Category Archives: Bee shed

Bee sheds, bee houses and all things related

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.

 

The new bee shed

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

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

Mid December 2017 - foundations and base installed ...

Mid December 2017 – foundations and base installed …

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

One day all this will be under tarmac

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

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn …

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

Not near, not around … literally through.

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

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

The water table

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

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

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

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

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

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

Bigger is better

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

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

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

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

The new bee shed ...

The new bee shed …

The new shed can house seven full colonies.

Fitting out

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

Where have you heard that before?

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

Standardised entrance ...

Standardised entrance …

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

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

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor …

Hive stands

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

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

Welcome home

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

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

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

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

Lightening things up

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

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

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

The immediate environment

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

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

Willow and native hedging ...

Willow and native hedging …

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


 

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.