Scouting for girls

A swarm of bees is a wonderful sight … if it’s arriving in your bait hive. It’s still dramatic, but perhaps slightly less wonderful, if it’s disappearing over the fence from your apiary 😉

Although some will disagree, I think beekeepers have a responsibility to both control swarming of their own stock, and capture – or attract – swarms lost by others. Although perhaps incomprehensible to us, some don’t share our passion for bees. Many are frightened and a large swarm is an intimidating sight for the melissophobic.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Aside from frightening people, if they move into the church tower or an old hollow tree, they’re likely to develop high levels of Varroa and the pathogenic viruses the mite transmits. As a consequence, they can act as a source of disease to bees in local apiaries, until they’re killed off in the winter. Which they almost certainly will be.

I therefore always put out bait hives in late Spring, well ahead of the expected start of the swarming season (which often coincides with the oil seed rape finishing). I’ve described the basics of bait hives previously – a National-sized, bee-smelling box containing one frame of old, dark comb and half a dozen foundationless frames. I often use stacked supers from the, otherwise-awful, Paradise poly hives for this purpose.

Dyb dyb dyb

One of the greats sights of the swarming season is the appearance of the first scout bees at the bait hive. First one or two, then a dozen and, within hours or days, hundreds. They check out the entrance and the inside the bait hive. They fly all around the perimeter. They’re unaggressive and you can get up close to watch them at work. If you listen carefully you can hear them pinging into the sidewalls and floor of the bait hive as they move about inside.

They actually probably measure the volume by a combination of walking around the inner walls and determining the mean free path length – the average length of all straight lines from wall-to-wall in the hive – in short flights. For an interesting and easily readable discussion of the physics behind this I recommend the short paper by Nigel Franks and Anna Dornhaus (PDF) How might individual honeybees measure massive volumes?

In my view, this alone is a good reason to use foundationless frames in a bait hive.

Scouts often arrive early at the bait hive and leave late. Their numbers will fluctuate with weather and temperature – they’ll disappear altogether in the rain, but reappear in force once a shower has passed.

Scouting around

This short video was taken about 9am, two or three days before a large prime swarm occupied the bait hive. The first scout bees I’d seen had been almost two weeks previously. By midday there were hundreds of bees checking the hive.

However, if you look closely, their behaviour is distinctively different from a colony ‘in residence’. They’re much more hesitant in entering the hive and they tend to check the immediate environment much more closely. In contrast, foragers returning to a colony don’t bother doing a couple of laps of the hive … they approach directly and enter with minimal delay.

Seeley’s swarms

The definitive guide to how scout bees choose suitable locations and then ‘persuade’ the swarm to relocate is Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seeley. This is an outstanding book, beautifully written and illustrated.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Swarming is a two-stage process. The queen and flying bees leave the hive and settle nearby – on a branch, a fence post or (irritatingly) the top of a nearby conifer – creating the classic ‘beard-shaped’ cluster of bees. If you’re lucky with your timing and their location you can knock these into a box and, voila, you have a new colony.

Tom Seeley describes his own studies (based on the equally elegant work of Martin Lindauer in the 1950’s) that determine how scout bees convince the swarm to move from this temporary staging post to a new nesting location – a tree cavity, the church tower or your bait hive. The scout bees use a variation of the classic waggle dance – on the surface of the swarm hanging in the tree – to ‘persuade’ other scouts to check out the location they’ve found. Through repeated cycles of recruitment and reinforcement a consensus is reached and the scouts then lead the swarm to their new home.

That’s the abridged version. Read the book. There are subtleties and anecdotes throughout Honeybee Democracy that mean it’s the sort of book you can go back to time and time again, learning something new each time.

Early scouts

I was puzzled by the swarm that arrived in my bait hive. The first scouts appeared early in the first week of May. I was abroad from the 7th to the 14th and confidently expected the swarm to be waiting for me when I got back. However, it wasn’t until at least another week had elapsed – during which scout bee interest continued unabated – that the swarm arrived.

Honeybee democracy

Honeybee democracy

I went back to Honeybee Democracy and re-read the second chapter (‘Life in a honeybee colony’) and learnt – or was reminded – that there are early scout bees that are able to judge both nest site quality and the state of the colony preparing to swarm. These scouts are at work before the colony swarms. Uniquely these bees are judging both the availability and suitability of new homes and the readiness of the colony to swarm.

They can also tell whether it’s a nice day. The coincidence of these factors – good weather, readiness of the colony to swarm (i.e. sealed queen cells) and potential nest sites – initiate a behavioural change in these scouts that leads to the colony swarming.

Are these scouts the earliest sign of swarm preparation?

What Seeley doesn’t say is just how early in the swarming cycle these scout bees start their initial explorations.

Queens take 16 days to develop from new-laid eggs to eclosion, and just nine days to the sealing of the queen cell. If we assume that the first scouts I saw were from the same hive that subsequently swarmed (and delivered itself to my bait hive) then these scouts were out and about well-before queen cells were even started.

Of course, I have no way of telling whether the first scouts I saw were from the same colony that finally swarmed and arrived. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought. Perhaps scout bee interest in a bait hive pre-dates the first definitive swarm preparation signs beekeepers can usually recognise – the appearance of charged queen cells?

Considering the density of beekeepers (by which I mean apiaries 😉 ) in the UK it’s not easy to see how this would be useful … unless you’re the only beekeeper on an isolated island.

However, if you see do scout bee activity at your bait hives it might be worth being more assiduous than usual when checking your own colonies in the neighbourhood.

 


Dyb dyb dyb is an abbreviation for ‘do your best‘. This was part of a cub (not scout) ceremony and was followed by Dob dob dob (‘do our best‘). It was abandoned in the late sixties, but lives on in tricky questions on Qi.

Colophon

Scouting for Boys

Scouting for Boys …

The title of this post is a play on ‘Scouting for Boys‘, the book on Boy Scout training, written and illustrated (originally) by Robert Baden-Powell and published in 1908. The book contains sections on scoutcraft, woodcraft, tracking, camp life, endurance, chivalry, life saving and patriotism. It was the inspiration for the scout movement and Baden-Powell was the founder and first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts Association (and the founder of the Girl Guides). It is estimated that 4 million copies sold in the UK alone, with global sales in the 20th Century exceeding 100 million.

The book even contains reference to honey bees with the statement that bees form a ‘model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed’.

The Boy Scouts of America used to offer merit badges in Beefarming (1915-1955) and Beekeeping (from 1955). The Beekeeping merit badge was discontinued in 1995.

Scouting for Girls is an English pop rock band. They have recently announced their 10th Anniversary Tour (Oct/Nov 2017) which means they’re much too new for me to know any of their music 😉

 

Splits and stock improvement

Beekeeping is always more enjoyable if the bees you are handling are good quality. I’ve briefly discussed judging the quality and temperament of your bees when writing about record keeping. With experience, and in particular with comparisons between colonies, it’s possible to identify traits which make working with your bees more enjoyable.

Bad behaviour

Although I keep general records on colony build up, disease resistance and the like, the three behavioural traits I try and accurately score my bees on all relate to how pleasant they are to handle. These are temper, running on the comb and following. I score these on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and any colony consistently at 3 or less will eventually require attention. Bees with poor temper or that run on the comb are unpleasant to inspect, making what should be an interesting activity a chore. Bees that ‘follow’ – dive bombing you dozens of metres away from the hives after an inspection – are a real pain. Aside from making your own post-inspection de-suiting risky they are a potential menace to others going near your apiary and so should not be tolerated.

It’s all in the genes … nearly

If you’re really unfortunate you can find bees showing all three traits simultaneously – stroppy, running, followers – but they’re more usually found individually. With all of these characteristics, assuming they’re not environmental (poor weather, no flow, queenless colonies etc.), requeening is the usual solution. Genetics and environment determine behaviour, and if the environment is OK, then the genetics need changing. You can do this by purchasing a new queen, by rearing your own by grafting, or – as described below – by splitting the colony and providing suitable young larvae for the queenless portion to rear the new queen from. I usually graft and rear queens from my best stock but resources – time largely, due to overseas work commitments – mean that all my queen rearing and replacement is being done by splits this season.

The mechanics of a split

I’ve described the mechanics of a conventional vertical split for swarm control and making increase previously. The colony is divided using a split or division board into two. The queenright ‘half’ gets the flying bees, the queenless ‘half’ starts to make new queen cells from very young larvae. ‘Half’ because this is an imprecise science in terms of bee numbers … top and bottom half of the colony might be a better description, though colony orientation is not proscribed. After one week the colony is manipulated to bleed off flying bees from the queenless half, both strengthening the queenright half and reducing the likelihood of swarming. Three weeks later there should be a new, mated laying queen present.

Like mother, like daughter

Like father, like son is more conventional, but clearly inappropriate for a colony of bees 😉 . As outlined above, the queenless half of the split rears a new queen from larvae already present in the colony. If this is a colony with undesirable characteristics then there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be getting ‘more of the same’. These larvae came from eggs laid by the queen that headed the colony with the very-same undesirable characteristics you’re trying to replace. With open mated queens it’s a lottery, but the deck is already stacked against you – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. So … stack the deck in your favour by providing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable characteristics.

Splits and stock improvement

Split the colony as previously described. In this case I’d argue that the queenless half should be on the top of the stack of boxes as you’ll be inspecting it a couple of times. Make sure the queenright half has sufficient stores should conditions deteriorate as they’ll be short of foragers for the next week or so. Make sure that the queenless half has the majority of brood – sealed and unsealed – as you’ll need young bees over an extended period to rear new queens.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

At the end of this initial manipulation the queenright half will use an entrance at the bottom of the stack, orientated in the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The split board will have an entrance open at the original front of the hive. This is illustrated in the ‘reversed’ orientation on the right hand side of diagram (right). For a more comprehensive discussion of the orientation of the queenright and queenless portions see the recent post entitled Upstairs, downstairs?

Seek and destroy

One week later you need to carefully inspect the upper (queenless) box. Any and all queen cells must be found and destroyed. You will need to shake the bees off every frame to do this. These potential new queens were all reared from eggs and larvae laid by the original queen. Since 7 days have elapsed there will no longer be any suitable young larvae for the colony to rear a new queen. The maths are straightforward; a newly laid egg hatches after 3 days and larvae must be less than 3 days old to rear queens from.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

When returning the frames to the brood box leave a gap in the middle. Into this gap add a frame containing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable genetics i.e. good tempered, steady on the comb and none of those dreadful followers. Mark the frame so you can identify it again if needed. If you have a choice of frames to transfer use one with fresh new comb as the bees find this easier to manipulate when drawing out queen cells.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Normal service is resumed

With the new frame of eggs/larvae added you’re now back on track to complete the vertical split. I’d suggest reversing the hive at the same time as you add the frame of ‘desirable’ larvae. There should be plenty of young bees in the upper half of the split and it’s these that will rear the new queen. The flying bees will strengthen the queenright half of the hive, helping gather nectar if there is a flow on. Make sure the queenright half of the hive has sufficient supers – you don’t want to be disturbing the colony too much, particularly in about 2-3 weeks which is when the new virgin queen will be going on her mating flight(s).

One week after adding the frame of new eggs and larvae there should be queen cells clearly present on the marked frame. If there aren’t it’s likely you missed a queen cell when shaking through the colony and there might be a newly emerged virgin running about in the hive.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

In which case, let’s hope she doesn’t rear bees that behave like those from her mother 😉

The 25p crownboard

Considering their primary function is so simple, that of separating the bees from the roof, crownboards can vary from cheap and cheerful to complex and multifunctional. At one end of the spectrum is a simple sheet of thick plastic, at the other are the multiply-perforated offerings that Abelo supply with their poly hives.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Cheaper than chips

Thick, clear polythene sheeting can be purchased from eBay by the metre. 1000 gauge sheet (250 microns) is probably about right. Unsurprisingly, the more you buy the cheaper per square metre it gets, and you’ll find lots of uses for it other than crownboards. Some of it is sold as damp proof membrane, or DPM. A 4m x 6m sheet costs less than £1 a square metre from which you’ll get four 50cm x 50c m ‘crownboards’. The clear poly sheeting is actually somewhat opaque, but is still preferable to the dark DPM which is so effective at deterring woodpeckers.

And if you really can’t stretch to 25p then a fertiliser or compost sack, suitably washed, can substitute.

Polythene crownboard

Polythene crownboard …

Cheapskate 😉

I use these polythene crownboards on most of my bait hives, on Kieler mini-nucs for queen mating and on any hives when I exhaust other options. They work well. You can see well enough through them to see the strength of the colony, they are easy to peel back as wax and propolis doesn’t stick much to them and – once they get too manky – you can discard them. Alternatively, freeze them overnight and then simply ‘crack’ off the propolis and wax before reuse.

Blowin’ in the wind

These lightweight crownboards tend to disappear over the apiary fence if there’s much of a breeze. Tuck them under the edge of the removed and upturned roof during inspections, or under the bee bag if you’re using lightweight Correx roofs that also have a tendency to blow away.

My advice is not to cut them too much oversize. The poly is quite thick and tends to bunch up at the corners when the roof is on. This results in it sometimes lifting when the roof is lifted. On polyhives I pin it in place with a drawing pin at the corners.

One of the benefits of being so light weight is that the poly sheet doesn’t crush bees when laid across the top of the hive. They can usually wriggle back down between the top bars of the frames reasonably easily even once the roof is on.

Jack of all trades

These poly sheets have lots of other uses. Over the last few months I’ve used them:

  • underneath supers when transporting them in the car to the apiary (I’d already run out of Correx roofs which are better still)
  • below stacked supers to stop acetic acid staining the underlying flagstones (see below) when treating stored supers for wax moth and Nosema.
  • in stacks of supers and broods to prevent wasps – or for that matter scout bees – getting access … as the season progresses and more splits and new hives need establishing the stacked ‘spares’ tend to get a bit exposed as standard roofs, crownboards and split boards are used up.
  • with a big hole cut through the middle under a 12.5kg block of fondant added in the autumn. This stops the fondant sticking to the tops of all the frames.
Acetic acid

Acetic acid

And I’m sure there are a lot more I’ve either forgotten already or yet to discover …


Manky means 1) inferior or worthless, or 2) dirty and unpleasant. Clearly, in the context I’ve used it, the second meaning that applies. However, when I used Google to look up the meaning it returned a strikingly topical definition:

Manky

Manky …

 On cedar boxes you can pin it to outer sidewall of the brood box or super, folding it over the top of the box. On windy days it tends to flap about so this isn’t always an ideal solution, but at least it doesn’t blow away.

Pick a weight, any weight

Little and large

Little and large

I sell the majority of my honey in 8 or 12 oz (227 or 340 g) square glass jars. They are easier to fill than hex jars and look distinctive on the shelf. These, together with 16 oz (454 g) jars, are the ‘conventional’ weights in which honey is usually sold.

Honey tubs

However, the regulations allow the sale of honey in any weight. The polypropylene, airtight “Lock and Lock“-type containers have a silicone seal and are ideal for packaging and selling larger quantities of honey. The 1.4 litre container (above left) takes almost four pounds of honey when filled – perfect for those that like lots of honey on their porridge, or for storing the ‘seed’ for preparing the next batch of soft set honey.

Four pounds of honey is, conveniently, about the upper limit for making a gallon of mead; if you regularly sell honey to mead makers a tub like this is both easier to empty (with less waste) than jars and reusable.

These containers are sometimes available in Poundland. It’s worth shopping around as the increased packaging costs will otherwise have to be taken into account in the sale price.

 

Split boards

Since moving to Scotland my DIY activities have been restricted – by lack of time, by lack of space and by lack of any major shortages in the equipment I use. However, a couple of spare sheets of Correx became available after some non-bee projects and I decided to use them to knock up a few split boards for swarm control and requeening this season.

As an aside … I love Correx. It makes great roofs, temporary floors and landing boards.

Split boards are simple square boards with beespace both sides and – usually – a single entrance. With an entrance door (rather than a simple gap) closed they can double up as crownboards or can be used to stack supers late in the season.

They can also be built with mesh panels to allow the warmth and smell of the lower colony to spread through the hive. However, in this instance these were to be about as simple as possible so I omitted the mesh.

Opposing entrances

For additional flexibility you can provide two opposing entrances with doors. With these the split board is starting to look dangerously like a cut down Snelgrove board. The vertical split method I use involves turning the hive 180° on the seventh day. With opposing entrances on the split board (and a corresponding double-entrance floor) it’s possible to avoid any heavy lifting – simply close the front door and open the rear door on the split board and vice versa on the floor.

Split board ...

Split board …

Assembly instructions

Really? How simple could it be?

I don’t have a table saw (or space to hide store it) so asked the nice people at Haldane’s in Glenrothes to generate some 20mm x 9mm strip wood. They did this from oak (!) offcuts for about a tenth the price one of the DIY chain stores would charge for equivalent softwood. The latter would have been preferable, not least because I got some wicked splinters from the oak, but it was what they had to hand and would have otherwise gone to the wood burner.

The Correx I had was 4mm thick. I’d have preferred 6mm, but as this was ‘spare’ from another project, I had to make do. I was originally going to use two sheets arranged at 90° to each other to provide rigidity. However, the first single-sheet prototype I built was plenty rigid enough so I stuck with that design.

Corner detail ...

Corner detail …

I cut the oak strips to 44cm in length, arranged them around the periphery of the 46 x 46cm Correx sheet and nailed all but two – on opposing sides of the top face – in place. ‘Overlap’ the corners (see image right) to provide additional strength. It’s worth noting here that my nail gun was only just strong enough to penetrate ~20mm of oak. The few nails that protruded were driven home with a hammer, brute force and a lot of ignorance. With care, frame nails (gimp pins) can easily be used instead.

Doors

In preparing the wood for the last two sides I made two slanting cuts to create the ‘doors’, nailed everything down and added a simple hinge from a gimp pin. It’s worth noting that it’s much easier to place the door ‘hinge’ (pivot?) centrally, rather than at one end of the door. Firstly, there’s less chance the end of the door will foul the adjacent wood. Secondly, to open the door you just need to push one end inwards with the hive tool; there’s no need to add a handle (a screw or nail that protrudes) to open the door outwards. This means there’s nothing to protrude and catch on clothing, on adjacent stacked boxes or on the lower lip of the roof when you’re using it as a crownboard. Finally, the bees won’t care.

Doors closed ...

Doors closed …

I gave the wood a couple of coats of (ironically) One Coat Ronseal Fence Life which should protect it from the elements.

Cheapy, cheapy

The Correx was about a tenner a sheet – delivered 5+ sheets at a time – from which I could cut sufficient for 10 split boards, with useful offcuts to build nuc crownboards or landing boards from. The hardwood strip wood was about £2 per board. Therefore, aside from a few nails, the finished boards cost about £3 each. This compares very favourably with the £28-36 charged by most suppliers for a Snelgrove board. Of course, I appreciate that the latter are more complicated and offer additional confusion functionality, but these are perfectly serviceable for a vertical split and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained by using something you’ve bodged lovingly crafted yourself 😉

By the time this appears these boards might even be in use …


There’s a good explanation of split board construction in a post by Calluna4u on the SBAi discussion forum (“the thinking beekeepers web forum”). Calluna4u has a wealth of experience as a commercial beekeeper and prepares these boards in industrial quantities. His design differs slightly as it’s for use with hives arranged four to a palette. His post contains links to suppliers for 6mm pre-cut Correx in Dundee which might be useful to Scottish-based beekeepers.

Hive tools

Man is a tool-using animal, Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881)

The Scottish philosopher wasn’t talking about beekeepers, but he might as well have been. The quotation goes on something like “Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all”. Which pretty neatly sums up the beekeeper who has lost his hive tool in the long grass.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Conducting a full inspection without a hive tool is a a thankless task. You can’t crack the crownboard off (unless it’s a sheet of heavy-duty plastic), propolis acquires the adhesive properties of SuperGlue and your fingers become clumsy, fat, bee-squashing sausages as you try and prise the frames apart.

A personal choice

There’s a huge choice of hive tools available. At the recent Welsh BKA Convention I saw about a dozen different designs on the Abelo stand alone, several not in their catalogue or on the website. Thorne’s list about 17 different hive tools. We’re spoilt for choice. Over the last few years I’ve bought, borrowed or otherwise acquired about eight different styles … some of those that haven’t been lost, given away or discarded in disgust are pictured here.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

From left to right …

  1. Thorne’s traditional hive tool. Perfectly adequate. Nicely weighted and pretty good quality stainless steel.
  2. Cheap knock-off variant of Thorne’s Claw Hive Tool. £2 each from a long-forgotten stand at a beekeeping convention. Light and relatively short (8″). My favourite by a long way. I bought half a dozen of them and wish I’d bought more.
  3. An American hive tool originally sold by Modern Beekeeping but now available from Thorne’s who call it their Frontier Hive Tool. Great quality, excellent scraper blade but too heavy and long for me.
  4. El cheapo hive tool bought from eBay. Strong, long, heavy and coarse. Horrible in my view. This one lurks in the bottom of my bee bag and is only brought out in a dire emergency.

Care and maintenance of hive tools

There’s really only two things that you need to do with hive tools in terms of care and maintenance. You need to keep them clean and try and avoid losing them.

Washing soda

Washing soda

I specifically said ‘try and avoid’ as losing hive tools is one of the inevitabilities of beekeeping. Like getting stung, running out of supers, not having enough frames, missing queen cells and ‘rediscovering’ a lost hive tool with the lawnmower. I lost three in one apiary a few years ago, finding all of them in the winter as the herbage died back. You can reduce losses by painting them bright colours. Blue works well. I’ve got a nice quality bright blue hive tool given out by Mann Lake when they first started up in the UK … somewhere.

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools need to be kept clean. I keep a bucket containing a strong washing soda solution in each apiary. Between inspections the hive tools are immersed in the bucket. This guarantees three things; there will be a hive tool available for your inspections, the hive tool will be clean and the paint will have probably peeled off. The Frontier-type American hive tool (second from right, above) was originally bright yellow. This bucket is also a great place to keep a small serrated utility knife which is useful for all sorts of tasks during the season.

I know some people who keep a separate hive tool for every hive in an apiary as part of their ‘good hive hygiene’ practice. This seems like overkill to me and ignores the level of bees drifting between colonies. It’s easy enough to dip the tool in the washing soda between inspections if needed … and saves investing in loads of hive tools 😉

Lost and found ...

Lost and found …


 Thomas Carlyle had a famously unhappy marriage to Jane Welsh. The novelist Samuel Butler said It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

Small cell foundation

In a recent monthly newsletter Thorne’s announced they were now supplying small cell foundation. This foundation has a cell diameter of 4.9mm, rather than the standard 5.2-5.4mm. Under the ambiguous heading 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” they have the following text:

Wired foundation

Wired foundation

“It is claimed varroa mites struggle to reproduce in the slightly smaller cell size. 4.9 mm being close to what bees produce in comb width in nature. Many beekeepers in the USA who have experimented with small cell have reported encouraging results. Moving over to small cell however can be difficult and must be done at the correct time of year. It cannot be done either by simply putting 10 frames of small cell foundation in the hive. The bees must first be subject to regression over a period of several months.”

Do mites struggle to reproduce?

No. There’s compelling scientific evidence that Varroa levels in hives on small cell foundation may actually have higher mite levels than those on standard foundation. These are from properly conducted and controlled studies involving dozens of hives.

It certainly is claimed that mites struggle to reproduce in small cell foundation. The evidence actually directly contradicts these claims. Undoubtedly beekeepers in the USA have reported encouraging results, but scientists doing side-by-side comparisons clearly demonstrate that mite levels are at best not changed or at worst appreciably higher on small cell foundation.

Actually, it’s not the mites but our bees that struggle to reproduce in small cells. This explains the phrase “subject to regression over a period” above. You have to select smaller bees that can reproduce well in small cell foundation. Once this is done, the bee size is measurably smaller and the density of brood cells in the hive is greater.

Is this is a one-off study – where is the independent verification?

No. They were repeated at least three times by labs at the University of Georgia. Similar studies were conducted by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services. In addition, the Ruakura Research Centre in Hamilton, New Zealand, conducted their own study – using a different experimental format – but achieving the same conclusions. Small cell foundation increased mite levels when compared with conventional or standard diameter foundation. There are now several additional independent studies which essentially reach the same conclusion – small cell foundation does not restrict Varroa replication and may actually increase it.

Has this new research been published?

Apidologie

Apidologie

After all, perhaps Thorne’s aren’t completely up-to-date about these studies? If the work is really new then perhaps they can be excused for trying to flog something for which there’s no compelling evidence of benefit.

Well, it was published … in some cases seven to nine years ago:

  1. Taylor, M.A., Goodwin, R.M., McBrydie, H.M., Cox, H.M. (2008) The effect of honeybee worker brood cell size on Varroa destructor infestation and reproduction. Journal of Apiculture Research 47, 239–242 … summary, a higher proportion of cells from small foundation were mite infested.
  2. Ellis, A.M., Hayes, G.W., Ellis, J.D. (2009) The efficacy of small cell foundation as a Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) control. Experimental and Applied Acarology 47, 311–316 … summary, no difference in mite levels between small cell and conventional foundation.
  3. Berry, J.A., Owens, W.B., Delaplane, K.S. (2010) Small-cell comb foundation does not impede Varroa mite population growth in honey bee colonies. Apidologie 41, 40–44 … summary, small cell colonies had ~40% higher mite infestation levels when compared with conventional foundation.
  4. Seeley, T.D., Griffin, S.R. (2011) Small-cell comb does not control Varroa mites in colonies of honeybees of European origin. Apidologie 42, 526-532 … summary, no difference in mite infestation levels between small cell and conventional foundation.

If you want an accessible and readable account of small cell foundation studies Jennifer Berry has written one for Bee Culture which includes experimental details of the work in references 1-3 above.

In denial

A recent thread on Beesource discussed the reported benefits of small cell foundation and the scientific evidence that contradicts these claims. It’s notable that supporters of small cell foundation generally criticise the ‘agenda’ they claim scientists have, rather than providing scientific evidence that supports the ‘benefits’. I’ve not been able to find a single peer-reviewed and properly controlled study that supports the beneficial claims for small cell foundation.

Hives on small cell foundation may have manageable levels of Varroa. If they do it’s in spite of the use of small cell foundation, not because of it. I am very willing to accept that there are some very competent beekeepers using splits, rational miticide treatment or other strategies and small cell foundation, who have low or manageable Varroa levels. However, it’s their beekeeping skill and experience not the choice of foundation size that is important here.

Indeed, you could argue that the detrimental enhancement to mite reproduction of small cell foundation, means that they must have truly exceptional beekeeping talents.

Or an agenda perhaps 😉

Ambiguous and misleading titles

In the opening paragraph I stated that the title 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” was ambiguous. The scientific evidence presented above is that small cell foundation does control Varroa. Assuming you use the word ‘control’ when defined as the power to influence or direct the course of events. Small cell foundation does exert control … but almost certainly in the opposite direction to the way implied in the title.

What turns an ambiguous into a misleading title is this implication that small cell foundation reduces Varroa levels. The text that accompanies makes this implication without providing any sort of balanced view based upon the published evidence to the contrary.

Beekeepers, particularly beginners, looking for effective ways to reduce their mite levels are not being provided with the facts and are likely to be misled.

But wait … were all these scientific studies flawed?

Thorne’s partly justify the sale of small cell foundation in their newsletter by citing a UK research project that involves its use:

“The University of Reading has just started an exciting new research project examining the highly problematic issue of varroa mites and whether the use of small cell foundation (4.9 mm) can help. This is being carried out with volunteer beekeepers in the local area as well as in an apiary at the University. The study will evaluate the use of small cell foundation alongside regular-sized (5.4mm) foundation and compare the varroa loads during next spring and summer.

This is an interesting topic to research as beekeepers around the world have had success with the use of small cell foundation whereas many others have not. Some previous studies have also found that varroa counts increase in the short term when small cell foundation is first used. The new study will evaluate what happens once the bees have fully adjusted to small cell foundation and if there is a significant impact on varroa loads.”

The implication here is that the previous studies (above) are flawed because they failed to use bees that were properly adapted to small cell foundation. Thorne’s do clearly state that the bees have to be properly adapted – subjected to regression – for several months before benefits are seen (or claimed to be seen). To their credit also, they acknowledge that some studies show increases in mite levels. This text is from the newsletter and unfortunately does not appear on the webpage of their catalogue that describes the foundation.

Call me sceptical …

If it looks like a duck ...

If it looks like a duck …

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I remain sceptical.

If it looks like a duck, if it swims like a duck and if it quacks like a duck … it is a duck. As a scientist I’m influenced by controlled studies, not hearsay or beliefs.

The Berry study (ref 3 above) did use bees reared on small cell foundation for their comparative studies, the other studies did not as far as I can tell. However, remember the original hypothesis about why small cell foundation is beneficial. The mites do not develop properly within the cell as they are ‘crowded’ by the abdomen of the developing honey bee pupa i.e. there’s too little space for the mite.

What does regression lead to? Smaller bees. In the Berry et al., study the weights of adult bees reared on small cell and conventional foundation was 129 and 141 mg respectively. This seems to be contradictory … if properly regressed bees on small cell foundation are significantly smaller than those on conventional foundation how is the space for the mite development restricted? I acknowledge that the cell size is proportionately smaller than the reduction in adult bee weight. Conversely, if small cell foundation is supposed to restrict mite development, why are levels apparently higher when ‘normal’ sized bees are first forced to use smaller cells? Surely there should be a greater reduction in mite reproduction before the bees have regressed?

I hope the study being conducted by the University of Reading is thorough and properly controlled. These are difficult studies to conduct, particularly at the scale needed to be statistically convincing and when not under the direct control of a single beekeeper in a single apiary. I wish them every success with the experiments and look forward to reading about it once it is peer-reviewed and published.

Until then I suggest you save your £11.60 for ten sheets of small cell wired brood foundation … you’d be far better off preparing foundationless frames and controlling Varroa by rational and judicious use of hive manipulations and approved miticides.


Additional reading (far from exhaustive):

The late and still unbeatable Dave Cushman has an article by Philip Denwood reproduced from the 2003 BIBBA magazine on cell size. Recommended for a historical perspective.

A 2013 article from the New Hampsha’ Bees blog Small cell doesn’t work (but please don’t tell my bees describing typical evidence that small cell foundation does work … anecdotal and not controlled, but nevertheless enthusiastic and – unusually – acknowledging the evidence against.

Michael Bush on small cell bees and foundation.

Dee Lusby – one of the originators of the ‘small cell’ movement – in an early article from ABJ reproduced on the Beesource forums. Be warned … there’s some misleading nonsense in this article. For example “it is a known fact that both honey bees and mites have been on this Earth many millions of years together and survived quite nicely”. I don’t disagree that both mites and bees have been around for millennia. However, they have only been together for a century or so. I think I’ll have to write something about natural beekeeping in the future …

It’s notable that top Google ‘hits’ for small cell foundation provide no scientific support for the claims that are made … caveat emptor.

 

 

 

Completely floored

It’s still too cold to undertake a full hive inspection (it might not be with you as I discussed last week) but one task that should take place in early Spring – whatever the weather – is cleaning the hive floor.

Knee-deep in corpses

Bees knees anyway.

During the winter the colony is much less active. Low temperatures mean there are few opportunities for workers to drag out and dispose of the corpses of their half-sisters. Consequently, depending upon the attrition rate (which in turn is at least partly dependent on the level of virulent strains of DWV in the colony), a layer of dead and increasingly foosty bees can build up on the hive floor.

Winter debris ...

Winter debris …

On open mesh floors this usually isn’t a major problem. On solid floors, particularly when there’s a bit of damp as well, it can get pretty unsanitary. Whatever the floor type, in due course the bees will clear the floor once the season has warmed sufficiently. However, cleaning and replacing the floor is a 30 second task that causes very little disruption and gives the colony a hygienic start to the season.

(Almost) smokefree zones

Place a cleaned floor adjacent to the colony. Gently insert the flat of the hive tool between the floor and the bottom of the brood box and make sure they’re separate. Often this joint isn’t heavily propolised (in comparison to the crownboard) and is easy to split. Lift the brood box and gently place it onto the adjacent clean floor, remove the old floor and slide the colony back into the original position. The entire process takes longer to read than to complete.

You can replace the floor without smoking the colony, particularly on a cool day with little hive activity. However, a very gentle waft of smoke across the entrance will push the bees up and out of the way. If you’re quick, gentle and use a tiny puff of smoke it’s possible to swap the old floor out without a single bee coming out to investigate things.

A clean start

The removed floor needs to be cleaned. Scrape away the corpses with the hive tool. Assuming the floor is wooden, with or without mesh, it can then be scorched with a blowtorch before being pressed back into service. If the floor is poly the blowtorch is not advisable 😉 After scraping off the lumpy debris it needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with a strong washing soda solution.

Scorching ...

Scorching …

In a busy apiary it’s possible to spend a happy hour or so removing, scraping, scorching and replacing in a cycle, meaning that you only need one additional floor than the number of hives.

 

Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

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

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

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

Macho beekeeping

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

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

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

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

Not when, but why?

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

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

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

Outside and inside

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

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

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

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

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

Looking back

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

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

Primroses …

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

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

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


Too much, too soon

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

Not one to set the recorder for …

Upstairs, downstairs?

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

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

Uniting colonies

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

All gone ...

All gone …

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

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

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

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

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

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

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

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

Vertical splits

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

Split board

Split board …

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

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

The problem with vertical splits

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

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

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

Inspections

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

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

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

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

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

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

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

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

Kewl floor – fixed …

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

In conclusion

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

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