In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

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

I’m not complaining 😉 1

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

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

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

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

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

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

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

But, there’s always a but …

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

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

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

Self-sufficiency

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

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

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

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

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

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

In perpetuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is not enough

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

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

Two are better than one …

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

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

The art of the probable 4

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

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

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

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

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

The time is right

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

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

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

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

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

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

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

Beekeeping nirvana

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

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

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

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

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

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

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

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


Colophon

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

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

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Sphere of influence

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

The flight range of the honeybee ...

The flight range of the honeybee …

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

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

Why does any of this matter anyway?

Ladies first …

Workers

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

Wyoming badlands

Wyoming badlands …

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

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

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

Gain or loss in hive weight ...

Gain or loss in hive weight …

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

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

Queens

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

Heading for a DCA near you ...

Heading for a DCA near you …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drones … it takes 17 to tango …

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

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

Or vice versa?

10 miles ... you must be joking!

10 miles … you must be joking!

Or do they meet in the middle?

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

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

Or getting eaten.

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

Swarms

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

The sphere of influence

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

Closer is better ...

Closer is better …

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

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

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

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

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


 

Taking stock

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

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

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

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

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

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

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

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

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

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

Nucs for pleasure and profit

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

Everynuc

Everynuc …

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

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

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

Splits and nucs

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

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

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

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

Stuffed

Stuffed …

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

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

Variations

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

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

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

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

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


 

 

Keeping your cool

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

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

Only mad dogs and Englishmen ... and beekeepers

Only mad dogs and Englishmen … and beekeepers

Beekeeping in hot weather

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

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

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

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

Beesuits

BBwear Ultra suit

BBwear Ultra suit

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

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

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

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

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

Timing is everything

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

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

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

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

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

The “You cannot be serious” 7 option

John McEnroe c.1979

John McEnroe c.1979

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

But it’s still very effective.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat 8

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

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

G’day, cobber 9

G'day Cobber

G’day Cobber

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

They are extremely effective.

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

In Australia they’re about £7 🙁 12

Drinking on the job

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

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

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


Colophon

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

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

Spring honey harvest

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

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

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

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

Is the honey ready yet?

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

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

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

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

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

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

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

Clearer boards

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

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

Removed and inverted clearer board ...

Removed and inverted clearer board …

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

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

Keeping the supers warm

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

And clearers 🙁

Stacked warming supers ...

Stacked warming supers …

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

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

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

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

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

Mind your back

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

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

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

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

Beekeepers back is a very real problem.

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

Extraction

Honey extraction ...

Honey extraction …

Extracting honey is a bit of a chore.

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

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

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

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

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

Beer

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


Colophon

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

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

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

Queen cells … don’t panic!

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

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

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

Result!

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

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

Result … but probably not one you want.

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

Play cups, charged queen cells and sealed queen cells

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

Play cups ...

Play cups …

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

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

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

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

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

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

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Timing is everything

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

Queen development

Queen development …

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

We’re off !

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

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

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

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

Weekly inspections

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

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

What to do if you find queen cells

Don't panic

Don’t panic …

Don’t panic.

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

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

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

What I do depends upon what I find …

Play cups

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

Charged queen cells

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

This is not risk-free 4.

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

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

Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Destroying charged queen cells is not swarm control

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

I speak from experience 🙁

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Sealed queen cells

Oops  🙄

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

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

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

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

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

Swarm control

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

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

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

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


 

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

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

If Carlsberg did apiaries ...

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

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

Not just a pretty view

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

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

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

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

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

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

Hives

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

Andalucian apiary

Andalucian apiary

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

Layens hive

Layens hive

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

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

Can it really be that simple?

Well, it certainly could be that simple.

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

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

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

But it’s not all sunshine and roses

Derelict Spanish apiary

Derelict Spanish apiary

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

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

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

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

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

Ransacked Layens hive ...

Ransacked Layens hive …

Abandoned hives, robbing and mites

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

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

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

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

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


Colophon

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

Queen excluders

If your season is going anything like my season you’ll now be conducting weekly inspections of colonies which have one or more increasingly heavy honey supers 1.

Finally 🙂

Wire queen excluder ...

Wire queen excluder …

At least, you should be doing weekly inspections and I hope the supers are filling nicely 😉

If so, you’ll also probably be using queen excluders to stop Her Majesty from moving up into the supers. You don’t have to use queen excluders, but most people using stackable hives do. As I use a lot of drone foundation in my supers it’s a bit of a catastrophe if the queen lays up frame after frame of drones, so I always use queen excluders.

The good

I’ve used all sorts of queen excluders (henceforth QE’s for simplicity) over the years. Some are much better than others, some are awful and some fall into the “OK since I’ve run out of other equipment and I’m desperate” category i.e. useable, but not actually good.

The good ones are wooden-framed with rigid wires. They have beespace on one side 2 and generally don’t get stuck down to the tops of the frames. They are relatively easy to clean and you can buy a little scraper gadget to help with this task. Importantly, from an apiary hygiene point of view, they can be blowtorched if needed to sterilise them.

I build my own, using the wire-only grids available from Thorne’s. A 9 x 25mm frame with simple rabbet joints holds the wire, which I fix in place with Gorilla glue. I then add a narrow wooden rim around the top edge, flush with the wire, onto which the super is placed. The overall cost is about a tenner, about half that of the readymade commercial ones and only twice that of the el cheapo plastic ones.

The bad

I started beekeeping using the slotted steel or zinc sheets that get propolised to the tops of the frames and, as you prise them up, suddenly go ‘ping‘ firing bees up into the air. The trick to stopping this was lift from one corner but keeping pressure in the middle with one finger so they released slowly and gently.

These slotted zinc QE’s tended to bend or crease 3 and mine were butchered to make mini-nuc feeders years ago.

Unfortunately – because they’re the most recent QE’s I’ve purchased – I’d also add the current XP PLUS QE from Thorne’s to this category. These are moulded plastic with square holes but have the addition of a bottom rim and half a dozen standoffs that hold them a beespace above the top bars of the brood box. So far, so good.

They’re described as non-stick, but in my experience aren’t. I’ve got about half a dozen in use at the moment and all of them have either (or both) been stuck firmly to the top bars of the brood box or – infuriatingly – to the underside of the super.

Irritatingly these QE’s also don’t appear to ever lay flat 4. When purchased they were a bit banana-shaped, but I wrongly thought that stacking under some other boxes for a few months would sort them out. When reassembling the hive they always leave a corner or two bent up, under which the bees crawl … with inevitable consequences. Avoid.

The indifferent

Plastic lay flat QE

Plastic lay flat QE …

I also have lots of the plastic ‘lay flat’ QE’s. These are just about the cheapest to buy. Some have square, some rounded, holes. All are much of a muchness in my view. They get propolised to the frame tops and usually need the same sort of ‘finger press’ in the middle when removing them to avoid launching bees unceremoniously across the apiary.

All of these ‘lay flat’ QE’s are a bit tricky to clean. You can scrape them with a hive tool, but lots of the holes get blocked with wax/propolis. If you put them in the freezer overnight you can then flex them gently and quite a bit of the propolis can be released (and used for all sorts of things like tinctures).

Top tips

When removing the queen excluder, particularly the flat plastic ones that inevitably get stuck down to the top bars, gently twist it in a circular motion to loosen it from the wax. Also try the ‘finger in the middle trick’.

Before putting the hive back together give both frame top bars and the QE a scrape with the hive tool encourage it to lie back down flat. This makes subsequent inspections easier.

Finally, remember to always check the underside of the QE for the queen before setting it aside and continuing with the inspection. Take it from me … you feel a combination of stupid and relieved when you finally find the queen wandering around on the QE as you reassemble the puzzlingly queenless hive that’s got loads of eggs and no queen cells.

And it’s always worth checking the upper face of the QE as well …

Queen above the QE

Queen above the QE …


 

Swarm and mite partitioning

Clipped queen swarm

Clipped queen swarm

When a honey bee colony swarms, what proportion of the bees in the colony leave with the queen?

A simple question and one that has been addressed using elegantly simple experiments.

But swarms don’t leave without also taking Varroa mites with them 1.

What proportion of the Varroa mites in the colony leave with the swarm? In both cases partitioning refers to the proportion that remains with the original colony (bees or mites) and the proportion that disappears over the fence (or appears in your bait hive).

Why does this matter?

If you’re interested in honey from your bees the answer to the first question is very relevant. The more bees that leave, the less remain to forage … so you’ll get less honey.

If you collect swarms or use bait hives to attract them, the answer to the second question is particularly relevant as it emphasises the importance of Varroa treatment of newly-hived swarms.

Does size matter?

Colonies swarm when they are strong, which is usually – but doesn’t have to be – when the colony is big. There are a number of factors that influence swarming, but the strength of the colony i.e. lots of bees in the space available, is one of the most important. A strong nucleus colony of only 3 frames will swarm under similar conditions that induce a huge double-brooded hive to swarm; the latter might contain 75,000 bees, the former perhaps only about 7500.

In addition, because the survival of swarms is influenced by their size (see below) we need to be aware that large and small colonies may behave differently. For example, if only 5000 bees formed a ‘viable’ swarm, the 3 frame nuc described above could generate just one, whereas the double-brooded monstrosity could produce a prime swarm and loads of similarly-sized casts 2. Since swarms of all sizes are seen, it suggests a fixed proportion of the bees leave, rather than a fixed amount …

Counting the bees in a swarm

Occupied bait hive

Occupied bait hive …

Counting large numbers of bees is not a trivial task. Of course, counting the bees in a swarm is pretty straightforward … catch the swarm, weigh it and divide by the weight of a ‘single bee’ 3.

But this doesn’t tell you the number of bees in the original hive. You need to know this to determine the proportion of bees that leave with the queen.

Thomas Seeley from Cornell University used an elegant solution 4 to count the size of the original colony before and after swarming. He established several 3-frame narrow observation hives between gridded glass panels. The hive was so narrow that only a single layer of bees could occupy the beespace between the glazing and the comb. By counting bees in about 10% of the grid squares, averaging and multiplying he could accurately determine the total number of bees in the colony … which was about 7600.

He determined the number of bees in the colony early every morning during the swarming season. Immediately after swarming he counted the bees remaining in the hive. By dividing the number of bees present after the swarm left with the number present that morning he could determine the proportion of the adult workers present in the swarm.

And the answer is …

75%

When Seeley’s small colonies swarmed, 75% of the workers departed in the swarm 5. This figure is in good agreement with previous studies conducted by Getz and colleagues 6 using two larger colonies (~30,000 bees in each, 72% of which left with the swarm), and with work from the 1960’s 7 using small and large colonies (73% and 66% respectively).

Swarm partitioning therefore appears to be colony size-independent, with about 75% of the adult workers departing with the queen.

So, if size doesn’t matter, why does size matter?

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Juliana Rangel and Thomas Seeley went on to establish swarms of different sizes – small medium and large, containing 5000, 10,000 and 15,000 bees respectively … and a queen. The large swarms developed into fully-established colonies better (drawing more comb, collecting more nectar and rearing more brood). Most significantly, large swarms had a much higher survival rate. Almost 90% of the small or medium swarms failed to overwinter, whereas 75% of the large swarms survived.

Again, there were precedents for this … in the mid-80’s Lee and Wilson had monitored survival of natural swarms and showed that larger swarms were more successful.

So size matters for swarm survival.

This is perhaps not surprising when you consider all the ‘work’ the colony needs to do to survive the winter – draw out a large area of comb, store about 20kg of honey and rear thousands of new workers.

In addition, it turns out that larger swarms are probably better at choosing suitable nest sites to occupy. This is because they have a larger number of scout bees to find the sites faster, thereby improving the decision-making process.

And, of course, size also matters if you want your colonies to spend their time collecting nectar for honey production. When a colony swarms 75% of the workforce leaves and, inevitably, the productivity of the hive is significantly reduced for an extended period.

Mite partitioning … simple maths surely?

The only mites that can leave the colony when it swarms are those that are phoretic i.e. riding around the colony on adult bees. The remainder are safely tucked away in capped cells gorging themselves on pupae.

Poly Varroa tray from Thorne's Everynuc with visible mites.

Gotcha! …

If we assume that all the adult bees are workers 8 it is a simple calculation to work out the proportion of mites in the colony that leave with the swarm … 0.75 * X, where X is the proportion of mites in the colony that are phoretic.

So, if 10% of the total number of mites are phoretic, 7.5% of the total mites would disappear with the swarm. This could explain the small colony size and frequent swarming of Varroa-tolerant feral colonies … every time they swarm, over 90% of the mites are left behind.

But … there’s always a but …

% of mites in capped cells

% of mites in capped cells

The proportion of phoretic mites in a colony is unfortunately not static. It fluctuates with the availability of suitably-aged larvae to infest. It is therefore influenced by the egg laying rate of the queen.

Numbers often quoted for the experimentally-determined proportion of phoretic mites range from 10-50% (or more), a range reflected in a well-established model for the seasonal reproduction of Varroa 9.

Remember that the graph (right) is modelled data. In a real-world situation there will be brood earlier and later in the year. However, in a first attempt at calculating mite partitioning during swarming in May/June the modelled data is close enough to experimentally-determined data to be usable.

Predicted and real mite partitioning numbers

The extreme values from the May/June (the swarming season) predictions in the graph above indicate that phoretic mites proportions range from 15-50% of the total in the colony. A swarm containing 75% of the adult bees in the hive would therefore also leave with somewhere between 11% and 37% of the Varroa from the colony.

The higher of these figures is quoted by Thomas Seeley in his study of the frequently swarming Varroa-tolerant colonies in the Arnot Forest, though this is calculated from his own swarm partitioning studies and data from others, and was not directly measured.

However, Jerzy Wilde and colleagues have conducted one of the few studies that have experimentally measured mite partitioning in natural and artificially-swarmed colonies. Of seven large colonies (~30,000 bees) which swarmed naturally, 25 ± 9% of mites left the colony with the swarm. Using a Taranov board, 36 ± 11% of mites left the colony with the swarm fraction in the artificially-swarmed colonies.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

A quarter of all the mites in a heavily infested colony is a lot of mites.

Which is why it’s always sensible to treat swarms you catch/attract/buy 10 for mites.

By definition, all the mites in a swarm are phoretic, so they’re easy to kill using miticides – such as those based on oxalic acid (either trickled or sublimated) – that work best on broodless colonies.

Caveats and future considerations

I have a few concerns about the Wilde study. The size of the swarms generated was significantly smaller than usual, containing only ~45% of adult workers. In addition, the initial mite-infestation levels were quite low, implying that the available open brood was unlikely to be rate-limiting in terms of mite reproduction and the phoretic period.

I’ll return to this in a future post but it’s worth remembering that the queen markedly reduces her egg-laying rate as the colony prepares to swarm. This results in fewer 5-day larvae and so decreases the opportunities for phoretic mites to hide themselves in capped cells.

Swarming colonies may actually have elevated phoretic mite levels …


 

Stroppiness

Perhaps surprisingly this isn’t about some of the contributors to online beekeeping discussion forums … 😉 I’ll discuss those next winter when their “shack nasties” – and associated rantings – get really bad.

What beekeeping is

Beekeeping should be an enjoyable pastime. It’s a great way to work with nature, to learn and continue learning, to understand and interact with the environment … and to make delicious honey.

Of course, it’s lots of other things as well. It can be hard and hot physical work at times. It can be infuriating when the weather and the bees and a thousand other things conspire to frustrate your plans.

And in our long winters it can require a significant level of patience.

What beekeeping isn’t

What it isn’t, or at least what it shouldn’t be, is something that fills you with dread, that hurts like hell or that threatens, frightens or – even worse – harms other people.

All of these things can be the result of having aggressive bees.

You can and should do something to ‘cure’ the colony of its aggression.

Bees should not naturally be aggressive. When not threatened they go about their daily business in a workmanlike 1 way, collecting pollen or nectar or water. Unless inadvertently trapped in clothing or hair they almost never sting; when they do it’s because the bee is trying to defend itself.

Defensive bees can behave similarly to aggressive bees but they are not the same thing at all. In this case the ‘cure’ is very different and probably involves the beekeeper rather than the bees.

Colony management, aggression and defensiveness

Beekeeping involves managing the colony 2. This necessitates regular inspections during the season.

It’s during inspections that both the nature of the colony and the abilities of the beekeeper are tested. It’s during these inspections that the beekeeper should try and distinguish between aggressive and defensive bees.

Aggression in bees is an unpleasant characteristic with predominantly genetic causes.

Defensive bees are reacting to a perceived threat and need to be treated more appropriately.

An aggressive colony

With little or no provocation, aggressive bees are out to get you. They buzz you a couple of times from yards away as you approach the hive, they ‘boil’ out of from under the crownboard when you gently prise it up, they bounce off your veil repeatedly or cling on tightly with the abdomen curled under them trying to sting.

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

They burrow into the folds in your beesuit, they worm their way under the cuffs of your gloves, they attack your hands and the hive tool as it is used to lift the frame.

And they don’t stop when you close everything up and thankfully retire. They follow you across the apiary and continue to bombard your (hopefully still veiled) head.

Truly psychotic bees follow you up the field back to the car. You have to hang around until they lose interest or drive off still wearing the veil 3.

Before, during and/or after the inspection you’re getting stung. Depending upon the thickness of your gloves, your beesuit or your skin this might not hurt … but the build up of sting pheromone incites them even more. At worst, you’re forced to retreat from the onslaught.

It’s bad enough for the beekeeper. It’s much worse for anyone else inadvertently going near the colony, particularly after an inspection.

A defensive colony

A defensive colony is reactive rather than proactive. They react – in some of the ways described above – to rough treatment, to poorly timed interventions or to other perceived threats. They can and do sting, but if treated properly (i.e. better) they don’t.

A well behaved colony can become defensive if it is jarred, jolted or – and this has to be seen to be believed – dropped. Bees that should be perfectly calm and well tempered can ‘go postal’ if maltreated.

The significant difference here is that they’re being badly or poorly treated. This is where calmness, confidence and experience – or ideally, all three characteristics – shown by the beekeeper is the major influence on the behaviour of the colony.

An ideal place to observe this is in the training apiary of a large beekeeping association. With an experienced beekeeper the colony can be wonderfully well-tempered, barely stirring from the frames.

With an almost complete novice – who inevitably works slowly and remembers all of the good advice they were told in the theory lessons – the colony is also OK, though if the hive is open too long they can become a little tetchy.

But with the intermediate (in experience and ability) beekeeper, who knows just enough to be dangerous but who thinks they know it all, who squashes a few bees every time they drop a frame back into the hive, who crushes a few more as they lever the next frame up, who waves their hands to and fro over the top bars and who smokes the colony too heavily … to this beekeeper the colony can appear aggressive.

But they’re actually being defensive … because they’re being mistreated.

Going postal

Sometimes even the most experienced and careful beekeeper can have a D’oh! moment, instantaneously converting the calmest of colonies into a mushroom cloud-shaped maelstrom of psychotic bees.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

I’ve seen an experienced beekeeper in a full training apiary inadvertently lift both a super and the brood box to which it was propolised off the floor. Once in mid-air the propolis gave way, dropping a full brood box onto the ground.

Kaboom!

I doubt there was a single beekeeper in the apiary over a 20 yard radius who wasn’t stung.

But these weren’t aggressive bees. They’d done nothing when the crownboard was removed. They were simply being defensive – understandably – once their home was dropped from a great height onto the ground.

The grey area between attack and defence …

I’ve been reasonably clear cut about the differences between aggressive and defensive bees. Overly so. There’s a grey area when an otherwise calm colony, almost irrespective of how well treated it is, can appear aggressive.

A number of “environmental factors” can influence the behaviour of the colony. The most important of these are forage, weather and queenlessness.

Double trouble ...

Double trouble …

Bees are usually really well behaved when there’s a good flow of nectar. Open a colony when the OSR or lime is at it’s peak and you can do no wrong. Well, almost. However, open a colony when the OSR has recently gone over or the lime has stopped yielding and the bees can be a bit tetchy.

Short tempered perhaps, not truly aggressive.

Similarly, open a colony – or certain colonies – as the barometer plummets or there’s thunder rumbling in the near distance and they can also be rather short tempered.

In my experience most colonies get a bit stroppy when a strong nectar flow dries up. In contrast, only some overreact to poor weather. I have opened colonies during a thunderstorm – a long story, but it was to do with the day job long before we had the bee shed – and they were fine. In fact, they appeared to welcome the shelter provided from the rain as I stooped over the open box rummaging around for 2-3 day old larvae.

Finally, a queenless colony is usually more aggressive … or, perhaps more accurately, defensive. If the queenless colony does not rear a new queen it will fail.

Curing aggression

I don’t think aggressive bees should be tolerated. They make beekeeping a chore. Worse, they frighten passers by and terrify the mellisophobic 4.

More worrying still is that aggressive bees might, either unprovoked or before calming down after an inspection, sting a passer-by who then goes into anaphylactic shock.

I don’t believe that aggressive bees are better at collecting honey, though many do.

Aggression is a genetic trait 5. The only cure is therefore to change the genetics of the colony. This means culling the old queen and replacing her with a new one. If you haven’t got immediate access to a replacement queen I’d suggest culling the old queen and uniting the colony with a strong, well behaved, colony.

Often the behaviour improves quickly – presumably due to the different pheromones at work – but it’s worth remembering that it will be 6-9 weeks until all of the brood and workers originating from the old queen are replaced.

Curing defensiveness

Physician, heal thyself 6 … or, more correctly, Beekeeper, heal thyself. Since defensiveness is a reactive response to poor handling the best solution is to improve the quality and care of inspections. And possibly improve their timing as well.

Don’t inspect when the weather is poor and be particularly careful when a strong flow has recently stopped. Treat the hive and the colony gently. Use as little smoke as possible. Carefully remove one frame and set it aside. Break the propolis seal on the remaining frames, one side at a time, gently and without waving your hands over the box.

Remove and replace each frame without crushing bees under the frame lugs. Don’t crush bees between the side bars when pushing frames together. Don’t shake bees off the frames unless necessary.

Work reasonably quickly, carefully and confidently.

The bees will appreciate it.

Record keeping

When I inspect colonies, in addition to things like space, stores and queen cells, I’m also observing the behaviour of the colony. I record behavioural traits (temper, following and running on the frames) in my notes. Any colony consistently performing badly on these criteria is sooner or later requeened.

I can excuse one bad day. I can just about accept a second. But three weeks of poor temper – particularly if the other hives in the apiary are fine – and the monarch will be replaced 7.

My notes from late last season showed that one very strong colony was developing aggressive tendencies. I couldn’t really face going through a double-brood box on a cool autumn day to find the old queen and unite the colony (and had no spare queens anyway).

The first inspection of the year has demonstrated they’re still a bit surly and, whilst not awful (no stings and no following), they’re probably only going to get worse as the colony builds up this spring.

If this shows any signs of happening I’ll unite the colony with another one – it’s too early in the season to have new queens and I’m not going to put up with bad behaviour.

Or impose it on passers by.


Colophon

Stroppy (and hence stroppiness) is probably derived from obstreperous and means bad-tempered, rebellious, awkward, or unruly’. It’s a word that’s been in use since the early 1950’s. 

Going postal is a phrase that more specifically means stress-induced extreme violence. If you use Google’s ngram viewer to look the term up you’ll see that, other than a brief blip in the 1880’s, it’s a phrase only found in recent (>1990’s) English books.

Going postal ...

Going postal …

Going postal has tragic origins as it refers to a spate of shootings in US post offices, by post office workers, in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

This post was timetabled to appear last week … major access issues with the website (repeated timeouts with visitor number reduced by about 40%) were repeatedly denied by my hosting provider and took them ~4 days to resolve, by which time I decided it was better to postpone posting. I got stroppy but didn’t need to go postal 😉