I think it’s also sensible to locate the moved colony at the top of the stack. I think forcing them to negotiate the bottom box encourages the foragers from the moved hive to reorientate to the new hive location.

Vertical splits

A vertical split is a hive manipulation that can be used as a swarm control strategy or as a means of ‘making increase’ – the beekeeping term for generating a new queenright colony. Whatever the reason, the practicalities are broadly the same and have been described in detail previously. Briefly, the queen and flying bees are separated vertically from the nurse bees and brood in two brood boxes with separate and opposing entrances.

Split board

Split board …

As described, the queen is placed in the top box with the split board entrance facing the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The logic here is that the flying bees are depleted from the queenright half of the colony, so both reducing the swarming impulse and boosting the strength of the half rearing a new queen.

After one week the hive is reversed on the stand – the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front. This results in depletion of flying bees from the queenless half, so reducing the chances of them throwing off a cast should multiple virgin queens emerge. Simultaneously the queenright half is strengthened, boosting its nectar-gathering capabilities.

The problem with vertical splits

Although I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the vertical split I acknowledge there are some drawbacks to the process.

Once there are supers involved things can get pretty heavy. Simply reversing a double brood box can be taxing for some (me included). I’m dabbling with building some floors and split boards with opposing entrances to try and simplify (or at least reduce the strain of) this aspect of the process.

A second problem is the need for subsequent inspections of the colonies. When used for making increase (or for that matter replacing the queen) nothing final can be done with the colonies until the new queen – reared in the bottom box – is mated and laying well.

Inspections

Of course, determining whether she is ‘mated and laying well’ involves splitting the boxes and carefully examining the lower colony. This inspection should probably take place about a month after the initial split (up to 16 days from egg to emerged queen, a week or so for her to get mated and a further week for the laying pattern to be established). Depending on colony strength, weather and the temperament of the colonies, this inspection might have to be conducted in a maelstrom of bees returning to the upper colony (which has had to be removed for the inspection). Perhaps not the most conducive conditions to find, mark and perhaps clip the new queen.

During the month that the new queen is being reared and mated there’s probably little or no need to inspect the queenright colony. They have ample laying room if you’ve provided them with drawn comb. If you gave them foundation only, or foundationless frames, they will likely need thin syrup if there’s a dearth of nectar. If you’re using a standard frame feeder this is a pretty quick and painless process.

Under the conditions described above I think it makes relatively little difference whether the original queen is ‘upstairs or downstairs’ at the outset of the split (though see the comments at the end on the entrance). However, having the new queen in the bottom box might dissuade you from inspecting too often or too soon – neither is to be encouraged where a new queen is expected.

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

You can use a version of the vertical split to rear several queen cells. Rather than then reversing the colony and depleting the queenless half of bees you can use it to create a number of 2-3 frame nucs, each populated with a big fat ripe queen cell. In this way you can quickly make increase – trebling, quadrupling or perhaps quintupling the original hive number. The precise details are outside the scope of this article – which is already too long – but Wally Shaw covers it in his usual comprehensive manner (PDF) elsewhere.

For this you want to make the initial queenless half to be as strong as possible (to rear good queens). You also want it to be as easy to access as possible to facilitate checking on the development of the new queen cells. Under these conditions I think there’s good reason to start with the original mated queen ‘downstairs’.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

Remember that at the start of a vertical split, and for a couple of days after, bees will be exiting the rear entrance and returning to the ‘front’ of the hive to which they originally orientated.

Kewl floor – fixed …

If you decide to leave the original queen in the lower box this will necessitate reversing the hive at the very start of the process, then placing the split board entrance at the hive front. Bees cope well with this vertical relocation of a hive entrance. Sure, there’ll be a bit of milling about and general confusion, but they’ll very quickly adjust to a hive entrance situated about 25cm above the original one. In the original description of the vertical split they had to make precisely this adjustment at the 7 day hive reversal. It helps to try and restrict bees from accessing the underside of the open mesh floor during these hive reversals – for example with a simple plastic skirt (see above right).

In conclusion

Bees are pretty adaptable to the sorts of manipulations described above. Yes, there are certainly wrong ways to do things, but while being careful to avoid these, there are several different ways to manipulate the process to achieve the desired goal(s).

It’s worth thinking about the goal and the likely behaviour of the bees. Then have a go … what’s the worst that could happen?

 

Apistan redux†

I’ve discussed Apistan, a pyrethroid treatment for Varroa, in two recent posts. In these I explained in some detail its molecular mechanism of action. I also explained the two major problems associated with Apistan (and the related tau-fluvalinates ) – the widespread resistance of Varroa to Apistan and the residues it leaves in wax.

In this final post I’m going to revisit just how useful Apistan could be if it was used in a more rational manner. I’m going to concentrate on resistance and you’ll probably need to read the previous post on this topic to provide necessary the background. I’ll only really touch on the residues in wax at the end – I’ve already discussed how these can be minimised if you consider them an issue.

This is (another) long post. It draws together the concepts described in previous articles and links the science of Varroa control to potential strategies to benefit practical beekeeping.

How good is Apistan if Varroa are not resistant?

Apistan

Apistan

Exceptionally good. Pyrethroids are some of the most widely used pesticides. They are widely used because they are very effective. Apistan is no exception. When used to treat Varroa populations that are not already resistant it kills over 98% of the mites in the colony when used according to the manufacturers instructions. 98% … that reduces the National Bee Units’ recommended maximum mite load of 1000 to just 20.

Just how effective is emphasised by a quote from the Apidologie paper cited above. “In treated hives, worker pupae and adult bee infestations decreased from 14.2 ± 7.3% to zero and from 15.7 ± 7.3% to zero, respectively. Whereas, in the two control hives, during the first 6 weeks, the average worker pupae infestation increased from 15.9 ± 2.9% to 19.7 ± 3.5%”.

Most mite mortality occurred during the first 4 weeks of treatment and the level of Apistan present at the beginning and end of treatment remained at about 10% i.e. it should be as active at the end of the treatment period as at the beginning.

How good is Apistan in reality

Resistance was first demonstrated in 2002 and is now widespread in the UK. In a recent paper, Ratneiks and colleagues (University of Sussex) demonstrated that Apistan was significantly less effective at killing Varroa when used for a second treatment, four months after the first. In this study they showed only 33% of mites were killed at the second treatment, whereas 58% were killed in colonies treated for the ‘first time in five years’.

This isn’t rocket science … if there are some resistant mites in a population then Apistan will preferentially allow these to survive. Consequently they will make up a greater proportion of the mite population when re-treated.

Since we know the molecular basis of resistance to Apistan it would now be possible to determine – without doing the treatment and counting the corpses – what proportion of mites were resistant in a population before treatment. It would therefore be easy to determine whether treatment would be likely to work.

Equally, it would be possible to determine whether the colonies ‘not treated with Apistan for five years’ still maintained significant levels of Apistan resistant mites. As will become clear, there are studies that contradict this, and the definitive test – the presence of absence of the mutation that confers resistance – was not done in the Sussex study.

Apistan resistance and fitness costs

Mutations, such as the one that confers resistance to Apistan, can – in broad terms – exert three different effects:

  1. Beneficial – the presence of the mutation favours the organism (a fitness benefit), the mutation will be selected for and it’s presence in the population is likely to increase.
  2. Detrimental – the mutations causes a fitness cost and organisms that carry it are likely to reproduce less well, resulting in it being lost from the population.
  3. Neutral – the mutation is neither beneficial nor detrimental.

In the presence of Apistan, the Leucine to Valine mutation at residue 925 (L925V) of the voltage gated sodium channel (VGSC; please see the previous article on the molecular basis of resistance), is a beneficial mutation. Any mites that carry it will not be killed and will be able to reproduce, so increasing it’s prevalence in the population. The same reasoning applies to other Apistan resistance mutations.

The VGSC of Varroa evolved over eons in the absence of Apistan. The mutation is in a part of the protein critical for its function (that’s why Apistan binding blocks function). It’s therefore perhaps unsurprising that in the absence of Apistan selection there is evidence that the L925V mutation is detrimental. In simple terms the VGSC works less well with a Valine at position 925 than a Leucine unless Apistan is present. Where’s the data that supports this?

The influence of prior treatment on Varroa genotype

Table 1. Apistan resistance mutations in Varroa from treated and untreated colonies

Table 1. Apistan resistance mutations in Varroa from treated and untreated colonies

The table above needs a little explanation. Colonies from Henlow and Shillington were treated with Apistan and tested one month later. Colonies from Harpenden, Bishop Stortford, St. Albans and Peterborough had no history of Apistan treatment in the recent past. Unfortunately, the paper does not make clear when the last treatment was, with the exception of a sample from Harpenden which had not been treated for at least 3 years.

Varroa is diploid i.e. there are two copies of the gene for the VGSC. The S and R heading the columns SS, SR, RR, indicates whether the Apistan resistant mutation is absent (S = sensitive) or present (R=present). SR indicates that the mite was heterozygous, one resistant copy and one sensitive. Whether these mites have lower resistance than RR mites has not been determined – for the purpose of the remaining discussion I’m going to lump the SR mites with the RR mites and assume they are resistant§.

Of 279 mites tested, 40 were from Apistan-treated and 329 from -untreated colonies. Of the 40 mites from Apistan-treated colonies, all contained the mutation conferring resistance to the fluvalinate. Of the 239 mites from colonies not recently treated with Apistan, 215 were sensitive and only 25 were resistant.

This suggests that in the absence of Apistan, Varroa sensitive to the fluvalinate replicate better.

Is this a surprise?

No. Partly for the reasons explained above … the Leucine at position 925 is likely to stop the VGSC working as well. More compellingly though is the wealth of data suggesting that insecticide resistance is associated with fitness costs in a range of other insects.

Colorado beetle

Colorado beetle

For example, pyrethroid resistant Myzus persicae (peach-potato aphid) exhibit fitness effects in overwintering survival, response to aphid alarm pheromone and vulnerability to parasitoids; pyrethroid-resistant Cydia pomonella (codling moth) have reduced fecundity, body mass of instars, adult male longevity and larval development; finally, pyrethroid-resitant mutants of the snappily-named Leptinotarsa decemlineata (which you of course know as the stripy-attired Colorado beetle) have reduced fertility and fecundity.

Google will find relevant reference on all the above examples or you can refer to a concise mini-review by Kliot and Ghanim Fitness costs associated with insecticide resistance published in Pest Management Science (2012) 68:1431-37.

Before discussing implications for practical beekeeping I should add that the rate at which the loss of the L925V mutation, and other mutations associated with Apistan resistance, needs to be accurately determined. If, as looks likely, a period of 3+ years results in selection for the sensitive variant of the VGSC, it might be possible to develop rational Varroa treatments that exploit this.

Apistan resistance, rational Varroa control and practical beekeeping

For the sake of discussion, let’s accept the following statement:

  • Apistan is devastatingly effective on sensitive mite populations.
  • Apistan is much less effective (or almost completely useless) on resistant mite populations.
  • Resistance by Varroa is acquired rapidly and lost over the subsequent 2-3 years in the absence of selection.

An effective and rational Varroa control strategy would only use Apistan once every 3-4 years, alternating it with other treatments. To mitigate the transfer of Apistan-resistant mites between colonies due to drifting and robbing, or due to the movement, sale and/or relocation of hives during the season, Apistan use would have to be coordinated. This coordination would have to be both geographical and temporal. There would be no point in the Fife beekeepers using it one year if the Angus beekeepers planned to use it the following year.

“Like herding cats” I hear some mutter …

Perhaps, but the benefits would be considerable. How could it be achieved? Perhaps by restricting the sale of Apistan to certain years, in a formulation or package that meant it had to be used quickly or became inactive.

What about the residues in wax?

I’m not sure whether the level Apistan accumulates to in wax is sufficient to be a selective pressure on the mite population. Apistan strips are 10% Apistan. Nothing like that much accumulates in wax. In a recent study fluvalinate levels ranged between 2 and 200,000 parts per billion in wax (mean ~7500 ppb). However, it is a valid concern and so would necessitate a relatively simple experiment to determine the rate at which Apistan resistant mutations are lost in the presence of absence of trace levels of Apistan in comb.

Herd immunity and the responsibility of the individual

There’s a debate in human healthcare about the necessity to vaccinate individuals in a well-vaccinated population. The chance of an infectious disease spreading to the unvaccinated individual in a protected population is very slight. So, why vaccinate?

Well, what if increasing numbers decided not to vaccinate? Once protection in the population falls below a certain level there is a significant chance that an infectious disease will spread widely. We saw this in the UK after the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was falsely claimed to be associated with autism. Vaccination rates dropped from 90+ percent, to low 80’s and – in parts of the country – to only 60%. Unsurprisingly, measles cases increased and – tragically, for the first time in years – there were childhood deaths due to measles infection.

This may seem a million miles away from looking after our bees, but there are parallels. As beekeepers we have responsibility for our own stock. We also have responsibility to the wider community of beekeepers which – because of the way our bees forage and mingle – happily exchange pests and pathogens.

Beekeepers who do not control Varroa (and consequently virus) levels threaten the viability of their own colonies and those of other beekeepers in the area. The same applies to the foulbroods. This is why the bee inspectors try and check all colonies in the vicinity of an outbreak. This is why standstill orders are placed on apiaries where outbreaks occur.

Perhaps this sort of communal responsibility also applies to Varroa treatment using Apistan? Beekeepers who treat without demonstrating very high levels of susceptibility first in their stocks are simply selecting for resistant mites, reducing the efficacy of treatment for themselves, and others, in the future. Indiscriminate or incorrect use of Apistan has resulted in widespread resistance, thereby compromising Varroa control for all beekeepers.

The coordination and control, geographically and temporally, of Apistan usage would benefit beekeeping and beekeepers.

And … it would also benefit those who chose never to treat with Apistan. Treated colonies in the one year in three Apistan was used would have very low mite levels. Fewer mites would be transferred from these colonies by drifting or robbing … what’s not to like?


 Redux, as in the literary term meaning brought back or restored, derived from the Latin reducere (to bring back).

 This is one compelling reason why Apistan strips should not be left in the colony longer than is recommended. It kills the susceptible mites within the first month or so. After that it effectively selects for resistant mites, allowing them to replicate.

 With apologies to any population biologists who were reading this and have now given up in horror.

§ And I’ll save discussion of the influence of the incestuous lifestyle of Varroa and Varroa levels on the ratio of homozygotes to heterozygotes at different stages of the season for a later post. It’s a fascinating and at the same time rather sordid tale …

 Or 4 or 5 – this would need to be determined empirically.

Finding the queen

One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.

A local queen

A local queen

An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.

The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.

And they usually do.

Magic?

No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.

In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.

The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.

In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.

Focus where needed, skip the rest

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.

There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.

The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.

Reassuring but unnecessary

The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.

The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.

The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.

Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.

Stop looking

If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.

By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.

Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.

When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.

If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Welsh BKA Convention 2017

Cymdeithas Gwenynwyr Cymru

I’m honoured to be delivering the Pam Gregory Memorial Lecture at the Welsh Beekeepers Association Convention this year. The Convention is being held at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells on the 25th of March.

Pam Gregory was one of the founders of Bees Abroad, a beekeeping charity that does work to relieve poverty through beekeeping. You can read more about her life and work, as the first Welsh Regional Bee Inspector and global beekeeping consultant, in the Spring 2016 Welsh Beekeeper. Pam was the author of Healthy bees are happy bees so it’s entirely appropriate I’m talking about deformed wing virus and Varroa control … and that the talk is sponsored by Bee Diseases Insurance.

There’s an influx of Scotland-based speakers for the Convention this year with Bron Wright and Phil McAnespie – the current and past Presidents of the Scottish Beekeepers Association – also talking.