Category Archives: Efficiency

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 …

Finding the queen

One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.

A local queen

A local queen

An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.

The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.

And they usually do.

Magic?

No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.

In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.

The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.

In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.

Focus where needed, skip the rest

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.

There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.

The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.

Reassuring but unnecessary

The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.

The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.

The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.

Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.

Stop looking

If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.

By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.

Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.

When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.

If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Compatibility

There’s a saying that goes something like “Ask three beekeepers an opinion on … and you’ll get five answers”. And if it isn’t a saying, then it should be. Have a look at the online forums and you’ll see numerous threads with multiple – often wildly contradictory – answers. This can be a problem for experienced beekeepers and is a total nightmare for new beekeepers.

Inevitably, beekeeping is an inexact science. There are too many variables to be dogmatic about things – the weather, colony strength, available forage, parasite levels, time, beekeeping ability etc. 

Compatibility, standardisation and efficiency 

However, one thing that most beekeepers should agree on is that compatibility of equipment is important. For efficiency, your equipment needs to be compatible e.g. using a roof that fits any of your hives. Without compatibility you will inevitably experience the frustration of trying to make incompatible equipment ‘fit’ together, or have to make repeated trips to the apiary with the correct kit.

Been there, done that 🙁

Compatibility is best achieved by standardisation i.e. all hives are of the same size and design, built to an agreed specification or standard, ideally by a single manufacturer. I suggest ‘single manufacturer’ as some don’t adhere to the standards as closely as others. Unless you are, and intend to stay, a single hive owner (and there are very good reasons why you shouldn’t) this is an ideal that is rarely achieved.

If you have more than one apiary you’re likely to be moving hives between them. Again, compatibility is important. Finally, if you are being mentored, acting as a mentor to others or intending to sell nucleus colonies, it helps if your hive equipment is compatible with others.

This compatibility starts with the frame size – and therefore defines the brood/super dimensions – and the frame spacing (e.g. Hoffman/Manley), but extends to whether the hives are bottom or top bee space, the types of floors, entrance blocks, clearer boards, split or division boards, feeders etc. 

Which hive?

We’re spoilt for choice in the UK … literally.

Compare the hive types sold by some of the largest suppliers of beekeeping equipment in the UK and USA e.g. Thorne’s and Dadant. Thorne’s list about eight removable-frame hives (National, WBC, Langstroth, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Rose and Dartington). Dadant list just one (Langstroth, albeit in 8 or 10 frame widths). I know that some hives use the same frame sizes, but have also simplified things by ignoring the range of frame depths offered – 14×12’s, shallows, mediums, deeps etc. In this post I’m only really concerned with box compatibility.

No wonder many starting beekeeping ask “Which hive should I buy?”. They’re probably advised to get whatever is in use locally, often Nationals, but increasingly Langstroths in some places or Smiths in parts of Scotland. The recommendation to start with whatever is used locally is both logical and pragmatic. The beginner is likely to have to source a nucleus colony to start with and (hopefully) this will have been purchased locally, from a more experienced beekeeper (their mentor?) with gentle bees of known provenance, adapted to the local climate and inspected before purchase.

In the overall scheme of things I don’t think the choice of hive type is particularly important. None are inherently better than others, though a few are perhaps worse. The bees, Apis mellifera, are the same and certainly don’t care. Far more important is that the equipment acquired is compatible – with what is already owned, with what might be purchased, built or inherited in the future, and with what others use.

Running out of kit

A universal truth about beekeeping is that, sooner or later, you’ll run out of equipment. For beginners it’s during their first swarm season when they suddenly find they need a complete additional hive to undertake the classic Pagden ‘artificial swarm’ method. Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, they capture a swarm and have to house that. It’s not unusual for all this to happen in the same week of the same month of the first year of beekeeping.

It can be a little chaotic 🙂

Gaffer tape apiary

Gaffer tape apiary …

There are two or three obvious ways to reduce the equipment crisis. Firstly, use a version of the vertical split rather than a Pagden artificial swarm, thereby reducing the need for an additional floor and roof for starters. Secondly, bodge a solution … use stacked supers as a makeshift broodbox, build roofs out of Correx (abandoned For Sale signs should always be repurposed) or use an upturned plant tray or piece of polythene-covered plywood. Finally, borrow suitable kit from a friendly local beekeeper … which brings us back to compatibility again.

Don’t for a moment think that a dozen colonies and a decade’s experience stops a beekeeper running out of equipment. A couple of years ago we had a bumper summer and I ran out of supers. Most colonies had 2-3 supers on already and there seemed to be no end in sight to the nectar flow. It was fantastic. A generous friend loaned me a dozen supers to buy me enough time to remove the first fully capped supers, extract the honey and recycle the boxes. Without this act of generosity – only possible as my friend was downsizing – my hives would have become packed with nectar and the colonies might have swarmed.

Mix’n’match

It’s at these times that equipment compatibility becomes paramount. I could borrow and use those supers as my friend also ran Nationals. The beginner can of course borrow any type of kit, but if the artificially swarmed colony needs to subsequently be united with the original box then it’s much easier if the equipment is compatible (note the thin shim in use in the picture below, between the incompatible poly boxes on top and standard cedars). As it turned out, the supers I borrowed weren’t 100% compatible as my friend used top bee space whereas mine were bottom bee space … the bees and I coped.

This need to mix’n’match equipment happens every season. You might want to move frames about to boost particular colonies, to mix frames removed from several strong colonies to make up nucs for overwintering, to unite nucleus colonies after using the newly mated queen from one of them, or merge two very uneven strength colonies for overwintering. It even happens when trying to efficiently ‘use up’ two- or three-frame nucs used for queen mating at the end of the season – it’s far easier to simply drop these into full-size hives than do the same thing with brood and bees from mini-nucs.

Uniting with newspaper ...

Uniting with newspaper …

Not only the big box items

Equipment standardisation and compatibility also extends to things other than frames and boxes. There’s a host of other items where it’s beneficial to have one type only, and for that type to be compatible with your other equipment. Floors are a good example; if they’re all made to the same design and dimensions then the removable Correx Varroa trays, the entrance reducers and the travel screens/entrance blocks are perfectly interchangeable. Both crownboards and roofs should also be broadly standardised and compatible. For example, all my colonies have year-round insulation in the crownboard and all the roofs are uninsulated. I previously had some insulated roofs and some uninsulated crownboards. Inevitably, moving or uniting hives resulted in the odd colony lacking insulation altogether. D’oh!

Pragmatic rationalisation

I’ve slowly achieved a reasonable level of standardisation and compatibility across my apiaries. I’m hoping that this will be improved further in 2017. After using a range of hives – purchased, borrowed and homemade, I’m settling on:

  • Standard depth, bottom bee space, Nationals in cedar or poly but – critically – these boxes must be interchangeable. To this end I’m using standard cedar broods and supers, or Swienty poly equivalents. These have the same external dimensions (18″/46cm), so can be stacked as required, and the interface between boxes is completely flat.
  • Just two floor designs. One has a fully sealed Varroa tray – built by Pete Little – and is used exclusively in the bee shed. The entrance reducer is fitted permanently to these floors. The second type are the so-called ‘kewl’ floors with a Dartington-inspired underfloor entrance. All my kewl floors are homemade. Despite this (and my amateur DIY skills), they take the same size Correx Varroa tray, all have holes drilled in the correct places to a) attach luggage scales for winter ‘hefting’, and b) deliver vaporised miticides. In addition, all take the same size and design entrance block for transport or other operations when the entrance needs to be sealed (vaporisation, vertical splits or Bailey comb changes).
  • Roofs are all uninsulated, interchangeable and either standard wood/metal or simple sheets of folded Correx. They serve no other purpose than weatherporoofing. I gave away all my insulated roofs when I moved North.
  • All crownboards are insulated, either with inbuilt Kingspan blocks or by the addition of an 18″ square block on top. None have feeder holes. Almost all are reversible and I’ve got ekes to achieve the same separation when I need space to feed fondant.
  • All nucleus hives are Thorne’s Everynucs. This design has a removable floor, so two bodies can be stacked for uniting.

But … if I were to start again from scratch I’d probably use Langstroths. I use Nationals because I’ve invested in Nationals, not because I think they’re inherently better.

Exceptions to the rule

Or compromises …

  • All of my bait hives are MB/Paradise poly Nationals (or stacked supers from the same manufacturer). All have simple Correx floors and roofs, or those supplied at purchase. Almost none of these items – floors, boxes or roofs – are readily compatible with production hives. This poly hive design has an infuriating lip/overhang that makes them incompatible with standard National equipment (see images above). Bait hives tend to get lugged about a bit more than production hives so their low weight is a bonus. My continued use of these hives is a perfect example of meanness and generosity … I’m too mean to get rid of them and I’m too generous to palm them off on an unsuspecting beginner.
  • My Everynucs are not directly (i.e. box to box) compatible with National hives though of course the frames are. I therefore can’t stack nucs onto standard brood boxes – for uniting, for overwintering or for certain types of queen rearing operations. This is a compromise I have to make due to a) the finances and time I have invested in these poly nucs, and b) their overall benefits and quality, both of which I remain convinced about. I have a few lovely cedar nuc boxes built by Pete Little that can be used for the queenright queen rearing method developed by Steve Rose if needed.
  • I have a few Paynes 8-frame nuc boxes used solely to capture swarms (or for dire emergencies). These are lightweight boxes with flimsy lids and no removable floor … ideal for use in one hand at the top of a ladder.
Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Outstanding improvements to compatibility

Outstanding as in ‘not yet achieved’ that is. Sorry if you were expecting some brilliant insights here 😉 Regular readers are unlikely to have been mislead.

The entrance holes through the bee shed wall are of two sizes and the larger ones will be replaced (reduced) at some point. When I first built them I overestimated the size needed. The oversized entrances are too big for a weak colony to defend and the different sizes means I need two types of foam entrance blocks when vaporising.

Secondly, I have to decide on a standard way to block/reduce the entrance of the poly Everynucs. I’ve previously used a hotchpotch collection of wire mesh, foam or wooden blocks. The entrance on these nucs is ridiculously large and I’ve been dabbling with a few simple designs over the winter. I need a simple and inexpensive ‘fix’ as I have a lot of these boxes … as usual, Correx is my friend!

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

Finally, I’ve recently purchased a stack of Abelo poly hives for work and will be interested to see how these perform this season. These boxes are ‘Nationals’, but ever so slightly different from the Swienty and cedar boxes. However, the dimensions and interfaces of broods and supers are definitely compatible, so they should mix’n’match OK. This purchase was a perfect example of how beekeepers end up with a wide range of different gear … they are supplied ready-painted, so save time, and they were cheap as chips in the Abelo sale 😉


Of course, the widely divergent views expressed on some of the discussions forums simply reflects a bad case of midwinter cabin fever and the contrariness of some contributors.

And irritatingly, some take the same frame sizes, but with either short or long lugs. Grrr.

And if you are a beginner reading this I would encourage you to read a couple of previous posts on mentoring and the benefits of buying local bees.