Two out of three ain’t bad

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

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

How to get stung

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


Gauntlets …

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

Yes … but you will get stung.

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

You’re like a brain surgeon wearing mittens.

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

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

How not to get stung

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

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

But you’ll feel it.

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

Thin gloves aren’t enough

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

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


Marigold gloves

Marigold gloves …

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

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

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

Nitrile and latex gloves

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

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

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

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

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

Propolis, apiary hygiene and sweat

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

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

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

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

Psycho bees

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

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

Not my bees of course 😉

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

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

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


Bat out of hell

Bat out of hell

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


Apivar & Apitraz = Amitraz

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

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

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

Mites on drone pupae ...

Mites on drone pupae …

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

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


The active ingredient in both Apitraz and Apivar is Amitraz.

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

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


Amitraz …

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

Mechanism of action

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

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

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

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

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

Usage of Apitraz and Apivar

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

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


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

Toxicity and wax residues

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

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

And it can kill you.

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


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

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

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


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

Apivar ...

Apivar …

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

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


All the gear, no idea

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

Required reading

Required reading

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

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

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

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

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

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

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 6

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

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warré 7 etc.

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

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

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

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

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue8 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

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

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

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 9 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

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

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

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

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

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

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

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

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

All the gear, no idea

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

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

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

It hasn’t and probably won’t 🙁

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 10. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

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

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

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes etc.11

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

What’s new?

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

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

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

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


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

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

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course 😉

Horsley board

Horsley board

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

It’s a monstrosity.

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

I was very tempted.

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


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

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

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret 😉

Sublimox spares and repairs

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

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

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


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

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

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

Retaining screws ...

Retaining screws …

To rectify this and prevent their permanent loss in the apiary mud I gave them each a dab of Loctite 243 and tightened them up properly 12. This appears to have done the trick and they’ve remained in place without loosening.

O rings

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

It’s a tough life being an O ring.

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

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

Here's two I wrecked earlier ...

Here’s two I wrecked earlier …

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

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

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

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings ...

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings …

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

Essential accessories …

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

Spring (or late winter) vigilance

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

All is well ...

All is well …

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

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

If the mite drop is not low or non-existent there’s probably no need to treat immediately 13. However, make a note to monitor the colony at regular intervals – both for mites and overt DWV disease – and intervene if necessary.


The Goldilocks principle

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

In this case, honey bee colonies.

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

These are not always the same thing.

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 14. Fondant top-ups for underweight colonies. Cleansing and sterilising equipment.

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

One is not enough

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

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

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

Two National hives and Himalayan balsam

Two will do …

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

Except, it isn’t.

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

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

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

From too few to more than enough

Beginners often struggle in their early years of beekeeping 15. Sometimes they have too few bees in the hive. The colonies are weaker than they should be to exploit the forage or to overwinter successfully. Or they lose queens during the season, suffer an extended broodless period, and need to beg or borrow a queen from elsewhere to keep the colony together. It all looked so easy in the books or in that midwinter theory course.

Except, it isn’t.

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

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

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

From having too few bees they can now rapidly reach the point of having too many. They learn how easy it is to make increase 16 using a well-timed vertical split of a vigorous, healthy colony, or by not reuniting after using the Pagden method for swarm control.

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

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

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

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

During the peak swarming period – mid/late May to mid-June here, but earlier further South – beekeeping can be a ‘full-on’ experience. Timing is critical. Miss a late open queen cell and they’ll swarm on the next available good day. You’ll run out of equipment. You’ll get phone calls in the office asking you to retrieve a swarm from a tree/swing/classroom 17.

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

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

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

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But so are too many bees and spectacularly good weather.

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

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

The Goldilocks zone

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

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

This is the Goldilocks zone.

Quite where that sweet spot is will depend upon a whole host of different factors. Your interest in bees vs. other competing hobbies and pastimes 18, how full-time the full-time job is, your abilities as a beekeeper and the pressure others 19 put on you to take holidays mid-season 😉

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

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

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

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

3 day old queen cells …

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

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

Space and spares

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

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


Goldilocks and the three bears fairy tale book cover

Look who is sleeping in my bed!

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

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


Urbane bees

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

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

Bees can do very well in towns

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

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

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

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

City rooftop bees

City rooftop bees …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being neighbourly

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

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

Poop target ...

Poop target …

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

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

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

Swarm on a swing ...

Swarm on a swing …

Guilty until proven innocent.

Good urban beekeeping practice

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

These are more or less in order of importance …

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

Forewarned is forearmed

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

That’s neither fair or responsible.

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

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

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


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

Of the bees … and the beekeeper 😉

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



Fondant topups

Perhaps surprisingly if the weather is still very wintery, inside your hives brood rearing has probably started 9. It’s about half way through the winter, there’s no forage available and the colonies are surviving on the stores they laid down in the autumn last year.

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

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

If they do, the colony will starve to death.

Fondant topups

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

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

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

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

Don’t be stingy and don’t delay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think of the greater good … speaking of which.


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

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

Preparing fondant

Preparing fondant …

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

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


Weighty matters

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

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

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

Be gentle

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

Be gentle ...

Be gentle …

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

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

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

Technology to the rescue

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

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

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

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

At a price  😯

Frugal bees are better bees

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

My Heinz strain 10 of locally-reared bees exhibit variation in the amount of stores they use. The two comparable hives on the same stand in the top picture both started the winter packed with stores. By Christmas one of them remained reassuringly heavy, whereas the other one was feeling light and was given a fondant supplement.

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

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

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

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

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

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary


Makes space in beekeeping (3)

The poor cryptic crossword clue in the title of course refers to an eke.

In beEKEeping, an eke is a wooden frame, the same dimensions as the hive, used to provide temporary additional volume to the hive.

They are useful and versatile pieces of equipment.


The word eke can be traced back to Middle English (eke or eake) when it meant “an addition” and was derived from the the Old English (ēaca) and the Old Norse (auki) words of the same meaning.

In Old English it usually referred to a reinforcement of troops, but in 1549 it was first used 1 to indicate an addition to the tag end of a bell-rope.

And then, a mere 308 years later it was used to describe a cylinder on which a beehive was placed to increase its capacity.

Swarm in a skep

Swarm in a skep …

‘Cylinder’ of course, because in 1857 most beehives were probably still straw skeps 2. A more extensive definition from the same period was a small addition to the bottom of a beehive, often just a few strands of straw, on which the hive was temporarily raised.

Most of us don’t use skeps any longer (other than for swarm collection) but we do use ekes.

Don’t buy it, build it

For some time I’ve reckoned that the appropriately-named dummy board represent the single item with the largest profit margin for manufacturers of beekeeping equipment.

I’m wrong. It’s the humble and unassuming, but oh so useful, eke.

At its most simple, an eke is a made of four bits of wood, screwed, nailed or glued together at the corners, square 3 and true. It doesn’t need to be made out of the best quality cedar.

In fact, it doesn’t need to be made of cedar at all. Any readily-available softwood with a couple of coats of wood-preservative slapped on top will be just fine.

Look back at the definition of an eke. Now, as in 1857, it was meant as a temporary addition to the hive. Cuprinol is just fine, best western cedar is overkill.

A cute rabbit, not rabbet, from

No … rabbet. R a b b E t.

I shall leave the precise design and details of building an eke as ‘an exercise for the reader’. You can achieve ‘square and true’ by using a simple square of plywood as a template. I’d suggest gluing and screwing the corners using a simple rabbet joint. Paint the entire thing with a couple of coats of bee-friendly wood preservative and you’ll have saved at least £20 on the prices some of the commercial suppliers charge.


Length and width are the same as the hive, depth is the important one.

You can make an eke any depth you want. You can usually buy them in only two depths.

  • Shallow (~20mm) – to provide just enough space over the brood frames when applying Apiguard treatment in the autumn. I can’t think of alternative uses that need an eke this shallow.
  • Deep (~90mm) – to convert a regular brood box for use with 14 x 12 frames 4.
Rabbit, er, rabbet joint

Rabbit, er, rabbet joint …

All my ekes are made from 20 x 44mm (thickness x depth 5) softwood. This just happened to be the wood I could easily get when I first started building them, but has turned out to be a very useful depth overall.

Build more than one. Unless you only have one hive. In which case buy another hive and then build another eke. I’ve got about two-thirds the number of ekes as I have hives and I regularly run out.

Feeding and treating

Use your wellie

Use your wellie …

The most frequent use for an eke is to provide space above the frames and below the crownboard, for example when feeding a colony fondant or applying Apiguard. It takes just seconds to lift the roof and crownboard, position the eke, add the fondant or tray of Apiguard and cover the hive again. In the days when I used to use Apiguard I’d often add the fondant at the same time 6. What could be simpler?

With care (or a lot of flattening the block by standing on it repeatedly) it’s possible to easily squeeze 6-8kg of fondant into the void provided by a 43mm eke. Since I usually feed a full 12.5kg block of fondant in one go – sliced in half and opened up like a book – I simply pop an eke under an inverted insulated crownboard to provide the ‘headroom’ needed.

Vaporising with an eke

Vaporising with an eke …

Whilst we’re on the subject of applying miticides … I also use ekes when administering vaporised oxalic acid-containing treatments to colonies in polystyrene hives. The nozzle of my Sublimox vaporiser gets hot enough to melt polystyrene. Rather than messing around trying to aim the billowing cloud of vapour through the entrance it’s much easier simply adding a wooden eke to the top of the brood box and pushing the nozzle through a 7mm hole in one side. The vapour easily permeates to every corner of the hive 7.


Travel screens are used in place of crownboards and roofs when colonies are being moved any distance. They are usually framed wire mesh of some sort. They are important as they stop colonies overheating during the stress of transporting them. You can also easily spray water onto the colony to help cool it if needed.

They are yet another thing that spends 98% of the time stacked up in a corner with all the other oddities of beekeeping – clearer boards, Miller feeders, weirdo split boards and custom-made shims for uniting mismatched hives.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

I don’t bother with travel screens, but instead use robust ‘glassfibre’ insect mesh held securely in place with – you’ve guessed it – an eke. I just lay the mesh over the open colony, add the eke and then strap everything thing up tight. This works a treat. The eke ensures that the mesh is held securely around the edges.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Insulation and crownboards

I’m a firm believer in providing a block insulation over the crownboard, ideally all season, but certainly through the winter. I’ve built a number of reversible, insulated perspex crownboards … but I didn’t build enough

I’ve also bought, inherited or otherwise acquired several standard framed plywood or perspex crownboards. Using a 44mm deep eke and a suitably sized block of 50mm thick expanded foam you can easily cobble together a perfectly function insulated crownboard.

Another use for an eke

Another use for an eke …

And the rest …

There are all sorts of additional uses for ekes … stacking supers on, providing space under brood frames with protruding queen cells (for example, when moving a frame from one colony to another 8, doubled up to provide depth for 14 x 12 frames etc.

It’s worth keeping a couple of ekes stacked up with spare supers and broods in the apiary. They’re more useful than you’d think a simple square frame of wood should be.

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation …


Bring out your dead

It’s midwinter. There’s very little to do in the apiary. Time is probably better spent planning and preparing for the coming season (and drinking tea in the warm).

However, there are a few jobs that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Let the undertakers do their work

The first job is to ensure that the hive entrances are clear. This allows bees to readily exit and re-enter the hive for ‘cleansing’ flights during warmer days. During these days the bees will also remove some of the many corpses that accumulate during the winter. If the hive entrance is clear these can be removed easily. If the entrance is blocked they continue to build up and – on warm days – you can hear a panicky roar of trapped bees from inside the hive.

Corpses at hive entrance ...

Corpses at hive entrance …

Don’t worry about the loss of these bees. It’s what happens. The colony goes into the autumn with perhaps 30,000 adult workers. Four months later, at the end of December, there may be only about one third of this number remaining. Brood rearing is limited during this period (and at times non-existent), but picks up in early January.

Attrition rate

Even assuming no brood rearing, this means that 150-200 bees a day are expiring. If they are rearing brood, even at a significantly diminished rate, it means that more than 200 bees a day are dying.

For comparison, 300 bees is about a ‘cupful’ … the number you’d do a Varroa count on. Imagine dropping a cupful of dead bees on the hive floor every day for a fortnight. Unless these corpses are cleared away the hive entrance gets blocked. This is what the ‘undertakers’ clear.

On calm warm days you can find the corpses littered on the hive roof, or in front of the entrance, dropped there by workers carrying them away from the hive.

Since ‘flying’ days may be infrequent at this time of year and/or bees have other jobs to do, like go on cleansing flights or collect water, they may not carry the corpses very far … don’t be alarmed by the numbers of corpses around the hive entrance.

Don't count the corpses ...

Don’t count the corpses …

A bent piece of wire to the rescue

I mainly use kewl floors with a dogleg entrance slot (see the top image on this page) that reduces robbing by wasps and negates the need for a mouse guard. I’ve fashioned a simple piece of bent wire to keep the entrance slot clear of corpses on my irregular visits to the apiary during this time of the year.

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

I’ve only ever had problems with large, double-brood colonies after very extensive cold periods (~4 weeks with hard frosts every night) when the entrance has got blocked. One colony I managed to save despite it showing signs of Nosema after the bees were trapped for several days.

It takes just seconds to check that the entrance is clear and gives considerable peace of mind. If you use mouseguards it’s worth checking the holes aren’t all blocked after an extended cold period.

Next week I’ll discuss the other important winter check … are there enough stores remaining to stop the colony starving?


Anyone familiar with Monty Python will recognise the post title.

This was one of the well-known scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a 1975 film parody about the Arthurian legend and a low-budget quest for the Holy Grail. The film usually ranks close to the top in surveys of the best comedies of all time, with another Monty Python film (The Life of Brian) often topping the tables.

In the film there’s a further scene (A self-perpetuating autocracy) which involves a political argument with interesting parallels between the public perception 1 of a colony of bees and the biological reality. This is topical, with the recent Deloitte report on women in leadership roles holding back the careers of other women they perceive as a threat.

Perhaps a topic for a future article … ?

Queen bees and the self-perpetuating autocracy.