Category Archives: Beekeeping

Queen cells … don’t panic!

You’ve inspected your colony and discovered queen cells on one or more frames.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that your colony is building up well and with a little careful management and luck you’ll be able to requeen them in about a month. A new, well-mated queen should ensure a strong colony going into the winter.

Result!

Alternatively, you could increase your colony numbers as – without exception – two is better than one.

The bad news is that your colony is rapidly outgrowing the space it has, it’s going to need some careful management and an appreciation of the development cycle of the queen. Unless you’re very lucky the colony will swarm and you’ll be left with one, significantly weakened, queenless colony.

Result … but probably not one you want.

Swarming isn’t a catastrophe. Things can usually be rescued, albeit with an interruption to colony development and honey production. However, it should be avoided if at all possible, not least because the lost swarm might cause problems for other people.

Play cups, charged queen cells and sealed queen cells

New queens are reared in specially shaped cells that are oriented vertically on the frame. They can be anywhere on the frame, but are often located on the edge of the comb, either at the sides or along the bottom.

Play cups ...

Play cups …

Beekeepers make the distinction between cells of different sizes, different stages of development and – sometimes, though probably less reliably 1 – the type of cell (emergency, supercedure etc.) based upon their location.

Play cups are small cup-shaped cells that might subsequently be developed into queen cells. They’re regularly present in colonies that have no intention of swarming.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

After an egg is laid and hatches in one of these cup shaped cells the workers start feeding the developing larvae. At the same time the cell is extended, usually becoming broader and longer. Cells at this stage of development get a large amount of attention from workers in the hive and usually end up containing a thick bed of Royal Jelly in which the developing larvae floats. These are charged queen cells.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

Finally the cell is sealed and the larvae pupates before emerging as a virgin queen. During this period, particularly just before and after being sealed, the workers often sculpt the outer surface of the cell. Shortly before eclosion a thinner, darker brown ring can appear around the tip of the sealed cell.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Timing is everything

Queen development takes 16 days from egg laying to eclosed (emerged) adult virgin queen bee. The egg is laid in a cup and hatches on the 3rd day. The larva is fed copious amounts of Royal Jelly until day 8 when the cell is sealed or capped. About 16 days after the egg was laid the new queen emerges.

Queen development

Queen development …

There’s a little bit of variation in these timings – hours, not days – and several diagrams show the queen cell sealed on the 9th day. In my previous description of queen rearing in a queenright colony (using the Ben Harden method) I’ve stated that the cell is capped on day 9. That’s a convenient number to remember as she’ll emerge a week later.

We’re off !

Under normal circumstances the colony will swarm once the new queen cells are capped. The old queen and about 75% of the workers leave the hive for pastures new.

Poor weather can delay things, but it’s relatively rare to find sealed queen cells and the old queen still in residence … unless she’s clipped which delays things by a few days. However, clipping the queen does not stop swarming, it just buys you time and restricts the distance the swarm can go.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

If the colony does swarm they often end up underneath the original hive. The queen crashes ignominiously to the ground as she leaves the hive. She then crawls up the leg of the hive stand and is joined by the flying bees beneath the floor. It’s a bit of a palaver, but you can then brush/encourage them into a skep and rehive them.

Weekly inspections

An understanding of the development cycle of the queen and the swarming behaviour of colonies explains why inspections on a seven day cycle make sense. If there are no queen cells on the first inspection there is little or no chance the colony will have swarmed on a sealed queen cell within the following seven days.

Since colonies headed by clipped queens tend to delay a bit before swarming it’s usually reckoned you can inspect on a 10 day cycle. Although most of my queens are clipped 2 I inspect on a 7 day cycle as it fits better with work commitments.

What to do if you find queen cells

Don't panic

Don’t panic …

Don’t panic.

Correctly determining the state of the colony now will ensure you take the correct course of action.

It’s not unusual for an inexperienced beekeeper to find one or more sealed queen cells in the colony and to immediately remove them all 3.

However, if this novice beekeeper subsequently finds there’s no queen in the colony (unsurprising as she’s swarmed), no eggs in the colony (because she swarmed >3 days ago) and no young larvae in the colony (because they actually swarmed nearly a week ago) then the colony has no chance of raising a new queen without further intervention by the beekeeper e.g. by providing a ‘frame of eggs’ from another colony from which a new queen can be reared.

What I do depends upon what I find …

Play cups

I check to see if any have eggs in and then pinch them flat … mainly so I can tell if more have been made since the last inspection.

Charged queen cells

The first time I discover these I usually knock them all down and leave the colony another week.

This is not risk-free 4.

Firstly … I check that the colony is queenright and that the queen is OK i.e. still laying at a reasonable rate, not being hassled by the workers and looking healthy. If I have any concerns about the queen I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Secondly … It’s imperative to destroy all the charged queen cells. I therefore shake the bees off each frame and check the comb carefully … the sides, the bottom, the various nooks and crannies.

Everywhere.

Miss one charged cell and they’ll likely swarm within the next 7 days. Anything that looks like a queen cell gets squidged 5.

Finally … if this is the second consecutive weekly inspection with charged queen cells I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Don’t repeatedly rely upon knocking off every charged queen cell week after week after week.

You will miss one … I guarantee it. They will swarm.

Destroying charged queen cells is not swarm control

This should be engraved on every hive tool sold to new beekeepers 😉

I speak from experience 🙁

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Sealed queen cells

Oops  🙄

They’ve probably swarmed. It’s therefore too late for swarm control.

However, I check for eggs and the queen. I might be lucky … poor weather may have prevented swarming 6. Alternatively, the presence of eggs tells me they went in the last 3 days so I have an idea of the age of the sealed cell (so can calculate when the new queen will emerge).

Ideally I like to leave a colony with a single cell I know contains a developing pupae. Although you can open and reseal queen cells (Ted Hooper describes doing this in Introduction to Bees and Honey) to check they’re occupied, I’ve never bothered.

Instead, if there are large charged queen cells present I select one, mark the frame and then destroy all the sealed cells and unwanted charged unsealed cells. I can estimate to a day or so when the queen will emerge and so know when there’s likely to be a new mated queen in the hive.

If there are eggs and young larvae but no other charged cells (rare), I’ll knock back the sealed cells and let them rear more, finally leaving them with one known charged cell after the next inspection.

Swarm control

This post is already too long … there are dozens of ways of doing this. Two already described in detail are vertical splits and the ‘classic’ artificial swarm. Both are pretty much foolproof if you can find the queen. Both are conservative and non-destructive … you can reunite colonies if either fails.

Vertical splits use less equipment and need less space, but involve some heavy lifting.

Pagdens’ artificial swarm requires a duplicate hive and more space but is gentler on your back.

Or make up a nuc with the old queen as a backup and leave the colony to rear a new queen. I’ll describe this approach in the future.


 

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

How about this for an apiary in a truly stunning location?

If Carlsberg did apiaries ...

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

I discovered this apiary while out walking in the Andalucian hills in Southern Spain in mid-May. It was at the end of a forest track, miles from anywhere, with breathtaking views over the cork oak woods South towards the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a bit hazy that afternoon, but on a good day you can clearly see across the Strait to the Rif mountains in Morocco (~100 miles distant), with the faintest trace of the Middle Atlas beyond them.

Not just a pretty view

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the location of the apiary. Yes, the view was great, but what was at least as impressive was the amount of wildflowers around. It’s not an arable area. Most of the farmland was olive trees or lemons, with large areas of wildflower meadow and mixed deciduous woodland. Much of this was cork oak, but it was interspersed with Corsican pines and a variety of other things I couldn’t name.

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

I’d be surprised if any of it ever sees a spray of any kind, and the only grazing is by horses, a few feral goats and the elusive wild boar 1. The scene on the right is typical and the road verges were the same, with acres and acres of these beautiful “weeds” everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the other thing missing from these pictures is the noise.

Everywhere I walked – even on days when I barely left the fringes of the village – I was accompanied by the incessant drone of insects. There were bees everywhere and – again unsurprisingly – the local mixed floral honey was fantastic.

From a beekeeping point of view it really did seem idyllic. Perhaps the only issue would be the temperature. In Spring the midday temperatures were in the mid-20’s (°C) and – going by my experience of working colonies in the bee shed – that can get pretty hot and tiring in a bee suit.

Hives

There were about 20 hives in the apiary, lined up on pallets all in full sun. Unlike other apiaries in the area there was no registration number displayed, so it might have been a temporary site from which the hives would be moved in high summer.

Andalucian apiary

Andalucian apiary

To a beekeeper familiar with the stackable boxes of a National or Langstroth, the hives were unusual. The majority were single boxes, with hinged lids and one or two entrances low down at the front.

Layens hive

Layens hive

These are Layens hives, a single large, deep box containing 15 or more frames. Each frame is about the same width as a British National brood frame, but is almost twice as deep. Georges de Layens, who invented the hive in the 19th Century, designed it for minimal management beekeeping.

No weekly inspections, no overt swarm control, simply give the bees sufficient room in a well-insulated hive and return to harvest the honey at the end of the season.

Can it really be that simple?

Well, it certainly could be that simple.

However, Layens developed the hive long before Varroa appeared on the scene, and monitoring and managing disease in a hive with no removable or open mesh floor – particularly with only a couple of inspections a season – seems an unlikely recipe for success to me 2.

It’s reported that there are still more than a million Layens hives in use in Spain and the hive design has some strong supporters in the US 3. The hive design also lends itself to migratory beekeeping as there are no teetering stacks to be strapped together for transport.

Spanish readers of this site represent less than 0.5% of the annual visitors … if you are one of them please add a comment on the practicalities of beekeeping using the Layens hive.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses

Derelict Spanish apiary

Derelict Spanish apiary

I’ve visited this area of Andalucia for several years. Near the village is an apiary that has – year by year – slowly been falling into disrepair. There were originally ~20 hives in lightly shaded woodland surrounded by wildflower meadows. It was a lovely spot, just off a little-used track, protected from the midday sun, secure yet accessible … though the view wasn’t a patch on the one at the top of the page.

Five years ago most hives – all Layens again – were busy with bees and I remember being surprised by the number of hornets hawking around. The apiary carried a registration number and the hives were scruffy, but functional.

Year by year the number of hives on their side, open, damaged or otherwise clearly defunct has gradually increased. Corners of the apiary filled with broken and discarded frames or other rubbish.

By this Spring it was all over. There were still about 20 hives in the apiary, but none of them were upright and functional. The few that were upright were non-functional and the only one containing bees was badly damaged and on its side, with the bees gaining access from a split in the corner.

It appeared as though the apiary had been abandoned by just about everything other than the Jabalí … and they’d had a field day ransacking the hives.

Ransacked Layens hive ...

Ransacked Layens hive …

Abandoned hives, robbing and mites

Of course, I don’t know the back story … an ageing beekeeper unable to cope any longer, hives inherited by someone without sufficient interest or beekeeping skills, or simply an unproductive apiary that was forgotten.

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

The hives were largely stripped out, but at one point must have posed a disease risk for neighbouring colonies. Unless mite levels were controlled the colonies would eventually succumb to Varroa-transmitted viruses. As the colony weakens it is likely to get robbed-out by strong colonies from nearby apiaries.

The robbers returning to their colonies carry honey and hitchhiking phoretic mites. This is what the Americans call a “mite bomb”.

There’s good evidence that this route of mite transmission peaks late in the season during a dearth of nectar. This is one of the reasons that justifies coordinated mite treatments at the correct time of the year to protect the winter bees.


Colophon

I have no imagination … I’ve used the “If Carlsberg did …” prefix a couple of times already, when discussing smokers and vaporisers. I’ll try and think of something a little more original for the future. In my defence I have spent 50% of the last four weeks abroad, successfully controlled swarming (by vertical splits or Pagdens’) in over half of the ~25 colonies I’m currently managing, run out of supers, brood boxes and frames (D’oh!) and been involved in some exciting new plans for going Varroa-free in the future. Watch this space.

Queen excluders

If your season is going anything like my season you’ll now be conducting weekly inspections of colonies which have one or more increasingly heavy honey supers 1.

Finally 🙂

Wire queen excluder ...

Wire queen excluder …

At least, you should be doing weekly inspections and I hope the supers are filling nicely 😉

If so, you’ll also probably be using queen excluders to stop Her Majesty from moving up into the supers. You don’t have to use queen excluders, but most people using stackable hives do. As I use a lot of drone foundation in my supers it’s a bit of a catastrophe if the queen lays up frame after frame of drones, so I always use queen excluders.

The good

I’ve used all sorts of queen excluders (henceforth QE’s for simplicity) over the years. Some are much better than others, some are awful and some fall into the “OK since I’ve run out of other equipment and I’m desperate” category i.e. useable, but not actually good.

The good ones are wooden-framed with rigid wires. They have beespace on one side 2 and generally don’t get stuck down to the tops of the frames. They are relatively easy to clean and you can buy a little scraper gadget to help with this task. Importantly, from an apiary hygiene point of view, they can be blowtorched if needed to sterilise them.

I build my own, using the wire-only grids available from Thorne’s. A 9 x 25mm frame with simple rabbet joints holds the wire, which I fix in place with Gorilla glue. I then add a narrow wooden rim around the top edge, flush with the wire, onto which the super is placed. The overall cost is about a tenner, about half that of the readymade commercial ones and only twice that of the el cheapo plastic ones.

The bad

I started beekeeping using the slotted steel or zinc sheets that get propolised to the tops of the frames and, as you prise them up, suddenly go ‘ping‘ firing bees up into the air. The trick to stopping this was lift from one corner but keeping pressure in the middle with one finger so they released slowly and gently.

These slotted zinc QE’s tended to bend or crease 3 and mine were butchered to make mini-nuc feeders years ago.

Unfortunately – because they’re the most recent QE’s I’ve purchased – I’d also add the current XP PLUS QE from Thorne’s to this category. These are moulded plastic with square holes but have the addition of a bottom rim and half a dozen standoffs that hold them a beespace above the top bars of the brood box. So far, so good.

They’re described as non-stick, but in my experience aren’t. I’ve got about half a dozen in use at the moment and all of them have either (or both) been stuck firmly to the top bars of the brood box or – infuriatingly – to the underside of the super.

Irritatingly these QE’s also don’t appear to ever lay flat 4. When purchased they were a bit banana-shaped, but I wrongly thought that stacking under some other boxes for a few months would sort them out. When reassembling the hive they always leave a corner or two bent up, under which the bees crawl … with inevitable consequences. Avoid.

The indifferent

Plastic lay flat QE

Plastic lay flat QE …

I also have lots of the plastic ‘lay flat’ QE’s. These are just about the cheapest to buy. Some have square, some rounded, holes. All are much of a muchness in my view. They get propolised to the frame tops and usually need the same sort of ‘finger press’ in the middle when removing them to avoid launching bees unceremoniously across the apiary.

All of these ‘lay flat’ QE’s are a bit tricky to clean. You can scrape them with a hive tool, but lots of the holes get blocked with wax/propolis. If you put them in the freezer overnight you can then flex them gently and quite a bit of the propolis can be released (and used for all sorts of things like tinctures).

Top tips

When removing the queen excluder, particularly the flat plastic ones that inevitably get stuck down to the top bars, gently twist it in a circular motion to loosen it from the wax. Also try the ‘finger in the middle trick’.

Before putting the hive back together give both frame top bars and the QE a scrape with the hive tool encourage it to lie back down flat. This makes subsequent inspections easier.

Finally, remember to always check the underside of the QE for the queen before setting it aside and continuing with the inspection. Take it from me … you feel a combination of stupid and relieved when you finally find the queen wandering around on the QE as you reassemble the puzzlingly queenless hive that’s got loads of eggs and no queen cells.

And it’s always worth checking the upper face of the QE as well …

Queen above the QE

Queen above the QE …


 

Swarm and mite partitioning

Clipped queen swarm

Clipped queen swarm

When a honey bee colony swarms, what proportion of the bees in the colony leave with the queen?

A simple question and one that has been addressed using elegantly simple experiments.

But swarms don’t leave without also taking Varroa mites with them 1.

What proportion of the Varroa mites in the colony leave with the swarm? In both cases partitioning refers to the proportion that remains with the original colony (bees or mites) and the proportion that disappears over the fence (or appears in your bait hive).

Why does this matter?

If you’re interested in honey from your bees the answer to the first question is very relevant. The more bees that leave, the less remain to forage … so you’ll get less honey.

If you collect swarms or use bait hives to attract them, the answer to the second question is particularly relevant as it emphasises the importance of Varroa treatment of newly-hived swarms.

Does size matter?

Colonies swarm when they are strong, which is usually – but doesn’t have to be – when the colony is big. There are a number of factors that influence swarming, but the strength of the colony i.e. lots of bees in the space available, is one of the most important. A strong nucleus colony of only 3 frames will swarm under similar conditions that induce a huge double-brooded hive to swarm; the latter might contain 75,000 bees, the former perhaps only about 7500.

In addition, because the survival of swarms is influenced by their size (see below) we need to be aware that large and small colonies may behave differently. For example, if only 5000 bees formed a ‘viable’ swarm, the 3 frame nuc described above could generate just one, whereas the double-brooded monstrosity could produce a prime swarm and loads of similarly-sized casts 2. Since swarms of all sizes are seen, it suggests a fixed proportion of the bees leave, rather than a fixed amount …

Counting the bees in a swarm

Occupied bait hive

Occupied bait hive …

Counting large numbers of bees is not a trivial task. Of course, counting the bees in a swarm is pretty straightforward … catch the swarm, weigh it and divide by the weight of a ‘single bee’ 3.

But this doesn’t tell you the number of bees in the original hive. You need to know this to determine the proportion of bees that leave with the queen.

Thomas Seeley from Cornell University used an elegant solution 4 to count the size of the original colony before and after swarming. He established several 3-frame narrow observation hives between gridded glass panels. The hive was so narrow that only a single layer of bees could occupy the beespace between the glazing and the comb. By counting bees in about 10% of the grid squares, averaging and multiplying he could accurately determine the total number of bees in the colony … which was about 7600.

He determined the number of bees in the colony early every morning during the swarming season. Immediately after swarming he counted the bees remaining in the hive. By dividing the number of bees present after the swarm left with the number present that morning he could determine the proportion of the adult workers present in the swarm.

And the answer is …

75%

When Seeley’s small colonies swarmed, 75% of the workers departed in the swarm 5. This figure is in good agreement with previous studies conducted by Getz and colleagues 6 using two larger colonies (~30,000 bees in each, 72% of which left with the swarm), and with work from the 1960’s 7 using small and large colonies (73% and 66% respectively).

Swarm partitioning therefore appears to be colony size-independent, with about 75% of the adult workers departing with the queen.

So, if size doesn’t matter, why does size matter?

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Juliana Rangel and Thomas Seeley went on to establish swarms of different sizes – small medium and large, containing 5000, 10,000 and 15,000 bees respectively … and a queen. The large swarms developed into fully-established colonies better (drawing more comb, collecting more nectar and rearing more brood). Most significantly, large swarms had a much higher survival rate. Almost 90% of the small or medium swarms failed to overwinter, whereas 75% of the large swarms survived.

Again, there were precedents for this … in the mid-80’s Lee and Wilson had monitored survival of natural swarms and showed that larger swarms were more successful.

So size matters for swarm survival.

This is perhaps not surprising when you consider all the ‘work’ the colony needs to do to survive the winter – draw out a large area of comb, store about 20kg of honey and rear thousands of new workers.

In addition, it turns out that larger swarms are probably better at choosing suitable nest sites to occupy. This is because they have a larger number of scout bees to find the sites faster, thereby improving the decision-making process.

And, of course, size also matters if you want your colonies to spend their time collecting nectar for honey production. When a colony swarms 75% of the workforce leaves and, inevitably, the productivity of the hive is significantly reduced for an extended period.

Mite partitioning … simple maths surely?

The only mites that can leave the colony when it swarms are those that are phoretic i.e. riding around the colony on adult bees. The remainder are safely tucked away in capped cells gorging themselves on pupae.

Poly Varroa tray from Thorne's Everynuc with visible mites.

Gotcha! …

If we assume that all the adult bees are workers 8 it is a simple calculation to work out the proportion of mites in the colony that leave with the swarm … 0.75 * X, where X is the proportion of mites in the colony that are phoretic.

So, if 10% of the total number of mites are phoretic, 7.5% of the total mites would disappear with the swarm. This could explain the small colony size and frequent swarming of Varroa-tolerant feral colonies … every time they swarm, over 90% of the mites are left behind.

But … there’s always a but …

% of mites in capped cells

% of mites in capped cells

The proportion of phoretic mites in a colony is unfortunately not static. It fluctuates with the availability of suitably-aged larvae to infest. It is therefore influenced by the egg laying rate of the queen.

Numbers often quoted for the experimentally-determined proportion of phoretic mites range from 10-50% (or more), a range reflected in a well-established model for the seasonal reproduction of Varroa 9.

Remember that the graph (right) is modelled data. In a real-world situation there will be brood earlier and later in the year. However, in a first attempt at calculating mite partitioning during swarming in May/June the modelled data is close enough to experimentally-determined data to be usable.

Predicted and real mite partitioning numbers

The extreme values from the May/June (the swarming season) predictions in the graph above indicate that phoretic mites proportions range from 15-50% of the total in the colony. A swarm containing 75% of the adult bees in the hive would therefore also leave with somewhere between 11% and 37% of the Varroa from the colony.

The higher of these figures is quoted by Thomas Seeley in his study of the frequently swarming Varroa-tolerant colonies in the Arnot Forest, though this is calculated from his own swarm partitioning studies and data from others, and was not directly measured.

However, Jerzy Wilde and colleagues have conducted one of the few studies that have experimentally measured mite partitioning in natural and artificially-swarmed colonies. Of seven large colonies (~30,000 bees) which swarmed naturally, 25 ± 9% of mites left the colony with the swarm. Using a Taranov board, 36 ± 11% of mites left the colony with the swarm fraction in the artificially-swarmed colonies.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

A quarter of all the mites in a heavily infested colony is a lot of mites.

Which is why it’s always sensible to treat swarms you catch/attract/buy 10 for mites.

By definition, all the mites in a swarm are phoretic, so they’re easy to kill using miticides – such as those based on oxalic acid (either trickled or sublimated) – that work best on broodless colonies.

Caveats and future considerations

I have a few concerns about the Wilde study. The size of the swarms generated was significantly smaller than usual, containing only ~45% of adult workers. In addition, the initial mite-infestation levels were quite low, implying that the available open brood was unlikely to be rate-limiting in terms of mite reproduction and the phoretic period.

I’ll return to this in a future post but it’s worth remembering that the queen markedly reduces her egg-laying rate as the colony prepares to swarm. This results in fewer 5-day larvae and so decreases the opportunities for phoretic mites to hide themselves in capped cells.

Swarming colonies may actually have elevated phoretic mite levels …


 

Stroppiness

Perhaps surprisingly this isn’t about some of the contributors to online beekeeping discussion forums … 😉 I’ll discuss those next winter when their “shack nasties” – and associated rantings – get really bad.

What beekeeping is

Beekeeping should be an enjoyable pastime. It’s a great way to work with nature, to learn and continue learning, to understand and interact with the environment … and to make delicious honey.

Of course, it’s lots of other things as well. It can be hard and hot physical work at times. It can be infuriating when the weather and the bees and a thousand other things conspire to frustrate your plans.

And in our long winters it can require a significant level of patience.

What beekeeping isn’t

What it isn’t, or at least what it shouldn’t be, is something that fills you with dread, that hurts like hell or that threatens, frightens or – even worse – harms other people.

All of these things can be the result of having aggressive bees.

You can and should do something to ‘cure’ the colony of its aggression.

Bees should not naturally be aggressive. When not threatened they go about their daily business in a workmanlike 1 way, collecting pollen or nectar or water. Unless inadvertently trapped in clothing or hair they almost never sting; when they do it’s because the bee is trying to defend itself.

Defensive bees can behave similarly to aggressive bees but they are not the same thing at all. In this case the ‘cure’ is very different and probably involves the beekeeper rather than the bees.

Colony management, aggression and defensiveness

Beekeeping involves managing the colony 2. This necessitates regular inspections during the season.

It’s during inspections that both the nature of the colony and the abilities of the beekeeper are tested. It’s during these inspections that the beekeeper should try and distinguish between aggressive and defensive bees.

Aggression in bees is an unpleasant characteristic with predominantly genetic causes.

Defensive bees are reacting to a perceived threat and need to be treated more appropriately.

An aggressive colony

With little or no provocation, aggressive bees are out to get you. They buzz you a couple of times from yards away as you approach the hive, they ‘boil’ out of from under the crownboard when you gently prise it up, they bounce off your veil repeatedly or cling on tightly with the abdomen curled under them trying to sting.

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

They burrow into the folds in your beesuit, they worm their way under the cuffs of your gloves, they attack your hands and the hive tool as it is used to lift the frame.

And they don’t stop when you close everything up and thankfully retire. They follow you across the apiary and continue to bombard your (hopefully still veiled) head.

Truly psychotic bees follow you up the field back to the car. You have to hang around until they lose interest or drive off still wearing the veil 3.

Before, during and/or after the inspection you’re getting stung. Depending upon the thickness of your gloves, your beesuit or your skin this might not hurt … but the build up of sting pheromone incites them even more. At worst, you’re forced to retreat from the onslaught.

It’s bad enough for the beekeeper. It’s much worse for anyone else inadvertently going near the colony, particularly after an inspection.

A defensive colony

A defensive colony is reactive rather than proactive. They react – in some of the ways described above – to rough treatment, to poorly timed interventions or to other perceived threats. They can and do sting, but if treated properly (i.e. better) they don’t.

A well behaved colony can become defensive if it is jarred, jolted or – and this has to be seen to be believed – dropped. Bees that should be perfectly calm and well tempered can ‘go postal’ if maltreated.

The significant difference here is that they’re being badly or poorly treated. This is where calmness, confidence and experience – or ideally, all three characteristics – shown by the beekeeper is the major influence on the behaviour of the colony.

An ideal place to observe this is in the training apiary of a large beekeeping association. With an experienced beekeeper the colony can be wonderfully well-tempered, barely stirring from the frames.

With an almost complete novice – who inevitably works slowly and remembers all of the good advice they were told in the theory lessons – the colony is also OK, though if the hive is open too long they can become a little tetchy.

But with the intermediate (in experience and ability) beekeeper, who knows just enough to be dangerous but who thinks they know it all, who squashes a few bees every time they drop a frame back into the hive, who crushes a few more as they lever the next frame up, who waves their hands to and fro over the top bars and who smokes the colony too heavily … to this beekeeper the colony can appear aggressive.

But they’re actually being defensive … because they’re being mistreated.

Going postal

Sometimes even the most experienced and careful beekeeper can have a D’oh! moment, instantaneously converting the calmest of colonies into a mushroom cloud-shaped maelstrom of psychotic bees.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

I’ve seen an experienced beekeeper in a full training apiary inadvertently lift both a super and the brood box to which it was propolised off the floor. Once in mid-air the propolis gave way, dropping a full brood box onto the ground.

Kaboom!

I doubt there was a single beekeeper in the apiary over a 20 yard radius who wasn’t stung.

But these weren’t aggressive bees. They’d done nothing when the crownboard was removed. They were simply being defensive – understandably – once their home was dropped from a great height onto the ground.

The grey area between attack and defence …

I’ve been reasonably clear cut about the differences between aggressive and defensive bees. Overly so. There’s a grey area when an otherwise calm colony, almost irrespective of how well treated it is, can appear aggressive.

A number of “environmental factors” can influence the behaviour of the colony. The most important of these are forage, weather and queenlessness.

Double trouble ...

Double trouble …

Bees are usually really well behaved when there’s a good flow of nectar. Open a colony when the OSR or lime is at it’s peak and you can do no wrong. Well, almost. However, open a colony when the OSR has recently gone over or the lime has stopped yielding and the bees can be a bit tetchy.

Short tempered perhaps, not truly aggressive.

Similarly, open a colony – or certain colonies – as the barometer plummets or there’s thunder rumbling in the near distance and they can also be rather short tempered.

In my experience most colonies get a bit stroppy when a strong nectar flow dries up. In contrast, only some overreact to poor weather. I have opened colonies during a thunderstorm – a long story, but it was to do with the day job long before we had the bee shed – and they were fine. In fact, they appeared to welcome the shelter provided from the rain as I stooped over the open box rummaging around for 2-3 day old larvae.

Finally, a queenless colony is usually more aggressive … or, perhaps more accurately, defensive. If the queenless colony does not rear a new queen it will fail.

Curing aggression

I don’t think aggressive bees should be tolerated. They make beekeeping a chore. Worse, they frighten passers by and terrify the mellisophobic 4.

More worrying still is that aggressive bees might, either unprovoked or before calming down after an inspection, sting a passer-by who then goes into anaphylactic shock.

I don’t believe that aggressive bees are better at collecting honey, though many do.

Aggression is a genetic trait 5. The only cure is therefore to change the genetics of the colony. This means culling the old queen and replacing her with a new one. If you haven’t got immediate access to a replacement queen I’d suggest culling the old queen and uniting the colony with a strong, well behaved, colony.

Often the behaviour improves quickly – presumably due to the different pheromones at work – but it’s worth remembering that it will be 6-9 weeks until all of the brood and workers originating from the old queen are replaced.

Curing defensiveness

Physician, heal thyself 6 … or, more correctly, Beekeeper, heal thyself. Since defensiveness is a reactive response to poor handling the best solution is to improve the quality and care of inspections. And possibly improve their timing as well.

Don’t inspect when the weather is poor and be particularly careful when a strong flow has recently stopped. Treat the hive and the colony gently. Use as little smoke as possible. Carefully remove one frame and set it aside. Break the propolis seal on the remaining frames, one side at a time, gently and without waving your hands over the box.

Remove and replace each frame without crushing bees under the frame lugs. Don’t crush bees between the side bars when pushing frames together. Don’t shake bees off the frames unless necessary.

Work reasonably quickly, carefully and confidently.

The bees will appreciate it.

Record keeping

When I inspect colonies, in addition to things like space, stores and queen cells, I’m also observing the behaviour of the colony. I record behavioural traits (temper, following and running on the frames) in my notes. Any colony consistently performing badly on these criteria is sooner or later requeened.

I can excuse one bad day. I can just about accept a second. But three weeks of poor temper – particularly if the other hives in the apiary are fine – and the monarch will be replaced 7.

My notes from late last season showed that one very strong colony was developing aggressive tendencies. I couldn’t really face going through a double-brood box on a cool autumn day to find the old queen and unite the colony (and had no spare queens anyway).

The first inspection of the year has demonstrated they’re still a bit surly and, whilst not awful (no stings and no following), they’re probably only going to get worse as the colony builds up this spring.

If this shows any signs of happening I’ll unite the colony with another one – it’s too early in the season to have new queens and I’m not going to put up with bad behaviour.

Or impose it on passers by.


Colophon

Stroppy (and hence stroppiness) is probably derived from obstreperous and means bad-tempered, rebellious, awkward, or unruly’. It’s a word that’s been in use since the early 1950’s. 

Going postal is a phrase that more specifically means stress-induced extreme violence. If you use Google’s ngram viewer to look the term up you’ll see that, other than a brief blip in the 1880’s, it’s a phrase only found in recent (>1990’s) English books.

Going postal ...

Going postal …

Going postal has tragic origins as it refers to a spate of shootings in US post offices, by post office workers, in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

This post was timetabled to appear last week … major access issues with the website (repeated timeouts with visitor number reduced by about 40%) were repeatedly denied by my hosting provider and took them ~4 days to resolve, by which time I decided it was better to postpone posting. I got stroppy but didn’t need to go postal 😉

 

Bait hive location

We’re fast approaching the time of the season when colonies will attempt (and manage) to swarm. Swarming is the way bees increase their colony numbers.

Inevitably, because it means the loss of many of the foragers – the honey-gathering workers – beekeepers try and prevent or control swarming. Prevention is better than control, but it can be difficult or impossible to achieve.

Inevitably, a very large number of swarms are therefore lost.

The swarming process has been well-studied by eminent scientists like Martin Lindauer in the early 50’s and Tom Seeley more recently.

Swarming in a nutshell

The colony ‘decides’ to swarm. They rear one or more new queens in queen cells. On the 9th day after the egg is laid the cells are capped. Then or shortly afterwards the colony can be expected to swarm, with the original queen and up to half of the workers leaving with her. Swarming tends to happen on a warm, calm, sunny day (but not always). Casts may follow.

The swarm leaves the hive and settles nearby, in a tree or on a fencepost. Usually this initial ‘staging post’ is a short distance (perhaps 5-20 metres) from the hive. Scout bees fly from this swarm, surveying suitable locations in the area to set up a more permanent residence.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Actually, the scouts have been hard at work already. Once the swarm issues from the hive they set about persuading all the other scouts that they’ve found the ideal location. This ‘persuasion’ is the topic of the excellent book Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seeley.

Once a consensus is reached (which might take hours or a few days) the swarm leaves its temporary staging post and flies directly to the final location … a hollow tree, the church tower or above your neighbours soffit. There they set up home.

Most swarms do not survive. They get caught in a storm before relocating, they succumb to disease or they eventually starve to death. Since most strong colonies can – unchecked – be expected to swarm every year, the fact we’re not inundated with colonies indicates that most die.

One beekeepers loss can be another beekeepers gain.

Swarms can also be an annoyance to non-beekeepers. ‘Normal’ people. This always surprises me because a swarm is a stunning site and usually totally unthreatening and unaggressive 1.

Nevertheless, they can be an irritation, both when swarming or if they become established in the church tower or a hollow tree. And, without Varroa treatment they will act as a source of disease for other colonies in the locality through robbing and drifting 2.

So, rather than just let swarms disappear over the hedge or horizon, far better to capture them, put them in a hive and manage them properly 3.

There are essentially two ways to achieve this. Get them when they’re at their temporary staging post, drop them into a box and subsequently hive them. I’ve discussed this process before.

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc …

Alternatively, set up one or more bait hives and entice a swarm to choose this location rather than the church tower or a hollow tree. Again, I’ve discussed how to set up a bait hives several times before.

Bait hives in a nutshell

Honeybee Democracy contains the definitive guide to the desirable characteristics of a bait hive. Conveniently it’s a dark box the size of a National brood box (~40 litres) with a small entrance (~12.5cm2) at the bottom. It helps a lot if it also smells of bees. This can easily be achieved by placing an old black brood frame up against one wall. Fill most or all of the rest of the box with foundationless frames 4 and place it in a suitable location.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

Which is – finally – what this post is all about.

Location, location, location

Seeley studied the desirable characteristics of both the bait hive and the location in which it is sited. By location I really mean height from the ground and orientation. However, he and others have also investigated how far from the original temporary staging post the swarm are prepared to fly to occupy a ‘des res’.

So, once you’ve prepared your bait hive(s), the three features of the location you need to think about are their a) orientation, b) height above ground, and c) distance from your bees (or other apiaries 5).

The first two are straightforward as Seeley describes in Honeybee Democracy. In the mid-70’s he conducted a series of experiments which showed that bees prefer bait hives that a) faced South and b) are located higher (5m from the ground) rather than lower (~1m) 6.

Most of the studies in Honeybee Democracy use artificially prepared swarms. Seeley would place these on a post and then observe where they relocated to … essentially he was circumventing the natural process of swarming by ‘starting’ them from the staging post. Many were conducted on an island where there were limited options to relocate to … and at limited distances.

These studies weren’t ideal to determine how far a swarm will relocate from its temporary staging post.

This is important in deciding whether to place bait hives in, near or distant from established hives.

Go forth and multiply, or vice versa

It might be logical to expect swarms to choose distant final destinations rather than nearby ones. For example, this might ensure less competition for forage. That would suggest that bait hives should be situated a long way from your own – or other – apiaries.

However, it turns out that when bees multiply they usually choose not to go forth very far. Although there is some contradictory evidence, it appears as though swarms prefer to relocate to nearby sites, rather than distant ones.

  1. Seeley and Morse (1977) demonstrated that swarms chose a nearby (~20m) site rather than a distant site (~400m) 80% of the time 7.
  2. Jaycox and Parise (1981) showed that swarms always chose sites less than 200m from the artificial swarms prepared for their study 8.
  3. Schmidt (1995) demonstrated that artificial swarms chose to relocate from as little as 0.5m to at least 1 km (average ~400m, i.e. much further away than the other studies) 9.

Why they prefer to set up home near to the original colony is unclear. At least one paper speculates it leaves the option to rob a genetically-related (and possibly less defensive) colony more easily.

Pragmatism and practical beekeeping

I set up bait hives every year. I’ve never failed to capture swarms. I’ve also – inadvertently – had swarms occupy stacks of stored brood boxes or supers. The entrances have faced almost every direction, with South East and South probably being the most often occupied.

However, this is a biased survey … I usually use the same site that worked in previous years.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

Although I’ve located bait hives high up on the top of greenhouses or sheds, the majority are on normal hive stands. This is pragmatism, not because they are more attractive to the bees at knee height 10.

I simply don’t want to climb a ladder to retrieve them 😉

Finally, I put them where I can see them and check them. I locate one in the corner of each apiary, as far from my other hives as possible, but probably never more than 10m away.

Pleasure and practical beekeeping

I also always have a bait hive in the garden where I can observe it on a daily basis. It’s great to see the first scouts appear, to watch their numbers increase day upon day, to keep an eye on the weather for a hot calm day … and to try and predict when the swarm will arrive.

Scout bees are not aggressive. They fly in a characteristic manner, checking the bait hive and the immediate vicinity from all directions.

If the numbers of scouts builds up to dozens or hundreds and they all disappear … either they’ve chosen somewhere else or the swam has been captured.

Or they’re guiding the swarm to your bait hive at that very moment.

Wait a few minutes. A swarm arriving is one of the really great sights in beekeeping 🙂


 

An Inspector Calls

Hive inspections are the preventative maintenance of the beekeeping year. Conducted properly, they include all the necessary checks to ensure all is well now and will be until the next inspection.

Inspections are an essential part of beekeeping. Beekeepers who don’t conduct inspections probably won’t be beekeepers for long … the colony swarms, goes irretrievably queenless or succumbs to disease.

Or all three 🙁

Actually, there’s another reason … I suspect that beekeepers who don’t regularly inspect colonies are more interested doing something else. They’d prefer to be playing golf or building model railways or potholing. I covered this a few months ago when discussing beekeeping principles and practice.

Shouldn't you be inspecting your bees today?

Shouldn’t you be inspecting your bees today?

Their enthusiasm to properly manage their colonies that is, not potholing 😉

Preventative maintenance

The clue is in the name … the purpose of inspections are to maintain the colony in a productive state and to prevent things from happening that might stop this being achieved.

‘Productive’ usually means collecting nectar for honey 1, but could equally well refer to making lots of bees for nucleus colony production. Or, for that matter, maximising drone production to flood the area with good genes for queen mating.

Essentially you’re checking the colony to ensure it’s best able to do what you want it to do.

And, if there are signs that things are going awry, you’re putting in place the preventative measures that help avoid a partial or complete disaster.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

A beekeeping “disaster” … let’s keep things in perspective. Swarming, queenlessness, laying workers, robbing, wasps, disease, Varroa infestation, brace comb and all the rest.

Quick or thorough but probably not both

Inspections can either be quick or they can be thorough, but rarely both. The definition of the term ‘inspection’ means “looking narrowly into; careful scrutiny or survey; close or critical examination”.

Therefore, unless you’re only checking one thing, for example whether the queen cells are sealed in a queenright queen rearing colony, it’s likely that the inspection will take some time.

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

3 day old queen cells …

How long depends upon experience. It probably takes me ~12-15 minutes to go through a box thoroughly and I have a reasonable amount of experience and get quite a bit of practice 2. This is a snail’s pace when compared with commercial beekeepers who can conduct a pretty comprehensive inspection in ~4 minutes.

A beginning beekeeper might take significantly longer than 15 minutes to inspect a colony.

But speed is not the issue. 

Why conduct inspections?

The issue – in a routine inspection – is determining the answer to at least the following five key questions (paraphrased from Ted Hooper in his Guide to Bees and Honey):

  1. Has the colony sufficient room?
  2. Is the queen present and laying as expected?
  3. Is the colony building up as expected (early season)? Are there queen cells present (mid season)?
  4. Are there signs of disease?
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores?

All of which, done properly, takes a reasonable amount of time.

So that’s the Why? What about when and how should inspections be conducted? These need to be addressed before considering the questions above 3.

When?

There are several ‘when’ questions to be considered. When should you conduct the first inspection of the year? When – as in what sort of day – should you conduct the inspection? How frequently do the inspections need to be conducted?

Unless you’re looking very quickly in a hive for a specific reason inspections should only really be conducted when the exposed brood aren’t going to get chilled. This means you should choose a day when the temperature reaches at least the mid-teens (°C). ‘Shirtsleeve’ weather some call it.

This influences both the timing of the first inspection of the year and – particularly early or late in the season – the time of day that the inspection occurs. On the East coast of Scotland I did my first thorough inspection this year on the 19th of April. Last year – although the winter was nominally shorter and warmer – some hives weren’t inspected until early May because there was never a suitable day.

Lots of hive entrance activity …

Use your own judgement about whether the weather is suitable for early season inspections. The bees should be flying well. This is both an indication that the weather is good enough and reduces the hive population making the condition and amount of brood easier to determine.

Hive entrance activity ...

Hive entrance activity …

Don’t base your decision to inspect on reports you read on beekeeping discussion forums (fora?) about others with their hives bulging with brood. They may be beekeeping in a warmer part of the country. They might be in a different country altogether. It’s also worth remembering that there’s a well-documented tendency – as with online reviews – for contributors to over-exaggerate the positives (and negatives) 4.

I also wouldn’t bother inspecting on an unseasonably warm day very early in the year. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to deduce a whole lot about the state of the colony.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish …

The frequency of inspections is largely dictated by the development time of a queen bee, and to a lesser extent by the strength of nectar flow in your locality.

If a colony is going to swarm they first prepare one or several queen cells. These are capped around day 9 after the egg is laid. Once there are capped queen cells and suitable weather the colony is likely to swarm.

That means you need to inspect more frequently than every 9 days during the peak swarming period of the season – in Fife that’s an ~8 week period from early May late June. In warmer regions, or in years with atypical weather, regular inspections might have to start earlier and continue later.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

“Around 9 days” really means anything from 8 days, so a 7 day inspection cycle makes most sense. If a careful inspection one week fails to find evidence of queen cells being developed there’s no chance the colony can swarm for a further 7 days at least (because there are no queen cells that are sufficiently developed).

“fails to find evidence” means you have to inspect carefully. A small charged queen cup, with a day old larva and a bed of Royal Jelly will be capped 6 days later … then they’ll be off 🙂

Generally 5 a colony with a clipped queen will take a little longer to swarm, allowing intervals between inspections to be extended to up to 10 days.

However, don’t rely on this … I’ve seen them (er, mine) swarm earlier than this. Inevitably it’s you’re strongest colony and best honey producer 🙁

Relax, but don’t be complacent

Once the peak swarming season is over the frequency of inspections can be reduced. I’m usually on a two-week cycle by mid-July, with most colonies getting their last inspection in mid/late August. This coincides with the optimum time to start applying Varroa treatments to minimise exposure of winter bees to deformed wing virus.

However, remember that a strong colony can fill a super very quickly during a good nectar flow. Inspections are required to ensure the colony has enough space – for brood expansion and for stores.

How to inspect

We’re running out of space … I’ll deal with this in more detail in a future post (and link to it from here).

Essentially, because the goal is to check the state of the colony, you need to ensure that the inspection is conducted in a way that best allows you to determine this.

An agitated colony or one stirred up to be highly defensive makes inspections much harder. It’s therefore important to be as gentle as possible, to be calm and measured in your movements and to avoid jarring the colony.

Use the minimal amount of smoke possible, don’t wave your hands over the top of the frames and don’t crush bees.

And if it all goes pear-shaped, if despite your best efforts the colony gets really stroppy, if you kick a frame over on the ground, drop your hive tool into the open brood box or the smoker goes out at a critical moment 6 … close up the box and try again another day.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …


Colophon

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is a play by J.B. Priestley. Set in 1912 and first performed in the mid-1940’s, it involves a man – calling himself Inspector Goole – questioning a well-to-do family about the suicide of a working class woman, Eva Smith. Over three acts it is clear that, independently, all in the family are responsible for her exploitation, abandonment, social ruin and eventual death through poisoning. “Inspector Goole” leaves, but the secrets are now out. Subsequent checks with the police and the infirmary show there is no “Inspector Goole” or recent suicides. The play ends with a phone call from the police about the suspicious death of a young woman by poisoning …

Alistair Sim starred in the 1954 film version of the play, where the surname of the lead character was changed from Goole to Poole.

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.