Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6


 

 

Keeping your cool

Beekeepers sweat, men perspire and women glow, or something pretty close to that, was an adage that originated in a Victorian etiquette guide 1.

And, in the weather we’ve been enjoying recently, it’s not far from the truth.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen ... and beekeepers

Only mad dogs and Englishmen … and beekeepers

Beekeeping in hot weather

Even here on the East coast of Scotland we’ve had some long, hot and sunny days 2. It’s been perfect picnic weather, it’s made for a great Spring honey crop and it’s been purgatory doing colony inspections.

The first one or two are fine, but I soon warm up. After half a dozen hives, particularly when shifting nectar-laden supers off and on, or setting up double-boxed splits, it starts to get uncomfortable. An hour or so later and it’s really grim 3.

And it’s worse in the bee shed. The shelter and warmth that are so valuable on days with rubbish weather or at the extremes of the season, work against you in the heat of the summer. The temperature inside the shed regularly exceeds 30°C and, with no air movement, it can be stifling.

What’s the best way to cope with the heat?

Beesuits

BBwear Ultra suit

BBwear Ultra suit

Most of the major manufacturers make lightweight beesuits. I’ve got one from BBwear made from some sort of Teflon coated material. It’s certainly lightweight – about half the weight of my standard poly/cotton suit – but is saved for use when working in Varroa and disease-free areas. The relatively rare hot days we have don’t really justifying buying (yet) another full suit.

BBwear have recently introduced their Ultra suit made from a high tec fully ventilated 3D fabric’. At £359 (eke! 4) I’m unlikely to ever get to wear one 5, but I’d be very interested to hear of anyone who has experience of it.

For quick inspections a jacket is cooler than a full suit … but during quick inspections you’re unlikely to work up much of a lather.

The clothing you wear under the beesuit also has a big influence – shorts and a T-shirt are much better than jeans and a fleece.

And if you need to wear a fleece under your beesuit to provide protection against stings it’s time to requeen the colony.

Timing is everything

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

Inspecting colonies under the heat of the midday sun can be hard work. If time permits you could always inspect earlier or later in the day, or time your visit to the apiary so that the hives are in dappled shade rather than full sun.

Work commitments mean I often have to conduct inspections late in the afternoon. On hot days it is usually cooler by 5pm, but by the time I’ve got round most of the colonies it can be getting quite late 6.

Of course, as the day cools the hive fills with bees, making the important observation of the comb more difficult. This is compounded by fading light levels.

Given the choice – and I’m usually not – I’d probably prefer to inspect in mid-morning, once the bees are up and out, but without having to worry about running out of daylight or time.

The “You cannot be serious” 7 option

John McEnroe c.1979

John McEnroe c.1979

A headband is a very effective way to stop the sweat getting in your eyes, dripping off the end of your nose and splashing onto the inside of the veil. You might associate headbands (sweatbands) with tennis players or Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, but they are just as much use to overheating beekeepers. Just remember to retrieve it from the pocket of your beesuit at the end of the afternoon, rather than leave it festering in there until the inspections the following week … a damp and slightly fetid headband not only doesn’t look good, it also doesn’t smell good.

But it’s still very effective.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat 8

The near-ubiquitous baseball cap provides almost as much perspiration-protection as the headband and probably has a little more sartorial elegance (not difficult). They have the added advantage that, on windy days, the peak prevents the veil blowing against your face at precisely the same time the one aggressive bee in the colony decides to make a kamikaze attack.

Baseball caps work well under the ‘fencing veil’ hoods, but I cannot comment on their suitability for the wire-framed ‘retro’ hoods as these fit more closely to the crown (and I’ve never used one).

G’day, cobber 9

G'day Cobber

G’day Cobber

Cobber Enterprises make a neck scarf filled with water-absorbing gel granules. You soak it in water for ~15-25 minutes and wear it loosely tied around your neck (no surprises there). It works by evaporative cooling of the carotid arteries. I’ve had a couple of these for years 10 and have used them when walking in Southern Spain or Mallorca … and beekeeping. They need to be next to your skin and should be rotated periodically to find another cool patch.

They are extremely effective.

When writing this post I looked up the current pricing and availability of a Cobber. I was horrified to see they’re now over £20. However, you can dry them out and reuse them time and again. Mine appear to work as well now as they did when I got them about 15 years ago 11.

In Australia they’re about £7 🙁 12

Drinking on the job

The beekeeping veil provides protection to keep any bad tempered bees from your sensitive lips, tongue and eyes. However, it doesn’t prevent you rehydrating as required … you can simply guzzle water from a bottle directly through the veil. This works very well and is very refreshing on a long hot afternoon in the apiary.

However, stick to water only and avoid sticky, sugary drinks for obvious reasons. Drinking hot tea through the veil is possible, but not really recommended … not least because its ability to cool you be inducing sweating is probably negated by the fact you’re at least ‘glowing’ already.

And finally, once the inspections are all finished and the beesuit is hanging up (or destined for the washing machine), it’s time for a cuppa … or a ‘purely medicinal’ ice-cold beer 😉


Colophon

Of course, writing an article on good weather and beekeeping will more or less guarantee the rest of the summer is a wash-out. Sorry.

I should add that “other beesuit suppliers are available”. I list BBwear as they’re the only suits I’m familiar with … I’ve bought about a dozen over the last decade for home or work and never seen the need to change.

Anticipation

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

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

Difurzeion

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

Late December gorse ...

Late December gorse …

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

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

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

An apology

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

Now back to the bees …

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

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

Frames and supers

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

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

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

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

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

Fermenting honey

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

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

Washing frames ...

Washing frames …

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

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

Drying brood frames ...

Drying brood frames …

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

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

Be(e) prepared

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

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

Smoker de-coke ...

Smoker de-coke …

OK … bring it on 🙂


Colophon

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

Fife weather mid-April 2018

Fife weather mid-April 2018

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

It was great to be beekeeping again 🙂

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

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

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

Consistently … but only just and only briefly.

Pollen boost

Pollen boost …

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

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

Early season checkups

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

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

A pretty small handful.

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

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

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

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

Unfulfilled promise

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

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

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

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

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

Worn out

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

Old and tired ...

Old and tired …

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

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

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

Health check

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

Winter losses ...

Winter losses …

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

Corpses ...

Corpses …

Lose them or use them?

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

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

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

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

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


Colophon

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

 

 

Weighty matters

During irregular midwinter visits to the apiary you need to check if the hive entrances are clear and to determine whether the colony has sufficient stores for the remaining winter. The rate at which stores are used depends upon the number of bees in the colony, the strain of bees, the temperature and whether they’re rearing brood or not.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The easiest way to ‘guesstimate’ the level of stores is to gently lift the back of the hive an inch or two, and to judge the effort required. Beekeepers call this ‘hefting‘ the hive. Colonies should feel reassuringly heavy. After all, you’re only actually lifting half the weight of the hive – the front remains on the hive stand – and if that feels light it might indicate a problem.

Be gentle

The hive will be full of torpid bees on a freezing cold winter day. On really cold days the wooden floor of the hive might actually be frozen onto the stand. Don’t force it and jar them. And if you can gently lift one side, don’t just drop the hive back onto the stand afterwards. Ideally you want to judge the weight of the colony without the bees being disturbed at all.

Be gentle ...

Be gentle …

However, judging the weight takes experience. Is it a lot less than last week? Is it less than it should be? In the picture at the top there are 5 hives, only two of which (those on the closest stand, and above) are comparable. You can’t easily compare hives if you have only one or if they’re not made of the same material.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Over time you will get experience for what feels OK, and what feels a bit light.

And if any do feel dangerously light then you need to intervene and give them more stores – in the form of fondant – as soon as possible. At least, you need to intervene if you don’t want to risk them starving to death. I’ll discuss topping up the fondant in a future post.

Technology to the rescue

You can get a much better insight into changes in the weight of a colony by, er, weighing it. Luggage weighing scales are widely available, cheap and accurate. With a little ingenuity you can fashion a means of attaching them to the side of the floor. I drilled a 6mm hole through the side runners of the floor and securely tied an eye bolt to some strong polypropylene attached to the scales.

In a similar way to hefting a hive, lift each side carefully, but this time note the weight and add them together. It’s helpful to use scales which automagically record the maximum stable weight. Note the weight down in your hive records and see how it compares over time.

As before, be gentle with these colonies in winter. Don’t go bouncing them up and down. The bees will not appreciate it. With care you can weigh the colony and barely disturb them at all.

What? You want even more accuracy and even less work? Look at the hive monitoring equipment from Arnia, SolutionBee or others. These use under-hive scales hooked up to a mobile phone to upload weights (and lots of other data) for analysis from the comfort of your armchair.

At a price  😯

Frugal bees are better bees

Different strains of bees use their winter stores at different rates. ‘Black bees’ (Apis mellifera mellifera, or Amm) are well known for being frugal. In contrast, some Italian strains chomp through their stores like there’s no tomorrow (and if you don’t feed them, there won’t be).

My Heinz strain 1 of locally-reared bees exhibit variation in the amount of stores they use. The two comparable hives on the same stand in the top picture both started the winter packed with stores. By Christmas one of them remained reassuringly heavy, whereas the other one was feeling light and was given a fondant supplement.

All things being equal, I’d prefer my bees use less rather than more. When the time comes to rear queens later in the season the thrifty colony will be favoured.

Some beekeepers take a harder line than this … if a colony can’t store enough to get it through the winter they let it starve and so allow ‘natural selection’ to operate.

I’d prefer to have the luxury of an additional colony in Spring. I won’t rear queens from it and I’ll minimise drone brood to prevent it contributing to the next generation. Instead, I’ll build it up in the spring and then split it for nucleus colony production in late May or early June.

Unnatural selection perhaps, but it’s a solution I’m comfortable with.

Given the choice, I suspect it’s what the bees would prefer as well 😉

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary


 

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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