Category Archives: Beekeeping

The Goldilocks principle

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

In this case, honey bee colonies.

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

These are not always the same thing.

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 1. Fondant top-ups for underweight colonies. Cleansing and sterilising equipment.

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

One is not enough

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

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

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

Two National hives and Himalayan balsam

Two will do …

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

Except, it isn’t.

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

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

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

From too few to more than enough

Beginners often struggle in their early years of beekeeping 2. Sometimes they have too few bees in the hive. The colonies are weaker than they should be to exploit the forage or to overwinter successfully. Or they lose queens during the season, suffer an extended broodless period, and need to beg or borrow a queen from elsewhere to keep the colony together. It all looked so easy in the books or in that midwinter theory course.

Except, it isn’t.

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

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

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

From having too few bees they can now rapidly reach the point of having too many. They learn how easy it is to make increase 3 using a well-timed vertical split of a vigorous, healthy colony, or by not reuniting after using the Pagden method for swarm control.

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

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

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

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

During the peak swarming period – mid/late May to mid-June here, but earlier further South – beekeeping can be a ‘full-on’ experience. Timing is critical. Miss a late open queen cell and they’ll swarm on the next available good day. You’ll run out of equipment. You’ll get phone calls in the office asking you to retrieve a swarm from a tree/swing/classroom 4.

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

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

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

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But so are too many bees and spectacularly good weather.

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

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

The Goldilocks zone

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

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

This is the Goldilocks zone.

Quite where that sweet spot is will depend upon a whole host of different factors. Your interest in bees vs. other competing hobbies and pastimes 5, how full-time the full-time job is, your abilities as a beekeeper and the pressure others 6 put on you to take holidays mid-season 😉

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

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

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

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

3 day old queen cells …

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

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

Space and spares

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

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


Colophon

Goldilocks and the three bears fairy tale book cover

Look who is sleeping in my bed!

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

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

 

Urbane bees

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

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

Bees can do very well in towns

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

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

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

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

City rooftop bees

City rooftop bees …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being neighbourly

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

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

Poop target ...

Poop target …

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

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

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

Swarm on a swing ...

Swarm on a swing …

Guilty until proven innocent.

Good urban beekeeping practice

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

These are more or less in order of importance …

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

Forewarned is forearmed

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

That’s neither fair or responsible.

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

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

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


Colophon

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

Of the bees … and the beekeeper 😉

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

🙄

 

Fondant topups

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

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

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

If they do, the colony will starve to death.

Fondant topups

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

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

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

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

Don’t be stingy and don’t delay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think of the greater good … speaking of which.

Takeaways

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

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

Preparing fondant

Preparing fondant …

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

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


 

Weighty matters

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

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

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

Be gentle

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

Be gentle ...

Be gentle …

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

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

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

Technology to the rescue

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

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

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

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

At a price  😯

Frugal bees are better bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary


 

Makes space in beekeeping (3)

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

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

They are useful and versatile pieces of equipment.

Etymology

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

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

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

Swarm in a skep

Swarm in a skep …

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

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

Don’t buy it, build it

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

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

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

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

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

A cute rabbit, not rabbet, from http://www.bbbvet.org.uk

No … rabbet. R a b b E t.

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

Dimensions

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

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

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

Rabbit, er, rabbet joint …

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

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

Feeding and treating

Use your wellie

Use your wellie …

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

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

Vaporising with an eke

Vaporising with an eke …

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

Travelling

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

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

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

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

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Insulation and crownboards

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

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

Another use for an eke

Another use for an eke …

And the rest …

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

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

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation …


 

Bring out your dead

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

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

Let the undertakers do their work

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

Corpses at hive entrance ...

Corpses at hive entrance …

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

Attrition rate

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

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

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

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

Don't count the corpses ...

Don’t count the corpses …

A bent piece of wire to the rescue

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

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

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

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

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


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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