Category Archives: Bee shed

Bee sheds, bee houses and all things related

Bee shed 2: the sequel

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

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

Under construction ...

Under construction (mid/late 2015) …

The timing stinks

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

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

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

Time spent in reconnaissance …

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

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

No, stop, wait!

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn (2016) …

That’s a description of the current site.

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

There were some wonderful orchids though …

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid …

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

Bigger and better

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

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

Here’s what I prepared earlier

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

Dig and Dug build an apiary

Dig and Dug build an apiary

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

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

More of the same.

Shed foundations

Shed foundations

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


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

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Mobile beekeeping

After the recent long posts on DIY foundationless frames using bamboo skewers, starter strips and hive autopsies, something in a slightly lighter vein this week.

Migratory beekeeping is the term used for moving your bees to places where they are needed e.g. to California for almond pollination, or moving your bees to crops or forage for the nectar – and hence honey – they will collect e.g. taking your bees to the heather.

About 75% of all the colonies in North America are used for almond pollination. This is the largest managed pollination event in the world, with colonies being ‘rented’ for about $200 for the 4-6 week pollination period before being shipped off to pollinate other crops in a near year-long clockwise rotation round North America.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the beekeeper who, at unholy-o’clock sometime in early August, loads a couple of sealed colonies into the car and drives them up to the moors in the hope that the rains hold off and the bees can collect enough nectar for a few jars of heather honey.

There’s more than one way to do it

Here’s the last of the photos that Calum sent me a couple of months ago – a mobile bee caravan in Germany. I love the way it’s simply parked on what looks like the village green, with a bit of tape stretched around it to keep people at a safe distance.

Bee caravan

Bee caravan …

Lorry loads ...

Lorry loads …

It might be a bit small and poorly lit to conduct inspections inside and the photo seems to show the beekeeper looking at a frame standing outside, behind the caravan. However, the simplicity of being able to hitch it to the car and drive off to take advantage of better forage is really appealing. The ‘top opening’ hive we’re familiar with may not be ideal for these types of small trailers where headroom can be limited. One solution is to use a hive that opens from the rear, such as the AZ hive from Slovenia. The AZ acronym is derived from Anton Žnideršič (1874-1947), a famous Slovenian beekeeper and inventor of the hive and hive house. There’s a comprehensive introduction to this hive type by Mark Chorba available online (large PDF) which discusses the benefits (and disadvantages) … and has some excellent illustrations including the truck for mobile beekeeping shown on the right.

While we’re on the topic of mobile beekeeping, I discovered this (poor quality) video of someone moving a hive to the moors … by bicycle. I know one or two beekeepers who travel between apiaries by bike, but this shows a tremendous level of dedication. And strength.

Can you imagine the return journey after a successful early autumn on the heather? The hive, now weighed down by a couple of filled supers, together with the descent from the moors, means you’d need forearms like Popeye to use the brakes and maintain control.

Mobile extracting

In addition to mobile beekeeping using a bike trailer there’s now mobile extracting using a trailer. The snappily-named International Honey Product Ltd. make a 120 frame mobile extractor (jump to ~36s. to skip the intro).

Although there are a few bees flying around inside the trailer in the video it’s not the orgy of robbing you might expect. Apparently this is because the entrances and exits have air curtains that effectively separate the two environments. Clever.

They claim to be able to process over three thousand pounds of honey an hour, so I’ll need to scale up a bit before being able to justify the purchase.

For the moment my mobile beekeeping is restricted to my hivebarrow

 

German bee houses part 2

In the first instalment I posted a series of pictures (kindly provided by Calum) of bee houses near Lindau in Bavaria, Germany. The images showed ‘properties’ towards the budget end of the market, offering the bare minimum – a roof overhead and sometimes little more. However, with a bit more time, ingenuity, money and a willingness to ruthlessly exploit the planning laws all sorts of things are possible …

Functional minimalism

Here are a couple of bee houses built to a similar design. A solid-looking shed with a good high ceiling (the pent roof design must offer good headroom over the hives, with ample space for the stacked supers or tall beekeepers) and reasonable levels of lighting by replacing the front wall with translucent corrugated plastic. Calum assures me that there is usually enough light in these bee houses for a proper frame inspection i.e. to see if there are eggs present.

Small corrugated bee house

Small corrugated bee house

It’s clear how the bees access the hives which – as last week – simply abut the front wall of the bee house. Since there are no opening windows as such I presume there’s a gap under the eaves through which the bees can escape during inspections.

Large corrugated bee house

Large corrugated bee house

Moving up in the world

The bee houses above are a pretty good size, both in terms of the number of hives they can accommodate and the space to work them and for storage. However, with lots of hives inevitably the space becomes more crowded. The following photograph is of the inside of a 30-hive bee house. The majority of the hives are of a design known as a Zander hive, with a few other Deutsch Normal (which, as Calum says, “is funny as there is no standard in Germany”).

Crowded house

Crowded house

The roof lights provide pretty good illumination (they would be a welcome addition to my own bee shed) which makes it much easier to see the huge amount of additional ‘essentials’ that beekeepers accumulate.

Bee house and bench seat

Bee house and bench seat

And before we move on to the Rolls-Royce of bee houses here’s another one (above), this time from the outside. I particularly like the sheltered porch area and bench seat, perfect for relaxing on with a cuppa after working up a sweat.

A luxury bee house

My bee shed starts to look rather plain and dowdy when compared with the nicely decorated side panels in the photograph above. All of the bee houses shown so far have provided basic weather protection together with more or less comfort for the beekeeper and space for storage or relaxation.

The final bee house is spectacular. It houses 40 colonies and has an extractor (centrifuge) room with an adjacent dining room and living room. Upstairs there is space for a flat … “planning laws don’t really apply to beekeepers in Germany – as the need to keep them very happy is recognised”, says Calum).

Luxury bee house

Luxury bee house

Can you imagine building something like that in the association apiary?

Finally, here’s a close-up view of the entrances to this splendid building. The windows are hinged from the top and the area under the eaves is very shaded. It’s not clear whether the bees that fly during inspections escape through the open windows (in which case hinging them at the bottom would almost certainly be more effective as bees always crawl upwards) or if they exit somehow above the windows.

Hive entrances and windows

Hive entrances and windows

The landing boards are painted to try and reduce drifting which might be a major issue with colonies packed so close together. Some of the brood boxes are also decorated with flowers or motifs to help the bees returning from orientation flights find the correct hive. There are a couple of wasp traps fixed to the front of the bee house, one just out of shot and one about 2/3rd the way along in the picture above.

That’s almost the last of this brief review of German bee houses from the photos that Calum kindly sent me. I’m saving one back for another posting which will appear sometime in the future. I’ve also received some additional images of bee houses from another part of Germany and northern France which I’ll post in due course.

I’m off to check the Scottish planning laws …


 Actually Calum called this the ‘Mercedes’ of bee houses. This either reflects a German opinion of the relative merits of Daimler Benz Mercedes and Rolls-Royce (who are actually owned by BMW these days), or it might suggest that there are even more luxurious bee houses out there …

German bee houses part 1

After a bit more than a year of use I’m convinced of the benefits of a bee house or shed. They provide protection for both the hives and the beekeeper, enabling inspections in otherwise borderline conditions and – at least from my experience this season – earlier colony build-up and longer brood rearing. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to synchronise colony inspections to idyllic “shirtsleeve” days, with warm sunshine and light winds, either due to work commitments or (in our case) because we need brood at particular times of the week for research.

Learn from others and your own mistakes

My bee shed is a simple re-purposed good quality garden shed on a solid base with some holes cut in the walls and custom-built windows. I’ve discussed the perceived and actual benefits of the bee shed previously, and described the design (and evolution) of the hive entrances and shed exits used by the bees. The functionality was achieved by discussion with contributors to the SBAi beekeeping forum, further informed by a tour of a ‘shed’ owned by a respected and experienced UK beekeeper, and with a bit of trial and error.

Despite being broadly satisfied with my current setup I’m always interested to see how others have approached the problem of providing both shelter and access. I was therefore very interested to receive a series of photographs of bee houses from Calum, a regular reader and contributor, who lives in Lindau, Germany. With Calum’s permission I’m posting these as they might also be of interest to other readers.

A simple shelter from the elements

Lindau is in Bavaria, on the northern shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee). The climate there is “mild and generally warm and temperate”, with average temperatures of 9.1°C and rainfall of about 1133mm (according to climate-data.org). The average temperature in the warmest (July) and coldest month (January) is 18.7°C and -0.7°C. This gives an idea of the type of conditions these bee houses were designed for. Calum tells me that there are at least 30 he’s aware of within 10km of Lindau.

This simple shelter provides some protection for the beekeeper working the colonies together with an extended porch area to protect the hive entrances – presumably from snow and sun. The hive entrances simply line up with a gap between the bottom of the front wall and the floor, that doubles as a landing board. I particularly like the solitary bee nestbox on one of the end walls of the shelter.

Here’s another that provides even less shelter for either the beekeeper or the hives, consisting of nothing more than a roof and end walls. Nevertheless, the roof looks pretty sturdy to keep the snow off and the hives are oriented to catch the morning sun.

Barely a bee house ...

Barely a bee house …

Three walls and a roof

Finally, here’s something a little more substantial. This is the bee house that Calum inherited when he started out, complete with the sign which I think reads “Vorsicht Stechgefahr Bienen” (Caution danger stinging bees). Clearly this was a rather robust shed originally. Apparently it was built without the front wall making adding/removing hives a simple task – no need to negotiate the door. Security can be provided by installing a couple of planks from the inside that protect the hives. The hives are higher than on a conventional stand, making inspections of a single/double brood box comfortable, but making the removal of supers from the top of the pile a precarious occupation.

Calum's bee house

Calum’s bee house

In the next instalment (though not next week) I’ll post some rather grander designs, including one with integral dining and living rooms …

 


For comparison, I live in Fife which enjoys about half the rainfall of Lindau and has an annual temperature average of 8.3°C and January and July averages of 2.5°C and 14.7°C respectively.

Entrances and exits

Over the course of the first full season using the bee shed the access to the hives – for the bees, not the beekeeper – has been simplified and improved. The current versions appear to work well and provide the necessary security and ease of use – for the beekeeper, not the bees  😉

General principles

The bee shed houses nucs and full colonies. The space available allows a maximum of two nucs and four full colonies arranged down one side of the shed. There’s additional space for 3-4 more nucs on the opposite side of the shed that is not currently used. In retrospect I should have purchased a shed twice as long (24′ not 12′) for flexibility, storage and to have more space to work in.

Sometimes the full colonies need to be replaced by nucs so the entrances have to be compatible. In all cases the bees access the colony, or leave the shed depending upon the direction they’re travelling, from an unmodified hive through a hole in the wall. Therefore there needs to be a bee-tight interface between the wall of the shed and the front of the hive (or nuc). Without this there’s a chance the shed will fill with disorientated bees.

What I’ve learned this season is that compatibility and flexibility are at least as important as security. It’s possible to build reasonably effective and secure interfaces without having everything tightly interlocking, screwed down or immovable. A combination of the weight of the hive, coupled with careful inspections, are sufficient to keep the colony in place.

In an ideal world …

Clearers on ...

Clearers on …

… the simplest way to provide access would be to push the face of the hive flush against the shed wall through which a hole had been cut at the right height from the ground. This would work perfectly, be bee tight, not require any hive modifications and be fully interchangeable. However, as the season progresses supers are added and these would also have to be placed flush with the shed wall. The first problem is that, without serious modification, the shed windows get in the way (see the image on the right). They almost always have an inner sill of some sort. The second problem is that having the hive tight against the wall reduces the space for frame or hive tool manipulation and makes returning supers more difficult. Finally, pushing the brood box and supers flush against the wall would prevent the use of a hive roof.

Of course, since the colonies are in a shed the roof is not required for weatherproofing … but it’s essential to provide a safe place to stand the smoker as it cools down. All other surfaces are wood or Correx and I don’t want to burn the shed down.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

The required interchangeability with nucleus colonies raises two additional issues. Firstly the poly nucs I use (Everynucs) have an integral 2cm ‘landing board’ in front of the cavernous entrance slot. Pushing them ‘flush’ to the shed wall leaves a big gap. Secondly, the height of this entrance slot is not identical to the hive floors I use. I could build alternative floors or buy other nucs, but instead came up with a solution that saved me doing either (and since I have more invested in nuc boxes than the shed itself this made economic sense as well) and solved the problems with hive manipulations and adding supers.

A pragmatic solution …

Ducting ...

Ducting …

… required that the hives were separated from the shed wall by a short tunnel built from some spare rigid extractor fan ducting. In the original design this was carefully shaped to fit neatly into the entrance slot of the hive, with the remaining front of the hive blanked off and blocked with an equally carefully shaped piece of Correx. This worked well … until the hive needed to be moved, or was inadvertently nudged during hive inspections. A partial solution was to screw the hive floor to the stand with L-shaped brackets. Although this prevented the accidental movement it made deliberate hive exchanges a right pain.

Ducting ...

Ducting …

It turns out that a far simpler solution is to have a simple flush-fitting piece of ducting (angled slightly upwards to prevent water ingress). One end is wedged into the hole in the shed wall, the other is butted up against the face of the hive. The remainder of the hive entrance slot is blocked with a standard entrance reducer screwed in place to the hive floor (not shown fixed in the picture on the right). This works a treat. The hive is heavy enough to not shift about unless deliberately moved. If I need to move it I can just pick it up as I would any other hive (i.e. carefully and with a lot of wincing).

The nucleus solution

Foam entrance block ...

Foam entrance block …

Because of the landing board these are actually easy to push flush to the shed wall, which still leaves just about enough space for frame manipulation and getting the roof on and off. I originally discussed using a small block of foam with a small arch cut into it to allow the bees access to the wider world. It turned out that the bees quickly chewed through some of the original foam blocks I used and, if the block was too small, they were difficult to reposition when moving the nuc boxes.

Correx and foam block

Correx and foam block …

I’ve recently started using an improved entrance consisting of a denser piece of foam strapped to a suitably sized Correx offcut (see picture right). The simple gaffer tape ‘handles’ allow this to be pinned to the hive body for security and make it easy to relocate when moving the nucs. I’ve stopped strapping the nucs to the shed wall to prevent them moving … there’s no need if you’re careful when inspecting them. I do usually have a strap holding the lid on. Largely because if I don’t it’s something else to locate when I want to move the box.

Pinned back ears ...

Pinned back ears …

If I need to replace a full hive with a nuc I can simply remove the ducting and push the nuc flush with the shed wall. Finally, the two dedicated nuc entrances in the shed wall can be blanked off using a piece of Correx placed into a sort of ‘holder’ on the inner wall. This turns out to be unnecessary and I’ve barely used it. If I need to block the shed entrance I simply stuff it with foam. Unsubtle, but highly effective.

Landing and drifting

On the outside of the shed are a series of simple Correx landing boards in different colours to help the bees locate their own colonies. I’ve no evidence that this either reduces the level of drifting between colonies or increases the ease with which heavily-laden foragers return with pollen and nectar.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

However, even if the bees don’t find them useful, I like them.

Varroa control in the bee shed

The last colonies to be treated for Varroa this late summer (early autumn?) are those in the bee shed. These have had consistently low levels of mites all season … levels were so low that we uncapped two full frames of drone brood (individually) from one of them in June without finding a single mite.

Nevertheless, because …

  • mite levels can rise dramatically from low levels if not tackled – for example, see the modelled expansion of the Varroa population.
  • reduced queen laying at this time of year means mites have fewer pupae to target resulting in elevated infestation levels in the critical winter bees (and why this is important). In recent sampling of pupae we’ve seen an increase in the number of mites in capped in cells which we assume is due to this.
  • we need to keep these colonies with the lowest practical mite levels.

… they were treated anyway. I’m reasonably confident that sublimated oxalic acid (which is the active ingredient in Api-Bioxal) does little or no harm to the colony, and am sure that the mite reduction is always beneficial. I’d therefore prefer to treat than regret not treating at a later stage in the winter or early next season.

Expose the bees to the vapour … not the beekeeper

There’s nothing fundamentally different about treating colonies in the bee shed than those outside. Using a Sublimox vaporiser is very straightforward. However, two points need a little more care than normal.

The first is the sealing of the colony. To be effective the vapour must be evenly spread throughout the hive. Because of the ‘tunnel-like’ entrances there are more potential gaps from which the vapour can escape. I therefore do my best to push the hive tightly against the entrance tunnel after sealing the latter with a block of foam. The floors on these hives were built by Pete Little and have a commendably leakproof Varroa tray, making them ideal for sealing the open mesh floor. As an aside, don’t try squirting the vapour in from the entrance … direct inspection through the Perspex crownboard suggests that (at least in my setup) the vapour only poorly permeates the hive if administered like this. Been there, done that. The goal is to get the oxalic acid crystals spread evenly and thoroughly throughout the hive, ensuring maximum exposure to the mites, and maximising the duration of activity against,

The second point relates to the ‘leakiness’ of the hive and the fact that it’s in an enclosed space (the shed). There’s therefore no chance of standing upwind and allowing escaping vapour to drift away safely. Operator protection is particularly important as the shed is liable to fill with oxalic acid vapour. Eye protection and a suitable particle mask rated for acid particulates are essential. It’s a case of “lighting the blue touch paper and retiring to a safe distance”. With a Sublimox you can simply invert the machine – into the ‘delivery’ mode – and leave it hanging out of a hole through the sidewall of the floor (see photo above right). There’s a couple of seconds before sublimation starts which you can use to step out into the fresh air, only returning once the vapour has cleared.

Finally, if you run your vaporiser off a generator it should also be left outside the shed. Don’t gas the bees when you’re gassing the bees 😉


Plus a recalcitrant swarm that’s on it’s second round of treatment due to the stubbornly high mite levels. Grrrr.

Bee shed rules

The first rule of the bee shed ...

The first rule of the bee shed …

The bee shed is getting busy and now houses four full colonies and a nuc or two. With several people involved in sampling colonies for our DWV research we’ve drawn up some simple rules to ensure things stay neat and tidy.

This post – slightly more frivolous than usual – should automagically appear on my Twitter account as well. Normal service will be resumed shortly … with part 2 of “Spot the Queen“.


‡ The first rule there are no rules” is often thought to be a reference to the 1999 film Fight Club where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) welcomes the unnamed Narrator (Ed Norton) and lists the eight rules that must be followed. In the film, the first rule of Fight Club was: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club was: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! Perhaps surprisingly (considering the subject of the film), Fight Club does include a reference to bees … the following quote appears on the screen of the Narrators’ computer “Worker bees can leave. Even drones can fly away. The Queen is their slave” … not entirely biologically accurate.

“The rules are … there are no rules” actually comes from the 1978 film Grease … a rather different film altogether.

Bee shed inspections

A brief update on how things have been progressing in the bee shed. This is my first full season keeping colonies full-time within a shed or building though I’ve successfully overwintered mini-nucs in an unheated greenhouse in the past.

Under construction ...

Under construction …

When installed at the end of last season there was almost no need to open the hives, so it’s only this Spring that the pros and cons of the bee shed have begun to be properly understood.

The colonies are completely enclosed with simple tunnels leading to exits on the East/South East face of the shed. All the colonies are housed in standard National cedar boxes or poly nucs. Other than clear perspex insulated crownboards, there is no additional insulation and the shed is not heated. The shed is situated in open parkland with woodland and arable land nearby containing good forage and there is a permanent water supply nearby.

Colony development and Varroa loads

Colonies went through the winter in single National brood boxes, fed with fondant and treated with oxalic acid by vaporisation in September (before moving them to the shed) and in midwinter. The first inspection was conducted in late March. Colonies were building up well and were significantly stronger than colonies headed by sister queens in the same apiary or in my other apiary. Between late February and early May colonies dropped only 3-4 mites in total, with Varroa boards located within pull-out trays in the hive floor. I’m sure I missed a few mites, but doubt it was very many. We’ve recently uncapped a full frame of drone brood – each cell uncapped individually – and found no Varroa present. Mite levels are therefore reassuringly low – for reasons to be discussed in a future post – with no signs of DWV-related disease.

Varroa tray ...

Varroa tray …

Since mid-April colony development has been very good and they are now on double National brood boxes with 2-3 supers. A fourth super went onto one colony on the 25th of May and the stack now nearly reaches the shed roof. A four frame nuc has been split off one colony already to cool it down a little. Quite a bit of developing brood has also been harvested at weekly intervals for our research, usually by simply cutting a big slab out of the middle of a frame. This has probably also held the colonies back a bit and it’s only now I’m starting to plan for swarm prevention/control.

Inspections

Inspections have been easier than expected. These colonies are headed by queens with reasonable genetics (Heinz queens – local mongrels of 57 varieties, reared by me in 2015). The bees are steady on the comb and tend not to fly up at you when the crownboard is lifted. They’re nothing particularly special, but would be considered reasonably placid and non-aggressive.

The colony is gently smoked from outside the shed (through the entrance tunnel) and a small amount is wafted under the crownboard or between the QE and the bottom super. After allowing them to settle the supers and crownboard are removed and placed outside on an overturned roof. The queen excluder and adherent bees are also left standing outside (unless it’s cold when the bees are shaken off into the open hive).

Inspecting the colony is straightforward. Any frames removed to make space are rested on the hive stand. Double brooded colonies are split into two, with one box stood aside on an eke on the roof of an adjacent hive roof. Inevitably, the queenless half of the split tends to get tetchy within a few minutes, so it’s best to deal with them first. When frames need to be shaken free of bees this can be done either over the open hive or, better still, directly into a gap between the frames. If done outside many of the nurse bees on the frame fail to get back to the hive (they’ve probably not been on orientation flights yet).

The smoker is usually stood just outside the shed door … if you keep it in the shed during inspections you can end up being kippered 😎

Flying bees

Perhaps surprisingly, even going through all 22 frames in a double colony, the shed does not fill with a maelstrom of flying bees. Undoubtedly this is partly because they’re reasonably calm colonies. Those that do fly rapidly find the window or open door and make their exit. When I first started doing inspections in the bee shed I’d manually help the stragglers outside after reassembling the hive. It turns out that there’s really no need … almost all the bees quickly vacate the shed by making a beeline ( 😉 ) for the bright lights of the windows or doors.

The great escape ...

The great escape …

Just how quickly the bees leave the shed was emphasised last Sunday when selecting larvae for grafting. I opened and inspected a double brooded colony, found a suitable frame with 24 hour larvae on it and placed it in a two frame nuc for protection. Within 5 minutes I could work without a veil (I react very badly to stings to the face so take particular care over this) without interruption from flying bees.

Weather and temperature

I’m sure that the temperature influences the behaviour of the colonies in the shed. They certainly forage – or perhaps collect water to use fondant or crystallised stores – at lower temperatures than those situated outside. When inspections are conducted on a cold day (say 10-11°C) they are even more steady than usual. However, those that do fly take longer to leave the shed and they can end up clustering in small, rather pathetic, little groups which then need to be scooped up on a hive tool and dropped into the colony. On cool days I don’t leave the supers or QE outside the shed as the bees would rapidly get chilled. Work commitments mean that inspections must be conducted on certain days, so I don’t have the luxury of simply waiting until it’s a bit warmer. Although the shed is unheated the temperature differential between the inside and outside is significant – perhaps 4-8°C – or more if the sun is shining on the window side of the shed. On a warm, sunny day the temperature inside the shed can easily reach the mid-20’s which makes inspections a hot and sweaty activity.

Needless to say, inspections on damp or wet days are much better than on colonies located outside. I avoid days when it’s raining hard, partly for my own comfort to avoid getting wet accessing the apiary, but also because I’d prefer not to force the bees to fly on a really wet day. However, on damp or drizzly days, inspections proceed as normal.

And the bad news is …

Almost everything I’ve written above is positive and my overall initial impression is that the bee shed offers very significant advantages for the sort of beekeeping I need to do. However, there are some drawbacks and design issues that either currently cause problems, or might in the future.

The first is that it’s too small. The shed is 12 x 8 feet and I should have got one at least half as long again. This is largely because it’s also used for equipment storage and has a small table for working on. With four hives I need storage for 8-12 supers, additional brood boxes and spare frames. If I was starting again, knowing what I know now, I’d get an 18 x 10 shed with the intention of housing at least 6 colonies and some additional nucs (by contrast mine will accommodate 4 full colonies and 2 nucs down the sunny side of the shed, with the possibility of 2-3 additional nucs at a squeeze). It’s not only equipment storage that takes up the room … you need considerable room to work as well, with space for turning, stacking and temporary placement of hive parts. Working in the bee shed encourages an efficiency of movement – or causes a lot of collisions – I’d not expected.

Essential storage ...

Essential storage …

Secondly the lighting is – at best – variable. On a sunny morning there’s ample light to see eggs and tiny larvae. However, as the colonies have grown, the added supers restrict the amount of light getting through the windows. On an overcast day, or late in the afternoon, the lighting is pretty hopeless – good enough to see queen cups/cells, good enough to locate the queen, but (particularly on dark frames) too dim to see eggs, small larvae or to check frames for signs of disease. It’s not unusual to have to carry frames outside to inspect them fully. I’m currently investigating 12V LED systems run from a solar panel-charged caravan battery. My only concern is that this might disorientate the bees and slow their exit from the shed during inspections.

Multiple supers ...

Multiple supers …

Thirdly, I should have spent more time designing the hive stands. I made them an inch or so too low which caused some problems with locating the hive entrances centrally in the T&G planks, but was not insurmountable. More problematically, as a consequence of the leg locations it’s difficult to keep the floor clear of hive debris that falls through the OMF. With the Varroa boards in place this isn’t an issue, but when they’re out – which I prefer if there’s a chance of the shed getting very warm – the debris needs to be regularly swept up to keep the shed clean. Some sort of removable debris trays would have been a good addition, but are not easy to fit retrospectively. However, the overall hive stand design – with the legs going through the suspended floor to avoid vibrations – works very well.

Finally, swarm control has yet to be tackled. My preferred simple method is doing a vertical split (or using a Snelgrove board that I’m experimenting with this year) but this requires an upper entrance which, obviously, cannot easily be arranged. One possibility is using the Demaree method of swarm control. Alternatively, it would be straightforward to remove the queen into a nuc and let the colony requeen. Currently I’m trying to postpone the inevitable by removal of some brood, ensuring they have enough space within the brood boxes which I swap (top to bottom, bottom to top) periodically, ensuring they have sufficient space in the supers and keeping a close eye on them. The queens are clipped. If they do swarm they’re likely to end up in a lump outside the hive entrance – the ground is flagged and so they should hopefully be relatively easy to scoop up.


 

Nucs in the bee shed

Slow-mo of bees returning to a nucleus colony in the bee shed …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The bee shed is designed to accommodate a maximum of four National hives along one wall of its twelve foot length. However, space remains at the outermost ends of the stands sufficient to house a couple of nucs, so I made the necessary modifications and installed a nuc recently. They’re a bit squeezed into the corners but there’s still enough space to inspect them. Since there’s almost no time during the year when there aren’t nucs in use these spaces will be well used, and the shelter offered by the bee shed will provide additional protection when overwintering smaller colonies.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

Almost all my nucs are of the Everynuc design sold by Thorne’s. With a little modification these Langstroth-sized poly nucs are excellent, though the entrance is far bigger than it needs to be. These nucs have an integral feeder, a separate floor and Varroa tray, a thin polycarbonate inner cover (it’s a bit grand calling it a crownboard) and a good thick roof. Importantly, as far as fitting them into the bee shed, they have a projecting ‘landing board’, which I found could be pushed flush with the wall of the shed so negating the need for an entrance tunnel of any kind. The remaining gap between the nuc body and the shed wall can be filled with a small block of dense foam.

Nuc entrance ...

Nuc entrance …

To make sealing the colony easier or to add a queen excluder or single bee-width entrance I bodged together some scrap wood to make a simple holder – fitted onto the inside wall of the shed – into which suitably sized pieces of Correx or QE could be slotted. In the picture (bottom right) the Correx is out of sight behind the nuc but this nuc is ‘overheight’ because it has a Miller-type feeder on. Finally, to ensure the nuc couldn’t be accidentally moved during inspections or when I was pottering around in the shed, I added a couple of tie-down points on the walls and so could run a lightweight strap around the floor of the nuc, securing everything in place.

Correx entrance thingy ...

Correx entrance thingy …

Late on Easter Sunday I visited my out apiary, sealed the nuc entrance with foam and transported it to the apiary with the bee shed – these sites are several miles apart, so there was no issues with the bees returning to the wrong place. The colony was busy dealing with a block of fondant in the feeder compartment. After moving them to the shed I left them to settle for ~20 minutes then gently removed the entrance foam and gave them a small waft of smoke. I then carefully placed the nuc in situ. Not a single bee escaped. Why can’t it always be this simple?

Nuc in the bee shed ...

Nuc in the bee shed …

The following morning there were a few bees taking tentative first flights from the simple hole I’d bored through the wall of the shed. I’ve also built them a Correx (no surprises there for regular visitors to this site) landing board, both to help them land – rather than clinging to the shiny paint finish of the shed – and to help them orientate to the entrance. As you can see from the video (top of page), they largely ignore the landing board. The bee shed hive entrances have a variety of coloured landing boards to try and discourage bees from drifting between colonies … but it’s nothing like as distinctively (or artfully) decorated as some of the bee houses on the continent.

 

The bee shed

Under construction ...

Under construction …

The bee shed is a new development in my beekeeping. It was built to house the colonies we need for our work on deformed wing virus. This requires access to larvae and pupae for as long as possible during the year … it therefore seemed worthwhile trying to keep colonies in a sheltered environment in the hope that the queen would rear brood for longer. An additional benefit is that colonies can be opened in poor weather. Due to the timing of the development cycle of bees we almost always have to harvest larvae or brood on a Monday, irrespective of the weather. I’ve previously had to open colonies in the middle of a thunderstorms, getting drenched in the process. The ‘operator protection’ offered by the bee shed will make this a much less unpleasant task in inclement weather (at least for the beekeeper 😉 ).

Location, location …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The shed is situated in a sheltered corner of thin woodland, with the long side facing approximately south-east to catch the morning sun. The spot is a real sun trap and well sheltered from prevailing winds. There is water nearby and a wide variety of forage available within flying distance. On a warm sunny morning it’s an idyllic spot. However, not everything is perfect. Access is a bit limited and there’s no electricity, so I’ll need to use my Kelly Kettle for making a brew. The shed is built onto a solid slabbed foundation that is pretty-much level so I don’t need to worry about levelling the hives when using foundationless frames which must hang vertically. The shed was built by Gillies and Mackay of Errol and the exterior is ~19mm thick T&G boards. They built it with four window openings all down one side … in retrospect I should have asked for a couple of additional openings on the opposite side as well and I may yet take a jigsaw to the wall if needed. Other than fitting metal edging all around the base to prevent little critters getting underneath, it’s a pretty-much ‘off the shelf’ (albeit custom-built if that isn’t a contradiction) 12′ x 8′ shed, liberally painted with something not particularly environmentally friendly (Sadolin Quick Dry woodstain I think). The fenced off apiary site has space for a further 6-8 colonies, with additional space for storage of spare nuc boxes, supers and all the other paraphernalia that beekeeping requires.

Hive stands

Feet through the floor ...

Feet through the floor …

I’ve already briefly described the hive stands. These are completely unexciting. There are two, end to end, down the long-side of the shed. The advantage of two separate stands is that there are fewer colonies sharing the stand to get disturbed during inspections. I considered individual stands but realised that this would prevent the addition of ‘infill’ nucs should we need them. Actually, not really infill, but there’s space at either end for a 5/6 frame poly nuc. The only additional design feature of the hive stands is that the legs reach through the floor of the shed and stand directly on the slabbed foundations. This again reduces vibrations as I potter around in the shed opening other colonies … or brewing tea. This was a suggestion from an experienced bee shed user and contributor to the SBAi forums for which I’m very grateful. I slightly misjudged the height of the stands during design/installation … this has necessitated additional pieces of wood being added along the top runners. Without these the hive entrances were in line with the thinnest part of the wall (the T&G), rather than the thicker centre of the plank. D’oh! In due course I’ll add additional wood along the rails of the stand, incorporating Correx sheets underneath the colonies to catch debris that would otherwise fall onto the floor. These won’t be proper Varroa trays as they’ll be well separated from the open mesh floors, but simply a way of keeping hive rubbish off the floor. The hive floors we use were built by Pete Little and have a particularly well designed Varroa tray that is almost perfect for sealing off the bottom of the colony, both when counting mite drop and during oxalic acid sublimation.

Entrances

Correx ...

Correx …

Many bee sheds I’ve seen have rather fancy entrances with sealable doors on the outside, the ability to add mouseguards and all sorts of entrance reducers. I decided that, a) I don’t know yet what features I need so can’t add them from the start and b) I can cobble-together almost anything from Correx if needed. I therefore opted for a simple hole through which I pushed some spare rectangular extractor hood ducting. This abuts the front entrance slot of the hive – I use standard floors on the hives in the shed, rather than my preferred Kewl floors. The ducting is a pretty tight fit through the side of the shed, so isn’t fixed in place. It rests on a small piece of softwood on the front of the hive floor, with the remainder of the hive entrance i.e. “outside” the ducting, sealed off with a piece of Correx nailed in place to both the bottom of the brood box and the top of the hive floor. The Correx has a flap that lifts up to accommodate the ducting. When I move the hives I simply pull them away from the ducting and close the flap.

Ducting ...

Ducting …

The ducting is only about 12-14cm in length. I didn’t want rain to be driven into the hive, or for water to run down the smooth-walled ducting. The ducting is therefore inclined upwards towards the hive entrance at about a ~15° angle. Additionally, there’s a ~1cm ‘step’ between the floor of the ramp and the hive entrance. I reckoned that this arrangement wouldn’t interfere with removal of corpses, but would maximise protection from the elements. I sprayed the inside of the outer end of the ducting with some gloss paint and liberally sprinkled it with sand to provide a good grip to bees landing. To seal off the exposed edges of the ducting from the outside I added an external entrance ‘archway’ (see picture) with the inevitable Correx landing board screwed on underneath it. I can add entrance reducers (Correx … no surprises there 😉 ) as needed simply by pinning them in place to the ‘archway’. The entrance was pretty-much bodged together (a speciality of mine) … we’ll see how they get on with them over the course of the season, make running modifications as needed and/or design improvements for the the future.

Exits

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

Opening a hive inevitably results in bees flying up and out. I’ve seen a variety of solutions to allow bees to exit bee sheds. These include:

  • clear roof vents so the bees are attracted up to the roof apex of the shed and can then escape through the vent – if built properly this also hugely increases the available light inside the shed, but does require major roof modifications. These were beyond the budget and I was concerned about maintaining a fully weathertight structure, so didn’t choose this option.
  • windows that are hinged along the bottom edge and that are left open a couple of inches during inspections. Bees attracted to the light (it’s always pretty dingy in the shed when compared to daylight) walk up the window and fly from the gap. Although the shed was pretty good value, the custom-built windows offered by Gillies and Mackay weren’t … so this option was abandoned as well.
Let there be light ...

Let there be light …

I wanted a no-moving-parts solution. Therefore, the windows consist of two sheets of Perspex with the outer sheet being 2cm short of the window frame height. This means that bees inside the shed that fly towards the light and crawl up the window eventually reach a gap from which they can fly out. To prevent ingress of rain and draughts the upper gap is overlapped by a short inner pane, perhaps 15cm in height, separated from the outer pane by about 20mm. This arrangement appears to work well. It means there are no moving parts to go wrong, no windows to forget to open (or close afterwards), no thick window frame to further reduce the lighting and yet still provides reasonable weather protection. The inner windows are screwed in place with the outers being secured with waterproof sealant.

Still to do

A combination of flooding, the short day lengths, an arm injury, lethargy and lousy organisation (as a previous student of mine once said, “He couldn’t run a bath”) mean that there are a number of tasks to finish before the season proper starts. These range from adding guttering and storage racks at the rear of the shed to taking a couple of deckchairs over for warmer days. Most importantly I need to prepare additional entrance holes for some nucleus hives. My preferred poly nucs fit flush to the sidewall of the shed (with a bit of bodging) and so should not need the same sort of entrance tunnel. I’m simply going to bore a wine-cork sized hole through the wall … this should be easy to defend and, if needed, seal with a cork. Note to self – drink wine.

But what about swarm control … ?

And all sorts of similar beekeeping questions. I’ve not a Scooby. The classic ‘artificial swarm’ (Pagden method) is out for obvious reasons … this isn’t an issue as it’s not a method I use very often. The two choices would be the vertical Demaree method which I quite like (but which is better with an upper entrance that can’t be provided inside the shed) or simply removing the queen to a nucleus hive. It will be interesting to see what works best. However, since we harvest brood for research during the season these colonies may not get strong enough to swarm until the queen gets pretty old and tired. In the same vein, I don’t expect these colonies to be bulging at the seams and piling in the nectar all season, but – just in case – there’s headroom for about 4 supers 🙂 . It’s not likely that other standard beekeeping activities will be problematic … requeening, uniting, feeding, Varroa treatments and standard inspections should all proceed as required (just out of the rain and wind). The installed colonies are currently in hives identical to those I’d use outside … however, this is likely to change as there’s little need for a roof and so I’m likely to replace the crownboard-insulation-roof with a simple sheet of thick polythene with a block of Kingspan insulation on top.

First impressions last

Perspex crownboard ...

Perspex crownboard …

The first hives were installed in October last year, so I have almost no experience yet in handling colonies ‘indoors’. On a sunny day the lighting is good enough to see eggs and larvae but I might have to consider installing lighting for late-afternoon apiary sessions. We’ve had a reasonably warm, wet winter – very wet – and the colonies look strong at the time of writing (the image on the right is not representative as it was taken some time ago). Colonies within the shed are significantly more active than colonies headed by sister queens outside the shed in the same apiary. However, there may still be genetic differences between the colonies that account for this. This increased activity is twofold – more bees flying on warm days and more hive debris (presumably due to brood being reared and stores uncapped) on the Varroa trays. Only once the hives are opened will it become clear whether these apparent signs of increased activity really reflect stronger colonies that are rearing more brood.

What is clear though is that on days borderline for flying – the sort of day when only the odd bee ventures out – the colonies in the shed have no more bees flying than those outside. On these sorts of days a peek through the perspex crownboards shows that the clusters within the bee shed are ‘looser’, with more bees wandering about in the hive corners and with the bees spread across more frames. However, this increased activity inside the hive doesn’t appear to translate into more bees venturing out if the weather isn’t really good enough.

It’s going to be an interesting season …

Waiting for the season to start ...

Waiting for the season to start …