Category Archives: Principles

Sphere of influence

How far do honey bees fly? An easy enough question, but one that is not straightforward to answer.

The flight range of the honeybee ...

The flight range of the honeybee …

Does the question mean any honey bee i.e. workers, drones or the queen? As individuals, or as a swarm?

Is the question how far can they fly? Or how far do they usually fly?

Why does any of this matter anyway?

Ladies first …

Workers

The first definitive experiments were done by John Eckert in the 1930’s. He located apiaries in the Wyoming badlands at increasing distances from natural or artificial forage 1. Essentially the bees were forced to fly over a moonscape of rocks, sand, sagebrush and cacti to reach an irrigated area with good forage. He then recorded weight gain or loss of the hives located at various distances from the forage.

Wyoming badlands

Wyoming badlands …

The original paper can be found online here (PDF). The experiments are thorough, explained well and make entertaining reading. They involved multiple colonies and were conducted in three successive years.

Surprisingly, Eckert showed that bees would forage up to 8.5 miles from the colony. This means they’d be making a round trip of at least 17 miles – and probably significantly more – to collect pollen and nectar.

However, although colonies situated within 2 miles of the nectar source gained weight, those situated more than 5 miles away lost weight during the experiments.

Gain or loss in hive weight ...

Gain or loss in hive weight …

Therefore, bees can forage over surprisingly long distances, but in doing so they use more resources than they gain.

John Eckert was the co-author (with Harry Laidlaw) of one of the classic books on queen rearing 2. His studies were probably the first thorough analysis of the abilities of worker bees to forage over long distances. Much more recently, Beekman and Ratnieks interpreted the waggle dance (PDF) of bees to calculate foraging distances to heather. In these studies, only 10% of the bees foraged ~6 miles from the hive, although over 50% travelled over 3.5 miles.

Queens

Queens don’t get to do a lot of flying. They go on one or two matings flights, perhaps preceded by shorter orientation flights, and they might swarm.

Heading for a DCA near you ...

Heading for a DCA near you …

I’ll deal with swarms separately. I’ll also assume that the orientation flights are no greater than those of workers (I don’t think there’s any data on queen orientation flight distance or duration) at no more than ~300 metres 3.

On mating flights the queen flies to a drone congregation area (DCA), mates with multiple drones and returns to the colony. DCA’s justify a complete post of their own, but are geographically-defined features, often used year after year.

There are a number of studies on queen mating range using genetically-distinguishable virgin queens and drones in isolated or semi-isolated locations. They ‘do what they say on the tin’, drone congregate there and wait for a virgin queen

In the 1930’s Klatt conducted studies using colonies on an isolated peninsula and observed successful mating at distances up to 6.3 miles

Studies in the 1950’s by Peer demonstrated that matings could occur between queens and drones originally separated by 10.1 miles 4. These studies showed an inverse relationship between distance and successful mating.

More recently, Jensen et al., produced data that was in agreement with this, with drone and queen colonies separated by 9.3 miles still successfully mating 5.

However, this more recent study also demonstrated that more than 50% of matings occurred within 1.5 miles and 90% occurring within 4.6 miles.

Just because they can, doesn’t mean they do 🙂

Drones … it takes 17 to tango …

Seventeen of course, because that’s one queen and an average of 16 drones 😉

There’s a problem with the queen mating flight distances listed above. Did the queen fly 9 miles and the drone fly just a short distance to the DCA?

Or vice versa?

10 miles ... you must be joking!

10 miles … you must be joking!

Or do they meet in the middle?

Do queens choose 6 to fly shorter distances because it minimises the risk of predation and because they are less muscle-bound and presumably less strong flyers than drones?

Alternatively, perhaps drones have evolved to visit local DCAs to maximise the time they have aloft without exhausting themselves flying miles first?

Or getting eaten.

It turns out that – at least in these long-distance liaisons – it’s the queen that probably flies further. Drones do prefer local DCAs 7 and most DCAs are located less than 3 miles from the ‘drone’ apiary 8.

Swarms

I’ve discussed the relocation of swarms recently. Perhaps surprisingly (at least in terms of forage competition), swarms prefer to relocate relatively near the originating hive. Metres rather than miles.

The sphere of influence

Effective foraging – in terms of honey production (or, for that matter, brood rearing) – occurs within 2-3 miles of the hive. This distance is also the furthest that drones usually fly to occupy DCAs for mating.

Queens can fly further, but it’s the law of diminishing returns. Literally. The vast majority of matings occur within 5 miles of the hive.

In fact, other than under exceptional circumstances, a radius of 5 miles from a colony probably represents its ‘sphere of influence’ … either things that can influence the colony, or that the colony can influence.

Why does this matter?

Worker flight distances are relevant if you want to know the nectar sources your bees are able to exploit, or the pollination services they can provide. In both cases, closer is better. It used to also be relevant in trying to track down the source of pesticide kills, though fortunately these are very much rarer these days.

Closer is better ...

Closer is better …

Workers not only fly to forage on plants and trees. They also fly to rob other colonies. I don’t think there are any studies on the distances over which robbing can occur, but I’ve followed bees the best part of a mile across fields from my apiary to find the source of the robbing 9.

All of these movements can also transport diseases about, either in the form of phoretic Varroa mites piggybacking and carrying a toxic viral payload, or as spores from the foulbroods.

Drone and queen flight distances are important if you’re interested in establishing isolated mating sites to maintain particular strains of bees. My friends in the Scottish Native Honey Bee Society have recently described their efforts to establish an isolated queen mating site in the Ochil Hills.

And I’m interested as I now have access to a site over 6 miles from the nearest honey bees in an area largely free of Varroa.

It’s not the Wyoming badlands, but it’s very remote 🙂


 

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 …

 

 

Apivar & Apitraz = Amitraz

The range of miticides available ‘off the shelf‘ to UK beekeepers has recently been increased by the introduction of Apitraz and Apivar.

‘Off the shelf’ because, until recently, these were only available with a veterinary prescription.

Considering the extensive coverage on this site of oxalic acid-containing miticides and more recent posts about the – regularly ineffective – Apistan, it seemed fair and appropriate to write something on the active ingredient and mode of action of these new products.

Mites on drone pupae ...

Mites on drone pupae …

Conveniently, because the active ingredient is identical, these can be dealt with together in a single post. The similarities don’t end there. The amount of the active ingredient is the same and the way it is administered is very similar. They are different commercial products; Apitraz is distributed by Laboratorios Calier, SA and sold by BS Honeybees, Amitraz is distributed by Veto Pharma and sold by Thorne’s. The strips have a different appearance and a slightly different mechanism by which they are hung in the hive.

They even cost about the same – a single packet of 10 strips (sufficient to treat 5 hives) costs £30.50 and £31 respectively for Apitraz and Apivar.

Amitraz

The active ingredient in both Apitraz and Apivar is Amitraz.

Yes … I find these three names confusing similar as well 😉

Amitraz is a synthetic acaricide – a pesticide that kills mites and ticks. It was discovered and developed almost 50 years ago by the Boots Co. (the drug development predecessor of the Boots the Chemist 1 found in most high streets). Amitraz is the active ingredient in a range of medicines approved by the Veterinary Medicine Directorate, including Aludex and Certifect, both of which are used to treat mange in dogs.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

For completeness I should add that Amitraz used to be used by US beekeepers and was sold as a generic pesticide under the name Taktic, though this was withdrawn in about 2014. I believe that Apivar is now available as a slow-release Amitraz-containing Varroa treatment in the US.

Mechanism of action

Amitraz has to be metabolised (essentially ‘modified’) before it is active. This modification occurs much less well in bees than in mites. In fact, the toxicity of Amitraz for bees has been determined to be about 7000 times less than in mites.

Once converted into an ‘active’ form the most important mechanism of action for Amitraz is through interaction with the alpha-adrenoreceptor and octopamine receptors of Varroa 2.

OK, since you asked … octopamine receptors normally bind a neurotransmitter called – rather unimaginatively – octopamine. Quelle surprise as an apiculteur would say. It’s likely that occupancy of these receptors by Amitraz triggers a series of so-called downstream events that change the behaviour of Varroa. Similarly, amitraz also acts as an agonist 3 when binding to the alpha-adrenoreceptor which normally interacts with catecholamines. This results in neurotoxicity and preconvulsant effects.

That all sounds a bit vague. Essentially, amitraz binds and activates receptors that are critically important in a range of important aspects of the Varroa activity and behaviour. Remember here that the mite is entirely dependent upon proper interaction with the bee to complete the life cycle. For example, if the mite fails to enter a cell at the correct time or doesn’t hitch a ride on a passing nurse bee for a few days, it will likely perish.

Amitraz changes behaviour and so exhibits miticidal activity. It has additional activities as well … these multiple routes of action may explain why resistance to amitraz is slow to develop. More on this later.

Usage of Apitraz and Apivar

Both Apitraz and Apivar are formulated as plastic strips impregnated with amitraz. The bees must come into contact with the strips to transmit the amitraz around the hive. Two strips are therefore placed between frames approximately one-third of the way in from each side of the brood box – typically between frames 4 & 5 and 7 & 8 of an 11 frame box. This assumes the bees occupy the entire box. If they don’t, arrange the strips in the appropriate part of the box with 2 frames separating them. Both types of amitraz-containing strips have a means of securing them hanging between the frames.

The recommended treatment period is 6 (Apitraz, or Apivar with little/brood present) to 10 weeks (Apivar with brood present). As with Apistan, treatment should not be applied during a honey flow or when honey supers are present. Further details are included on the comprehensive instructions provided with both products. There’s also a reasonable amount of information on this New Zealand website for Apivar.

Efficacy

This is the good bit … very, very effective. When used properly, amitraz-containing miticides can kill up to 99% of the Varroa in a colony.

Toxicity and wax residues

The good news first. Amitraz does not accumulate in wax to any significant extent. It is not wax-soluble. This is in contrast to Apistan which is found as a contaminant in most commercially-available beeswax foundation.

And now the bad news. Beekeepers also have alpha-adrenoreceptors and octopamine receptors. So do dogs and fish and bees. Although amitraz has increased specificity for the receptors in mites and ticks, it can also interact with the receptors in other organisms. Consequently, amitraz can be toxic. In fact, if you ingest enough it can be very toxic. Symptoms of amitraz intoxication include CNS depression, respiratory failure, miosis, hypothermia, hyperglycemia, loss of consciousness, vomiting and bradycardia.

And it can kill you.

Admittedly, the doses required to achieve this are large, but it’s worth being aware of what you’re dealing with. Amitraz-containing strips should be used only as described in the instructions for use, handled with gloves and discarded responsibly after use.

Resistance

Multiple modes of action makes it much more difficult for resistance to evolve. But it can and does. Resistance to amitraz is well-documented and is understood at the molecular level. However, this is in cattle ticks, not Varroa.

At least, not yet, though there are numerous anecdotal reports of Varroa resistance.

I’ll deal with resistance in a separate post. It’s an important subject and avoiding it is a priority if amitraz-containing compounds are going to remain effective for Varroa control.

Cost

At about £6 per colony, amitraz-containing treatments are not significantly more expensive than the majority of other approved miticides, perhaps with the exception of Api-Bioxal which is appreciably less expensive (though more restricted in the ways it can effectively be administered 4).

Apivar ...

Apivar …

When you purchase a couple of packets of Apivar – enough for 10 colonies – it might feel expensive 5. However, it’s worth remembering that this is still less than the likely ‘profit’ on a couple of jars of your fabulous local honey per colony per year, which seems pretty reasonable in the overall scheme of things.

And, if you look after your colonies well, you are maximising the potential yield of honey in the future … so you’ll be able to afford it 😉


 

All the gear, no idea

The new Thorne’s catalogue came out a few days ago. I picked up a copy during a visit to the Newburgh store when I bought frames for the upcoming season and some more queen excluders.

Required reading

Required reading

I’ve always enjoyed reading the Thorne’s catalogue. Browsing the 2018 copy brought back memories of my introduction to it a decade or so ago. That was after my very first “Beekeeping for Beginners” evening class with the Warwick and Leamington beekeepers. Everyone left the class clutching a catalogue and an order form for a discounted BBwear suit. 

It was clearly effective and well-targeted marketing. I still spend more than I should (though less than I could, thanks to my catastrophic DIY skills) with Thorne’s and I still use BBwear suits.

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

The abiding memories of my first experience of the catalogue were the myriad choices … of hives, frames, foundation, tools and – perhaps more than anything else – labels and moulds.

Remember, this was before even the basics of the hive had been introduced in the beginners course. That first evening was probably spent on the distinction between queens, workers and drones, or perhaps ‘the beekeeping year’.

Back to the catalogue … surely there wasn’t the need for all those different frame sizes and styles? DN1, DN2, DN4, DN5, 14″ x 12″ and BS Manley.

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 1

And then the hives … National, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Langstroth … Aargh!

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warré 2 etc.

Of course now, a decade or so later, I know the answer. There’s no logical need for anything other than medium Langstroth boxes and one type of frame 😉

But I and most other beekeepers also know that logic is something in short supply in most beekeeping.

Indeed, logic is almost as rare as adhering to standards.

Which is why I use BS ‘British Standard’ National hives 😉

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue3 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

Eight different types of smoker. Eleven different types of uncapping knives, forks or rollers. Eighteen different types of hive tools. Eighteen! And I daren’t even look at the labels or moulds.

This isn’t a criticism. Choice is great … but is can be really confusing. Particularly when you don’t know the difference between your Bailey, Horsley, Snelgrove, Cloake or Snuggle boards.

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 4 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

For many, this catalogue is an integral part of their beekeeping education.

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

And then, schooled in basics from their winter training courses and simultaneously confused and enticed by their nightly perusal of the ‘essentials’ in the Thorne’s catalogue, come the two biggies.

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

Like lions waiting to ambush an unsuspecting baby wildebeest, the two biggest trade events in the beekeeping year allow all those essential items in the catalogue to be seen, inspected, caressed, agonised over and – finally – bought.

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

In my case sometimes bought, caressed, inspected and then agonised over 🙁

What on earth possessed me to get a Combi-Brush?

All the gear, no idea

Those early beekeeping days were characterised by limitless enthusiasm – in part fueled by the annual Thorne’s catalogue – and precious little practical experience.

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

I’ve still got stuff I bought in those early days. There’s all sorts of bits and bobs stored away which ‘might come in’.

It hasn’t and probably won’t 🙁

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 5. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

I now carry less to the apiary than I did five years ago. The bee bag is slimmed down and much more manageable. My record keeping is more organised – or at least less shambolic. I’ve given away the frame rests, mouseguard magnet … and the Combi-brush.

But, most significantly, I’ve pretty-much standardised on the equipment I use. I buy the boxes ensuring that they’re all compatible with each other. I buy the replacement frames and I buy less and less foundation.

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes etc.6

And I reckon my beekeeping is better for it. My bank balance certainly is 🙂

What’s new?

Nevertheless, I’ve still enjoyed a quiet hour or two (as the Beast from the East roars outside) with a cup of tea and the 2018 Thorne’s catalogue.

I’ve marvelled at the Adapta hive stand and floor which, by my estimates, would cost an eye-watering £422.92 if you were to buy it with all the accessories.  Actually, I’ve mainly marvelled at their ingenuity in designing all those accessories. This floor has been out a year or two now, but new for 2018 is the Adapta eke.

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

Undoubtedly well made, indubitably multi-functional, but costing £107.50 with all the add-ons.

Eek!

My first hive was a secondhand Thorne’s Bees on a Budget National bought from an association member who had had to give up beekeeping due to allergies. The boxes are still in regular use. It’s still listed in the catalogue and thousands have probably started their beekeeping with one of these hives.

While the basic hive hasn’t changed there are lots of new choices of floor, half-size supers and insulation, polish containers, queen introduction cages and – inevitably – candle moulds.

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course 😉

Horsley board

Horsley board

A year or two ago Thorne’s started selling Horsley boards (PDF) – an interesting method of swarm control consisting of a split board with an upper entrance, removable slide and queen excluder panel. I built my own a few years ago and have used it successfully. Mine is bodged together from bits of scrap wood and a butchered tin baking tray.

It’s a monstrosity.

They had one in the Newburgh store and it was beautifully made.

I was very tempted.

But I managed to resist … though I’ve looked at it several times in the new catalogue 😉


Colophon

In the interest of literary accuracy I should add that the bit about the Combi-Brush is not entirely true. I’ve never bought one. It was chosen as the most ridiculous piece of beekeeping equipment I could find in the catalogue that readers might appreciate.

However, there are a few things I have bought that, years, months, weeks or just days later, I’ve wondered … “Why?”

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret 😉

The Goldilocks principle

The Goldilocks principle refers to the concept of “just the right amount” of whatever is being considered.

In this case, honey bee colonies.

Beekeeping is a fascinating pastime. During the season – say April to September – there’s lots to keep you occupied and lots to keep your interest.

These are not always the same thing.

Weekly inspections for a start. Swarm prevention as the season properly gears up. Queen rearing. Swarms. Harvesting the early season honey. Possibly more swarms. The summer honey harvest. Autumn Varroa management. Uniting colonies and preparing colonies for winter.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 1. Fondant top-ups for underweight colonies. Cleansing and sterilising equipment.

And all of the above needs to be done for every colony you have.

One is not enough

I’ve previously written of the importance of managing more than one colony.

The comparison is invaluable. Is the colony you’re worrying about really doing badly, or is it just that there’s a dearth of nectar and all colonies are struggling at the moment?

In addition, if there really are problems with one colony – queenlessness or bad temper for example – you can ‘rescue’ them by taking appropriate action and a frame of eggs from your other colony. Or you can unite the colonies if it’s too late in the season to rear another queen. Frankly, it’s a no brainer …

Two National hives and Himalayan balsam

Two will do …

Logically, the amount of work involved in managing two colonies is double that of one colony.

Except, it isn’t.

Quite a bit of beekeeping is preparation and clearing up afterwards. For example, travelling to and from the apiary, preparing syrup, lighting the smoker, cleaning the extractor and so on. Most of these tasks take little or no more time if you’re dealing with two colonies rather than one.

The actual inspections may take twice the time, but that’s about it.

Even then, you’ll be getting twice the practice when you do inspect, so you’ll probably get more efficient, faster, with two colonies rather than one. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s a no brainer.

From too few to more than enough

Beginners often struggle in their early years of beekeeping 2. Sometimes they have too few bees in the hive. The colonies are weaker than they should be to exploit the forage or to overwinter successfully. Or they lose queens during the season, suffer an extended broodless period, and need to beg or borrow a queen from elsewhere to keep the colony together. It all looked so easy in the books or in that midwinter theory course.

Except, it isn’t.

But, assuming they don’t give up, all this time they’re gaining valuable experience – week by week, month by month and year by year.

And then they pass some sort of invisible inflexion point in their beekeeping ‘career’. This is the point after which they will always have enough bees. Their colony management skills are now good enough to keep large, prolific hives. These crowded colonies necessitate careful swarm prevention and control. Colony numbers can be increased easily.

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

From having too few bees they can now rapidly reach the point of having too many. They learn how easy it is to make increase 3 using a well-timed vertical split of a vigorous, healthy colony, or by not reuniting after using the Pagden method for swarm control.

And then they learn to graft, to use mini-nucs, to overwinter 5 frame nucs and – before you know it – they’ve bought a truck 🙂

But is (many) more than two, too many?

And then, at some point, sooner or later, it can become a bit of a chore.

In my experience the swarm season and extremes of weather are the two most testing periods.

During the peak swarming period – mid/late May to mid-June here, but earlier further South – beekeeping can be a ‘full-on’ experience. Timing is critical. Miss a late open queen cell and they’ll swarm on the next available good day. You’ll run out of equipment. You’ll get phone calls in the office asking you to retrieve a swarm from a tree/swing/classroom 4.

And, at the same time you’re coping with all this, it’s also the best time of the year to rear queens.

Your agenda and that of your bees is partially overlapping, but almost certainly not in sync.

And then there’s the weather  … we live in a country where the weather report regularly uses the phrase ‘mainly dry’. Without specifically saying it, this means it will be wet. Almost certainly on the day you need to do your inspections, move the grafted larvae, collect a swarm and feed the mini-nucs. Too many bees and bad weather are a testing combination.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But so are too many bees and spectacularly good weather.

Beekeeping is considered a gentle and relaxing pastime. The reality, on a bright sunny day with the temperature reaching 29°C, with full honey supers to remove is rather different. It is physically demanding and exhausting work. In a beesuit and veil you will sweat buckets. Literally. I’ve had to work so hard I could pour out the sweat that had pooled in my boots.

The pain will soon be forgotten, but there will be pain.

The Goldilocks zone

But somewhere between the too few and the too many (colonies) is the sweet spot. Enough that you can experience the wonderful and fascinating variation possible in bees and beekeeping. Sufficient to engage you and allow you to experiment and try new strategies out. Enough to cope with poor seasons and still to produce some lovely honey to give to the family at Christmas and to friends at dinner parties.

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

This is the Goldilocks zone.

Quite where that sweet spot is will depend upon a whole host of different factors. Your interest in bees vs. other competing hobbies and pastimes 5, how full-time the full-time job is, your abilities as a beekeeper and the pressure others 6 put on you to take holidays mid-season 😉

It might be two colonies. Not ‘just’ two, with the sort of dismissive implication that that’s not what being a real beekeeper is. There are some outstanding beekeepers I know who have a couple of colonies in a good area for forage and who consistently produce spectacular honey yields per colony. They are excellent observers, skilled practitioners and really understand what’s happening in their colonies at all times of the season.

Or it might be 200 … in which case you’ve got a stronger back and a bigger truck than me 🙂

For me it’s about a dozen. I can produce enough honey to sell or give away and still have sufficient colonies to dabble or experiment with. Not ‘experiment’ as in my day job (I have more hives for that), but to investigate different ways of improving my stock, alternative approaches to queen rearing and introduction, other types of mite control etc.

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

3 day old queen cells …

Not all these experiments work. Some are an unmitigated disaster, others are no better than the way I previously did whatever ‘it’ was.

Have you used a Taranov board? Me neither. But I’d like to this season.

Space and spares

The Goldilocks principle can also be applied to having ‘just the right amount’ of equipment and space to manage your chosen number of colonies. This includes, but isn’t restricted to, apiaries, brood boxes, supers, split boards, crownboards, stands, clearers, hive tools, more supers, dummy boards, roofs, frames, more frames, yet more frames etc.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who has managed to achieve this 😉


Colophon

Goldilocks and the three bears fairy tale book cover

Look who is sleeping in my bed!

The Goldilocks principle is named after the well-known 19th Century fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which Goldilocks, a little girl, always chooses the ‘just right’ option – of bed, porridge, chair etc. when lost in the forest and finding a house owned by three bears. In each case the ‘just right’ option is the one in the middle e.g. the bowl of porridge that was not too hot, or too cold, but was just right. Goldilocks, the little girl, was introduced in a variant of the original tale “The Story of the Three Bears” in place of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed old woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was preferred by the target audience 😉

The Goldilocks zone has a  specific meaning in astronomy where it indicates the habitable zone around a star. This is defined as the range of orbits within which liquid water could occur if there is sufficient atmospheric pressure.

 

Urbane bees

Urbane as in ‘of the city‘ as well as ‘polite and courteous‘.

Over 80% of the UK population live in towns. Although it’s unlikely that beekeepers are evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, it still means that most beekeepers (or wannabe beekeepers) probably live in towns. With the increase in the popularity of beekeeping over the last few years this inevitably means that more bees are being kept in towns than ever before.

Bees can do very well in towns

Cities have higher ambient temperatures 1 which effectively extends the season, starting earlier and finishing later in the year. These higher temperatures also provide more protection from extended cold periods during the winter.

Despite the depressingly obvious acres of grey concrete, cities can be remarkably ‘green’, with large parks and gardens in even some of the most densely populated areas. Satellite mapping analysis shows that cities like Liverpool, London and Edinburgh have 16 – 49% ‘green space’.

Many towns and cities have large numbers of well established trees, including lime and sycamore, both of which can give great honey. In addition, there are thousands of suburban gardens with a wide range of ornamental flowering plants.

As a consequence, city bees have access to a range of nectars throughout the season, helping create some strikingly good honey. There are entire businesses built around supplying honey from bees in the city – or cities – including the London Honey Company, Bermondsey Street Bees and the Sheffield Honey Company.

City rooftop bees

City rooftop bees …

But it’s not all roses … or begonias or geraniums

However, a quick look at the honey sold by ‘city’ honey companies shows that only some of it originates from, er, cities. They also sell Suffolk coastal honey, heather honey, borage honey etc. Of course, this probably – and rightly – reflects demand. There’s a wonderful range of different honey produced in the UK, so why not sell it alongside honey from the city?

Except there isn’t any honey from the city available at the moment. All gone. Neither of the two London-based companies listed above have any London honey for sale 2. Demand clearly outstrips supply.

And this is probably because supply is limited. Cities are surprisingly green, but many of the ornamental flowers favoured by gardeners are poor nectar producers and the trees are often planes, which produce no nectar for bees. With the increase in interest in beekeeping it’s been suggested that there are too many bees in cities 3.

I don’t think the data to support this conclusion is good enough (yet). Hive numbers are certainly up significantly, but perhaps not as high as some think. Whether they’re at saturation level for the forage available will require analysis over several years, taking account of the actual honey yields, the weather and accurate information on colony density.

It’s interesting to note that Fera’s Beebase report the apiary density around my local apiary in rural Fife is 1/25th that of Central London (29 vs. 710 within a 10km radius). These figures aren’t reliable or even accurate … each apiary may have very different numbers of hives and significant numbers of beekeepers (perhaps as many as 50%) aren’t even registered on Beebase. Nevertheless, it probably gives a general indication of the relative density of hives.

Being neighbourly

There are more important issues than potentially poor honey yields with urban bees. Bees aren’t domesticated 4 and they can’t really be controlled. They forage where nectar and pollen is available, they drink water when they need it, they swarm when the colony is doing well and – there’s no real way to be delicate about this – they crap wherever they want. They can also get tetchy when forage becomes limiting, during stormy weather or when poorly handled.

All of which means that your bees might cause problems for your neighbours.

Poop target ...

Poop target …

They’ll forage freely in their gardens, drink water from the bird bath or jacuzzi 5, swarm en masse and hang pendulously from the climbing frame, and they’ll defecate repeatedly on the neighbours recently waxed and polished BMW.

These are not insignificant issues and they shouldn’t be ignored.

If you’ve got bees, whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.

Swarm on a swing ...

Swarm on a swing …

Guilty until proven innocent.

Good urban beekeeping practice

I’ve kept bees in an urban garden and, while I can’t really advise on how you establish and maintain good relations with your neighbours 6, I can provide some beekeeping hints to make their life – and yours – a bit easier.

These are more or less in order of importance …

  1. Make sure you have access to an out apiary over three miles away. Perhaps the training apiary for your association, or a friend with a large rural garden. Arrange this in advance, not when an angry neighbour is remonstrating with you about his toddler and anaphylaxis. Seriously. Some problems are only solved by moving bees away and you might need to do this in a hurry.
  2. Put out a bait hive at the beginning of the season. You might stop a swarm from your own bees disappearing over the fence (but see 3). More importantly, another swarm from the neighbourhood might neatly hive themselves rather than ending up in the neighbours garden. Brownie points 7 for you and no blame can be attached! I’ve never failed to catch swarms with bait hives in urban or semi-urban gardens … and they weren’t mine because I always clip my queens. Which brings me to …
  3. Always clip your queens. Although clipping the wing of a queen does not stop swarming, it does stop the swarm flying off. They’ll usually end up on the hive stand or underneath the floor.
  4. Learn, and get good at, swarm prevention and control. Provide space for the colony before it’s needed, replace queens regularly, control colony expansion by taking off a nuc, conduct timely splits to control swarming and reunite to requeen. If you don’t yet know what these things are then there’s quite a bit to learn. Are you ready to keep bees in your town garden?
  5. Keep well-tempered bees and keep them well-tempered (see 8). Aggressive bees are unpleasant at the best of times. They make beekeeping a chore if you’re in the corner of a remote field. In town they’re an abomination. Requeen or move them immediately with any repeated tendency to show signs of bad behaviour.
  6. Engineer the flight lines to force bees up and away. If you situate the hive(s) in a corner facing into a fence or wall the foragers will be forced to fly up and over the obstacle, ideally well over head height. I’ve seen this done very successfully using an open-topped netting cage. My bee shed is surrounded by security fencing with 2″x6″ mesh … >95% of the foragers choose to fly over this rather than through the mesh 8.
  7. Be sensible about when you conduct your weekly inspections. Not when there’s a children’s party next door, not on the first warm, sunny day for a fortnight (when everyone is outside) and not when there’s a thunderstorm predicted and the bees are already agitated. You’ll find this is surprisingly restrictive. You’ll want to inspect your colony on the same day everyone else is enjoying the good weather. I used to keep my bees about six feet from where my neighbour parked their car to unload the shopping … I lost count of the number of times I had to abandon an inspection as they returned from Sainsburys. And they seemed to do a lot of shopping 🙁
  8. Learn to inspect your colonies well. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve for a beginner. The idea is that you conduct a thorough inspection while causing the minimum disruption to the colony. ‘Thorough‘ so you’re confident about what’s happening in the colony (and so don’t need to do it too frequently). The ‘minimum disruption‘ is important so you don’t leave agitated bees flying around for ages afterwards. This is a skill and is generally only learned with lots of experience – minimal smoke, gentle handling of the frames, proper examination of each frame, no crushed bees (so no alarm pheromone) … with all this being achieved quickly.
  9. Good Varroa management. Controlling Varroa means your colonies are likely to stay strong, so they are less likely to be robbed out by the dozens of other colonies in the area. This is both responsible beekeeping and stops the sort of frenzied mobbing of bees around the hive that are likely to really worry the neighbours.

Forewarned is forearmed

As I’ve said before, the principles of beekeeping are really rather simple. It’s practice – lots of it – that is needed to acquire the necessary skills to keep bees well. I’d argue that good beekeeping is particularly important in towns because your mistakes, or the intransigence of the bees, don’t just cause you a problem. They potentially cause problems – or at least concerns – for your neighbours.

That’s neither fair or responsible.

Some of the best beekeepers I know keep quite large numbers of colonies in surprisingly small suburban gardens. Do not underestimate the skill needed to achieve this. All of them have somehow arrived at a method of beekeeping that addresses all of the points above.

But I’ve also been asked to urgently requeen double brood colonies in tiny town gardens that were so aggressive they needed a double beesuit over a fleece for protection, where the garden was off-limits and where inspections had been completely abandoned.

I hate to think of the problems this caused their neighbours … or the additional bad publicity for beekeeping in general.


Colophon

Urbane means (of a person, especially a man) courteous and refined in manner. It’s derived from Middle French urbain which meant both polite, courteous, elegant and belonging to a city. This in turn is derived from Classical Latin urbanus meaning much the same. For an article about bees in towns the word seemed remarkably appropriate, referencing both cities and the need for courteous and refined behaviour.

Of the bees … and the beekeeper 😉

About the only thing wrong with the current use of the word is that it is usually applied to males.

🙄

 

Principles and practice

There’s a high level of ‘churn’ amongst new beekeepers. Beekeeping is relatively easy and inexpensive to start. The principles of beekeeping appear straightforward. But large numbers of beginners give up after a season or two.

Here I argue that the colonies and hives some of these beginners abandon pose a threat to other beekeepers, sometimes for years …

A better appreciation of the commitment required to successfully practice the principles of beekeeping might increase the success rates of beginners, though it might also dissuade some from starting in the first place.

Save the bees, save humanity

Supermarket bees

Supermarket bees …

Bees are popular. You only need to visit the supermarket, spend time on the High Street or browse the web, to find bees or pollinators mentioned. The plight of the honey bee is extensively documented in the press. In places some of these references are little more than thinly-veiled adverts … there are any number of beers or ales that now include ‘local honey’ to support bees and beekeeping.

So, public awareness is high.

A good thing

In some ways this is a good thing. The public are aware that, for a variety of reasons, our honey bees (and other pollinators, but I’m going to restrict myself to honey bees for the remainder of this post) are facing real problems. Habitat destruction, monoculture, disease, farming practices, global warming, mobile phone masts, parasites, imports and – the current favourite – neonicotinoids, are all/solely (delete as appropriate) to blame for the problems faced by our cute little bees.

Monoculture ... beelicious ...

Monoculture … beelicious …

It’s a good thing because you might get to sell more local honey which, as a consequence, means you’ll look after your bees carefully and manage them to make more honey next year. It’s a good thing – and I’ll declare a vested interest here – because the Government is encouraged to spend money on research to discover what the real threats to honey bees are (hint, it’s probably not mobile phone masts). This money will also help develop ways to mitigate these threats in due course.

There are a lots of other reasons why it’s a good thing. People are designing bee-friendly gardens, they’re planting wild-flower meadows, they’re reducing pesticide usage and favouring biological control or other pest management techniques. Farmers are being encouraged to leave wide field margins or build beetle banks … and some might even be doing this.

Too much of a good thing?

Some people are so concerned about the plight of the honey bee they decide to do the obvious thing and buy a hive and bees for the bottom of their garden. Obvious, because they’ve increased the number of hives and they’ll be getting lots of delicious honey at the end of the summer.

Some attend a winter ‘start beekeeping’ course (or fully intend to next year, once they’ve kept bees for the current season). Some think they’ll be OK with generous offer of telephone support from the person who sold them a midsummer nuc.

Others do this without any training, without any advice and without anyone to mentor them. 

What could possibly go wrong?

These new beekeepers are certainly well-intentioned. They fully intend to help bees. They really think they’re going to help. They love the idea of their own local honey.

Unfortunately, although many might think they appreciate the basic principles of keeping bees, they know very little about the practice of beekeeping.

Principles

Actually, the principles of beekeeping are a little more complicated than buying a hive, dumping a nuc into it and harvesting the honey at the end of the season.

The bees need to be fed when there’s a dearth of nectar, or in preparation for winter. They need to be protected from pests and diseases. They need space to expand. They need to be monitored in case they’re thinking of swarming. If they are, action is needed. And all this needs to be regularly and repeatedly checked throughout the Spring and Summer.

In short, they need to be properly managed. This management is the practice of successful beekeeping.

Without proper management I’d argue that one of the biggest threats to bees and beekeeping is the unmanaged colony (or hive) lurking in the corner of a field.

Practice

It’s easy to overgeneralise here. The following paragraphs are really describing beekeepers in their first few seasons. Experienced beekeepers can modify their management practices to one that suits their bees, environment, climate and strategy. Bear with me.

Inspections need to start before colonies build up too strongly in the Spring. Queens should ideally be found and marked (and clipped in my view, but some prefer not to do this). Inspections continue at 7 day intervals until the swarming season is well and truly over.

Not 11 day intervals … not when “the weather is better than today”, not when “I get back from the  fortnight in Crete”, not when “I can be bothered” … and certainly not only when “the neighbour is angry about the swarm clustered on their garden swing”.

Inspections have to be conducted thoroughly and with a purpose. It’s not a cursory glance in the top of the box. There’s a reason you’re doing it, so do it well.

Inspections must be done even if it’s 32°C in the shade and you’re melting in your beesuit, when the bees are stroppy as the OSR has just gone over and there’s no nectar coming in, when the weather is (again) miserable and all 50,000 will be ‘at home’ (and possibly tetchy as well) and even if you think “surely they’ll be OK for another day or two?”.

They probably won’t.

Hard labour

Beekeeping is hard work. If you’re lucky and the supers are bulging full it can be backbreaking.

You have to work reasonably fast and carefully. Manage only one of these two and, for different reasons, inspections can become tiresome.

You will get stung, though not often if you’re fast and careful and if you have well-tempered bees.

It can be hot as hell in summer and you can get wet, miserable and cold at any time of the season.

Uh oh ... swarming ...

Uh oh … swarming …

It’s not only physically hard, it is also mentally hard. Not like quantum physics, but it still requires quite a bit of thought. Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Using a combination of observation, experience and knowledge (and perhaps a little inspired guesswork) you need to determine what’s going on in a forty litre box containing over 50,000 bees. Is there disease present? Is it one you can do anything about? Is it notifiable? Is the queen present and laying well? Is the colony thinking of swarming (hint, a dozen sealed cells is usually an indication the colony has swarmed, not that it’s thinking of swarming 😉 ). Do they have enough stores? Do they need more space?

You need to be prepared for disappointment (and have a contingency plan). Despite your best efforts the colony may swarm. An extended period of lousy summer weather prevents the new queen from getting mated properly. The colony dwindles, is too weak to defend itself and is robbed out by another colony. Any number of things can go wrong.

Bees are managed, not domesticated.

That’s the reality of beekeeping. That’s the practice that underlies the principle of just dumping a nuc of bees in a box in late April and harvesting pound after pound of golden honey in early September.

If only it were that simple!

Beeless “beekeepers”

I regularly meet people who ‘once kept bees’. I’m sure you do to. Further discussion often shows that they certainly once had bees, but that they failed to keep them.

The colony died, was robbed out, repeatedly swarmed, absconded or – much more frequently – these beekeephaders simply lost interest.

Often they aren’t actually sure what happened to the colony. Have you ever asked them?

Their initial enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the first couple of inspections. The colony was getting much bigger, much faster than their experience made them comfortable with. They got a bit frightened but wouldn’t actually admit that. They missed an inspection (or two) as they were in Crete for the family holiday. The colony swarmed. They’d read somewhere that the colony shouldn’t be disturbed for a month, so they didn’t. They remembered again three months later but were then too late for the autumn Varroa treatment. Have you got any fondant to spare? They’ll have another go next year.

Definitely.

It’s not unusual for these hives to be simply abandoned. You find them in the corners of fields or tucked up against the hedge in a large sprawling garden.

Out of sight and out of mind.

Forgotten, but not gone

Forgotten, but not gone …

The gift that keeps on giving

Sometimes the colony limps on for a season or two. More often though it expires in the winter. The hive may then be repopulated the following year by a swarm. They flourish, or more likely perish and are repopulated again. Even if mice move in for winter and wax moth trashes the comb they still attract swarms.

duunnn dunnn ...

duunnn dunnn …

There’s a dozen or more hives like this on private land I know of. Some local beekeepers visit every year or so to collect any swarms that have moved in. I can’t imagine the state of the comb … or the colonies they collect.

But (queue Jaws music … duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn) these abandoned and unmanaged hives mainly provide a great opportunity for Varroa to flourish. Together with both the foul broods, Nosema and goodness knows what else.

The abandoned hives effectively act as bait hives, attracting swarms which become established feral colonies. Most will eventually be decimated by Varroa and its viral payload, but many will chuck out a swarm or two first, or drones that drift from colony to colony. Some will get robbed out as they collapse – perhaps by one of your strong colonies – leading to a huge infestation with phoretic mites carried by the returning robbers.

They’re like a 40 litre cedar version of Typhoid Mary.


† And my extensive market research suggests they are very delicious too 😉

‡ After all, there’s no time like the present to start and the sooner you buy and populate that lovely cedar hive, the faster honey bee colonies numbers will increase. But they will definitely attend the beekeeping course next winter. Absolutely!

Telephone support. Really?! Have you ever tried to give telephone advice to a new beekeeper who’s standing by an open hive, mobile clamped to their ear, desperately looking for eggs, or deciding whether the queen cells are capped or uncapped? I’ve tried … don’t bother. Grab the beesuit and get to the apiary 😉

There are others I know of and have access to. The entrances to these have miraculously become stuffed tight with grass, so preventing their repopulation. How did that happen? 😉

A poor analogy, but it makes the point. Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was an Irish immigrant  New York cook in the early part of the 20th Century. She was also an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, a bacterial infection. During the period 1900-07 she infected at least 51 people, three of whom died. Investigative epidemiology traced a series of typhoid fever outbreaks to places where Mary Mallon worked. She was named Typhoid Mary in a 1908 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon refused to accept that she was infected, was forcibly incarcerated (quarantined) twice and eventually died after three decades of isolation. The analogy is poor because Mary Mallon appeared in good health, whereas these abandoned hives (and the bees they contain) are often pretty skanky. However, the term “like Typhoid Mary” is often used to indicate a source of repeated infection … which is spot on.

 

 

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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.

Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

Some would argue that it’s the time of the year when you prepare colonies for the winter. After all, without good winter preparation there’s unlikely to be a beekeeping season. Others might consider it’s the beginning of the calendar year, just after the longest nights of the year when beekeeping is but a distant memory and all you can do is plan (and build frames).

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

However, perhaps a more logical start of the beekeeping season is the first full hive inspection. This varies from year to year, depending upon the weather. Many consider the full flowering of Ribes sanguineum, the ornamental flowering current, to be a good indicator that the season is underway and that colonies can be inspected. However, the time this plant flowers appears to vary depending upon how sheltered its location is (and possibly the particular cultivar). There’s some in a very sheltered spot approaching the bus station in St. Andrews that was flowering in mid-February this year. Too early by far.

Macho beekeeping

It’s worth stressing here that not only is there season to season variation, there’s also geographic variation. It gets warmer in the South before the North (at least for the ~95% of the readers of this site who live in the Northern hemisphere). If you’re fortunate enough to live in the uncluttered, quiet, pollution-free, traffic-free and scenic (clearly I’m biased 😉 ) North, don’t be misled by the discussions on the online forums of 8 frames bursting with sealed brood in late March.

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

Firstly, the poster might actually live in Northern Spain. You can be anything you want on the internet … and anywhere you want. Secondly, some contributors exaggerate when describing their activities and successes (or failures for that matter). Some who, while stressing the fantastic build-up of their Carniolan colonies, conveniently omit to mention they are an overseas breeder and exporter of – you guessed it – Carniolan queens. An omission, but also as the late Alan Clark said, somewhat economical with the actualité. Finally, there’s also a sort of chest-beating macho amongst some where the poster describes pulling colonies apart very early in the season – essentially bragging about the strength of the colonies and their beekeeping prowess.

Use your own judgement about when to open a colony in the early part of the year. Don’t blindly follow the recommendations of others (or me for that matter). The ‘when’ really needs to be informed by the ‘why’.

Not when, but why?

Opening colonies is disruptive. The propolis-sealed crownboard is removed and the colony – even with the gentlest manipulation – is disturbed. There needs to be a good reason to go rummaging through a brood box. That isn’t a justification to not inspect colonies. Just make sure there’s a good reason to compensate for the disruption.

The first inspection should be a quick progress check. Is everything OK? It shouldn’t be a full-blown inspection in which every frame is carefully scrutinised for signs of brood diseases. You’re simply trying to determine whether the queen is laying well, that she’s laying worker brood rather than drone brood and that the colony have sufficient stores and space to expand

All that can be determined in a couple of minutes. You don’t need to see the queen, though it’s not unusual to spot her as the colony is probably relatively sparsely populated. If the box is stuffed with stores consider replacing a frame on the side of the brood nest with a frame of drawn comb. It’s almost certainly too early to only provide foundation.

Outside and inside

Spring is appreciably later in Fife, Scotland than in the South of England. At the time of writing (~8/9th of April) it’s rarely been much above the low teens Centigrade. Colonies are working well during the warmest part of the day, but there’s still a chill in the wind and little point in opening the majority of hives.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The exception are the hives in the bee shed. Based on my experience last year these colonies are 2-3 weeks more advanced than those outside. On a warm day – yesterday just reached 15°C – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20°C. Three of the colonies were giving me cause for concern. One was a poly nuc that seemed very active. The other two were hives headed by purchased queens from last season – these had gone into the winter well and had been flying on borderline days in midwinter. However, having been away for most of March, I’d noticed they were much quieter than other hives when I checked the entrances in early April.

The strong nuc was doing reassuringly well. It had nearly four frames of brood and last years’ marked and clipped queen laying well. The brood pattern was a bit patchy, but I’ll reserve judgement until later in the season when there’s ample pollen and nectar coming into the hive, together with a full complement of workers to support the queen.

In contrast, the two hives were almost devoid of bees. Both queens had clearly failed in the winter as there was no brood. There was no sign of overt disease (in the few remaining bees) and mite drop had been low in autumn and during the midwinter treatment. I suspect that the queens were poorly mated. Disappointing, but these things happen.

Looking back

I have yet to look in any other colonies. It needs to warm up significantly before I do. It’s interesting to compare the development of this season with previous years – and to have some notes I can refer back to in the future. As I write this (remember, it’s the 8/9th of April):

  • Fieldfares are still present, although clearly in reduced numbers and drifitng North.
  • I have yet to see any house martins or swallows (update – saw both mid-morning on Friday 14th, but still only 9°C).
  • Only about 5% of the oil seed rape is flowering (not necessarily a good comparison as different strains can flower at different times).
  • Primroses are at their peak but neither bluebells or wild garlic are flowering yet.
Primroses ...

Primroses …

Regional climatic differences are a significant influence on colony development. Remember this as you plan your early season inspections and – particularly if you are a relatively new beekeeper – when you compare how your colonies are doing with those reported by others elsewhere.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering the importance of relative colony development between colonies in the same apiary. A single colony that is developing slowly might be being held back because of poor weather. However, if you have two colonies to compare, one that is obviously retarded might be cause for concern … and should be checked for disease or a failing queen.

This is a good example of when it is beneficial to have two colonies to compare.


Too much, too soon

Too much, too soon was a 1958 biographical film about the actress Diana Barrymore starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn. The film, based on a best selling book of the same name, describes the life of the alcoholic movie star and was pretty-much panned by the critics.

Not one to set the recorder for …