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?


Colophon

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.

 

Found via Google

It’s the start of another year … Happy New Year!

I’ve been too busy enjoying the time away from the office, the family, the food, the wine, the presents and the peace and quiet ‘flu to write anything substantive. Instead, I’ve compiled a list of searches that brought people to this site over the first half of 2017.

I did the same sort of survey in 2016 and 2015, but this will be the last one as I changed the way these things were documented in May or June 2017 and now no longer bother recording them.

I’ve only noted the interesting or unusual ones … the search term is in bold italics with my comments on the right.

I hope you enjoy them  🙂

waspkeeping … At last! Someone actually searched for my definitive article on the subject.

Waspkeeping

Waspkeeping …

beekeepers within fife contact … You didn’t call, you didn’t send flowers. I’m getting the message  🙁

honey supper heater … Seems a rather restricted diet.

combat woodpecker in hives … If it’s in the hives it’s too late.

2 frame bee nukeNuc surely? If you really meant nuke we have a problem. Requeen instead?

Two frame nucs

Two frame nucs …

building honey bee stuff … You’ve come to the right place, fill your boots.

what are measures and rules of the dettol? … A very good question. The Apiarist is a broad church. I cover an eclectic mix of topics. I’ve never knowingly discussed Dettol in any depth. I repeated the search and couldn’t find reference to this site in the first 10 pages or so of Google listings. However, this is the top three hits when searching for ‘apiarist dettol’, with an article on a talk I give tagged ‘Dettol’ being top of the pile. You live and learn.

steamerformeltingwax … Perhaps thefirstandbestplacetolookmightbehere

queen rearing hotel over winter … Great idea. I do some queen rearing and can thoroughly recommend staying in a hotel over winter, particularly one in Chile.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

green poly langstroth hive … We’re not colourist here, any colour hive is acceptable, even the rather loud Abelo ones 😎

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

many qeen dummy photo full size … Hmmm. I’m not even sure this is a beekeeping-related search … but it might be treasonable.

drifting advantage and disadvantage in apiculture … Disadvantages are covered here and here. The advantages are a very interesting point. For an individual drifting worker it might spell the difference between survival or not (if they can’t return to their original hive). However, what is the genetic selection for this process at the population level? Individual workers do not reproduce. I have been talking to a population geneticist friend to explore this in more detail and will post something in due course.

Drones and workers drift

Drones and workers drift

apiarist and free bees … I’ve written about this (and will again) but usually charge the going rate for nucs. Sorry.

i need entrance decoration with corex … I suspect this is not even a beekeeping search. I’m a big fan of Correx (which is the correct spelling), a trade name for a twin wall, extruded, fluted polypropylene sheet. I’ve used the stuff for roofs, landing boards, split boards and – though they’re not decorative – entrances.

cloacke bord qeeen rearing pdfs … Fabulus speling. Thank goodness for Google’s fuzzy string searching capability or this would never have found my post on Vince Cook’s Cloake board, a great way to generate good quality queen cells.

Cloake board queen rearing

Cloake board queen rearing

my nucs are lethargic and many are laying outside the brood box not moving … Not sounding good. I also receive quite a few direct emails asking for help or advice. It’s almost impossible to do this in a timely or informed manner … timely, as I’m not always here, and the emails often seem to expect an answer by return despite my day job. Informed, because it’s often impossible to diagnose a problem without seeing it. Interpretation depends upon how good the description is. For example … I assume it’s ‘bees’ that aren’t moving outside the brood box … that being the case, are they alive or dead? There’s a pretty fundamental difference and the interpretation of the problem might depend upon this difference.

And don’t get me started about mentoring by telephone  🙄

All change

Since this is the first post of the year it’s probably timely to introduce a few changes to the site. The Gallery is gone, probably for good. The site is already graphics-rich and it was a little-visited corner that occupied quite a bit of disk space.

I’ve managed to re-categorize all the posts from 2014-17 using no more than 2 or 3 keywords. These form the basis for new summary pages where lots of information on a range of topics is collated. Initially these will be a Practice page on beekeeping, er, practices … and a similarly logically-named Problems page. The original Varroa page has been subsumed into the latter and the DIY page forms part of a new page entitled Equipment. There’s an additional page in which I’ve lumped together some more discursive (and controversial?) articles on the Principles or ethos of beekeeping. All these pages are listed in the menu under the header image. The contents of these pages update automatically as new posts are added.

Behind the scenes I’ve installed some software to cache web pages which should make browsing slightly faster. Since my internet connection appears to be based upon a wet piece of string it’s difficult to determine whether this is working satisfactorily or not.

Finally, as a scientist, I’m used to liberally using footnotes 1 to provide additional, often non-essential, information about a topic. Previously these were all hard-coded. Inserting one meant the sequence also needed to be updated. Now I’m using some software wizardry to achieve the same thing 2. These should appear as pop-up ‘tooltips’, or can be selected directly to read if they’re more extensive. They are listed at the end of the page, each being followed by a link (that looks like the character on the return key of a keyboard) to take you to the location in the text. They should also be compatible with mobile browsers.

Contact me if any of these things don’t work properly …


Colophon

The reality is that none of the search terms above were actually ‘Found via Google’. The search engine giant usually hides search terms. They can be unearthed through Google Analytics, but life is simply too short to work out how people reach this site. The terms above all come from other – non-Google – searches which account for only 5% of all the search engine traffic coming to the site.

2017 in retrospect

The end of the year is a good time to look back at the highs and lows of the season. What worked … what didn’t work … what on earth happened to our weather in June?

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

June is an important month here in Fife. Early season colony buildup should be pretty much complete, most colonies will have had some sort of swarm control measures in late May, virgin queens may well be present in many hives, the OSR is over and colonies need to consolidate for the main summer flows.

But instead it just rained.

Rainfall in Fife was 225% the 40 year average, access to apiaries was problematic due to flooding and queens could only get out to mate if they were wearing ‘water wings‘.

Big mistake

Many colonies needed to be, or should have been fed, during June. Mine had reasonable levels of stores as I’d not taken much early season honey. I therefore chose not to feed them. In retrospect I think this was a big mistake.

Although not monitored carefully, I suspect brood rearing slowed, so reducing the colony size to effectively exploit the July/August flows. It was my worst summer honey crop in years.

Lesson one … If this happens next season I’ll continuously feed thin syrup to keep the queen laying strongly.

Doing the splits

Notwithstanding the incessant rain, swarm control – and the inevitable associated queen mating – went pretty well. I generally use splits of one form or another and most queens got out to mate, albeit a little slower than I’d have liked. If swarm control is needed for colonies in the bee shed we can’t do vertical splits (because of the way entrances are organised) and instead just take a nucleus colony away and let them rear a new queen.

Only ‘pretty well’ though because I suspect I lost a cast from a vertical split that went calamitously wrong. I’d left the queenless half far too strong and inadvertently also left multiple developing queen cells.

D’oh!

This wasn’t going to end well  🙁

I did manage to capture and hive another cast from the same colony, but the first virgin queen and well over half the workers were long gone.

So, lesson two (which I’ve been taught many times before 😥 ) is to be decisive when there are multiple queen cells in a split. Either knock them back appropriately (which I’ll explain next year) or split the box up into multiple nucs. Don’t dither. Don’t prevaricate and don’t – as I think I did this year – simply forget to check.

All the gear, some idea

I blatantly poached how to build foundationless frames with bamboo skewers from the internet. I claim zero originality here. It isn’t my idea. However, I’m pleased to say it was a great success. Simple wooden starter strips were also a roaring success. It’s very satisfying when you realise you don’t need to spend £1 per frame on foundation.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

I’ve used quite a few Abelo poly hives this season. They’re a strident colour – blue and yellow – but reasonably well made. Colonies checked this winter are doing well in them, with bees right up to the side walls on sub-zero days. This suggests to me that they are well insulated.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

There are some aspects of these hives I have yet to be fully convinced by; upper entrances, the crownboard, high condensation levels and a small Varroa tray. I’ll review them more fully when I’ve been using them for at least a full year.

Old invasives …

The bête noire of most beekeepers, the Varroa mite, has featured heavily throughout the year. In print, though thankfully not in my colonies. I’ve tried to emphasise the need to treat appropriately, using the right miticide at the right time. Since most approved (and even some unapproved 😉 ) miticides are all pretty effective, the timing of treatment is probably the most important point.

2016 temperature data and OA treatment ...

2016 temperature data and OA treatment …

In three recent posts I presented the importance of midwinter treatment, how to prepare the oxalic acid-containing miticide and how to administer it. These should probably be read in conjunction with an earlier article on when to treat, which I’ll come back to in a minute. Finally, as far as Varroa is concerned, I discussed potential ways to optimise the timing of the winter treatment by watching the weather. I suspect that most beekeepers treat too late in the winter.

If you have yet to treat this winter … get a move on!

… and new ones

The new invasive that got some coverage was, inevitably, the Asian hornet. Having first arrived in 2016 I think we’ll be subjected to annual incursions until it gets established here. Constant vigilance is going to be needed to help postpone what might be inevitable. Just because it is inevitable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and delay it’s permanent arrival.

Devon beekeepers got some first-hand experience of how vigilant you need to be to both spot and photograph Asian hornets in September. Martin Hocking has written about his experience in the Devon Beekeeper (pp172 and also in November’s Bee Craft)  which should be required reading for beekeepers, with a follow up article about his experience in December (see pp196). There’s an open meeting on the 20th of January at Harberton Parish Hall, TQ9 7SD where the threat posed by the Asian hornet – and how to mitigate it – will be discussed.

Although rarely mentioned this year, Small Hive Beetle now appears to be established in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. Data updated in late September and November indicates that positive wild colonies and sentinel nucleus colonies are still being found, indicating that attempts to eradicate the beetle have failed. Infested colony numbers are perhaps a bit lower than previous years, but since there’s no readily-available data on the level of surveillance, it’s not clear whether this shows that control is having an effect, or if people are just not looking as hard.

www.theapiarist.org

Posts have been made every Friday of the year, with a few additional ones when something important happened (Asian hornets or I was ‘advertising’ a Convention I was speaking at … OK, my talk wasn’t important, but the Welsh Beekeepers Convention was 😉 ).

Regular as clockwork ...

Regular as clockwork …

The Friday posts are intentional. It’s when most of us have time to read stuff. The regularity was not and, frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise I’ve achieved it. However, there it is. No promises it’ll continue like that. You can register to receive email notification of new posts in the right hand panel.

Visitor numbers to the site are markedly increased from last year. Page views per visit are down fractionally, but not significantly. It’s clear that more are finding the site as it becomes better indexed by the search engines, and as pages are referenced by other sites.

24 months on www.theapiarist.org ...

24 months on www.theapiarist.org …

My attempts at generating a presence on Facebook was an abject failure. I simply don’t have time to do anything other than automagically post updates from here on Facebook (as I do on Twitter, which I’m a bit more familiar and competent with … follow me on @The_Apiarist). Apologies if you tried to ‘Friend’ me (or whatever) on Facebook. I’ve cancelled all the email updates as I simply couldn’t keep up. Or, when I tried, I didn’t know how to! I belong to the pre-FB generation, or the one before that.

Beekeeping is international, with different problems – but many shared ones – globally. I’m grateful to the visitors from 161 different countries and the European Union 🙂 Less than 50% of the readers are from the UK, despite the UK-centric bias I inevitably exhibit (°C, colour, no mention of queen castles or slatted racks, precious little discussion of Langstroth hives etc.). Southern hemisphere beekeepers don’t even do things at the same time of the year, so many of the posts aren’t even topical for readers in Australia, New Zealand and South America. Whatever, I’m grateful people took the time to visit and read stuff.

And the winner is …

I don’t publish visitor numbers, but I do comment on the popularity of particular pages. For several years a post on my honey warming cabinet has been the most popular. It was originally posted ‘way back’ in 2014. Frankly, it was useful, but not particularly challenging or exciting.

But it’s all change this year. Aside from the homepage, the archive and blog pages, all of which people arrive at to to get the most recent posts, the honey warming cabinet post was a distant fourth in the 2017 rankings.

Above it were posts on vertical splits and making increase, feeding fondant and – particularly pleasingly and top this year – when to treat colonies with miticides against Varroa. I say particularly pleasingly as the When to treat? post is a serious article on an important subject, underpinned by scientific arguments. The timing of the late summer treatment is probably one of the most important events in influencing the health and overwintering success of the colony. This post was almost twice as popular as any other post this year which – because it originally appeared in early 2016 – suggests it is finally being widely cited and accessed by beekeepers.

When to treat?

When to treat? Finally getting read when it should be.

And what does the future offer?

Frankly, as I write this in mid-December with a streaming cold, a box of tissues and slathered in Vicks VapoRub (really, it’s not a pretty sight) I don’t know. I have two priorities at the moment; getting the new bee shed properly setup and (with my researcher hat and lab coat on)  starting studies of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus. Both will get coverage here.

Bee Shed 2 ... the windows still need some work.

Bee Shed 2 … the windows still need some work …

In terms of the website I’m acutely aware there’s no proper indexing or rational list of articles on particular subjects, perhaps other than Varroa. I hope to bring some order to the chaos, allowing me to not repeat myself, to develop some themes more fully and to not repeat myself 😉 . I also know I have a load of unwritten stuff on queen rearing.

Winter time is also DIY time … dabbling with wood, perspex, Correx and Elastoplasts. Something will surely result from this, in addition to the blood loss and bad language.

If there are things you’d particularly like to read drop me a note. I’m interested in the science underlying beekeeping and have little patience with some of the dogma and That’s the way we’ve always done it stories. I’ve already written about the importance of training and the responsibilities of beekeepers. I’ve got some more on these areas planned as I think they’re too often ignored by beekeepers in the UK.

With Best Wishes for 2018. May your colonies be docile, your supers unliftable, your queens well-mated and your swarms (again) in my bait hives 😉

Happy New Year


 

 

If Carlsberg did vaporisers …

… they’d make the Sublimox sublimator.

I wonder how many beekeepers have one of these on their wish list for Santa?

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

From being a bit of an imported oddity (I had to import mine from Icko Apiculture in France three years ago) they’re now becoming mainstream … over the last year or so they’ve been sold by an independent importer, then Abelo and – just this month – the ‘Big Daddy’ of UK beekeeping suppliers, E. M. Thorne (Rebecca at Thorne’s kindly asked if they could include links in their December newsletter to previous posts here on the Sublimox and vaporising Api-Bioxal).

The Sublimox is also now being discussed more widely on the online forums, with much of this discussion emphasising the price (they are expensive). Aside from this disadvantage, I think there are a number of significant advantages of this design of sublimator (vaporiser) which are worth emphasising.

The general principle of active and passive sublimators

Sublimators (vaporisers) are designed to heat oxalic acid (OA) crystals sufficiently that they sublimate i.e. go through a phase transition from a solid into a gas without an intervening liquid phase. As readers of this site should know, oxalic acid is highly effective against the Varroa mite – both by sublimation and trickling in solution, which has recently been covered in excruciating detail so won’t be elaborated on here.

Varrox

Varrox

Many sublimators (vaporisers) are passive. You add the OA to a pan, slide it into the hive entrance, apply a current to heat the pan, allow the OA to sublimate, withdraw the pan and start again. You usually need to cool the pan in water before addition of the next dose. This heat, rinse and repeat cycle takes time, but is very effective and the pan-type vaporisers are relatively inexpensive (£35-£100).

The Varrox vaporiser is one of the original and best known models, though there are any number of much less expensive copies sold by beekeeping suppliers and on eBay. Most require a 12V supply of some kind.

In contrast to these, the Sublimox is ‘active’, as is the US equivalent machine, the ProVap 110. In these the pan is pre-heated, the OA is ‘dropped’ into the pan in such a way that the vapour is generated in an enclosed space which it then escapes under pressure through a nozzle.

Probably the best sublimator in the world …

In terms of speed, convenience and ease of use I’d argue that the Sublimox is hard to beat.

Quick

Delivery of a single dose takes no more than 45 seconds from inserting the Sublimox nozzle into the hive. It’s appreciably faster than the pan-type passive sublimators. There’s a preliminary warming up period before use, as the machine reaches operating temperature. After that it’s simply treat, refill, treat, refill ad infinitum. The rate-limiting step is sealing the hive and refilling the small plastic ‘cartridge’ with OA.

For one person, a hive-a-minute is just about possible – if you have 10-20 closely spaced hives, sufficient entrance blocks and buy additional white plastic cartridges. But, to achieve this you’ll be rushing about like a mad thing and it’s not realistically achievable1.

But speed isn’t the major benefit.

Convenient

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser

It’s convenient because you can ‘squirt’ the gas through a small hole in hive. You don’t need to open the hive and so it works with any hive type or entrance. My favoured kewl floors cannot be used with a sublimator that needs to be pushed through the entrance. Instead, all my hives have a neat 6mm hole drilled through the sidewall of the floor which is usually plugged with a small foam bung or twist of grass2. Vapour quickly permeates throughout the hive, ensuring all surfaces are reached.

The only exception are the all-poly hives, such as the garishly coloured Abelo’s I’ve been using for work this season. The nozzle of the Sublimox gets hot and melts polystyrene (been there, done that 🙁 ). With poly hives I usually use a simple shallow eke with a Sublimox nozzle-sized hole in one side. In this case you do need to remove the roof and crownboard, add the eke, replace the roof (upside down), treat and then close up the hive.

Foam bung ...

Foam bung …

The alternative is to simply squirt the gas through the open entrance. This isn’t ideal as some of the gas will escape, potentially exposing the beekeeper and definitely not exposing the bees/mites. One way to avoid this loss of gas is to use a wooden block with a small hole through the middle held over the poly hive entrance.

It’s important to have a clear space into which the gas is ‘squirted’. If you don’t the OA tends to not permeate through the hive properly.

The Abelo hives have a hole in one face of the brood box. This is usually plugged. I think it’s intended as an upper entrance. I’ve yet to try poking the Sublimox nozzle through this hole to deliver the OA … this might not work as it may be too close to the frame, so impeding the spread of gas through the box. Time will tell.

Safety considerations

There’s an additional benefit of the way the Sublimox is used. Operator exposure to OA should be minimised. The gas isn’t generated until the machine is inserted and inverted and takes no more than ~45s to deliver. If the hive is sealed properly there’s very little exposure to the gas.

… but all this comes at a cost

The Sublimox is three-times the price of a Varrox vaporiserIs it worth it? That’s up to the purchaser to decide, based on the number of hives to be treated, the depth of their pockets, the perceived benefits of the speed, ease of use, convenience and safety etc.

Many will baulk at the cost. Some build their own. Others don’t bother vaporising, but solely dribble OA solution in midwinter. This is the cheapest and fastest way to treat colonies. I estimate it costs about 0.5p/hive to trickle treat if you buy OA in 25kg bags. Dribbling is probably even faster than using the Sublimox. However, dribbling is really only practical for broodless colonies – swarms and for midwinter use – and should only be done once per season. In contrast, repeated sublimation is tolerated well by colonies.

Would I buy another one?

Almost certainly.

Before you splash the cash

Generator

Generator …

Be aware … the Sublimox requires a 240V supply. One of my apiaries has mains power which is the best solution, but unlikely in the corner of a farmers field. You can use an inverter from a car battery which is fine if you can get your car close enough to the hives. Alternatively – and this is what I do – you can use a portable generator. I’ve got an 700W Impax one from Screwfix which works perfectly.

But that’s another £190  🙁

You’ll also need to periodically buy replacement sealing rings for the OA “cassette”. These wear out or perish rather fast. Icko sell them for a daft price, but they’re now available in the UK.

Single use ...

Single use …

You should also be aware that Api-Bioxal, the VMD-approved oxalic acid-containing miticide, has glucose in it which caramelises in the pan of the Sublimox (and other vaporisers) and is a bit of a nightmare to clean out properly. I’d go further and suggest that Api-Bioxal is unsuitable to use with a Sublimox. If the nozzle is blocked the gas has to escape and there could be inadvertent exposure of the operator.

Safety first

I’ve touched on safety above. However, just because OA vapour is generated for a very short and well defined time doesn’t make it safe. There are still exposure risks which must be taken seriously.

You’ll need PPE – personal protection equipment – to prevent exposure to the OA vapour when treating colonies. This includes eye protection and a suitable vapour mask. Don’t skimp on this and assume you’ll just stand downwind. If the hive is poorly sealed, swirling gusts of wind will expose you to vapour and it’s – at best – very, very unpleasant.

Entrance block

Entrance block …

Unlike passive vaporisers, the Sublimox generates a very large volume of gas immediately the OA is added. There’s no opportunity to ‘stand well back’ as the pan warms up as you can with the passive machines. You have to be holding the Sublimox to invert it and drop the OA into the pan. You’ll be bent over the hive and unable to avoid the swirling fog of acidic vapour if it escapes. To help minimise this seal the hive thoroughly. I use a full-width entrance block and tightly fitting Varroa tray. Even then, particularly on ageing cedar hives, there are all sorts of little gaps from which the OA vapour can be seen escaping.

Entrance block in use

Entrance block in use …

Finally, as if gassing yourself with an evil smelling acidic cloud of OA wasn’t enough, remember you’re using a 240V supply outside, probably on damp grass … or possibly even in the rain. Don’t get electrocuted. Make sure you use an RCD (residual current device) that’s been tested and you know works.

Take care.

Share the costs

At the time of writing the Sublimox costs over £300. Perhaps competition will force the price down a bit? When you consider that these machines are used relatively infrequently during the season it makes sense to consider purchasing them as an Association item (or with a group of friends), in the same way that some associations have extraction equipment available.

When compared to a reasonable extractor the Sublimox doesn’t seem so outrageously priced.

Of course, like an extractor, everyone needs it at about the same time of the season (at least in midwinter). However, unlike an extractor, it’s generally needed for a relatively short period, is easy to transport and easy clean after use. There should be no reason it couldn’t be shared by association members.

I appreciate that many associations don’t have shared equipment, or many beekeepers don’t belong to their local association. All I’m doing is suggesting a way in which a good quality and highly effective piece of equipment could be purchased so that many can benefit.

Whether you’ve got one of these on your list for Santa or not …

… Happy Christmas!


1 The rate-limiting step is probably having enough entrance blocks. If removed too soon you’ll lose lots of vaporised OA goodness. Leave it a good 5 minutes if at all possible, which is easily enough time to treat another 5 hives. See what I mean?

When treating a hive for the first time I’ve even drilled this hole through an occupied hive.

† Actually, this hole isn’t suitable. It opens onto the face (rather than end) of a frame, and the vapour is therefore restricting from spreading. Don’t bother.

‡ I’ve regularly treated colonies in the dark. Sometimes the only time I can get to the apiary is after work. The bees are all ‘at home’ but you can easily seal the hive up and treat them. Use a headtorch with a red bulb. Since bees can’t see red, any that escape won’t directly target your head and you can probably work safely without a veil.

Colophon

If Carlsberg did … is one of the most recognisable advertising campaigns of all time. Originally created in 1973 it has achieved near-universal recognition and remains in daily use, though predominantly these days as internet memes. The opening three words of the adverts were as recognisable as the closing seven … probably the best lager in the world.

There are any number of comedic If Carlsberg did ‘advertising’ campaigns, including some from Carlsberg itself … Probably the best poster in the world, featured the distinctive swirly underscore, colour scheme and font, together with a real tap dispensing lager installed in Londons Brick Lane.

If Carlsberg did ...

If Carlsberg did …

Carlsberg revamped the advertising campaign in 2015 (the poster above was part of this), over 40 years after it was first used. You can view these adverts on the Carlsberg website.

I’ve used a variant of the If Carlsberg did … phrase previously, when describing the large Dadant smoker. It’s still a great smoker.

Bee shed 2: the sequel

All good things must come to an end, though this particular one did sooner than I’d hoped.

Our research apiary – affectionately known as The Bee Shed – lies in the path of a recently announced new road development. Not close to, not within sight of, but actually underneath a proposed access road to the new Madras College site to the West of St. Andrews.

Under construction ...

Under construction (mid/late 2015) …

The timing stinks

There are actually two preferred access road routes to the new school, but the Council (who in their infinite wisdom drag everything out to the last possible minute before committing) won’t decide which will be used until about a month or so before development is expected to start. This is intended to be early in 2018 i.e. rather too close for comfort if we don’t want our research interrupted.

We’ve known about the possibility of the new road since June, but things never seem to move as fast if there’s not a deadline looming.

We therefore need to prepare a second research apiary, move all the bees across and then disassemble the original one … all within the next few weeks.

Time spent in reconnaissance …

… is seldom wasted. And we’ve spent quite a lot of time. We’ve considered a number of alternative sites, some better than others, but none truly ideal.

Given the choice we’d have selected a sheltered, East/South facing site, surrounded by mature open woodland, with water close by, protected from strong winds by the adjacent woodland or walling, with abundant local wildlife, early pollen and …

No, stop, wait!

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn (2016) …

That’s a description of the current site.

In fairness, there were some issues with the original apiary location. It was low lying and prone to minor flooding. Access was across a rickety set of scaffolding planks that threatened to pitch us into the burn when wet and slippery. Crossing the burn with the hivebarrow – particularly in the dark – required some courage (or stupidity). There was no power in the shed, it was quite remote and it was a bit on the small side.

There were some wonderful orchids though …

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid …

I suspect these will struggle to re-emerge through the tarmac of the new road 🙁

Bigger and better

We’ve had to compromise on the new location, but – in doing so – we’ve managed to correct some of the shortfalls of the original site.

We’ll now have much more space and better drainage. We’ve achieved the former simply by specifying a larger footprint, and the latter by building on an earth mound raised a few feet above the water table. We’ve invested in solar powered lighting systems and have excellent shelter from the cold Easterlies that sweep in off the North Sea.

It’s also better located for outreach activities and closer to the research labs.

The final plans include a 15m x 15m platform to house a new bee shed of 16′ x 8′. Once we’ve vacated the original shed (a tiddly 12′ x 8′) it will also be moved to the new apiary, giving us additional storage and colony space.

In total we should have capacity for about a dozen colonies under cover, with more outside if needed. I should have added earlier … the two primary goals of housing bees within a shed is to  provide greater protection, enabling both a slightly longer brood rearing season and allowing inspections and brood harvesting whatever the weather.

If we absolutely have to inspect/sample on a Monday morning during a downpour, we can. The beekeeper saunters over under an umbrella, dons his/her bee suit and does the work. The bees don’t react badly to inspections in inclement weather. They simply exit the shed via the windows and re-enter the hive by a short tunnel through the shed wall.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

Over the next few weeks I’ll document some of the developments as we start to prepare for the 2018 season.

Here’s what I prepared earlier

Here are a couple of photos of the apiary in the very early stages of preparation.

Dig and Dug build an apiary

Dig and Dug build an apiary

The compacted grit base and shed foundations are now complete, with the shed and the fencing due shortly … and then it’s my turn to have a dabble preparing the shed for the bees, installing the windows and entrances and the solar power lighting system.

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

More of the same.

Shed foundations

Shed foundations

And then there’s the small task of moving the bees in …


This quote (Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted) is sometimes attributed to the talented and successful German Field Marshal of World War Two, Erwin Rommel. However, there are numerous other proposed sources … Sir MacPherson (Mac) Robertson (1860 – 1945), Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley The 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852) or Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC) in The Art of War. Take your pick. The meaning is self-evident … when planning something it’s worth considering all the possibilities, in particular the environment.

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Weather to treat

Not Whether to treat? … to which the answer is yes. Instead, a poor pun on the choice of how I use temperature as an indication of when to treat colonies in midwinter …

Midwinter OA-based treatments

Oxalic acid-based treatments for midwinter Varroa control are most effective when colonies are broodless. This is because oxalic acid (OA) treatments only kill phoretic mites and are ineffective against mites in sealed cells. They are therefore ideal for use on swarms, packages and broodless colonies in midwinter.

These OA treatments include Api-Bioxal, the VMD-approved treatment, and unmodified oxalic acid, it’s active ingredient. The importance of midwinter treatments, the preparation of the OA solution and how to trickle treat have recently been covered. I’ve previously discussed sublimation and will do so again in a longer article in the future.

The beekeepers winter dilemma

How can you tell whether your colonies are broodless in midwinter?

On a warm, sunny, Spring afternoon this takes just a couple of minutes … remove the roof, crack off the crownboard, gently lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame, look carefully at the mass of bees covering the top bars, aim for about the middle and gently prise apart those two frames, lift out a frame from one side of the ‘gap’ and – Hey presto – brood.

Just writing that in early December makes me hanker for much warmer days …

Memories of midseason

Memories of midseason

Actually, you can do exactly the same in midwinter. There are videos on the internet showing an experienced and (in)famous Finnish beekeeper opening his colonies at -10ºC.

I’ve opened and briefly inspected colonies at low temperatures (though not sub-zero). The bees are usually pretty torpid, reluctant to fly – or simply too cold to – and you can be in and out in just a minute or so. Bees cope pretty well with this. It undoubtedly disturbs them a bit and it breaks the propolis seal on the crownboard, but – done carefully and quickly – it’s the only foolproof way to determine whether a colony is broodless in midwinter.

But what if they’ve got brood and it’s therefore not the optimal time to treat? Do you go back and repeat the entire process in 1-2 weeks? What if it’s snowing next time, or there’s a howling gale blowing?

An alternative approach is needed.

The annual brood rearing cycle

As the colony moves from summer to autumn the egg laying rate of the queen drops. It goes on dropping, although not necessarily smoothly, as the days shorten further, the temperature drops and the sources of pollen and nectar disappear. If the queen stops laying altogether then the colony will become broodless about 21 days later.

At some point, perhaps early in the New Year, the queen starts laying again. Slowly at first, but at increasing levels as the season starts. Once foraging starts in earnest the egg laying rate increases markedly and peaks sometime in June.

The precise timing of all these changes cannot be predicted. It’s likely to be dependent on a range of factors – nectar and pollen availability, the strain of bee, day length (and whether it’s increasing or decreasing) and temperature.

Of these, temperature probably has the greatest influence.

Probablyß.

Generalised annual brood and worker numbers ...

Generalised annual brood and worker numbers …

Here’s a quick’n’dirty graph put together with BEEHAVE showing a generalised annual cycle of total brood (blue) and adult bee (red) numbers. Under the conditions in this model the colony is broodless for ~30 days at the end if the year.

Temperate(ure)

Part of the problem with being definitive about the annual brood cycle is the temperature variation with latitude. Temperate regions stretch – in Europe – from Northern Finland to Southern Spain. Bees are kept throughout this range, but obviously experience wildly different climates.

And then there’s the year to year variation.

So if you can’t predict when the colony is going to be broodless, perhaps you can observe the weather – and in particular the temperature – and make an educated guess.

Watch the weather

Over the last few years I’ve applied my midwinter treatment soon (<6 days) after the end of the first extended cold period of the season. This is generally earlier than most beekeepers, who often treat between Christmas and New Year, or early in January.

So, how do we reasonably accurately monitor the weather for a suitable time to treat?

Ho ho ho

Ho ho ho

Most of us live in centrally-heated splendour, protected from the day-to-variation of temperature by heated car seats, air conditioning, hot water bottles, Thinsulate and wood-burning stoves. Do you know what the temperature was today? Rather than trust the wildly-variable (in accuracy) national weather reports for the actual temperature near my apiaries, I instead use very much more local data from Weather Underground.

There are hundreds of ‘amateur’ weather stations across the country that upload data to wunderground.com. Most of these provide current and historic data, including temperature (max, min and average). Here’s one for Auchtermuchty in Fife (on wunderground.com) and directly from the weather station.

Once the weather cools I keep an eye on the average temperature over an extended period of a fortnight or so. If it remains low I wait a bit more … but I then treat as soon as practical after it warms up to 8-10°C or so.

The proof of the pudding

Here’s a graph of the temperature data for 2016§. As indicated on the graph, I treated colonies on the 7th of December.

2016 temperature data and OA treatment ...

2016 temperature data and OA treatment …

I didn’t open my colonies, but others opened on the same day nearby were all broodless. The 7th was chosen as it was the first warm (relatively!) day after a 19 day window in which the average temperature had barely climbed above 5°C.

These treated colonies went into the New Year with vanishingly low Varroa levels.

And again …

This year appears to be repeating a very similar pattern. We’ve had frosts most nights since the 10th of November. It started to warm up significantly in early December as storm Caroline bore down on Scotland and I treated most of my colonies on the 6th 

… by the light of a head torch, in light rain and strengthening wing at 7pm after work.

No, I didn’t open any of the hives to check if they were broodless  😉

It was over 11°C in the apiary when I treated, the barometer was plummeting and the forecast was for near-zero temperatures within 24 hours and remaining that way for another 10 days.

Some of my hives have perspex crownboards. These allow me to check both the state of the colony and if the vapour from my Sublimox has permeated to every corner of the hive. All the colonies were very loosely clustered, with a few bees even wandering out briefly onto the landing board in the dark as I bumbled around preparing things.

The Varroa trays will now be checked in a week or so to work out the mite infestation levels. In the meantime, I can start planning for the coming season knowing I’ve done the best I can to reduce virus levels in the colonies, so giving them a good start to the year.

A Hi tech solution?

Colonies rearing brood maintain a higher, and stable, broodnest temperature (32-35°C) than colonies without brood. It is therefore possible to determine whether a colony has brood by monitoring the temperature directly, rather than trying to infer it from the ambient temperature.

Brood rearing starts ...

Brood rearing starts …

Arnia make hive monitors that allow this sort of thing to be measured. It would be interesting to relate the brood temperature to the ambient temperature (described above) to determine how accurate or otherwise simply ‘watching the weather’ is. Of course … what you’d really want to do is monitor when brood rearing stops and treat soon after that.

Stop press

I treated colonies in our research apiary the following day – the 7th – with dribbled Api-Bioxal. The temperature had dropped almost 7°C since the previous evening and colonies were again beginning to cluster tightly. Under these conditions I’m never confident that the OA vapour penetrates fully, so prefer to trickle treat.

I briefly checked one strong colony in a poly hive for brood.

It was broodless, as I’d hoped  🙂

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee all the others are also broodless, but it does give me some confidence that I’d chosen the correct weather to treat.


† This article, like most on this site, discuss beekeeping issues relevant to temperate climates. It’s important to make this clear now as most of what follows is irrelevant to readers from warmer regions.

∞ Even if there is brood in midwinter, it’s going to be in pretty small amounts. The rate at which this brood emerges is going to be low. The chances of determining what’s going in the colony by ‘reading the tea leaves’ from the debris falling through the mesh floor of the hive is therefore not great. It would probably also require repeated visits to the apiary.

ß This needs qualifying … in midseason, when the temperature varies but it’s not generally cold, the nectar flow is probably the rate-limiting step for brood rearing. The June gap is regularly associated with the queen shutting up shop for a while. However, in late autumn and early winter I’m sure the plummeting temperatures is a major influence on egg laying by the queen.

‡ National … Ha! Most are only national if you live within the M25. Anywhere else and you’re usually much better off accessing some data from closer to home. It’s worth noting that the sort of ‘amateur’ weather stations I discuss do vary in data quality. For example, they’re a bit dodgy recording temperatures in full sun (they tend to over-read). However, if you find a local one, check the temperature in comparison to a thermometer in your apiary, you’ll find it’s a useful way to monitor what might be happening in the hives.

§ I don’t routinely generate these graphs – I have a life (!) – but did specifically to illustrate this post. It’s sufficient to simply monitor the average temperature.

Colophon

Whether the weather be fine
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.

Anonymous

 

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Tamper tantrums

DIY tamper label

DIY tamper label

I’ve discussed labelling jars of honey previously. In addition to a legally acceptable label, any honey sold via a third party should probably have a tamper-proof seal. More correctly, these should be called tamper-evident seals as they don’t stop anyone tampering with the jar. These usually take the form of an adhesive strip that connects the lid to one side of the jar, although there are other styles. Some of the shops I sell through insist on tamper-evident seals, for understandable reasons.

DIY isn’t always best

I’ve made my own tamper-evident seals using my trusty Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. This simple thermal printer has two print heads. One prints individual labels and the other prints to tape. You can purchase thin, clear adhesive Dymo tape which makes quite good tamper-evident seals. It can be printed with a website address or other information in black ink.

However, I’ve standardised on square jars with black lids and the black text on the clear Dymo label was therefore unreadable in places. In addition, the tape is quite expensive (about £11 for 7 metres), increasing the ‘packaging’ costs of my honey. Finally, the strip that must be removed from the back of the tape was infuriatingly fiddly (hence tamper tantrums), so slowing the labelling process. Perhaps I need glasses?

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal …

Clearly better

Instead of persevering with a DIY solution I now purchase rolls of 1000 clear tamper-evident labels from C. Wynne Jones for about £27. These are easy to apply as long as you develop a system to keep fingerprints off the underside of the label. They adhere well and are very unobtrusive.

Importantly, any attempt to remove the jar lid stretches the tamper-evident label destructively, making it very obvious that the jar has been, er, tampered with.

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

When the jar is finally opened, the first thing that happens is the tamper-evident seal is destroyed. This isn’t too worrying since they cost less than 3p.

Finally, if you want to support a good cause and use tamper-evident seals consider purchasing them from the charity Bees for Development. These are also available from Thorne’s who developed the scheme. With these, 10p from each jar sold goes to support their work promoting sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty and to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.”


† At this price the Dymo tape costs quite a bit more than personalised tamper-evident labels from Thorne’s. These are are available in a wide range of colours and styles.

 

Principles and practice

There’s a high level of ‘churn’ amongst new beekeepers. Beekeeping is relatively easy and inexpensive to start. The principles of beekeeping appear straightforward. But large numbers of beginners give up after a season or two.

Here I argue that the colonies and hives some of these beginners abandon pose a threat to other beekeepers, sometimes for years …

A better appreciation of the commitment required to successfully practice the principles of beekeeping might increase the success rates of beginners, though it might also dissuade some from starting in the first place.

Save the bees, save humanity

Supermarket bees

Supermarket bees …

Bees are popular. You only need to visit the supermarket, spend time on the High Street or browse the web, to find bees or pollinators mentioned. The plight of the honey bee is extensively documented in the press. In places some of these references are little more than thinly-veiled adverts … there are any number of beers or ales that now include ‘local honey’ to support bees and beekeeping.

So, public awareness is high.

A good thing

In some ways this is a good thing. The public are aware that, for a variety of reasons, our honey bees (and other pollinators, but I’m going to restrict myself to honey bees for the remainder of this post) are facing real problems. Habitat destruction, monoculture, disease, farming practices, global warming, mobile phone masts, parasites, imports and – the current favourite – neonicotinoids, are all/solely (delete as appropriate) to blame for the problems faced by our cute little bees.

Monoculture ... beelicious ...

Monoculture … beelicious …

It’s a good thing because you might get to sell more local honey which, as a consequence, means you’ll look after your bees carefully and manage them to make more honey next year. It’s a good thing – and I’ll declare a vested interest here – because the Government is encouraged to spend money on research to discover what the real threats to honey bees are (hint, it’s probably not mobile phone masts). This money will also help develop ways to mitigate these threats in due course.

There are a lots of other reasons why it’s a good thing. People are designing bee-friendly gardens, they’re planting wild-flower meadows, they’re reducing pesticide usage and favouring biological control or other pest management techniques. Farmers are being encouraged to leave wide field margins or build beetle banks … and some might even be doing this.

Too much of a good thing?

Some people are so concerned about the plight of the honey bee they decide to do the obvious thing and buy a hive and bees for the bottom of their garden. Obvious, because they’ve increased the number of hives and they’ll be getting lots of delicious honey at the end of the summer.

Some attend a winter ‘start beekeeping’ course (or fully intend to next year, once they’ve kept bees for the current season). Some think they’ll be OK with generous offer of telephone support from the person who sold them a midsummer nuc.

Others do this without any training, without any advice and without anyone to mentor them. 

What could possibly go wrong?

These new beekeepers are certainly well-intentioned. They fully intend to help bees. They really think they’re going to help. They love the idea of their own local honey.

Unfortunately, although many might think they appreciate the basic principles of keeping bees, they know very little about the practice of beekeeping.

Principles

Actually, the principles of beekeeping are a little more complicated than buying a hive, dumping a nuc into it and harvesting the honey at the end of the season.

The bees need to be fed when there’s a dearth of nectar, or in preparation for winter. They need to be protected from pests and diseases. They need space to expand. They need to be monitored in case they’re thinking of swarming. If they are, action is needed. And all this needs to be regularly and repeatedly checked throughout the Spring and Summer.

In short, they need to be properly managed. This management is the practice of successful beekeeping.

Without proper management I’d argue that one of the biggest threats to bees and beekeeping is the unmanaged colony (or hive) lurking in the corner of a field.

Practice

It’s easy to overgeneralise here. The following paragraphs are really describing beekeepers in their first few seasons. Experienced beekeepers can modify their management practices to one that suits their bees, environment, climate and strategy. Bear with me.

Inspections need to start before colonies build up too strongly in the Spring. Queens should ideally be found and marked (and clipped in my view, but some prefer not to do this). Inspections continue at 7 day intervals until the swarming season is well and truly over.

Not 11 day intervals … not when “the weather is better than today”, not when “I get back from the  fortnight in Crete”, not when “I can be bothered” … and certainly not only when “the neighbour is angry about the swarm clustered on their garden swing”.

Inspections have to be conducted thoroughly and with a purpose. It’s not a cursory glance in the top of the box. There’s a reason you’re doing it, so do it well.

Inspections must be done even if it’s 32°C in the shade and you’re melting in your beesuit, when the bees are stroppy as the OSR has just gone over and there’s no nectar coming in, when the weather is (again) miserable and all 50,000 will be ‘at home’ (and possibly tetchy as well) and even if you think “surely they’ll be OK for another day or two?”.

They probably won’t.

Hard labour

Beekeeping is hard work. If you’re lucky and the supers are bulging full it can be backbreaking.

You have to work reasonably fast and carefully. Manage only one of these two and, for different reasons, inspections can become tiresome.

You will get stung, though not often if you’re fast and careful and if you have well-tempered bees.

It can be hot as hell in summer and you can get wet, miserable and cold at any time of the season.

Uh oh ... swarming ...

Uh oh … swarming …

It’s not only physically hard, it is also mentally hard. Not like quantum physics, but it still requires quite a bit of thought. Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Using a combination of observation, experience and knowledge (and perhaps a little inspired guesswork) you need to determine what’s going on in a forty litre box containing over 50,000 bees. Is there disease present? Is it one you can do anything about? Is it notifiable? Is the queen present and laying well? Is the colony thinking of swarming (hint, a dozen sealed cells is usually an indication the colony has swarmed, not that it’s thinking of swarming 😉 ). Do they have enough stores? Do they need more space?

You need to be prepared for disappointment (and have a contingency plan). Despite your best efforts the colony may swarm. An extended period of lousy summer weather prevents the new queen from getting mated properly. The colony dwindles, is too weak to defend itself and is robbed out by another colony. Any number of things can go wrong.

Bees are managed, not domesticated.

That’s the reality of beekeeping. That’s the practice that underlies the principle of just dumping a nuc of bees in a box in late April and harvesting pound after pound of golden honey in early September.

If only it were that simple!

Beeless “beekeepers”

I regularly meet people who ‘once kept bees’. I’m sure you do to. Further discussion often shows that they certainly once had bees, but that they failed to keep them.

The colony died, was robbed out, repeatedly swarmed, absconded or – much more frequently – these beekeephaders simply lost interest.

Often they aren’t actually sure what happened to the colony. Have you ever asked them?

Their initial enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the first couple of inspections. The colony was getting much bigger, much faster than their experience made them comfortable with. They got a bit frightened but wouldn’t actually admit that. They missed an inspection (or two) as they were in Crete for the family holiday. The colony swarmed. They’d read somewhere that the colony shouldn’t be disturbed for a month, so they didn’t. They remembered again three months later but were then too late for the autumn Varroa treatment. Have you got any fondant to spare? They’ll have another go next year.

Definitely.

It’s not unusual for these hives to be simply abandoned. You find them in the corners of fields or tucked up against the hedge in a large sprawling garden.

Out of sight and out of mind.

Forgotten, but not gone

Forgotten, but not gone …

The gift that keeps on giving

Sometimes the colony limps on for a season or two. More often though it expires in the winter. The hive may then be repopulated the following year by a swarm. They flourish, or more likely perish and are repopulated again. Even if mice move in for winter and wax moth trashes the comb they still attract swarms.

duunnn dunnn ...

duunnn dunnn …

There’s a dozen or more hives like this on private land I know of. Some local beekeepers visit every year or so to collect any swarms that have moved in. I can’t imagine the state of the comb … or the colonies they collect.

But (queue Jaws music … duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn) these abandoned and unmanaged hives mainly provide a great opportunity for Varroa to flourish. Together with both the foul broods, Nosema and goodness knows what else.

The abandoned hives effectively act as bait hives, attracting swarms which become established feral colonies. Most will eventually be decimated by Varroa and its viral payload, but many will chuck out a swarm or two first, or drones that drift from colony to colony. Some will get robbed out as they collapse – perhaps by one of your strong colonies – leading to a huge infestation with phoretic mites carried by the returning robbers.

They’re like a 40 litre cedar version of Typhoid Mary.


† And my extensive market research suggests they are very delicious too 😉

‡ After all, there’s no time like the present to start and the sooner you buy and populate that lovely cedar hive, the faster honey bee colonies numbers will increase. But they will definitely attend the beekeeping course next winter. Absolutely!

Telephone support. Really?! Have you ever tried to give telephone advice to a new beekeeper who’s standing by an open hive, mobile clamped to their ear, desperately looking for eggs, or deciding whether the queen cells are capped or uncapped? I’ve tried … don’t bother. Grab the beesuit and get to the apiary 😉

There are others I know of and have access to. The entrances to these have miraculously become stuffed tight with grass, so preventing their repopulation. How did that happen? 😉

A poor analogy, but it makes the point. Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was an Irish immigrant  New York cook in the early part of the 20th Century. She was also an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, a bacterial infection. During the period 1900-07 she infected at least 51 people, three of whom died. Investigative epidemiology traced a series of typhoid fever outbreaks to places where Mary Mallon worked. She was named Typhoid Mary in a 1908 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon refused to accept that she was infected, was forcibly incarcerated (quarantined) twice and eventually died after three decades of isolation. The analogy is poor because Mary Mallon appeared in good health, whereas these abandoned hives (and the bees they contain) are often pretty skanky. However, the term “like Typhoid Mary” is often used to indicate a source of repeated infection … which is spot on.

 

 

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Small, but perfectly formed

We’re in the hiatus between the end of the beekeeping season and the start of the beginning of the planning for the preparation for the next. Or, I am.

Of course, if you’re reading this from Australia (G’day … the 5th largest readership globally) or Chile (Hola … 62nd in the list) then things are probably just getting really busy.

Inevitably things here are going to be a bit quiet for a few months. Have patience.

Getting ready for winter

Here in the Northern hemisphere, at a latitude of about 56°N, the nights are rapidly getting longer and the temperature is tumbling. We’ve had several sharp frosts already. I checked my bees yesterday through the perspex crownboards – where present – and most were pretty tightly huddled together. In the very warmest part of the day there were a few flying in the weak sunshine, but the majority of colonies were quiet.

Since many of the most recent posts have been rather long (and I’m pressed for time with work commitments) I’m going to restrict myself to a few brief comments about this tidy – and tiny – little hive tool from Thorne’s.

Pocket hive tool

Pocket hive tool

One of the final tasks of the year is to slice off the brace comb built in places along the tops of the frames while feeding colonies. I only use fondant, usually adding 12.5 kg to start with and then a further few kilograms if I think the hive is a bit light. All this fits nicely under one of my inverted, insulated perspex crownboards. However, as the fondant it taken down and stored, the bees tend to build little pinnacles of comb under or around the plastic bag.

Before closing the colony up for the season all these bits of brace comb need to be tidied away. I simply run a sharp hive tool along the top bars of the frames, remove the wax and – eventually – melt it down in my steam wax extractor. If you leave the wax in place you can’t put the crownboard back the right way up … or, when you do, you risk crushing bees.

Bargains in the sales

In the Thorne’s summer sales this year I bought the usual range of stuff I have almost no use for, together with half a dozen of the cheapo copies of their claw hive tool to replace those I’ve lost or lent during the year.

In addition I bought a couple of their ‘pocket hive tools’ (shown above) for a quid each.

These are small and neat, have a simple frame lifter at one end and a very good, sharp, chisel tip at the other. They are made of stainless steel. They fit neatly into the palm of the hand, don’t project too far and yet are enough to provide the leverage to separate all but the most stubbornly propolised frames.

For tidying up the top bars of my hives before closing them up for year this little hive tool was just the job.

‘Pocket hive tool’ is a bit of a misnomer though. It’s certainly small enough to fit into your beesuit pocket, but just about sharp enough it won’t be staying there long. Any serious pressure, for example as you get back into the car/van/truck risks either a nasty injury ( 😯 ) or it will eventually escape through a neatly sliced-through seam.

It might be better to keep it in your bee bag, or – as I do with other hive tools – store it in a bucket of soda in the apiary.


Colophon

The phrase small, but perfectly formed is at least 200 years old. Google Books first lists it in the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of 1779 (though in those days they used a medial or long ‘s’ so the title was the Gentleman’s Magazine and Hiſtorical Chronicle) where it appears in an article by Mr Rack describing (or deſcribing) a new found aquatic animal. Whether ‘small, but perfectly formed‘ is now an idiom or a cliche is unclear. The usually excellent Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2014) defines the idiom as meaning “something noticeably small but compensating for this by a perfection of quality”. Their first reference to the phrase occurs in a letter written in October 1914 by Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, later his wife, and quoted in Artemis Cooper’s Durable Fire (1983): ‘Your two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar’. The expression was probably not original to Cooper but drawn from the fashionable talk of the period. The usage is often tongue-in-cheek or journalistically formulaic for anything small … which is exactly how I’ve used the term in the title of this post.

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Talk the talk

With the practical season now over we’re entering the period of regular winter beekeeping talks and weekend conventions. For five or six months the closest many of us will get to bees is a draughty church hall with a cup of tea at the end.

And a chocolate digestive biscuit if the Association Secretary has managed to get everyone to pay their subs.

What? No chocolate?

What? No chocolate?

Listening

I enjoy these events. There’s a healthy, competitive camaraderie to the conversations before and after the talk …

How was your season?

80lb? Per colony? Or in total?

Didn’t lose a swarm all season!

… and so on. The old-timers smile knowingly and keep quiet about the best sites, the ‘newbees’ enthusiastically recount the ups and downs of their first season and those on the beginners course this winter simply try and work out what the heck a ‘Demaree’ is.

During the talk the lights are dimmed. We all peer through the gloom at a slightly skewwiff image projected onto the cream-painted wall which has a picture hook irritatingly visible just left of centre.

The old boy in the fifth row falls asleep and starts snoring gently.

Forty-five to fifty minutes flies by, the lights come up and there’s an opportunity for questions. By this time everyone is gasping for a cuppa or the loo, or both, so appreciation is shown “in the usual manner” and the formal part of the evening draws to a close.

Drinking

Tea is brewed, biscuits are scoffed. Now is the time to ask the question you wish you’d asked at the end of the talk – either of the speaker or of the more experienced ‘beek’ (and in my experience there are always more experienced beekeepers at these things) sitting next to you.

Friendships are re-established, new contacts are made, recipes are exchanged and tips and tricks are offered.

The audience breaks up into little groups discussing honey or queen rearing or the upcoming sale at Maisies. People drift away. The Secretary scurries round trying to get the usual suspects to pay the subs that have been due since last January (which is why there weren’t any chocolate digestives). Cups are washed, the library is packed away and the hall locked up.

But it’s not over yet … twos and threes loiter in the car park where the real gossiping occurs. Unless it’s snowing. Who’s been buying in imported colonies or queens for selling on as “local”? How many times has ‘Fred’ recycled that winning jar of clover honey in the show? Which farmers will be growing borage next year?

Ah! That's better

Ah! That’s better

Talking

I enjoy these as well. I usually end up getting invites to present at just about the same number of talks I manage to attend at my own associations each winter. Some are round the corner or pretty local, others are at the other end of the country. I was recently excellently hosted by the Devon BKA (~500 miles away) and presented at a meeting in Chillán (~7500 miles away) of Chilean beekeepers in March.

With the exception of these long-distance trips the process is pretty similar. The satnav is programmed with the venue details. The bag is checked for the laptop and every possible connector that might be needed. A spare copy of the presentation is carried on a memory stick ‘just in case’. The car is loaded with any additional stuff used in the presentation (nothing for a science talk, but lots for talks on practical beekeeping).

I set off later than intended but earlier than needed. There’s almost nothing worse than turning up late. I find the venue, park nearby in the dark, locate the draughty church hall and the Secretary lurking in wait for early arrivers (who haven’t paid their subs yet).

The laptop is set up, the projector checked and the screen/image is levelled as the audience dribbles in. Old friends say hello. The lights are dimmed and we’re off!

The reflection from the screen casts an eerie light across the audience. Faces in the front couple of rows are clear and bright. Those further back are more like a grainy black and white image. Expressions are more difficult to see. Are they still following this? Am I going too fast? Too slow?

Laughing

Oops

Oops …

I chuck in a joke or anecdote to liven things up. That’s better. Or not. My jokes aren’t good.

A particularly pale slide casts a brighter reflection deeper into the crepuscular gloom at the back of the hall.

The old boy in the fifth row who has been gently snoring for the last 15 minutes can now be heard and seen.

I gallop towards the end, thanking the organisers, my research team, those who gave us the money to do the work and the beekeeping associations we’re privileged to be working with.

Mild applause … someone nips out to turn the urn on.

Questions

These are by far and away the best bit. As a speaker it’s how I judge how successful I was at getting the message across.

Questions range from simple and straightforward to long, rambling and exquisitely complicated.

All are welcome.

Not all can be answered.

Simple questions about things I’ve covered, albeit quickly or as a peripheral point, are easy to answer and I make a mental note to deal with the subject better in the future (or avoid it for clarity).

Difficult questions about things I’ve covered may require a longer answer, more thought or a cup of tea. Inevitably, some topics are outside the experience or interest of most of the audience. A detailed explanation of molecular biology (science) or long-winded discussion of grafting tools (queen rearing) needs to be postponed …

Gasping

Gasping …

Let’s discuss that over a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive” … the latter said hopefully.

Questions about things unrelated to my talk are not unusual. Long, rambling and exquisitely convoluted questions about a totally different topic are sometimes asked. There’s a direct relationship between the number of people wanting to ask questions and the length, ramblingness, and distance off-topic of these types of questions.

I usually hope the Association Secretary or Chair steps in at this stage and announces that tea is ready.

Experience

As a scientist I’m used to talking at conferences where the audience ranges from undergraduate students to internationally-renowned Emeritus Professors. As a beekeeper I’m well aware that the audience at Association events may include the full spectrum of experience and abilities … from those on the winter “Introduction to Beekeeping Course” to some who earn a living beekeeping.

I’m also well aware that the old boy in the fifth row who gently snored through my entire talk is probably just knackered having spent whole the day extracting 500 lb of heather honey.

Which is almost, to the ounce, 500 lb more than I got 😉

All he came for was a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit.

The end

I pack up the cables and the laptop, say my goodbyes, weave my way through the little groups in the car park gossiping about the price of Api-Bioxal or where to buy cheap fondant. I finally locate my car, plug in the satnav, turn up the radio (it’s late and I’ve got a three hour journey ahead) and wend my way home.

By midnight I’m wishing I’d had one less cup of tea and one more chocolate digestive.

Homeward bound ...

Homeward bound …


† I’ll deal with Conventions some other time. These are increasingly popular, often draw big, knowledgeable, audiences and usually have the added distraction of the trade stands.

‡ I’m well aware not all of these talks are held in draughty church halls. I’ve spoken in draughty village halls, draughty sports halls and draughty community centres. I’ve also spoken in some great venues, with excellent AV facilities, comfortable chairs (particularly in the fifth row), really good tea and coffee and some spectacularly tasty home-made cakes (thank you Arran Bee Group!). Whatever the venue, as long as we manage to get the laptop to talk to the projector – and even if we don’t – it’s great to meet enthusiastic beekeepers wanting to ‘talk bees’ on a cold winter night.

Colophon

Someone who can ‘talk the talk‘ speaks convincingly on a specific subject, showing apparent mastery of its jargon and nuances. You often hear it used in conjunction with the phrase ‘walk the walk‘ e.g. He can talk the walk but can he walk the walk?

Walk the walk essentially means to back up the talk with actions. It’s related to expressions like ‘action speaks louder than words’, ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘practice what you preach’. If you can’t ‘walk the walk’ then it’s simply empty bragging … in the UK the phrase ‘all mouth and no trousers’ is another way to say this, though it perhaps has rather sexist overtones.

 

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