Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Bring out your dead

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

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

Let the undertakers do their work

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

Corpses at hive entrance ...

Corpses at hive entrance …

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

Attrition rate

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

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

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

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

Don't count the corpses ...

Don’t count the corpses …

A bent piece of wire to the rescue

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

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

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

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

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


Colophon

Anyone familiar with Monty Python will recognise the post title.

This was one of the well-known scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a 1975 film parody about the Arthurian legend and a low-budget quest for the Holy Grail. The film usually ranks close to the top in surveys of the best comedies of all time, with another Monty Python film (The Life of Brian) often topping the tables.

In the film there’s a further scene (A self-perpetuating autocracy) which involves a political argument with interesting parallels between the public perception 1 of a colony of bees and the biological reality. This is topical, with the recent Deloitte report on women in leadership roles holding back the careers of other women they perceive as a threat.

Perhaps a topic for a future article … ?

Queen bees and the self-perpetuating autocracy.

 

Found via Google

It’s the start of another year … Happy New Year!

I’ve been too busy enjoying the time away from the office, the family, the food, the wine, the presents and the peace and quiet ‘flu to write anything substantive. Instead, I’ve compiled a list of searches that brought people to this site over the first half of 2017.

I did the same sort of survey in 2016 and 2015, but this will be the last one as I changed the way these things were documented in May or June 2017 and now no longer bother recording them.

I’ve only noted the interesting or unusual ones … the search term is in bold italics with my comments on the right.

I hope you enjoy them  🙂

waspkeeping … At last! Someone actually searched for my definitive article on the subject.

Waspkeeping

Waspkeeping …

beekeepers within fife contact … You didn’t call, you didn’t send flowers. I’m getting the message  🙁

honey supper heater … Seems a rather restricted diet.

combat woodpecker in hives … If it’s in the hives it’s too late.

2 frame bee nukeNuc surely? If you really meant nuke we have a problem. Requeen instead?

Two frame nucs

Two frame nucs …

building honey bee stuff … You’ve come to the right place, fill your boots.

what are measures and rules of the dettol? … A very good question. The Apiarist is a broad church. I cover an eclectic mix of topics. I’ve never knowingly discussed Dettol in any depth. I repeated the search and couldn’t find reference to this site in the first 10 pages or so of Google listings. However, this is the top three hits when searching for ‘apiarist dettol’, with an article on a talk I give tagged ‘Dettol’ being top of the pile. You live and learn.

steamerformeltingwax … Perhaps thefirstandbestplacetolookmightbehere

queen rearing hotel over winter … Great idea. I do some queen rearing and can thoroughly recommend staying in a hotel over winter, particularly one in Chile.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

green poly langstroth hive … We’re not colourist here, any colour hive is acceptable, even the rather loud Abelo ones 😎

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

many qeen dummy photo full size … Hmmm. I’m not even sure this is a beekeeping-related search … but it might be treasonable.

drifting advantage and disadvantage in apiculture … Disadvantages are covered here and here. The advantages are a very interesting point. For an individual drifting worker it might spell the difference between survival or not (if they can’t return to their original hive). However, what is the genetic selection for this process at the population level? Individual workers do not reproduce. I have been talking to a population geneticist friend to explore this in more detail and will post something in due course.

Drones and workers drift

Drones and workers drift

apiarist and free bees … I’ve written about this (and will again) but usually charge the going rate for nucs. Sorry.

i need entrance decoration with corex … I suspect this is not even a beekeeping search. I’m a big fan of Correx (which is the correct spelling), a trade name for a twin wall, extruded, fluted polypropylene sheet. I’ve used the stuff for roofs, landing boards, split boards and – though they’re not decorative – entrances.

cloacke bord qeeen rearing pdfs … Fabulus speling. Thank goodness for Google’s fuzzy string searching capability or this would never have found my post on Vince Cook’s Cloake board, a great way to generate good quality queen cells.

Cloake board queen rearing

Cloake board queen rearing

my nucs are lethargic and many are laying outside the brood box not moving … Not sounding good. I also receive quite a few direct emails asking for help or advice. It’s almost impossible to do this in a timely or informed manner … timely, as I’m not always here, and the emails often seem to expect an answer by return despite my day job. Informed, because it’s often impossible to diagnose a problem without seeing it. Interpretation depends upon how good the description is. For example … I assume it’s ‘bees’ that aren’t moving outside the brood box … that being the case, are they alive or dead? There’s a pretty fundamental difference and the interpretation of the problem might depend upon this difference.

And don’t get me started about mentoring by telephone  🙄

All change

Since this is the first post of the year it’s probably timely to introduce a few changes to the site. The Gallery is gone, probably for good. The site is already graphics-rich and it was a little-visited corner that occupied quite a bit of disk space.

I’ve managed to re-categorize all the posts from 2014-17 using no more than 2 or 3 keywords. These form the basis for new summary pages where lots of information on a range of topics is collated. Initially these will be a Practice page on beekeeping, er, practices … and a similarly logically-named Problems page. The original Varroa page has been subsumed into the latter and the DIY page forms part of a new page entitled Equipment. There’s an additional page in which I’ve lumped together some more discursive (and controversial?) articles on the Principles or ethos of beekeeping. All these pages are listed in the menu under the header image. The contents of these pages update automatically as new posts are added.

Behind the scenes I’ve installed some software to cache web pages which should make browsing slightly faster. Since my internet connection appears to be based upon a wet piece of string it’s difficult to determine whether this is working satisfactorily or not.

Finally, as a scientist, I’m used to liberally using footnotes 1 to provide additional, often non-essential, information about a topic. Previously these were all hard-coded. Inserting one meant the sequence also needed to be updated. Now I’m using some software wizardry to achieve the same thing 2. These should appear as pop-up ‘tooltips’, or can be selected directly to read if they’re more extensive. They are listed at the end of the page, each being followed by a link (that looks like the character on the return key of a keyboard) to take you to the location in the text. They should also be compatible with mobile browsers.

Contact me if any of these things don’t work properly …


Colophon

The reality is that none of the search terms above were actually ‘Found via Google’. The search engine giant usually hides search terms. They can be unearthed through Google Analytics, but life is simply too short to work out how people reach this site. The terms above all come from other – non-Google – searches which account for only 5% of all the search engine traffic coming to the site.

2017 in retrospect

The end of the year is a good time to look back at the highs and lows of the season. What worked … what didn’t work … what on earth happened to our weather in June?

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

June is an important month here in Fife. Early season colony buildup should be pretty much complete, most colonies will have had some sort of swarm control measures in late May, virgin queens may well be present in many hives, the OSR is over and colonies need to consolidate for the main summer flows.

But instead it just rained.

Rainfall in Fife was 225% the 40 year average, access to apiaries was problematic due to flooding and queens could only get out to mate if they were wearing ‘water wings‘.

Big mistake

Many colonies needed to be, or should have been fed, during June. Mine had reasonable levels of stores as I’d not taken much early season honey. I therefore chose not to feed them. In retrospect I think this was a big mistake.

Although not monitored carefully, I suspect brood rearing slowed, so reducing the colony size to effectively exploit the July/August flows. It was my worst summer honey crop in years.

Lesson one … If this happens next season I’ll continuously feed thin syrup to keep the queen laying strongly.

Doing the splits

Notwithstanding the incessant rain, swarm control – and the inevitable associated queen mating – went pretty well. I generally use splits of one form or another and most queens got out to mate, albeit a little slower than I’d have liked. If swarm control is needed for colonies in the bee shed we can’t do vertical splits (because of the way entrances are organised) and instead just take a nucleus colony away and let them rear a new queen.

Only ‘pretty well’ though because I suspect I lost a cast from a vertical split that went calamitously wrong. I’d left the queenless half far too strong and inadvertently also left multiple developing queen cells.

D’oh!

This wasn’t going to end well  🙁

I did manage to capture and hive another cast from the same colony, but the first virgin queen and well over half the workers were long gone.

So, lesson two (which I’ve been taught many times before 😥 ) is to be decisive when there are multiple queen cells in a split. Either knock them back appropriately (which I’ll explain next year) or split the box up into multiple nucs. Don’t dither. Don’t prevaricate and don’t – as I think I did this year – simply forget to check.

All the gear, some idea

I blatantly poached how to build foundationless frames with bamboo skewers from the internet. I claim zero originality here. It isn’t my idea. However, I’m pleased to say it was a great success. Simple wooden starter strips were also a roaring success. It’s very satisfying when you realise you don’t need to spend £1 per frame on foundation.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

I’ve used quite a few Abelo poly hives this season. They’re a strident colour – blue and yellow – but reasonably well made. Colonies checked this winter are doing well in them, with bees right up to the side walls on sub-zero days. This suggests to me that they are well insulated.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

There are some aspects of these hives I have yet to be fully convinced by; upper entrances, the crownboard, high condensation levels and a small Varroa tray. I’ll review them more fully when I’ve been using them for at least a full year.

Old invasives …

The bête noire of most beekeepers, the Varroa mite, has featured heavily throughout the year. In print, though thankfully not in my colonies. I’ve tried to emphasise the need to treat appropriately, using the right miticide at the right time. Since most approved (and even some unapproved 😉 ) miticides are all pretty effective, the timing of treatment is probably the most important point.

2016 temperature data and OA treatment ...

2016 temperature data and OA treatment …

In three recent posts I presented the importance of midwinter treatment, how to prepare the oxalic acid-containing miticide and how to administer it. These should probably be read in conjunction with an earlier article on when to treat, which I’ll come back to in a minute. Finally, as far as Varroa is concerned, I discussed potential ways to optimise the timing of the winter treatment by watching the weather. I suspect that most beekeepers treat too late in the winter.

If you have yet to treat this winter … get a move on!

… and new ones

The new invasive that got some coverage was, inevitably, the Asian hornet. Having first arrived in 2016 I think we’ll be subjected to annual incursions until it gets established here. Constant vigilance is going to be needed to help postpone what might be inevitable. Just because it is inevitable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and delay it’s permanent arrival.

Devon beekeepers got some first-hand experience of how vigilant you need to be to both spot and photograph Asian hornets in September. Martin Hocking has written about his experience in the Devon Beekeeper (pp172 and also in November’s Bee Craft)  which should be required reading for beekeepers, with a follow up article about his experience in December (see pp196). There’s an open meeting on the 20th of January at Harberton Parish Hall, TQ9 7SD where the threat posed by the Asian hornet – and how to mitigate it – will be discussed.

Although rarely mentioned this year, Small Hive Beetle now appears to be established in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. Data updated in late September and November indicates that positive wild colonies and sentinel nucleus colonies are still being found, indicating that attempts to eradicate the beetle have failed. Infested colony numbers are perhaps a bit lower than previous years, but since there’s no readily-available data on the level of surveillance, it’s not clear whether this shows that control is having an effect, or if people are just not looking as hard.

www.theapiarist.org

Posts have been made every Friday of the year, with a few additional ones when something important happened (Asian hornets or I was ‘advertising’ a Convention I was speaking at … OK, my talk wasn’t important, but the Welsh Beekeepers Convention was 😉 ).

Regular as clockwork ...

Regular as clockwork …

The Friday posts are intentional. It’s when most of us have time to read stuff. The regularity was not and, frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise I’ve achieved it. However, there it is. No promises it’ll continue like that. You can register to receive email notification of new posts in the right hand panel.

Visitor numbers to the site are markedly increased from last year. Page views per visit are down fractionally, but not significantly. It’s clear that more are finding the site as it becomes better indexed by the search engines, and as pages are referenced by other sites.

24 months on www.theapiarist.org ...

24 months on www.theapiarist.org …

My attempts at generating a presence on Facebook was an abject failure. I simply don’t have time to do anything other than automagically post updates from here on Facebook (as I do on Twitter, which I’m a bit more familiar and competent with … follow me on @The_Apiarist). Apologies if you tried to ‘Friend’ me (or whatever) on Facebook. I’ve cancelled all the email updates as I simply couldn’t keep up. Or, when I tried, I didn’t know how to! I belong to the pre-FB generation, or the one before that.

Beekeeping is international, with different problems – but many shared ones – globally. I’m grateful to the visitors from 161 different countries and the European Union 🙂 Less than 50% of the readers are from the UK, despite the UK-centric bias I inevitably exhibit (°C, colour, no mention of queen castles or slatted racks, precious little discussion of Langstroth hives etc.). Southern hemisphere beekeepers don’t even do things at the same time of the year, so many of the posts aren’t even topical for readers in Australia, New Zealand and South America. Whatever, I’m grateful people took the time to visit and read stuff.

And the winner is …

I don’t publish visitor numbers, but I do comment on the popularity of particular pages. For several years a post on my honey warming cabinet has been the most popular. It was originally posted ‘way back’ in 2014. Frankly, it was useful, but not particularly challenging or exciting.

But it’s all change this year. Aside from the homepage, the archive and blog pages, all of which people arrive at to to get the most recent posts, the honey warming cabinet post was a distant fourth in the 2017 rankings.

Above it were posts on vertical splits and making increase, feeding fondant and – particularly pleasingly and top this year – when to treat colonies with miticides against Varroa. I say particularly pleasingly as the When to treat? post is a serious article on an important subject, underpinned by scientific arguments. The timing of the late summer treatment is probably one of the most important events in influencing the health and overwintering success of the colony. This post was almost twice as popular as any other post this year which – because it originally appeared in early 2016 – suggests it is finally being widely cited and accessed by beekeepers.

When to treat?

When to treat? Finally getting read when it should be.

And what does the future offer?

Frankly, as I write this in mid-December with a streaming cold, a box of tissues and slathered in Vicks VapoRub (really, it’s not a pretty sight) I don’t know. I have two priorities at the moment; getting the new bee shed properly setup and (with my researcher hat and lab coat on)  starting studies of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus. Both will get coverage here.

Bee Shed 2 ... the windows still need some work.

Bee Shed 2 … the windows still need some work …

In terms of the website I’m acutely aware there’s no proper indexing or rational list of articles on particular subjects, perhaps other than Varroa. I hope to bring some order to the chaos, allowing me to not repeat myself, to develop some themes more fully and to not repeat myself 😉 . I also know I have a load of unwritten stuff on queen rearing.

Winter time is also DIY time … dabbling with wood, perspex, Correx and Elastoplasts. Something will surely result from this, in addition to the blood loss and bad language.

If there are things you’d particularly like to read drop me a note. I’m interested in the science underlying beekeeping and have little patience with some of the dogma and That’s the way we’ve always done it stories. I’ve already written about the importance of training and the responsibilities of beekeepers. I’ve got some more on these areas planned as I think they’re too often ignored by beekeepers in the UK.

With Best Wishes for 2018. May your colonies be docile, your supers unliftable, your queens well-mated and your swarms (again) in my bait hives 😉

Happy New Year


 

 

Talk the talk

With the practical season now over we’re entering the period of regular winter beekeeping talks and weekend conventions. For five or six months the closest many of us will get to bees is a draughty church hall with a cup of tea at the end.

And a chocolate digestive biscuit if the Association Secretary has managed to get everyone to pay their subs.

What? No chocolate?

What? No chocolate?

Listening

I enjoy these events. There’s a healthy, competitive camaraderie to the conversations before and after the talk …

How was your season?

80lb? Per colony? Or in total?

Didn’t lose a swarm all season!

… and so on. The old-timers smile knowingly and keep quiet about the best sites, the ‘newbees’ enthusiastically recount the ups and downs of their first season and those on the beginners course this winter simply try and work out what the heck a ‘Demaree’ is.

During the talk the lights are dimmed. We all peer through the gloom at a slightly skewwiff image projected onto the cream-painted wall which has a picture hook irritatingly visible just left of centre.

The old boy in the fifth row falls asleep and starts snoring gently.

Forty-five to fifty minutes flies by, the lights come up and there’s an opportunity for questions. By this time everyone is gasping for a cuppa or the loo, or both, so appreciation is shown “in the usual manner” and the formal part of the evening draws to a close.

Drinking

Tea is brewed, biscuits are scoffed. Now is the time to ask the question you wish you’d asked at the end of the talk – either of the speaker or of the more experienced ‘beek’ (and in my experience there are always more experienced beekeepers at these things) sitting next to you.

Friendships are re-established, new contacts are made, recipes are exchanged and tips and tricks are offered.

The audience breaks up into little groups discussing honey or queen rearing or the upcoming sale at Maisies. People drift away. The Secretary scurries round trying to get the usual suspects to pay the subs that have been due since last January (which is why there weren’t any chocolate digestives). Cups are washed, the library is packed away and the hall locked up.

But it’s not over yet … twos and threes loiter in the car park where the real gossiping occurs. Unless it’s snowing. Who’s been buying in imported colonies or queens for selling on as “local”? How many times has ‘Fred’ recycled that winning jar of clover honey in the show? Which farmers will be growing borage next year?

Ah! That's better

Ah! That’s better

Talking

I enjoy these as well. I usually end up getting invites to present at just about the same number of talks I manage to attend at my own associations each winter. Some are round the corner or pretty local, others are at the other end of the country. I was recently excellently hosted by the Devon BKA (~500 miles away) and presented at a meeting in Chillán (~7500 miles away) of Chilean beekeepers in March.

With the exception of these long-distance trips the process is pretty similar. The satnav is programmed with the venue details. The bag is checked for the laptop and every possible connector that might be needed. A spare copy of the presentation is carried on a memory stick ‘just in case’. The car is loaded with any additional stuff used in the presentation (nothing for a science talk, but lots for talks on practical beekeeping).

I set off later than intended but earlier than needed. There’s almost nothing worse than turning up late. I find the venue, park nearby in the dark, locate the draughty church hall and the Secretary lurking in wait for early arrivers (who haven’t paid their subs yet).

The laptop is set up, the projector checked and the screen/image is levelled as the audience dribbles in. Old friends say hello. The lights are dimmed and we’re off!

The reflection from the screen casts an eerie light across the audience. Faces in the front couple of rows are clear and bright. Those further back are more like a grainy black and white image. Expressions are more difficult to see. Are they still following this? Am I going too fast? Too slow?

Laughing

Oops

Oops …

I chuck in a joke or anecdote to liven things up. That’s better. Or not. My jokes aren’t good.

A particularly pale slide casts a brighter reflection deeper into the crepuscular gloom at the back of the hall.

The old boy in the fifth row who has been gently snoring for the last 15 minutes can now be heard and seen.

I gallop towards the end, thanking the organisers, my research team, those who gave us the money to do the work and the beekeeping associations we’re privileged to be working with.

Mild applause … someone nips out to turn the urn on.

Questions

These are by far and away the best bit. As a speaker it’s how I judge how successful I was at getting the message across.

Questions range from simple and straightforward to long, rambling and exquisitely complicated.

All are welcome.

Not all can be answered.

Simple questions about things I’ve covered, albeit quickly or as a peripheral point, are easy to answer and I make a mental note to deal with the subject better in the future (or avoid it for clarity).

Difficult questions about things I’ve covered may require a longer answer, more thought or a cup of tea. Inevitably, some topics are outside the experience or interest of most of the audience. A detailed explanation of molecular biology (science) or long-winded discussion of grafting tools (queen rearing) needs to be postponed …

Gasping

Gasping …

Let’s discuss that over a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive” … the latter said hopefully.

Questions about things unrelated to my talk are not unusual. Long, rambling and exquisitely convoluted questions about a totally different topic are sometimes asked. There’s a direct relationship between the number of people wanting to ask questions and the length, ramblingness, and distance off-topic of these types of questions.

I usually hope the Association Secretary or Chair steps in at this stage and announces that tea is ready.

Experience

As a scientist I’m used to talking at conferences where the audience ranges from undergraduate students to internationally-renowned Emeritus Professors. As a beekeeper I’m well aware that the audience at Association events may include the full spectrum of experience and abilities … from those on the winter “Introduction to Beekeeping Course” to some who earn a living beekeeping.

I’m also well aware that the old boy in the fifth row who gently snored through my entire talk is probably just knackered having spent whole the day extracting 500 lb of heather honey.

Which is almost, to the ounce, 500 lb more than I got 😉

All he came for was a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit.

The end

I pack up the cables and the laptop, say my goodbyes, weave my way through the little groups in the car park gossiping about the price of Api-Bioxal or where to buy cheap fondant. I finally locate my car, plug in the satnav, turn up the radio (it’s late and I’ve got a three hour journey ahead) and wend my way home.

By midnight I’m wishing I’d had one less cup of tea and one more chocolate digestive.

Homeward bound ...

Homeward bound …


† I’ll deal with Conventions some other time. These are increasingly popular, often draw big, knowledgeable, audiences and usually have the added distraction of the trade stands.

‡ I’m well aware not all of these talks are held in draughty church halls. I’ve spoken in draughty village halls, draughty sports halls and draughty community centres. I’ve also spoken in some great venues, with excellent AV facilities, comfortable chairs (particularly in the fifth row), really good tea and coffee and some spectacularly tasty home-made cakes (thank you Arran Bee Group!). Whatever the venue, as long as we manage to get the laptop to talk to the projector – and even if we don’t – it’s great to meet enthusiastic beekeepers wanting to ‘talk bees’ on a cold winter night.

Colophon

Someone who can ‘talk the talk‘ speaks convincingly on a specific subject, showing apparent mastery of its jargon and nuances. You often hear it used in conjunction with the phrase ‘walk the walk‘ e.g. He can talk the walk but can he walk the walk?

Walk the walk essentially means to back up the talk with actions. It’s related to expressions like ‘action speaks louder than words’, ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘practice what you preach’. If you can’t ‘walk the walk’ then it’s simply empty bragging … in the UK the phrase ‘all mouth and no trousers’ is another way to say this, though it perhaps has rather sexist overtones.

 

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The day job

It’s no secret that I have both amateur and professional interests in bees, bee health and beekeeping.

During the weekend I sweat profusely in my beesuit, rushing between my apiaries in Central and Eastern Fife, checking my colonies – about 15 at the autumn census this year – averting swarms, setting up bait hives, queen rearing and carrying bulging supers back for extraction.

Actually, not so much of the latter in 2017  🙁  I did get very wet though, much like all the other beekeepers in Fife.

The BSRC labs

The BSRC labs …

During the week I sit in front of a large computer screen running (or sometimes running to keep up with) a team of researchers studying the biology of viruses in the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex (BSRC) at the University of St. Andrews. Some of these researchers work on the biology and control of honey bee viruses.

During the winter the beekeeping stops, but the research continues unabated. The apiary visits are replaced with trips in the evenings and weekends to beekeeping associations and conventions to talk about our research … or sometimes to talk about beekeeping.

Or both.

This weekend I’m delighted to be speaking at the South Devon Beekeepers Convention in Totnes on the science that underpins rational and practical Varroa control.

Which came first?

I’ve been a virologist my entire academic career, but I’ve only worked on honey bee viruses for about 6 years. I’ve been a beekeeper for about a decade, so the beekeeping preceded working on the viruses of bees.

However, the two are inextricably entwined. Having a reasonable amount of beekeeping experience provides a unique insight into the problems and practicalities of controlling the virus diseases that bees get.

Being able to “talk beekeeping” with beekeepers has been very useful – both for the communication of our results to a wider audience and in influencing the way we approach our research.

Increasingly, the latter is important. Researchers need to address relevant questions, using their detailed understanding of the science to deliver practical solutions to problems1. There’s no point in coming up with a solution if there’s no way it’s implementation is compatible with beekeeping.

Deformed wing virus

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The most important virus for most beekeepers in most years is deformed wing virus (DWV). This virus “does what it says on the tin” because, at high levels, it causes developmental defects in pupae that emerge with shrivelled, stunted wings. There are additional developmental defects which are slightly less obvious, but there are additional (largely invisible) changes which are of greater importance.

DWV reduces the lifespan of worker bees. This is probably not hugely significant in workers destined to live only a few weeks in midsummer. However, the winter bees that get the colony through from September through to March must live for months, not weeks. If these bees are heavily infected with DWV they die at a faster rate. Consequently, the colony dwindles and dies out in midwinter or early Spring. At best, it staggers through to March and then never builds up properly. It’s still effectively a winter loss.

Our research focuses on how Varroa influences the virus population. There’s very good evidence now that DWV transmission by Varroa leads to a significant increase in the amount of virus, and a considerable decrease in the diversity of the virus population.

So what?

Well, this is important because if we want to control the virus (i.e. to reduce DWV-associated disease and colony losses) it must help to know the proper identity of the virus we are trying to control. It will also help us measure how well our control works. We know we’re measuring the right thing.

We’re working with researchers around the world to define the important characteristics of DWV strains that cause disease and, closer to home, with entire beekeeping associations to investigate practical strategies to improve colony health.

Chronic bee paralysis virus

CBPV symptoms

CBPV symptoms

We’re about to start a large collaborative project on the biology and control of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This virus is becoming a significant problem for many beekeepers and is increasing globally. It’s a particular problem for some bee farmers.

CBPV causes characteristic symptoms of dark, hairless, oily-looking bees that sometimes shiver, dying in large smelly piles at the hive entrance. It typically affects very strong colonies in the middle of the season. It can be devastating. Hives that should be the most productive ones in the apiary fail catastrophically.

Why is a virus we’ve known about for decades apparently increasing in the amount of disease it causes? Are there new virulent strains of the virus circulating? Are there particular beekeeping practices that facilitate it’s spread? We’re working with collaborators in the University of Newcastle to try and address these and related questions.

I’ll write more about CBPV over the next year or so. It won’t be a running dialogue on the research (which would be crushingly dull for most readers), but will provide some background information on what is a really fascinating virus.

At least to a virologist 😉

And perhaps to beekeepers.

Grow your own

As virologists, we approach the disease by studying the virus. Although we maintain an excellent research apiary, we don’t do many experiments in ‘the field’. Almost all the work is done in test tubes in incubators in the laboratory … or in bees we rear in those incubators.

Grow your own

Grow your own …

We can harvest day-old larvae (or even eggs) from a colony and rear them to emergence as adult bees in small plastic dishes in the laboratory. We use an artificial diet of sugar and pollen to do this. It’s time consuming – they need very regular feeding – but it provides a tightly controllable environment in which to do experiments.

Since we can rear the bees, we can therefore easily test the ability of viruses to replicate in the bees. Do all strains of the virus replicate equally well? Do some strains outcompete others? Does the route by which the virus is acquired influence the location(s) in the bee in which the virus replicates? Or the strains it is susceptible to? Or the level of virus that accumulates?

And if our competitors are reading this, the answer to most of those questions is ‘yes’ 😉

We can even ask questions about why and how DWV causes deformed wings.

Again, so what? We suspect that DWV causes deformed wings because it stops the expression of a gene in the bee that’s needed to make ‘good’ wings. If we can identify that gene we might be able to investigate different strains of honey bee for variation in the gene that would render them less susceptible to being ‘turned off’ by DWV. That might be the basis for a selective breeding project.

It’s a simplistic explanation, but it’s this type of molecular interaction that explains susceptibility to a wide range of human, animal and plant diseases.

Bee observant

Bee health is important, and not fundamentally difficult to achieve. There are some basics to attend to … strong hives, good forage, good apiary hygiene etc. However, it primarily requires good powers of observation – does something look odd? Are there lots of mites present? How does the brood look?

If things aren’t right – and often deducing this means comparisons must be made between hives – then many interventions are relatively straightforward.

Not long for this world ...

Not long for this world …

The most widespread problems (though, interestingly, this doesn’t apply to CBPV) are due to high levels of Varroa infestation. There are effective and relatively inexpensive ways to treat these … if they’re used properly.

More correctly, they’re relatively inexpensive whether they’re used properly or not. However, they’re pretty ineffective if not used properly 😉

Regular checks, good record keeping, comparisons between hives and informed observation are what is needed. Don’t just look, instead look for specific things. Can you see bees with overt symptoms of DWV? Are there bees with Varroa riding around on their backs? The photo above has both of these in plain view. Are some hairless bees staggering around the top bars with glossy abdomens, or clinging to the side bars shaking and twitching?

Don’t wait, act

I’ve no doubt that scientists will be able to develop novel treatments to control or prevent virus infections of bees. I would say that … I’m a scientist 😉  However, I’m not sure beekeepers will be able to afford them, or perhaps even want to use them, or that they’d be compatible with honey production or of any use in Warré hives etc.

I’m also not sure how soon these sorts of treatments might become available … so don’t wait.

If there are signs of obvious DWV infection you need to do something. ‘Obvious’ because DWV is always present, but it’s usually harmless or at least tolerated by the bees. My lab have looked at thousands of bees and have yet to find one without detectable levels of DWV. However, healthy bees have only about 1/10,000 the level of DWV present in sick bees … and these are the ones that have obvious symptoms.

I’ve discussed Varroa control elsewhere, and will again.

Unfortunately, if your colony has signs of CBPV disease then Varroa control is not really relevant. The virus is transmitted from bee to bee by direct contact. This probably accounts for the appearance of the disease primarily in very strong colonies.

At the moment there’s little you can do to ‘cure’ a CBPV-afflicted colony. I hope, in 2-3 years we will have a better idea on what interventions might work. We have lots of ideas, but there are a lot of basic questions to be addressed before we can test them.

Field work

Field work

Business and pleasure

The half of my lab that don’t work on bee viruses study fundamental mechanisms of virus replication and evolution. They do this using human viruses, some of which are distant relatives of DWV. They work on human viruses as it’s only these that have excellent model systems to facilitate the types of elegant experiments we try to do. They’re also relatively easy to justify in funding applications, and it allows us to tap into a much bigger pot for funding opportunities (human health R&D costs probably total £2 billion/annum, bees might be £2 million/annum).

And no, my lab don’t get anything like that much per year for our research!

Importantly, the two activities on human and honey bee viruses are related. Our experience with the human viruses related to DWV made us well-qualified to tackle the bee virus. They replicate and evolve in very similar ways, we quantify them in the same way and there may be similarities in some ways we could approach to control them.

And with the bee viruses I can mix business with pleasure. If I’m going to the apiary I’ll get to see and handle bees, despite it being officially “work”. It doesn’t happen as much as I’d like as I’m usually sat behind the computer and all of the ‘bee team’ have been trained to work with bees by the ESBA.

However, at least when I talk to collaborators or to the beekeeping groups we’re fortunate to be working with we – inevitably – talk about bees.

And that’s fun  😀


Several years ago I delivered an enthusiastic and rather science-heavy talk at a Bee Farmers Association meeting. I thought it had gone reasonably well and they were kind enough to say some nice things to me … and then I got the question from the back of the room which went something like “That’s all very well young man … but what have you made NOW that I can put into my hives to make them healthy?”.

I’m sure my answer was a bit woolly. These days the presentation would have had a bit less science and bit more justification. We’ve also made some progress and it’s possible to now discuss practical strategies to rationally control viruses in the hive. It’s not rocket science … though some of the science it’s based on is reasonably fancy.

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That’s all folks

That's all Folks

That’s all Folks

It’s late August and the end of my least successful beekeeping year ever. That sounds very negative, so perhaps it should be qualified. It’s the end of my least successful beekeeping year in terms of honey production.

However, in terms of the satisfaction I’ve got from my beekeeping, it’s been a pretty good year. Let’s examine these two things separately, dealing with the bad news first.

Tell ’em about the honey, mummy

My production colonies only generated about 25lb each of Spring honey. Some of this was clearly oil seed rape (OSR) as there were fields just about in range, but much of it was essentially mixed hedgerow and tree nectar, and none the worse for that. This was all extracted in late May or early June and is now stored, set, in buckets. Later in the year, once the temperature drops, I’ll prepare soft set honey for sale or distribution to friends and family.

25lb is firmly at the bottom end of the averages over the last few years though – in fairness – It’s only my second Fife Spring, so I don’t have much recently to compare it with. Colonies were doing well when I first inspected them, but in some cases that wasn’t until early May. The active beekeeping season is only 4-5 months long here (latitude 56.3° N).

June started well, with clear weather and high temperatures.

And then it started to rain. And continued for almost the entire month.

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July …

None of my full-size colonies needed feeding, but most reduced their brood rearing. July nectar flows were poor. The lime yielded a small amount of very high quality honey, but for whatever reason – poor weather, colonies not strong enough, patchy flows – pretty-much nothing else. The summer honey was extracted in mid-August and is already disappearing fast.

I didn’t take any colonies to the heather as I was abroad for a chunk of July when I’d need to be preparing and shifting them to the moors. And, in all likelihood, they probably weren’t strong enough anyway.

And that was it … like last year, all over much sooner than expected.

There’s some balsam in central Fife along the River Eden that might give some late-season nectar and there’s ivy (but that is some way off flowering yet) but I usually let the bees keep anything they collect once the summer honey is extracted.

Flowering ivy

Flowering ivy

And the good news is

Beekeeping isn’t all about honey. There’s also tremendous satisfaction to be gained from working with the colonies, improving your stock and feeling that – although perhaps not in complete control – you’ve got a pretty good grasp of what’s happening and how things are going.

In this regard, 2017 was a success.

I know I lost one swarm (actually a cast from the queenless half of a split). I got a call to say that the apiary was thick with bees but they’d long gone by the time I extricated myself from meetings and got home. In itself this wasn’t a success. However, I learned my lesson and managed to hive a second cast that issued from the same colony a day or two later. I also had success with my bait hives.

With a couple of exceptions my vertical splits went well, with the resultant queens both laying well and heading well-behaved colonies. The couple that didn’t work developed into (drone) laying workers and were dealt with successfully by uniting.

In retrospect, considering the weather in early/mid-June I’m astounded any queens managed to get out and mate. By late July colonies headed by these newly mated queens were developing well, with frame after frame of brood exhibiting a pretty respectable laying pattern.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

Throughout the season I had a pretty good idea what was happening in most of my colonies. There were no big surprises … “Oops, a virgin queen, where did she come from?”, or “Grrrr … no queen, no eggs and no swarm cells, I’m stumped”.

Colonies behaved in a thoroughly predictable manner. Strong ones were caught before they swarmed, split and were merged back to a double brood box. Nucs developed pretty well, though they needed close attention and some emergency feeding through June. No drama, no panic.

The end of the summer season, other than the truly woeful honey yield, has left me with a good number of nicely behaved and generally very strong colonies. As always there’s one exception, but I’ll unite that weakling late this week if things haven’t picked up.

All the gear, no some idea

Split board ...

Split board …

Gradually equipment standardisation is starting to pay dividends. I ran out of almost nothing (I certainly didn’t run out of supers 🙁 ) and managed to mix’n’match as needed to leave colonies secure, watertight and with the proper bee space when needed. Homemade split boards ended up being pressed into service as floors and it’s clear I’ll have to make some additional kewl floors this winter.

Bamboo-strengthened foundationless frames were a great success. Furthermore, I prepared a second batch mid-season and never got round to using them, so have plenty to start the season next year. Result! However, it’s sobering to realise that one of the reasons they weren’t used was that the nectar flow simply wasn’t strong enough to get them drawn properly.

Finally, whilst we’re on the subject of equipment, I’ve used about half a dozen Abelo poly hives this year in addition to the usual Swienty boxes with homemade floors and roofs. First impressions of the Abelo boxes are pretty positive and I’ll write something up later in the year on them.

Season’s end … or the start of the new season?

Late summer and autumn is an important time in the beekeeping year. Some even consider it the start of the next season, as success in the subsequent year is very dependent upon the preparation in the preceding autumn.

Feed'n'treat ...

Feed’n’treat …

All my colonies are scarfing down large quantities of fondant at the moment. They’ll all get another few kilograms as the autumn progresses. Unless there’s good reason to, it’s unlikely any colonies will be inspected again until Spring.

Varroa treatment is ongoing and the mite drop from most colonies is reassuringly low. I count the mites from each colony over a two week period. Over the first 5 days, some dropped just single figures …

All colonies are coordinately treated to maximise decimation of the mite population at a time when bees have a tendency to drift more and/or rob adjacent colonies – both being well-documented routes by which Varroa can be transmitted between hives. I’ve also helped a neighbouring beekeeper (with colonies within range of my own apiary) by loaning out my Sublimox so that, together, the mite population at a landscape-scale is reduced.

This is simple common sense. I don’t want my (nearly) mite-free colonies infested from neighbouring apiaries and I also don’t want the colonies I do have with appreciable mite levels (~50+ after 5 days treatment) to infest others.

2018

It’s far too soon for much serious thought about 2018. However, I already know there are going to be some major changes to my beekeeping. The local Council have just announced that they will shortly (Spring next year) build a new road literally through the middle of my bee shed and apiary … finding a new location and getting things rebuilt is my major focus at the moment.

And finally … it’s harvest time and raining again …

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …


† Tell ’em about the honey, mummy was a catchphrase from a TV advert for Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. The advert aired from 1976 to ’85 and featured the Honey Monster and Henry McGee (from the Benny Hill show).

Henry is the one on the right.

They don’t make advertising like that any longer. For obvious reasons.

‡ Scarf is American slang meaning to ‘eat voraciously’. It’s probably a bastardisation of the word scoff. Scarf has other meanings and I strongly suggest you don’t look these up.

Colophon

That's All Folks

That’s All Folks

The phrase That’s all folks dates back to 1930 when it was used on the closing screen of a Warner Bros. Looney Tune cartoon.

Over the years many different characters used this line on both Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Mel Blanc (1908-’89), the actor who voiced (stuttered) the most famous version … Th-th-th-that’s all folks! has the engraving That’s All Folks on his gravestone.

There’s a 1949 Merrie Melodies cartoon called The Bee-Deviled Bruin with the Three Bears, a colony of bees and a shortage of honey for breakfast. Typical slapstick ensues. It ends with That’s all folks”.

Peaceful easy feeling

The 6-8 week period between late June and harvesting the summer honey is a quiet period in the beekeeping calendar. At least, it is in mine. My colonies aren’t going to the heather, so there’s nothing to prepare for that. Swarm control is complete and many colonies are now headed by new queens, so the chance of swarming is minimal. The spring honey – what little there was of it on account of the incessant rain – was extracted in late June. It’s now easy going until the summer honey is taken off and the colonies are prepared for winter.

Inspect, or just observe?

The 7 day cycle of inspections that are so important as the season builds up become much less critical. If there’s a new mated, laying queen in a box with ample space, sufficient supers and enough stores (for adverse periods of weather) there’s actually little to be achieved by rummaging through the box on a weekly basis.

Instead, I generally just observe things from the outside. If pollen is being taken in by foragers, if there are good numbers of bees on orientation flights during warm mornings and if the hive is reassuringly heavy, then there’s probably no need to inspect weekly. A peek through a perspex crownboard can give a pretty good idea of how much space the colony has and whether they’re fully utilising the super. With experience, hefting the hive (gently lifting the back an inch or two and judging the weight) is a good indication of whether they might need an additional super. And that’s it … I generally leave these strong, healthy colonies to simply get on with things during July and into August.

But inspect when appropriate

Of course, some hives will need checking. For example, any hives that are clearly below-strength for an unknown reason should be carefully checked for signs of disease. Varroa levels can be readily, albeit pretty inaccurately, determined by putting a Correx Varroa tray below the open mesh floor and the colony should be inspected for obvious signs of deformed wing virus (DWV) symptoms.

High levels of DWV

High levels of DWV …

If there’s any doubt about the health of the colony consult a good book on the subject (Ted Hooper’s Bees and Honey is a reasonable start though some of the more comprehensively illustrated newer books might be better), ask your mentor or an experienced local association beekeeper and contact the local bee inspector if necessary.

Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is a high-season problem for big, strong colonies. Sick bees exhibit characteristic shaking or shivering symptoms, look oily or greasy and accumulate in a large smelly pile below the hive entrance. A very distressing sight. I’ll be discussing CBPV in more detail over the next few months as it appears to be an increasing problem.

Queen problems

The other colonies I keep a close eye on are those with known or potential queen problems. These include colonies where the queen may not have mated, or those in which the queen appears to have got mated but the colony shows signs of early supercedure, suggesting that all is not right.

Hopalong Cassidy ...

Hopalong Cassidy …

The queen in the (rather poor) photograph above has a paralysed left rear leg. She’s a 2017 queen and emerged in early/mid June during a period of very poor weather. I found her as a skittish virgin very soon after emergence (quite possibly the day of emergence) then left the colony to get on with things. She was mated by the first week in July. Eggs were present but I didn’t see her in the colony. However, she wasn’t laying particularly well, either in terms of number or pattern.

Since I was disappearing to Malaysia on business for 10 days in late July I thoroughly inspected the colony before leaving. I discovered her hobbling around the frame, clearly with very severely impaired abilities. There was very little open or sealed brood in the colony. In the several minutes I watched her she didn’t lay any eggs despite checking lots of cells that looked polished and ready to me (but I accept she’s probably a better judge of a suitable cell than I am). She clearly could lay, and you can see an egg at the tip of her abdomen. I suspect that, although her walking wasn’t grossly impaired, she was unable to properly ‘reverse’ into the cell.

Not a bee ...

Not a bee …

Don’t delay, act today

Mid-July, a strongish colony with almost no brood, a crippled queen and no means of checking things for a fortnight meant that prompt action was needed. I removed the queen and united the colony over the top of another strong colony. The alternative was to wait and see if the colony disposed of her, or tried to supercede her. Either would have imposed a delay of about a month after my return, there were limited numbers of larvae for the colony to start from, a rapidly ageing worker population and little chance of the colony building up strongly through the autumn to overwinter successfully. This was a case of using them or potentially losing them.

I’ve no idea how the queen came to have a gammy leg. I’d not seen her since she’d been mated. One possibility is that two queens emerged at or near the same time, duelled in the hive leaving one dead and the other partially crippled. Although damaged, the queen still managed to leave the hive to mate successfully, but then struggled to lay properly.

We’ll never know.

Late evening

Finally, if you’ve not visited your apiary late on a warm, calm summer evening then you really should. Strong colonies can be heard from some distance away, a sort of low humming sound. There’s the heady smell of warm honey in the air as they evaporate off water from stored nectar in preparation for capping stores off for the winter ahead. Highly recommended.


† Gammy meaning (especially of a leg) unable to function normally because of injury or chronic pain … in contrast to the fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy used to label the image. Hopalong Cassidy had a wooden leg.

Colophon

Peaceful easy feeling was the title of a song by the Eagles released in 1972 on their debut album (Eagles). The band, or what’s left of them after the recent death of Glenn Frey, continue to play live with four concerts last month.

Don Henley has just turned 70 and should really Take it Easy 😉

Apis mellifera aquaticus

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

June in Fife was the wettest year on record. It started in a blaze of glory but very quickly turned exceedingly damp. The photo above was taken on the 7th of June. One of my apiaries is in the trees at the back of the picture. Six queens emerged on the 2nd or 3rd of June to be faced with a week-long deluge. The picture was taken on the first dry morning … by the afternoon it was raining again, so delaying their ability to get out and mate (hence prompting the recent post).

And so it continued …

Early July 2017 ...

Early July 2017 …

Here’s the same view on the 1st of July. Almost unchanged … ankle deep water en route to the apiary, the burn in flood and some splits and nucs now being fed fondant to prevent them starving.

A beautiful morning though 😉

Retrospective weather reports

Of course, you shouldn’t really worry about weather that’s been and gone, though comparisons year on year can be interesting. At the very least, knowing that the June monthly rainfall in Eastern Scotland was 223% of the 1961-99 average, I’ll have an excuse why queens took so long to mate and why the June gap was more pronounced than usual. Global warming means summers are getting wetter anyway, but even if you make the comparison with the more recent 1981-2010 average we still got 206% of the June monthly total.

The Met Office publishes retrospective summaries nationally and by region. These include time series graphs of rainfall and temperature since 1910 showing how the climate is getting warmer and wetter. If you prefer, you can also view the data projected on a map, showing the marked discrepancies between the regions.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly cf. 1981-2010 …

Parts of the Midlands and Lewis and Harris were drier than the June long-term average, but Northern England and Central, Southern and Eastern Scotland were very much wetter.

It would be interesting to compare the year-by-year climate changes with the annual cycle of forage plants used by bees. Natural forage, rather than OSR where there is strain variation of flowering time, would be the things to record. As I write this (first week of July) the lime is flowering well and the bees are hammering it. The rosebay willow herb has just started.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Prospective weather forecasts

Bees are influenced by the weather and so is beekeeping. If the forecast is for lousy weather for a fortnight it might be a good idea to postpone queen rearing and to check colonies have sufficient stores. If rain is forecast all day Saturday then inspections might have to be postponed until Sunday.

If you have a bee shed you can inspect when it’s raining. The bees tolerate the hive being opened much better than if it were out in the open. Obviously, all the bees will be in residence, but their temper is usually better. They exit the shed through the window vents and rapidly re-enter the hive through the entrance.

I don’t think there’s much to choose between the various online weather forecast sites in terms of accuracy, particularly for predictions over 3+ days. They’re all as good or as bad as each other. I cautiously use the BBC site, largely because they have an easy-to-read app for my phone.

Do I need an umbrella?

For shorter-term predictions (hours rather than days) I’ve been using Dark Sky. This can usefully – and reasonably accurately – predict that it will start raining in 30 minutes and continue for an hour, after which it will be dry until 6pm.

The forecast in your area might be different 😉

Dark Sky via web browser

Dark Sky via web browser

There’s a well designed app for iOS and Android as well that has neat graphics showing just how wet you’re likely to get, how long the rain will last and which direction the clouds will come from.

Dark Sky on iOS

Dark Sky on iOS

It’s far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good. It might make the difference between getting to the apiary as the rain starts as opposed to having a nice cuppa and then setting off in an hour or two.

Rain stopped play

I’ve posted recently on delays to queen mating caused by the poor weather in June. I’ve now completed inspections of all the splits. Despite both keeping calm and having patience I was disappointed to discover that the last two checked had developed laying workers. Clearly the queen was either lost on her mating flight or – more likely (see the pictures above) – drowned.

I’ve previously posted how I deal with laying workers – I shake the colony out and allow those that can fly to return to a new hive on the original site containing a single frame of eggs and open brood. If they start to draw queen cells in 2-3 days I reckon the colony is saveable and either let them get on with it, or otherwise somehow make them queenright.

One of the laying worker colonies behaved in a textbook manner. A couple of days after shaking them out there were queen cells present. I knocked these back and united the with a spare nuc colony containing a laying queen.

Lime can yield well in July

Lime can yield well in July

The second colony behaved very strangely. I didn’t manage to inspect them until a week after shaking them out. There were no queen cells. Nor was there any evidence of laying worker activity in the frames of drawn comb I’d provided them with. Instead, they’d filled the brood box with nectar from the nearby lime trees. Weird. I united them with a queenright colony and I’ll check how they progress over the next week or two.

Apis mellifera aquaticus

My colonies are usually headed by dark local mongrel queens. My queen rearing records show that some are descended from native black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) from islands off the West coast of Scotland, albeit several generations ago. These bees are renowned for their hardiness, ability to forage in poor weather and general suitability to the climate of Scotland.

Nevertheless, without further natural selection and evolution they will have still needed water wings, a snorkel and flippers to get mated last month 😉

Not waving but drowning


Colophon

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

The taxonomic scheme ‘developed’ by Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) is a rank-based classification approach actually dates back to Plato. In it, organisms are divided into kingdoms (Animals), classes (Insecta), order (Hymenoptera), family (Hymenoptera), genera (Apis) and species (mellifera).

The subspecies is indicated by a further name appended to the end of the species name e.g. Apis mellifera capensis (Cape Honey bees), Apis mellifera mellifera (Black bees)

Apis mellifera aquaticus doesn’t really exist, but might evolve if it remains this wet 😉

Honey and hay fever

300 jars of honey

300 jars of honey

I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉  Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.

However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:

“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.

As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy.

Achoo!

Bless you

Bless you

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.

Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.

Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.

Honey contains pollen

Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.

This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉

All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory

Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is  a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).

Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey doesMelissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.

The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.

What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.

No bees legs ...

No bees legs …

Testing, testing …

So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).

Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:

Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.

… leading the authors to conclude that:

This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence

So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?

1934 Loch Ness haox

1934 Loch Ness hoax

Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.

Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉

We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.

An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.

Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.

Why buy local honey?

I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.

Why claim something that’s probably not true?

Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:

  • It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown.
  • It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
  • It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
  • The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
  • It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different  in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
  • Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
  • It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.

The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.

Which they surely will … 🙂


∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.

A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. 

† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925

‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.

Small cell foundation

In a recent monthly newsletter Thorne’s announced they were now supplying small cell foundation. This foundation has a cell diameter of 4.9mm, rather than the standard 5.2-5.4mm. Under the ambiguous heading 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” they have the following text:

Wired foundation

Wired foundation

“It is claimed varroa mites struggle to reproduce in the slightly smaller cell size. 4.9 mm being close to what bees produce in comb width in nature. Many beekeepers in the USA who have experimented with small cell have reported encouraging results. Moving over to small cell however can be difficult and must be done at the correct time of year. It cannot be done either by simply putting 10 frames of small cell foundation in the hive. The bees must first be subject to regression over a period of several months.”

Do mites struggle to reproduce?

No. There’s compelling scientific evidence that Varroa levels in hives on small cell foundation may actually have higher mite levels than those on standard foundation. These are from properly conducted and controlled studies involving dozens of hives.

It certainly is claimed that mites struggle to reproduce in small cell foundation. The evidence actually directly contradicts these claims. Undoubtedly beekeepers in the USA have reported encouraging results, but scientists doing side-by-side comparisons clearly demonstrate that mite levels are at best not changed or at worst appreciably higher on small cell foundation.

Actually, it’s not the mites but our bees that struggle to reproduce in small cells. This explains the phrase “subject to regression over a period” above. You have to select smaller bees that can reproduce well in small cell foundation. Once this is done, the bee size is measurably smaller and the density of brood cells in the hive is greater.

Is this is a one-off study – where is the independent verification?

No. They were repeated at least three times by labs at the University of Georgia. Similar studies were conducted by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services. In addition, the Ruakura Research Centre in Hamilton, New Zealand, conducted their own study – using a different experimental format – but achieving the same conclusions. Small cell foundation increased mite levels when compared with conventional or standard diameter foundation. There are now several additional independent studies which essentially reach the same conclusion – small cell foundation does not restrict Varroa replication and may actually increase it.

Has this new research been published?

Apidologie

Apidologie

After all, perhaps Thorne’s aren’t completely up-to-date about these studies? If the work is really new then perhaps they can be excused for trying to flog something for which there’s no compelling evidence of benefit.

Well, it was published … in some cases seven to nine years ago:

  1. Taylor, M.A., Goodwin, R.M., McBrydie, H.M., Cox, H.M. (2008) The effect of honeybee worker brood cell size on Varroa destructor infestation and reproduction. Journal of Apiculture Research 47, 239–242 … summary, a higher proportion of cells from small foundation were mite infested.
  2. Ellis, A.M., Hayes, G.W., Ellis, J.D. (2009) The efficacy of small cell foundation as a Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) control. Experimental and Applied Acarology 47, 311–316 … summary, no difference in mite levels between small cell and conventional foundation.
  3. Berry, J.A., Owens, W.B., Delaplane, K.S. (2010) Small-cell comb foundation does not impede Varroa mite population growth in honey bee colonies. Apidologie 41, 40–44 … summary, small cell colonies had ~40% higher mite infestation levels when compared with conventional foundation.
  4. Seeley, T.D., Griffin, S.R. (2011) Small-cell comb does not control Varroa mites in colonies of honeybees of European origin. Apidologie 42, 526-532 … summary, no difference in mite infestation levels between small cell and conventional foundation.

If you want an accessible and readable account of small cell foundation studies Jennifer Berry has written one for Bee Culture which includes experimental details of the work in references 1-3 above.

In denial

A recent thread on Beesource discussed the reported benefits of small cell foundation and the scientific evidence that contradicts these claims. It’s notable that supporters of small cell foundation generally criticise the ‘agenda’ they claim scientists have, rather than providing scientific evidence that supports the ‘benefits’. I’ve not been able to find a single peer-reviewed and properly controlled study that supports the beneficial claims for small cell foundation.

Hives on small cell foundation may have manageable levels of Varroa. If they do it’s in spite of the use of small cell foundation, not because of it. I am very willing to accept that there are some very competent beekeepers using splits, rational miticide treatment or other strategies and small cell foundation, who have low or manageable Varroa levels. However, it’s their beekeeping skill and experience not the choice of foundation size that is important here.

Indeed, you could argue that the detrimental enhancement to mite reproduction of small cell foundation, means that they must have truly exceptional beekeeping talents.

Or an agenda perhaps 😉

Ambiguous and misleading titles

In the opening paragraph I stated that the title 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” was ambiguous. The scientific evidence presented above is that small cell foundation does control Varroa. Assuming you use the word ‘control’ when defined as the power to influence or direct the course of events. Small cell foundation does exert control … but almost certainly in the opposite direction to the way implied in the title.

What turns an ambiguous into a misleading title is this implication that small cell foundation reduces Varroa levels. The text that accompanies makes this implication without providing any sort of balanced view based upon the published evidence to the contrary.

Beekeepers, particularly beginners, looking for effective ways to reduce their mite levels are not being provided with the facts and are likely to be misled.

But wait … were all these scientific studies flawed?

Thorne’s partly justify the sale of small cell foundation in their newsletter by citing a UK research project that involves its use:

“The University of Reading has just started an exciting new research project examining the highly problematic issue of varroa mites and whether the use of small cell foundation (4.9 mm) can help. This is being carried out with volunteer beekeepers in the local area as well as in an apiary at the University. The study will evaluate the use of small cell foundation alongside regular-sized (5.4mm) foundation and compare the varroa loads during next spring and summer.

This is an interesting topic to research as beekeepers around the world have had success with the use of small cell foundation whereas many others have not. Some previous studies have also found that varroa counts increase in the short term when small cell foundation is first used. The new study will evaluate what happens once the bees have fully adjusted to small cell foundation and if there is a significant impact on varroa loads.”

The implication here is that the previous studies (above) are flawed because they failed to use bees that were properly adapted to small cell foundation. Thorne’s do clearly state that the bees have to be properly adapted – subjected to regression – for several months before benefits are seen (or claimed to be seen). To their credit also, they acknowledge that some studies show increases in mite levels. This text is from the newsletter and unfortunately does not appear on the webpage of their catalogue that describes the foundation.

Call me sceptical …

If it looks like a duck ...

If it looks like a duck …

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I remain sceptical.

If it looks like a duck, if it swims like a duck and if it quacks like a duck … it is a duck. As a scientist I’m influenced by controlled studies, not hearsay or beliefs.

The Berry study (ref 3 above) did use bees reared on small cell foundation for their comparative studies, the other studies did not as far as I can tell. However, remember the original hypothesis about why small cell foundation is beneficial. The mites do not develop properly within the cell as they are ‘crowded’ by the abdomen of the developing honey bee pupa i.e. there’s too little space for the mite.

What does regression lead to? Smaller bees. In the Berry et al., study the weights of adult bees reared on small cell and conventional foundation was 129 and 141 mg respectively. This seems to be contradictory … if properly regressed bees on small cell foundation are significantly smaller than those on conventional foundation how is the space for the mite development restricted? I acknowledge that the cell size is proportionately smaller than the reduction in adult bee weight. Conversely, if small cell foundation is supposed to restrict mite development, why are levels apparently higher when ‘normal’ sized bees are first forced to use smaller cells? Surely there should be a greater reduction in mite reproduction before the bees have regressed?

I hope the study being conducted by the University of Reading is thorough and properly controlled. These are difficult studies to conduct, particularly at the scale needed to be statistically convincing and when not under the direct control of a single beekeeper in a single apiary. I wish them every success with the experiments and look forward to reading about it once it is peer-reviewed and published.

Until then I suggest you save your £11.60 for ten sheets of small cell wired brood foundation … you’d be far better off preparing foundationless frames and controlling Varroa by rational and judicious use of hive manipulations and approved miticides.


Additional reading (far from exhaustive):

The late and still unbeatable Dave Cushman has an article by Philip Denwood reproduced from the 2003 BIBBA magazine on cell size. Recommended for a historical perspective.

A 2013 article from the New Hampsha’ Bees blog Small cell doesn’t work (but please don’t tell my bees describing typical evidence that small cell foundation does work … anecdotal and not controlled, but nevertheless enthusiastic and – unusually – acknowledging the evidence against.

Michael Bush on small cell bees and foundation.

Dee Lusby – one of the originators of the ‘small cell’ movement – in an early article from ABJ reproduced on the Beesource forums. Be warned … there’s some misleading nonsense in this article. For example “it is a known fact that both honey bees and mites have been on this Earth many millions of years together and survived quite nicely”. I don’t disagree that both mites and bees have been around for millennia. However, they have only been together for a century or so. I think I’ll have to write something about natural beekeeping in the future …

It’s notable that top Google ‘hits’ for small cell foundation provide no scientific support for the claims that are made … caveat emptor.