Category Archives: Beekeeping

Anticipation

Finally, the winter appears to be receding and there’s pretty good evidence that the beekeeping season will shortly be starting. The early season pollen sources for the bees – snowdrops and crocus – are almost completely finished, but the willow is looking pretty good and the gorse is flowering well.

Actually, gorse flowers quite well year-round, but it’s only now warm enough for the bees to access it.

Difurzeion

From an evolutionary point of view I’ve wondered why gorse ‘bothers’ to flower in mid-winter when there must be almost no pollinating insects about. Of course, as Dobzhansky said in the 1970’s “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” … gorse flowers all year because there must be a selective advantage for it to do so.

Late December gorse ...

Late December gorse …

It turns out that it’s a little more complicated than me just being unable to observe winter-flying pollinating insects. Gorse probably flowers in midwinter for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there are winter-flying pollinators, at least on warmer days. Secondly, the flowers are a cunning design 1 that allows self-pollination, even when tightly closed on a cold, midwinter day when covered in snow. This probably explains the clonal expansion and invasiveness of the plant. Finally 2 weevils of the Exapion genus eat the seeds … by flowering, and subsequently setting seed in midwinter, the gorse can avoid the attention of the weevils, which need warmer weather 3.

Winter-flowering in gorse is genetically-determined. A winter-flowering plant probably gives rise to progeny plants that also flower in winter.

An apology

That was all a bit off-topic. However, it does explain the shocking pun used to head the previous section. Furze is another name for gorse, Ulex europaeus.

Now back to the bees …

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Inevitably we’ve had some April showers and the final bee moves over the last fortnight involved dodging the rain and wading through some minor flooding. Almost everything is now where it should be and – although perhaps a little later than usual – I can make some of the last-minute preparations for the season ahead.

Frames and supers

The beekeeping season in Scotland – or at least my beekeeping season – involves long periods of near-total inactivity interrupted by May and June, which are usually totally manic. This ~9 week period covers the major swarming season and the best time of the year to rear queens. Both can happen at other – generally later – times of the year, but the weather becomes a major influence on their success. The last two seasons have been characterised by rubbish weather in July and August, resulting in poorly mated late season queens.

A consequence of the expected frenetic activity in May and June is that there’s no time to leisurely make up a few frames, or assemble a few supers. If they’re not ready now, they probably won’t ever be.

I’ve therefore already built a couple of hundred frames and just have to fit the foundation into some of them. Many of the frames I use are foundationless, but a proportion still have foundation. The latter are useful to intersperse with foundationless to encourage the bees to draw parallel comb.

Supers and frames with drawn comb are all safely stacked up from last season. Sometime over the next fortnight I’ll finish checking the last of these boxes over. Do they have a full set of frames? Are all the frames drawn? It’s irritating grabbing a box or two in the middle of a good nectar flow to find they only contain three frames, or it’s unwired thin foundation and unsuitable for the OSR.

The other thing I do is tidy up wavy or bulging sections of drawn comb. These are the frames that the bees have drawn out, maintaining bee space with the adjacent frame, but that leave gaping holes when put next to a different drawn comb 4. Life is too short to try and pair up the frames correctly 5. Instead I just use a sharp breadknife to make the comb reasonably parallel with the frame top bar. The bees tidy it up quickly and it certainly makes mixing and matching frames from different supers much easier.

Fermenting honey

The other frame-related task is to go through the stacked up boxes of brood frames saved from last year. These, and the drawn super frames, are some of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has. Assuming the frames are in good condition and there haven’t been too many rounds of brood reared in the frames they are invaluable when making up nucs during the season.

Some of these brood frames will have inevitably contained nectar or uncapped honey at the end of the previous season. Over the winter this tends to ferment and make a bit of a mess. The nectar drips out unless the frames are held vertically. It can look bubbly or frothy and it pongs a bit (usually, and unsurprisingly, of yeast).

Washing frames ...

Washing frames …

I don’t like using these without cleaning them up a bit first. The bees usually clean up small amounts of fermented honey, but often ignore frames packed with the stuff. I shake out the fermented honey and soak the frames in a tub of water for a few minutes. I then shake out the water and leave them to air dry before storing them for the season ahead.

This is the sort of job that needs to be done on a cool, dry day. If it’s warm you’ll likely be plagued with bees investigating the smell.

Drying brood frames ...

Drying brood frames …

Brood frames just containing capped honey can be used ‘as is’. The bees don’t cap it until the water content is low enough to stop fermentation.

In contrast, the really old, black frames are either discarded outright or used for making up bait hives. There’s no point in trying to extract wax from them as there’s almost none left.

Be(e) prepared

Finally, the bee bag gets a spring clean. I empty everything out and chuck away all the rubbish that seems to accumulate during the season … the squeezed-together bits of brace comb, the torn nitrile gloves, the sheets of newspaper for uniting etc. Everything goes back together in labelled ice-cream cartons (‘daily’, ‘queen rearing’), having checked they contain the essentials – sharp scissors, Posca marking pens and a queen marking cage, additional cages for queen introduction, grafting glasses and a sable paintbrush etc.

I re-stock the honey bucket full of smoker fuel. This contains a mix of wood chip animal bedding, the lids of egg boxes not used to make firelighters and some lovely dried rotten wood. The smoker also gets its annual de-coke. Over the season you can get quite a build up of tarry, sooty deposits in the smoker, particularly on the inside of the lid. Using a blowtorch and a little encouragement from the pointed end of a hive tool it’s easy enough to clean all these out. As a result, the smoker will stay lit longer and generally work better.

Smoker de-coke ...

Smoker de-coke …

OK … bring it on 🙂


Colophon

This post was supposed to have been last week. However, a delayed flight meant I was stranded on the tarmac in ‘airplane’ mode when I should have been changing the scheduled posting date. D’oh! Instead Let there be light, which I’d written a couple of weeks ago and was already scheduled as a backup, snuck out. By the time it appears – the 20th of April – I expect to have conducted the first full set of inspections and I’ll be playing catch-up with the next couple of posts as the season kicks off.

Fife weather mid-April 2018

Fife weather mid-April 2018

Stop press … with great weather over the latter part of the week I’ve got round my apiaries and inspected all colonies. With the exception of the two known duds, all are queenright and building up to varying extents … from OK to very well. The strongest will need supering this weekend. Considering how long and cold the winter has been – average temperatures November to March have been 3-4°C – this was encouraging and 3 weeks earlier than I got into some colonies in 2017.

It was great to be beekeeping again 🙂

Let there be light

Our new bee shed provides a protective environment for hives, allowing inspections in most weather conditions if needed. The only exception is during extended cold periods when the colonies remain clustered. The shed is south facing and gets whatever sunlight is available from early/mid morning depending upon the season. This warms the shed nicely and, because of the seven 50 x 50cm windows along the side 1, provides light to work the colonies.

A typical sunny day ...

A typical sunny day …

But – believe it or not – the East coast of Scotland is not always sunny. Although it is one of the sunniest places in Scotland, with an average of ~1500 hours of sunshine a year 2, it is not always bright when I need to inspect the colonies.

And if it is grey and overcast outside it can be really murky in the bee shed.

This was the only significant drawback of the original bee shed which – due to its orientation – got no direct sunlight through the windows from early/mid-afternoon. Consequently, late afternoon inspections on gloomy days could be a bit testing. There was enough light to find the queen and observe the general state of the colony, but finding eggs or distinguishing the age of larvae – something critical for our research – was very hit and miss. It was usually necessary to take frames to the open door to see things better.

Which, of course, was not ideal if it’s chucking it down or windy outside, the very conditions that justify using a bee shed in the first place.

LED lighting systems

Therefore, in addition to orientating the new bee shed to maximise light throughout the day, I’ve also installed a 12V LED lighting system. These are available in kit form or you can easily purchase the necessary components – battery, solar panel, charge controller, cable, lamps and a switch – individually 3.

For convenience I used a Geo 4 Solar Lighting Kit from the Solar Centre. It’s not the cheapest way to get started, but at least all the components should be compatible and there are some (rather perfunctory) instructions provided. There’s also a useful YouTube video linked from the suppliers website.

The kit includes a single 30W solar panel and six 40W-equivalent LED bulbs. The latter seemed unlikely to be bright enough to help see eggs and developing larvae so I’ve replaced them with 9W LEDs, equivalent to about 120W incandescent bulbs 4.

Battery

The Solar Centre also sell suitable batteries for solar power systems … but at daft prices. I therefore sourced one elsewhere, ending up with a 100Ah leisure battery 5. This is probably overkill for lighting the shed … my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest this battery will run the six 9W LED lamps for over 20 hours from a full charge 6. However, there are additional things I want power for in the shed including some hive monitoring equipment, so the excess capacity will come in useful.

The battery is hidden away in the corner of the shed inside a battery box. This includes USB and 12V outlets, enabling additional things to be hooked up in due course.

Installation

This was pretty straightforward. It was simply a case of rigidly adhering to red = positive and black = negative cabling, connecting all the bulb holders together, wiring up the switch and the charge controller, hooking up the solar panel and screwing in the bulbs.

The solar panel was fitted to the shed roof. This caused a few problems. Firstly, the roof is at an angle of ~25°. This appeared to be less than optimal for a solar panel at the latitude (56° N) of the shed. The usual way to determine the panel angle is to add 15° to the latitude in winter, or subtract 15° from the latitude in summer – the difference to take account of the angle of the sun in high summer or midwinter.

Since the lighting will be used mostly in summer – during inspections – I sketched a few possible bracket designs to angle the solar panel at about 40°. However, I ran out of time and enthusiasm, so ended up fitting the panel directly to the roof.

Solar panel installation ...

Solar panel installation …

I subsequently discovered an alternative way of calculating the optimal angle for a solar panel – multiply the latitude by 0.9 and subtract 23.5 i.e. (56 * 0.9) – 23.5 = 26.9°, which isn’t significantly different from the angle of the roof in the first place  😀

Switches

The lighting system has a standard on-off switch. However, I’d wanted to install a simple time switch which would automatically turn the lights off after a fixed period, for example one hour. This would avoid draining the battery should the system be left on inadvertently. The 12V timer I bought came with no comprehendible instructions and I’ve so far failed to get it to do what I want.

As an interim measure I’ve fitted a kitchen cupboard “on when open” circuit breaker in series with the main switch. The lights only turn on when the shed door is open. When working in the shed the door is almost always left open with the smoker left on the step outside. If this isn’t done there’s a tendency to end up getting ‘kippered’ as the shed fills with smoke 😉 

Kitchen cupboard switch ...

Kitchen cupboard switch …

The wiring is spectacularly bad – in true Dr. Bodgit style – but it works just fine. 

Bulb holders and reflectors

The bulb holders were fixed to the shed roof, more or less directly above the position of the hives. Due to the angle of the roof this places them above head height – so little chance of hitting them with your head – but it does mean they are rather dazzling.

Welcome ...

Welcome …

It’s no use fixing them down the centre of the roof as the light is then behind you when conducting inspections, so negating most of the benefits of installing the lighting system in the first place.

Therefore, to avoid retinal burns (!) I’m investigating simple white Correx ‘reflectors’ nailed to the roof battens near the lamps. These should angle the light better into the hives.

Finally, to allow future changes to the lamp holder positions should they be needed, I allowed additional cable between them, all held in place using lots of cable clamps.

There should be bees in the shed by the time this is posted. However, we’ll need to wait a few weeks until it’s warm enough for routine inspections before we can be sure the lighting system is optimal.


Colophon

Let there be light is a Biblical phrase from the third verse of the Book of Genesis. Many academic or educational institutions use the phrase in Latin, Fiat lux, as a motto.

Inevitably the phrase is also used as the basis for a large number of quotes, including my particular favourite (from the actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres) In the beginning there was nothing. God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.

>3 feet and <3 miles

My original bee shed and the new bee shed are about 500 yards apart. There were at least eight colonies that needed to be relocated to the palatial new facility.

En route there was a precariously narrow scaffold plank footbridge, two (not particularly passively) aggressive swans, a large flooded field and a steep earth bank. Thanks to Buster, my trusty hivebarrow, none of these physical barriers were any impediment whatsoever.

Swan ...

Swan …

What potentially caused the problem was that the apiaries were only separated by 500 yards.

Moving colonies: the usual advice

The usual advice when moving colonies is that it is OK to shift the hive less than three feet or more than three miles.

Less than three feet because the final approach to the hive involves the appearance and smell of the colony. Flying bees that have orientated to the hive in their early flights return to the general location using obvious landmarks, but make the final approach using very local features and the characteristic odour of the colony. Just moving the hive 2-3 feet doesn’t change these local features or odour, so the bees very rapidly find the hive entrance.

The bees cope very well with moving the hive forwards or backwards and slightly less well with lateral movements.

It’s worth noting that the hive entrance should remain facing the same way for this to work. If you reverse a hive it does disorientate the bees though they find the new entrance eventually. This is exploited during vertical splits to separate flying bees with the queen.

More than three miles because the maximum foraging distance is probably a bit less than three miles. Therefore, if the hive is moved further away, all of the familiar landmarks will have disappeared and the bees have no choice but to reorientate to their new location.

In practice I’ve regularly moved hives just a couple of miles without issue. These distances aren’t set in stone.

Intermediate distances

But what about intermediate distances? For example, the swan-infested, wobbly-bridged and paddy field-like 500 yards separating my two bee sheds?

The recommended solution to these intermediate distances is to move the colonies to a distant apiary (3+ miles away) for a week or so, then move them back to their final destination. The bees are forced to reorientate, do so, ‘forget’ their original location and then are forced to reorientate again to their final location.

A totally foolproof and absolutely reliable solution to the problem.

And a lot of work.

However, in high summer with good weather and a large force of foraging bees, this is the method I usually use. I’d fit insect mesh travel screens, seal up the colonies late at night or very early in the morning, move them away for a week and then repeat the entire rigamarole to get them to their final location.

Hard physical work, lots of lifting and long days 1.

Alternatively you could move them a yard a day … but that’s only practical over very short distances

Or, more accurately, only bearable over very short distances.

Flat platform ...

Flat platform …

If you’re going to attempt this incremental migration I strongly recommend a hivebarrow with a level platform. No lifting every day. Simply push it another yard across the garden … day after day after day after day.

But this is a typical Scottish Spring …

It’s cold. Very cold at times.

It’s wet. Sometimes wet rain and sometimes wet snow.

Although the colonies are building up they are still relatively small. Because of the weather they don’t get out foraging every day. When they do it’s for an hour or two at most.

With a reasonably accurate weather forecast and careful timing it is possible to take advantage of this to move colonies intermediate distances with no problems.

Early April weather ...

Early April weather …

The Easter weekend was predicted to serve up the usual depressingly poor weather we expect on Bank Holidays. Other than Sunday we were promised intermittent rain or sleet from the Friday to at least the Tuesday.

In contrast, the Thursday before Easter was good with the bees foraging well, though it cooled quite quickly in mid/late afternoon. Importantly, inside the hives, the colonies remained active … they weren’t tightly clustered. I would avoid moving bees that are tightly clustered in very cold weather 2.

Moving in day

The new bee shed was prepared with clean floors for all the colonies that were being moved. The entrances were loosely stuffed with dried grass. The tyre on the hivebarrow was reinflated and I rummaged around in the bee bag to find some ratchet straps to hold things together.

Using just a puff of smoke at the entrance to clear any lingering bees I lifted a colony off its old stand and gently placed it on the hivebarrow. I sealed the entrance with foam3, strapped the hive securely together and then strapped the hive to the hivebarrow.

I then negotiated the flooded field, the stroppy swans, the wobbly bridge across the burn and the earth bank.

Each hive was placed on the floor of the new shed and left to settle while I fetched the remaining colonies.

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Finally, after 45 minutes or so, I gave each colony a tiny waft of smoke through the OMF to move the bees up, gently split the brood box from the old floor and lifted the hives onto their new floors.

Hardly a single bee escaped during the entire process … and I wasn’t savaged by the swans.

Settling in

Dried grass ...

Dried grass …

The hives were reassuringly heavy so had sufficient stores. Friday delivered sleet and temperatures no higher than 3°C. The bees stayed warm and snug in the shed. Saturday was particularly rubbish. Sunday was better, but the grass blocking the entrance – now drying in the breeze and weak sunshine – still restrained them. Monday was poor again … by which time they should have forgotten about the original shed. I removed the remainder of the grass on Monday. A few bees appeared, confirmed that the weather was rubbish and quickly returned to the shed.

As I write this the weather is promising to warm up in a week or so, but it’s still unsettled. Any bees venturing out in this first full week of April will be forced to reorientate. They’ll have the brightly painted landing boards to help their final approach.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

There are still a few more hives to move. Since I need to rearrange colonies between out apiaries for the season ahead I’ll do this by simply swapping distant colonies about.


Colophon

The > (greater than) and < (less than) mathematical symbols were – surprisingly (to me at least) – first used almost 400 years ago. Thomas Harriot, in his snappily titled bestselling treatise on ‘The Analytical Arts Applied to Solving Algebraic Equations’ 4 stated “Signum majoritatis ut a > b significet a majorem quam b” and “Signum minoritatis ut a < b significet a minorem quam b”. Or something like that 😉 Since then, and particularly since the introduction of the computer and programming languages, the greater and less than symbols have been used for a multitude of other things, not least of which is as integral components of the markup tags used in HTML. This controls the appearance of text and links on the web and explains why the page title does not display properly on the tab of my Safari web browser.

HTML fail, though not too epic.

HTML fail, though not too epic.

 

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

Despite the best efforts of the Beast from the East 1 Spring is definitely on the way.

The snowdrops and crocus have been out for some time, willow is looking good, large queen bumble bees are searching for nest sites and the temperature here in Fife has consistently reached double figures during the warmest part of the day for the last week.

Consistently … but only just and only briefly.

Pollen boost

Pollen boost …

Consequently it’s too cold for full inspections and the only colonies I’ve been ‘in’ are the two described below. However, I’ve not ignored the others. I’ve lifted the crownboard on most colonies to determine their approximate strength (or just peeked through those with perspex crownboards which is even less intrusive) and have continued to heft colonies to see if they have enough stores. Those that were feeling a bit light have had a fondant top up. I’ve also given several colonies a pollen boost to help them rear early season brood.

Other than that – and moving colonies to the new bee shed – I’ve left them well alone.

Early season checkups

On the warmest part of the warmest day of the week I visited the apiary to check the colony strength. With the exception of two, all were flying well with foragers returning laden with pale yellow pollen.

However, two were suspiciously quiet, with only a handful of bees going in and out 2.

A pretty small handful.

Almost none of the bees returning to these two colonies carried pollen.

One was a five frame poly nuc in the bee shed. This had been made up in mid/late summer while the parental colony was requeened. The old queen, a frame of emerging brood with the adhering bees and a frame of stores had gone into the nuc box. The little colony had built up reasonably well going by my infrequent peeks through the transparent crownboard, but not well enough to move them to a full hive for the winter.

The other suspiciously quiet colony was a full (or full-sized 🙁 ) hive headed by one of the older queens in my apiary. Most colonies are requeened annually or every other year, but this one was reared in my first year in Scotland (2015) 3.

I popped the lid off both colonies and examined them in greater detail. It wasn’t the recommended ‘shirtsleeve weather‘ by a long-shot, but I feared the worst and didn’t think a bit of cold would do these two any further damage.

Unfulfilled promise

The nuc contained about a cup full of bees and a small, unclipped pale queen.

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

This definitely wasn’t the queen I’d put in the box last August. For whatever reason, the colony had clearly replaced the queen late in the year. It hadn’t swarmed, so it looks like they’d tried to supercede the old queen. Going by the total absence of worker brood I presume the new queen hadn’t mated successfully, or at all, and that she was a virgin.

She wasn’t running about skittishly like new virgin queens do, but she wasn’t doing anything very useful either.

There were a few drones in the colony and one or two sealed drone cells. Whether these were from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, or laying workers, is largely irrelevant 4. The colony was doomed …

Worn out

The full sized colony was only full sized in terms of the hive it occupied. Inside there was another rather pathetic cupful of bees together with a very tatty, marked and clipped queen 5. There was more paint on her head than her thorax and I remember marking her with a very ‘blobby’ Posca pen. This was the queen I’d expected to find in the box.

Old and tired ...

Old and tired …

There were no drones in this colony, but no eggs either. There was also no sign of a second queen or evidence of attempted supercedure. I suspect the ageing queen simply ran out of sperm, stopped laying and never got started again.

Sometimes old queens turn into drone layers and sometimes they just stop. I’m not sure why they exhibit this different behaviour. It might actually reflect when they’re detected. I think I usually find drone laying queens a bit later in the Spring. Perhaps a failed queen starts laying (unfertilised) eggs only once the ambient temperature has risen sufficiently to help the much-reduced numbers of workers keep the brood nest warm enough?

That’s guesswork. It’s still cold here, with frost most nights. The small number of bees in the colony would have been unable to maintain the mid-30’s temperatures required for brood rearing. It’s surprising they’d survived this long.

Health check

Neither colony had any obvious signs of disease. The floor of the full hive was thigh-deep – if you’re a bee – in corpses.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses …

However, a good poke around through the cadavers failed to find any with signs of the deformed wings that are indicative of high viral loads. I hadn’t really expected to … the Varroa loads in this colony in the late-summer and midwinter treatments had been very low.

Corpses ...

Corpses …

Lose them or use them?

Clearly both queens had failed. Both were despatched. To keep them in the vain hope that they’d miraculously start laying again would have been a waste of time and, more importantly, other bees. The virgin would now be too old to get mated and there won’t be drones available here for at least 6 weeks.

This left the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bees. Both colonies were apparently healthy, but too small to survive. In the autumn the obvious thing to do is to unite small healthy colonies with large healthy colonies. This strengthens the latter further and helps them get through the winter.

However, this is the Spring. There were probably no more than 300 bees in either of the failed hives. All of these bees would have been at least 3 months old, and quite probably significantly older. They were unlikely to live much longer.

Furthermore, uniting these small colonies with larger colonies in the apiary would have caused disruption to the latter and increased the volume of the hive to be kept warm. Neither of these are desirable.

I therefore shook both small colonies out allowing the healthy flying bees to redistribute themselves around the half dozen strong hives in the apiary. Before shaking them out I either moved the original hive altogether or – in the case of the nuc from the shed – sealed the entrance, forcing them to look elsewhere for a colony to accept them.


Colophon

The term dud is used these days to mean a “thing that fails to function in the way that it is designed to”, with this usage dating back to the 1914-18 war where it referred to shells that failed to explode. However, the word is much older. Its original meaning was a cloak or mantle, often of coarse cloth, with references to the word dudde dating back to the 14th Century. Over the next few hundred years the meaning, in the plural duds, evolved to mean clothes and – more rarely but more specifically – ragged, shabby clothes or scraps of cloth. This seemed appropriate considering the tatty state of the old marked queen …

 

 

The new bee shed

It’s not often a backhoe digger and dumper truck are required for apiary construction. Certainly, most of the sites I’ve used over the years have needed little more than a few breeze blocks, Buster (my trusty hivebarrow), some sweating and swearing 1 and a spirit level.

And the spirit level is only required because I want my foundationless frames drawn out straight and true.

Mid December 2017 - foundations and base installed ...

Mid December 2017 – foundations and base installed …

However, our new research apiary has involved some rather impressive ‘boys toys’. It is now nearing completion and we will shortly be moving bees onto the site.

One day all this will be under tarmac

Our original research apiary was located in an idyllic spot in the corner of open mature woodland. It was sheltered from prevailing winds, had water nearby – very nearby during some localised flooding – and housed the first ‘bee shed‘.

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn …

However, a planned extension to the town, the relocation of a large school and the need to keep Council budgets to a minimum, meant that a ‘feeder’ road was proposed to be routed through this apiary in early/mid 2018.

Not near, not around … literally through.

Even if it had been near or around, the prospect of working hives next to a route used by hundreds of children was not appealing. I also didn’t fancy re-drafting risk assessments to include lots of sweaty roadbuilders and their heavy machinery during the construction phase.

So, sometime last year we started scouting around for a new location for the research apiary.

The water table

The one issue we’d had with the old site was minor flooding during winter … and spring, summer and autumn (!) rains. This never threatened the bees, but washed away an access footbridge several times and made wellingtons a necessity in most months I can remember.

To avoid this in the future 2 we opted for a site on a small mound of earth that would place the hives and the bee shed safely above the water table.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

‘Small’ if you have access to a backhoe digger that is … 😉 3

The site was extended and levelled, an access road installed, the base was prepared with a few (very large) lorry loads of hardcore and was then topped with compacted gravel. There’s probably a technical term for this sort of groundwork. It was completed with impressive speed just before an extended cold spell in mid-December.

The frozen ground delayed the installation of security fencing 4 but this, and installation of the new shed, was finally completed a few weeks ago.

Bigger is better

I’m convinced of the benefits that a bee shed offers in solving some of our beekeeping problems. These are primarily security, storage and shelter in increasing order of importance. These might well not be problems you face, but the ‘shelter’ is likely to benefit many who keep bees in temperate and, er, damp climates.

With bees in a shed you can open the colonies and inspect them whatever the weather. This is a huge benefit if time is important; either your own or – and this is why it is critical for our research – so we can harvest larvae and pupae at particular times for experiments.

Before we used a bee shed I’d had to harvest brood during weather totally unsuited to beekeeping, including howling gales or thunderstorms. Now, other than periods when the colony is clustered tightly, hives can be opened whenever needed.

Our first bee shed was 12 x 8 feet and turned out to be a bit cramped at times. The new shed – at 16 x 8 – is the largest routinely supplied by the excellent Gillies and Mackay. Larger still would have been better, but there were some financial constraints and we needed to keep space on the site to relocate the old shed in due course.

The new bee shed ...

The new bee shed …

The new shed can house seven full colonies.

Fitting out

We’ve learnt a lot since building the first shed in 2015. The old shed suffered from poor lighting and a range of different shapes and styles of entrance. We’ve partly addressed the former by having windows all the way down the South facing side of the shed and we’ve fixed the latter by standardisation.

Where have you heard that before?

The bees enter the shed through a hole in the wall and reach the hive via a simple rectangular section tube (extractor fan ventilation ducting). All the entrances are now identical, consisting of a simple supporting bracket on the inner wall of the shed to cradle one end of the ducting. The other end of the duct is supported by a thin strip of softwood tacked to the front of the hive floor.

Standardised entrance ...

Standardised entrance …

The same entrance design, omitting the ducting, can accommodate nucs if needed.

All our floors are of one design 5 and compatible with most National brood boxes. None of the boxes are fixed to the stands and, unless the hives are badly bumped, this entrance arrangement is essentially ‘bee proof’.

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor …

Hive stands

The hive stands are very robust, separated into two (three and four hives respectively) and protrude through the floor to the rest on the slabbed foundations. Consequently, vibrations are minimised. Ideally, I’d have preferred individual stands, but that increases complexity and cost.

A significant change made with the new shed is to raise the height of the stands by 3-4″ making inspections a little less backbreaking. This will make working a double brood box topped with 3 supers a challenging experience, but the colonies very rarely get that big … and the nectar flows simply aren’t good enough.

Welcome home

I like landing boards. Of course, they’re largely unnecessary, but on what would otherwise be a uniform wall punctuated with seven 1″ holes, they provide a good opportunity to make the individual hive entrances readily distinguishable to returning foragers.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

The landing boards are folded black Correx painted with some surplus-to-requirements bright yellow Hammerite paint. Correx is tricky stuff to get glue or paint to adhere to, so I’m not sure this will have sufficient longevity. However, it’s neater than painting big patterns on the shed wall.

The distinctive colours and patterns were based broadly on the known abilities of bees to discriminate between shapes. The intention of course is to minimise drifting between colonies.

Lightening things up

The windows are of exactly the same design as those used in the first shed. These are formed of two overlapping sheets of polycarbonate, enabling any bees flying in the shed to readily exit simply by crawling upwards to the ‘slot’ at the top of the window. These are an excellent solution to a shed full of bees following an inspection. There’s nothing to open or close afterwards, it’s largely draught-free and totally maintenance-free. Result.

But they probably still don’t allow sufficient light in on a very dull, overcast day. Amazingly, these aren’t unheard of on the East coast of Scotland.

I’ve therefore installed a 12V solar-powered lighting system. This charges a large leisure battery which powers six LED bulbs. It’s like Blackpool illuminations when they’re all fired up. The final tests of this system – and the timer that (should … there are some teething problems here) automatically turn the system off – are currently underway and I’ll post about them separately.

The immediate environment

The apiary has the new bee shed together with sufficient space to accommodate at least half a dozen additional hives – for splits, nucs, queen rearing or teaching – as required. We’ve also installed a separate levelled base to take the old bee shed once the original apiary is vacated. This will primarily be used for storage, but can also accommodate four full colonies if needed.

The site is a little more exposed than I’d like, though it is sheltered from the coldest winds from the North and East. To improve shelter and, more importantly, early season pollen we’ve planted 150 native hedging plants around the site 6. As 80 cm bare-rooted ‘whips’ they look a bit pathetic, but they’ll soon fill out. Two thirds are native goat willow (Salix caprea) which will be coppiced and should provide good quantities of pollen.

Willow and native hedging ...

Willow and native hedging …

With the snow now largely gone and the temperatures slowly increasing I expect to move bees into the new bee shed in the next fortnight.


 

Two out of three ain’t bad

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

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

How to get stung

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

Gauntlets

Gauntlets …

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

Yes … but you will get stung.

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

You’re like a brain surgeon wearing mittens.

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

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

How not to get stung

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

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

But you’ll feel it.

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

Thin gloves aren’t enough

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

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

Marigolds

Marigold gloves

Marigold gloves …

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

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

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

Nitrile and latex gloves

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

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

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

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

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

Propolis, apiary hygiene and sweat

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

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

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

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

Psycho bees

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

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

Not my bees of course 😉

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

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

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


Colophon

Bat out of hell

Bat out of hell

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

 

Apivar & Apitraz = Amitraz

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

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

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

Mites on drone pupae ...

Mites on drone pupae …

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

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

Amitraz

The active ingredient in both Apitraz and Apivar is Amitraz.

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

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

Amitraz

Amitraz …

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

Mechanism of action

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

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

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

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

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

Usage of Apitraz and Apivar

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

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

Efficacy

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

Toxicity and wax residues

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

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

And it can kill you.

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

Resistance

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

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

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

Cost

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

Apivar ...

Apivar …

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

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


 

All the gear, no idea

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

Required reading

Required reading

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

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

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

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

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

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

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 1

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

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warré 2 etc.

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

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

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

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

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue3 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

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

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

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 4 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

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

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

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

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

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

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

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

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

All the gear, no idea

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

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

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

It hasn’t and probably won’t 🙁

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 5. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

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

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

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes etc.6

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

What’s new?

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

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

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

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

Eek!

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

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

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course 😉

Horsley board

Horsley board

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

It’s a monstrosity.

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

I was very tempted.

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


Colophon

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

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

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret 😉

Sublimox spares and repairs

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

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

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

Screws

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

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

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

Retaining screws ...

Retaining screws …

To rectify this and prevent their permanent loss in the apiary mud I gave them each a dab of Loctite 243 and tightened them up properly 1. This appears to have done the trick and they’ve remained in place without loosening.

O rings

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

It’s a tough life being an O ring.

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

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

Here's two I wrecked earlier ...

Here’s two I wrecked earlier …

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

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

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

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings ...

Sublimox nylon cups and O rings …

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

Essential accessories …

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

Spring (or late winter) vigilance

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

All is well ...

All is well …

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

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

If the mite drop is not low or non-existent there’s probably no need to treat immediately 2. However, make a note to monitor the colony at regular intervals – both for mites and overt DWV disease – and intervene if necessary.


 

The Goldilocks principle

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

In this case, honey bee colonies.

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

These are not always the same thing.

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 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.