Tag Archives: bait hive

Same time, next year

About this time last year a swarm arrived in a bait hive in my back garden in Fife. Almost exactly one year later a different bait hive in the same spot was occupied by another swarm … or, possibly, a very good-sized cast.

The bait hive was being investigated by scout bees for a few days but on 6th, which was a very warm day here in Fife, the numbers increased markedly from a couple of dozen to a hundred or more. On my return from work on the following day the swarm was in residence. My neighbour reported seeing a ‘huge swarm arriving’ at about 11am.

Foundationless frames and bait hives

The hive contained a single old, dark brood frame and about five foundationless frames, together with a cotton bud dipped in lemongrass oil. I’ve previously described why I think foundationless frames are so convenient for bait hives – they provide the bees with guides to build new comb without taking up significant space in the box. It’s worth remembering that the scout bees are seeking out a sheltered, south facing, bee-smelling (ideally), empty space of about 40 litres volume i.e. about the same as a single National brood box. Foundationless frames take up little space, but mean that an arriving swarm can start building new comb immediately … and they do.

I posted a photo last week of a swarm from the bee shed that had clustered because the queen was clipped and so unable to fly. I dealt with the swarm within a couple of hours of it settling. Once cleared, the wall of the bee shed was dotted with small crescents of wax as the bees had already started to build new comb. In the bait hive, when checked on the evening of the 8th (less than 48 hours after the bees arrived) they were well on their way to drawing out the first three foundationless frames, with the first of these being half full of nectar, presumably from the dregs available in the nearby OSR fields.

Mite treatment be needed?

Almost certainly … and there’s no better time. When swarms leave a hive they take with them up to 35% of the Varroa population as phoretic mites. A large swarm from a heavily infested hive can therefore introduce an unhealthy dose of virus-riddled mites to your apiary. These will rapidly spread to your other hives. I therefore routinely treat swarms with suitable miticides soon after they arrive, well before any brood is sealed. I don’t look for DWV symptoms or bother searching for signs of phoretic mites, I just treat. Due to work commitments this swarm had to be treated on the third day after arrival, before I was even certain whether the queen was laying or not. Within the first 24 hours after treatment (with sublimated oxalic acid) there were about 40-50 mites on the board, with more falling over the next couple of days. It’s far easier and more effective to treat when there’s no brood present and so give the colony the very best chance of getting well established without a pathogenic virus load.

Finally, after a day of heavy rain, I took advantage of the bees being all ‘at home’, sealed the entrance and relocated them to another apiary to make space for a replacement bait hive on the same spot … on the off chance that swarming here isn’t over yet.

If it is, then there’s always the same time, next year.


Same time, next year was a 1978 romantic comedy starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn about a couple, married to others, who meet by chance, develop an “instant rapport” or at least “really hit it off” (one of the quotes from the film) and then meet again, year after year, both gradually changing, ageing and dealing with life’s crises.

Beekeepers’ holidays

It can be tricky balancing the annual cycle of beekeeping activities with maintaining family responsibilities and domestic bliss. At least, I’m told I find it tricky 😉  Holidays, in particular, are problematic. I’m talking here about beekeepers’ holidays not beekeeping holidays, which are an entirely different thing. Many of the standard “family holiday” periods overlap with key events in the beekeeping calendar … and because the latter is influenced by the weather, it’s difficult to predict a few days ahead, let alone the 6-9 months that appear to be required to arrange a fortnight’s yacht charter in the Bahamas§.

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

With good weather, colony build-up is going to be full-on in April, and in a really good year you can be starting queen rearing at Easter if it is late in the month. May is when the swarming season starts … and ends in June, just in time for the “June gap” to start which (in a bad year) might require colonies to be fed. The summer months of July and August are busy with the main flow, preparing colonies for the heather or harvesting (and possibly more queen rearing). September means Varroa treatments should be applied and colonies should be fed syrup or fondant for the winter. And then midwinter is interrupted by oxalic acid treatment (or Api-Bioxal if you’re the type of beekeeper who can afford Bahamian cruises), checking stores etc. And almost all of the timings above can be plus or minus at least a fortnight to take account of the vagaries of the weather.

February and November might be provisionally free … which creates another weather-related problem. Firstly – if honey sales have gone well during the year (and they’ll need to have been good as the 90m Athena is an eye-watering $350,000/week) – you’ll not want to be going island-hopping in the Bahamas in November as it’s still the hurricane season. Secondly, if your knees are as bad as many beekeepers’ backs, skiing in February might be a non-starter even if snow is available.

Less is more …

… likely to avoid you losing a swarm. The duration of the family holiday is also an issue. Inspections really need to be conducted at 7 day intervals during the main part of the season – say late-April to late-July. A fortnight away can mean missing the development of queen cells which are capped on the ninth day, at which point the prime swarm with your queen and foraging workforce disappear over the apiary fence. Not only do you return to a rather emptier hive, but your chance of a good honey crop has just been significantly reduced. You can increase the inspection interval to 10 days if you clip your queens, but that’s still four days short of the fortnight.

Queen rearing, from colony preparation, through grafting, cell raising and getting the virgin queens mated, takes about a month and – although not hugely time-consuming – is very-much time-critical. Getting to your cell raiser a day late might mean you have a box with one virgin running about and a pile of virgin queen corpses.

Apiary in Andalucia

Apiary in Andalucia

Nevertheless, with a little preparation, an appreciation of colony development and your fingers firmly crossed it is possible to get away during the beekeeping season without too many problems.

Holiday solutions

It seems to me that there are three obvious solutions …

  1. Go between late autumn and early spring, to the southern hemisphere if you’re after some warm sunshine. Or to Aspen or Whistler for the skiing if your knees are up to it.
  2. Get a friend to look after your colonies and go whenever you want. Depending how well behaved your colonies are, or the state you find them in on your return, this might only work once per friend 😉
  3. Accept that some beekeeping activities will be interrupted, prepare well and go for a week.

My knees are a bit dodgy and I get more than enough long-haul with work commitments so option 1 doesn’t work for me. I’ve avoided option 2 as I either have too many colonies to think it’s reasonable to foist upon a beekeeping friend, or they’re so badly behaved I’m too embarrassed to ask. So option 3 is the only choice … which is why I didn’t post anything last week as I was enjoying the walking in the Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca.

Benjamin Franklin was right

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail. Sneaking off for a week just as swarming period was kicking off, with the best weather of the season predicted to arrive and the OSR in full flower, might have been asking for trouble. However, a little time spent on preparation helped avert disaster. Bait hives were put out near the apiaries. Remaining overwintered nucs were unceremoniously dumped into a full hive. Any colonies looking even vaguely crowded were given lots of additional space and almost all were on double broods by the time I left. Every full colony was given one additional empty super. Where necessary, one or two frames stuffed with stores were removed and replaced with foundation or drawn comb. Finally, all colonies were checked for queen cells and other obvious signs of swarm preparation the day before I left.

Nine days later I returned … none of the bait hives had been occupied, none of the colonies had swarmed, almost all of the colonies were doing precisely what they should have been doing which was building up strongly and filling the supers. Two in the bee shed were doing particularly well, having almost filled several supers. Pretty much everything was under control with the exception of one queenless colony that, the day before my departure, had been given a frame of eggs and young larvae but had failed to make any decent queen cells.

During my absence the weather in Fife was excellent … in contrast, I walked into this lot in the Tramuntana …

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca, Mallorca …

Despite not going on a beekeeping holiday, it’s still possible to see – and sample – some of the local beekeeping activities, as shown in the photos at the top of the page from Mallorca and Andalucia taken in previous trips.


§ I wish

 Just in case you’re thinking of buying bees from me please note that this is a rather poor joke 😉

As an aside … I’ve never seen an area with more hornets that this region of Southern Spain

A late start …

After a couple of false alarms, the season finally feels like it’s about to start, with temperatures predicted to be consistently into the (low) teens by this time next week. It’s been a punishing Spring as far as my beekeeping has been concerned with lots of queen failures due to poor mating success last year. I therefore need to expand my current stocks in time for the summer nectar flow – ever hopeful! – but am pretty-much resigned to not being able to exploit the oil seed rape (OSR) that is just about starting to flower in the fields nearest my out apiary (it’s already flowering well in other parts of the county – out of foraging range for my bees though).

OSR 30th April 2015 ...

OSR 30th April 2015 …

Go forth and multiply

It’s not all doom and gloom though … colonies that are queenright are expanding well despite the weather. Those in the bee shed are doing particularly well, with part-filled supers (dandelion perhaps?) and colonies expanding up to a double brood box. As an aside, I’d estimate that these colonies are at least 2-3 weeks further advanced than those ‘outside’ … I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post. Furthermore, the colonies that haven’t developed DLQ’s include some beautifully docile bees, very steady on the comb even when inspecting them in less than ideal conditions, of which we’ve had lots this Spring. With the expectation (or at least hope) of much better weather by the end of the month I’ll be setting up some vertical splits. This is an easy way of either requeening or making increase, involving a minimum of equipment and almost no interventions in terms of hive manipulations. This is queen rearing made easy … simply dividing a suitable colony and giving each half an opposing entrance, then turning the colony through 180° after 7 days. I’ve also sourced a couple of Snelgrove boards to try this year, but work commitments mean these will have to wait until later in the season as they need a little more attention than a simple split board.

Split board

Split board …

Covet thy neighbours bees … or at least catch his swarms

With the assumption that other strong colonies are at least as well advanced as mine I’ve also set out a number of bait hives. Each of these contains an old dark brood frame – importantly containing no stores or you just attract robbers – pushed against the back wall and several (6-9) foundationless frames. The top bar of the old brood frame gets a few drops of lemongrass oil (this stuff ‘eats’ poly hives, which is what my bait hives are made from, so make sure you keep it restricted to the wooden frame). Bait hives should also have solid floors and small entrances – so I cover the OMF with a few scraps of Correx. Finally, to save on equipment I also often use a simple square of heavy duty polythene sheeting as a crownboard.

I set bait hives out every year, catching a few swarms that would otherwise disappear into the church tower, someones loft space or perish in a thunderstorm. It’s always a bit hit and miss in terms of the quality of bees that are attracted … of course, other than when I catch a swarm from my own colony 😉 The peak swarming season extends over the next 6-8 weeks and the bees are always useful, if only to act as willing recipients for queens raised next month when I’ll start grafting.

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

New queens

Finally, I’ve ordered a couple of queens from a reputable (UK-based) queen breeder to improve the genetics of my stocks. One of my apiaries is in a region with predominantly black ‘native’-type bees in the area, and with local beekeepers keen to keep it that way. I’ll requeen colonies in this apiary with these queens – and in due course their daughters – to be both a good neighbour and to see whether these ‘native’ bees perform better than my Heinz (57 varieties) local mongrels.

Time to BEEHAVE

BEEHAVE ...

BEEHAVE …

I’ve been dabbling with BEEHAVE, a computer simulation of a honeybee colony. It’s not beekeeping, but it’s about as close as you can get in the middle of winter. BEEHAVE was developed by Matthias Becher in the University of Exeter and the paper that describes the model is published and Open Access [PDF]. The model includes a wealth of user-modifiable variables such as forage availability, climate, beekeeping activities and pathogens, and outputs information on colony size, speed of development, age structure, honey stores etc. The BEEHAVE simulation is implemented in the open source language NetLogo and is freely available. The parameters that influence colony development – egg laying rate, drone/worker ratios, forage (nectar and pollen) availability, mite replication rate etc. are all based on measured and published data (or logically extrapolated from this if they don’t exist) so that the in silico performance is a fair reflection of what might be expected in the field.

If you can, do … if you can’t, simulate it 🙂

I’m interested in the rational and effective use of miticides to control Varroa-mediated transmission of DWV (and other viruses) in the hive. Using BEEHAVE and a standardised set of conditions allows predictions to be made of how effective a particular Varroa control might be. For example, here’s a simple question we can try and answer:

How important is a midwinter mite treatment if you’ve treated earlier in the year?

Using BEEHAVE set to all the default conditions and ‘priming’ the colony with just 20 mites on the 1st of January it’s possible to see what happens if no treatments are applied over one or more years. It’s then possible to repeat the predictions with the inclusion of a Varroa treatment. For the purpose of this brief introduction to BEEHAVE I’ve used a miticide which is applied and active for a total of 28 days and which kills 95% of phoretic mites. This might broadly reflect Apiguard treatment (2 x 14 days) or vaporised oxalic acid (OA; 3 treatments at 5 day intervals, but documented to kill mites for up to one month). I’ve additionally looked at the application of a single treatment with oxalic acid in midwinter, again killing 95% of phoretic mites, the sort of effect that OA trickling might achieve if there’s no brood present.

No treatment … they’re doomed

No treatment

No treatment

BEEHAVE modelling is based on a series of underlying probabilities (e.g. likelihood of a developing pupa to become mite associated, likelihood of that being a drone or worker pupa) so doesn’t produce the same results every time it is run¹. For example, the graph above shows adult bee numbers (left axis, blue lines) in an untreated colony for three simulations of up to five years each (horizontal axis), together with the associated mite number (right axis, red lines). Mite number build up strongly as new brood is reared each spring, with mite numbers peaking at ~24,000 in the fourth summer. In the third and fourth winters mite number per bee range from 2-4. The default conditions of 20 mites, coupled with a minimum viable colony size of 4000 bees, results in one colony succumbing in the fourth winter and the two remaining dying in the fifth winter (bee numbers drop to zero). Real studies – with untreated hives in the field – have shown similar outcomes (Martin, 1998 [PDF]) though colonies tend to die between winters 2 and 3, presumably because the input mite populations are higher². In all subsequent graphs the data plotted is the average of three simulations.

One treatment … better than nothing

It’s worth remembering at this point that the advice from the National Bee Unit is that mite numbers in the colony should be maintained below 1000 (Managing Varroa [PDF]). To try and achieve this we need to investigate the influence of applying miticides in the simulation – in mid-June (left graph), mid-September (middle) or late December (right). I appreciate mid-June is very early in the season, but it emphasises an important point.

That’s a bit better 🙂 These plots show the averages of adult bee and mite numbers (using the format shown above, blue for bees, red for mites). None of the in silico colonies expired during the simulation though the mite numbers are dangerously high irrespective of the treatment during the mid/late summer months. Note that range of the scale on the right hand (mite numbers) axis differs in each graph. Treatment in mid-June (left) delays the summer exponential rise in mite numbers and, in terms of overall impact on mite numbers (and consequent adult bee losses) is measurably better than only treating in midwinter (right). Of the conditions tested, mid-September (centre) is clearly the best … Varroa levels are reduced at the same time as the colony starts to contract, leaving the remaining mites less opportunity to reproduce. Maximum colony size remains about the same year on year and Varroa numbers never reach more than one third of those seen in either mid-summer or midwinter treatments. However, not everything is rosy … Varroa levels are dangerously high from the third summer on, and levels are increasing each winter. Remember that these simulations were started with just 20 mites in the colony².

Do your colonies have only ~20 mites in them this winter?

Two treatments … a double whammy

Two optimal treatments

Two optimal treatments

It’s only when you combine early autumn and midwinter treatments that mite numbers are really well controlled. Under the highly optimised conditions – both treatments were set to be 95% effective against phoretic mites – Varroa numbers remain below the NBU recommended maximum of 1000 for the duration of the simulation. Clearly the combination of the mid-September slaughter of phoretic mites, coupled with a midwinter mopping up – when there’s little or no brood present – provides really tight control of Varroa levels. However, the importance of this is perhaps even more apparent when you consider the consequences of a sub-optimal mid-September treatment.

The graph on the left shows the consequences of using a miticide that achieves only 85% efficacy … perhaps reflecting Apiguard usage when the ambient temperature is too low for the thymol to be spread throughout the colony. Under these conditions mite numbers rapidly get out of control. Compare that with the graph on the right which includes an additional midwinter treatment where mite numbers are far better controlled … though only to about the same level as is seen with a 95% knockdown of mites in mid-September (centre graph in the ‘one treatment only’ section, above).

And the answer is …

Occupied bait hive

Occupied bait hive …

Although the majority of miticides are broadly similar in their maximum published efficacy, I suspect that they are often used in a way or under conditions that do not routinely achieve these maxima. For example, the 30 year average September temperature in England is just below 13°C, much lower than the temperatures in which Apiguard efficacy reached the reported maximum of 99%, and lower than the Vita-recommended minimum temperature (15°C). Therefore, the answer to the original question (which was How important is a midwinter treatment if you’ve treated earlier in the year?) is … if there’s any chance the late summer/early autumn treatment was sub-optimal then a midwinter treatment is very important to prevent Varroa levels building up in the colony, resulting in the spread of virulent strains of DWV and other viruses. The other broad conclusion is that miticides are much more effective – in terms of impact against the total mite population – when brood levels are low or absent. That’s why brood breaks coupled with miticide treatments e.g. applying vaporised oxalic acid to a recently hived swarm or one that has moved in to a bait hive, are a very powerful combination to reduce the impact of mites, and the viruses they transmit, on the colony.

There are additional considerations which influence the choice and timing of miticide treatments. In a future post I’ll address the timing of the autumn treatment and the critical development of the overwintering bees that get the queen and the colony through to the following Spring.


¹BEEHAVE provides the ability to model colony development based upon measured and measurable parameters within a honeybee colony. Of course, in the real world a host of factors influence our bees – climate, forage availability, bad beekeeping, good beekeeping, integrated pest management, swarming, queen longevity etc. These are all variable within BEEHAVE but have been left unaltered from the defaults for the purpose of this post in which only the timing and efficacy of miticide treatment was altered. All the data for this post were generated using the rather verbosely numbered BEEHAVE_BeeMapp2015 version.

²Mite levels were deliberately started at a very low level to emphasise how quickly they build up if not controlled. Running the simulations with a higher mite input simply shifts all the graphs to the right e.g. increasing input mites to 200 (not an unreasonable number for many midwinter colonies) with no treatment, results in the virtual colony dying in early December of the third year, with mite levels having reached ~5300 in the first summer and ~19000 in the second.

This is the second in a series of related posts about Varroa control. The first was on drifting in honeybees. I’ve created a separate page that lists these and other posts on the how, why and when of Varroa treatment.

2015 in retrospect

The winter solstice seems like a good time to look back over the 2015 beekeeping year. With the day length about to start increasing, what went right and what went wrong? Back in March I wrote that my plans for the year were different from the usual OSR – swarming – queen rearing – summer flow – harvest – Varroa treatment – feed-’em-up and forget ’em routine as I was moving to Scotland in the middle of the season. Some of these things happened, though perhaps less than in a usual year.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Spring – better late than never

Cloak board ...

Cloake board …

The OSR yielded poorly as the spring was cold and late. I didn’t even look inside a colony until mid-April. Colonies were only getting strong as the OSR flowers went over meaning that most of it was missed. The weather was unseasonably cold, with mid-May being 2-3ºC cooler than average. Queen rearing started in the third week of May and although grafting went well, queen mating was really hit and miss, with low temperatures and lots of rain lasting through May and June. On a more positive note, I used a Cloake board for the first time and was pleased with the results (I’ll write about this sometime in 2016 after using it a bit more). I didn’t use any mini-nucs this year as I didn’t want the hassle of dealing with them mid-season when moving North. Instead, I did all of my queen mating in 2-5 frame nucs, often produced as circle splits from the cell-raising colonies. This worked well … and considering the lousy weather was probably a lot less effort than using mini-nucs which would have required constant attention and lots of feeding. Using poly-nucs I could prime them with a frame of brood and a frame of stores and adhering bees, dummy them down and leave 3 frames of foundation (or wherever possible, drawn comb) ready to be used on the other side of the dummy board. Once the queen was mated the colony would build up well and if – as often happened this season – the queen failed to get mated or was lost (drowned?) during mating flights it was easy to unite the queenless unit with a queenright one, so not wasting any resources.

Go forth and multiply

Split board

Split board …

Beginners often find the coordination of colonies for queen rearing, and the apparent difficulty of grafting (it isn’t), a daunting prospect. When I’ve been involved in teaching queen rearing it’s clear that the relatively small scale approach I use (queenright cell raiser, grafting and – usually – mini-nucs) is often still too involved for the very small numbers of queens most beekeepers with just a couple of hives want. It was therefore interesting to raise a few queens using vertical splits, simply by dividing a strong colony vertically and letting the bees do all the work of selecting the best larvae, raising the queen and getting her mated. It has the advantage of needing almost no additional equipment and only requires a single manipulation of the hive (and even that can probably be simplified). Having documented the process this season I’ve got a few additional things I’d like to try in 2016 to make it even easier and to allow better stock selection. After that it will be incorporated into queen rearing talks and training.

Changes in Varroa treatment

The big change in Varroa treatment in the UK was the licensing of Api-Bioxal. Whether or not you consider the 50-fold or more cost of VMD-approved oxalic acid (OA) over the generic powder is justified is really a separate issue. Oxalic acid is an effective miticide and, if administered appropriately, is very well tolerated by the colony. Despite the eyewatering markup, Api-Bioxal is significantly less expensive than all other approved miticides. For the small scale beekeeper it’s probably only 20% the cost of the – often ineffective – Apistan, or either Apiguard or MAQS. Under certain circumstances – resistant mites, low temperatures or the potential for queen loss – there are compelling reasons why OA is preferable to these treatments. If we hadn’t been using OA for years the online forums would be full of beekeepers praising the aggressive pricing strategy of Chemicals Liaf s.p.a in undercutting the competition. Of course, if we hadn’t been using generic OA for years Api-Bioxal would probably be priced similarly to Apiguard 🙁

Sublimox in use

Sublimox in use …

I’ve used OA sublimation throughout 2015 and been extremely impressed with how effective it has been. Mite drops in colonies treated early in the season remained low, but increased significantly in adjacent colonies that were not treated. I treated all swarms caught or attracted to bait hives. Some were casts and there were no problems with the queen getting out and mated (though the numbers of these were small, so statistically irrelevant). Late season treatment of colonies with brood also seems to have worked well. Mite drops were low to non-existent in most colonies being monitored through late autumn. Colonies get mildly agitated during treatment with a few bees flying about under the perspex crownboard (you can see a couple in the image above … this was a busy colony) and a few more rapidly exiting the hive after the entrance block is removed. But that’s it. The colony settles within a very short time. I’ve seen no loss of brood, no obvious interruption of laying by the queen and no long-term detrimental effects. Sublimation or vaporisation of OA can – with the correct equipment – be achieved without opening the hive. I expect to use this approach almost exclusively in the future.

Moving bees

Moving colonies from the Midlands to Fife was very straightforward. Insect netting was an inexpensive alternative to building large numbers of travel screens. It’s the same stuff as Thorne’s sell for harvesting propolis so I’ve got enough now to go into large scale propolis production 😉 The colonies all settled in their temporary apiaries well and I even managed a few supers of honey during the latter part of the season.

Small hive beetle reappeared in Southern Italy shortly after the honey harvest was completed there. Che sorpresa. This was disappointing but not unexpected (and actually predicted by some epidemiologists). As I write these notes the beetle had been found in 29 Calabrian apiaries between mid-september and early December. It’s notable that there’s now a defeatist attitude by some contributors to the online forums (when not if the beetle arrives here) and – since not everyone are what they seem on the interweb – there are some playing down the likely impact of the beetles’ arrival (and hence the demand to ban imports) because they have a vested interest in selling early season queens or nucs, either shipped in or headed by imported queens. I don’t think there’s any sensible disagreement that we would be better off – from a beekeeping perspective – without the beetle, it’s just that banning imports of bees to the UK (admittedly only a partial solution) is likely to cause problems for many beekeepers, not just those with direct commercial interests. I remain convinced that, with suitable training and a little effort, UK beekeeping could be far less dependent on imports … and so less at risk from the pathogens, like small hive beetle. Or of course a host of un-tested for viruses, that are imported with them.

And on a brighter note …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The new development in the latter part of the year was the setting up of a bee shed to house a few colonies for research. This is now more or less completed and the bees installed. It will be interesting to see how the colonies come through the winter and build up in spring. The apiary has colonies headed by sister queens both in and outside the bee shed so I’ll be able to make some very unscientific comparisons of performance. The only problem I’ve so far encountered with the shed was during the winter mite treatment by oxalic acid vaporisation. In the open apiary the small amount of vapour that escapes the sealed hive drifts away on the breeze. In the shed it builds up into a dense acidic hazy smoke that forced me to make a rapid exit. I was wearing all-encompassing goggles and a safety mask so suffered no ill effects but I’ll need an alternative strategy for the future.

Due to work commitments, house, office and lab moves, things were a lot quieter on the DIY front this year. The Correx roofs have been excellent – the oldest were built over a year ago and are looking as good (or as bad, depending on your viewpoint) as they did then. They’ve doubled up as trays to carry dripping supers back from the apiary and I’ll be making more to cover stacks of stored equipment in the future. Correx offcuts were pressed into service as floors on bait hives, all of which were successful.

With well-fed colonies, low mite counts, secure apiaries and lots of plans for 2016 it’s time to make another batch of honey fudge, to nervously (it’s got hints of an industrial cleaning solution) try a glass of mead and to finish labelling jarred honey for friends and family.

Happy Christmas

Lomond Hills and OSR

Lomond Hills and OSR

Swarm care and treatment

As I left my out apiary last Friday evening I gently tapped a bait hive buried in the grass and nettles and was met with a healthy buzz and a few inquisitive worker bees … it had obviously been occupied by a swarm in the last day or two, despite me not having seen any scout bees investigating it.

Super poly bait hive

Super poly bait hive …

I checked the hive on Sunday and found a small swarm covering about 3-4 frames with a dark, unmarked laying queen. She’s definitely not from my colonies as all mine in that apiary are marked and accounted for. At the back of the hive was an unoccupied wasps nest, beautifully constructed from paper-thin chewed wood pulp. This is the second bait hive with squatters this year.

Waspkeeping

Waspkeeping …

Although there’s a reasonable flow from something at the moment (early blackberry?) I gave them a couple of pints of syrup on Monday and Wednesday evening to help them draw comb on the foundationless frames that fill the box. It’s not advisable to feed syrup immediately in case the honey stores brought with the swarm are contaminated with foul broods – by delaying feeding (or not feeding at all) the bees use their stores to draw wax. I also treated the colony – which has no sealed brood yet of course – with oxalic acid vapour from a Sublimox vaporiser (shown below being used early in the season on a full colony) bought a few months ago from Icko Apiculture.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser …

The phoretic mites on a swarm carry an unpleasant payload of viruses including deformed wing virus. It’s therefore good practice to keep the swarm in isolation until it’s known to be healthy, and to treat appropriately for mites as soon as possible. I also treated the churchyard swarm caught last Thursday with OA vapour despite not yet being sure whether the queen is mated or not – if she is then it’s best to treat before the colony have sealed brood, if she isn’t then OA vaporisation is sufficiently ‘gentle’ that I don’t expect the treatment to interrupt her from getting out and mated in the current good weather. By treating with OA vapour late in the evening I wouldn’t interrupt a mating flight and could be pretty sure that most of the bees – and therefore most of the mites – were ‘at home’.

Gotcha

Gotcha! …

It’s good practice to keep records on where swarms were found, hived and how they were subsequently treated.

 

Under offer

Under offer ...

Under offer …

This bait hive – formed from two poly nuc supers under a cheap-as-chipsCorrex roof – was put in a sunny corner of my garden in Fife on the 8th of May. The first scout bees were noticed early on the morning of the 22nd and built up strongly over the bank holiday weekend. A large swarm arrived on the afternoon of the 30th … far better here than the church tower or somewhere else inaccessible.

Natural comb

Natural comb …

It’s worth noting the time between the appearance of the scout bees and the arrival of the swarm – just over 9 days. This is almost exactly the time it takes for a sealed queen cell to be produced from a newly laid egg. However, swarms usually leave the originating colony on the day the queen cell is sealed (assuming good weather) and hang about in a bush or tree while deciding where to set up home. Assuming that the first scout bees I saw were from the swarm that finally arrived (for which I have no evidence, other than the rather low density of beekeepers in this part of Fife) I suspect the colony probably swarmed a day or two before the 30th … which still means that the scouts probably started their quest for a new home well before the queen cell was sealed.

Whatever … freebees, what’s not to like?


* actually, cheaper than chips … these Correx roofs cost about £1.50 each whereas a portion of chips at the outstanding Cromars fish and chip shop in St. Andrews is £2.10. And highly recommended.

Bait hive – fail

The year continues to be unseasonably cool, with daytime maximum temperatures being at least a couple of degrees (ºC) below the thirty year average for this region. Nevertheless, colonies are building up reasonably well and some are starting to make preparations to swarm – drone brood levels are rising, the number of ‘play cups’ are increasing and one or two had queen cells at the last inspection.

Bait hives deployed

A small swarm

Swarm

In the hope that the temperature will increase and that swarming will occur I always put a few bait hives out in likely locations, including odd corners of my apiaries. Although my queens are all clipped and marked (I think) there’s one I’ve yet to spot this year and she just might have been superseded late last season. Clipping doesn’t stop swarming, but it stops the queen and the prime swarm disappearing over the fence to someone else’s bait hive or, worse, chimney. However, there’s a high density of beekeepers in this area and – going by the number of swarms and successful bait hives in previous seasons – some don’t practise effective swarm control. Last season I caught four swarms, though one was little more than a tiny cast, in bait hives.

Swarmtastic

I always have a bait hive in my garden. The sight of a swarm arriving is one of the truly great experiences in beekeeping and I’m far more likely to witness it there than the corner of a field. A day or two in advance the scout bees check the hive, repeatedly visiting in increasing numbers. They fly around the entrance, going in and out to determine the size of the cavity, then flying round and round the hive checking suitability. Many dozens can appear, standing around on the landing board (if there is one) seemingly discussing whether it is a ‘des res‘. They then disappear altogether. This is either because they’ve chosen a different site (other scout bees have been checking different locations and, as Tom Seeley describes in Honeybee democracy, they reach a consensus for the swarm) or because they’re busy leading the swarm to your bait hive.

Suddenly the sky fills with a whirling mass of bees that descend in a seemingly chaotic yet organised manner to the bait hive, ‘bearding’ at the entrance and gradually entering. This can take an hour or two and is a fantastic sight.

Epic fail

Although I’d seen no scout bees I periodically check all of my bait hives. I also top up the lemongrass oil, adding a couple of drops to the top bar of a frame. The bait hive in the corner of the garden was occupied … by a wasps nest attached to the starter strip in a foundationless frame.

Despite the beautiful architecture and the presence of a dozen or so wriggling larvae, they had to go. In late August this lot, or their progeny, would be terrorising my mini-nucs containing late-mating queens, robbing out weak colonies and causing a general nuisance during the honey harvest.

And the hawthorn is flowering …

Hawthorn

Hawthorn

Super poly bait hives

MB poly National

MB poly National

Shortly after they were introduced I purchased two of the poly National hives sold by Modern Beekeeping. These are well made but, in my view after using them for a few months, poorly designed. The poly is dense and strong, they have clever plastic frame runners and they are easy to assemble. I’ve kept bees in them for a couple of seasons and they did fine. However – for me – the negatives of these hives far outweigh the positives. They have handles on all four faces of the boxes which, together with the manufacturers name, means painting them takes ages. Much more significantly, the boxes can only accommodate 10 frames and are too narrow. The frame lugs of a standard National frame are tight against the sidewalls making it almost impossible (once there’s a bit of propolis added to the mix) to slide the frames across the hive during inspections.

The dreaded overhang

The dreaded overhang …

To make matters worse, the boxes have an “overhang” where they join. Although this presumably helps prevent water ingress it also makes stacking supers on top of brood boxes packed with bees a recipe for death and destruction. It’s not possible to offer the box ‘on the squint’ and then rotate it into place. Furthermore, the overhang prevents you even seeing the bees you’re about to slaughter. Of course, the overhang also means the kit isn’t easily mixed with standard wooden or Sweinty poly boxes. I did build a wooden shim that meant the supers could be used, but the beespace was messed up. At about £110 for a complete hive and a couple of supers these hives appeared reasonable value … but they actually represent possibly my biggest outlay on unsuitable kit ever 🙁

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat …

The obvious solution was to flog the boxes to some unsuspecting novice. However, since the design problems would provide a particularly unrewarding start to beekeeping, I didn’t do this and they’ve sat piled in the corner looking a bit forlorn. The original floor, brood box and roof were pressed into service as a bait hive last year and worked well. The supers have simply been stacked up, unwanted and definitely unloved.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy

However, the combination of a bulk delivery of extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene (aka Correx, though it certainly isn’t going by the price I paid) and the ease with which it could be converted into very useful roofs for about £1.50 each, suggested a way to use the supers. Two stacked supers – at least of these slightly smaller than normal “National” boxes – enclose a volume of about 43 litres. Conveniently this is only slightly larger than the 40 litres recommended by Tom Seeley in his excellent book Honeybee Democracy. The addition of a simple floor from a piece of Correx (so much easier to write than extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene 😉 ) stapled together with some scraps of wood from the offcuts bin and including an integral entrance of about 10cm2, a crownboard from strong polythene sheet and a Correx roof make a perfectly serviceable bait hive for the coming season.

In due course I’ll add a single tired old brood frame (I save these from the previous year, treated with DiPel [Bacillus thuringiensis sp. kurstaki spores] to prevent wax moth damage) containing no stores or pollen, which would simply attract robbers. The smell of ‘old bees’, perhaps coupled with a couple of drops of lemongrass oil along the top bar, is a strong attractant to scout bees from a swarm looking for a new home. I’ll fill the boxes with foundationless frames so that an incoming swarm can start building new comb immediately. These frames barely reduce the internal volume but provide guides for the bees to build parallel comb, thereby making it unnecessary to check whether the bait hives have been successful quite as frequently as you otherwise need to (unless you like sorting out the wild comb they’ll otherwise build from the roof).

Floor detail … what could be simpler?

 

2014 in retrospect

Hives in the frost

Hives in the frost

2014 was a pretty good year for beekeeping. The winter was not overly long or cold and colonies came through it in good condition. Spring was cool and damp – although colony build up was about normal it was difficult to find good enough weather for inspections. Despite the weather the OSR yielded well. The summer flows were good, with excellent lime and blackberry which persisted for a long time (and necessitated frantic frame and super assembly in mid-summer). I took the honey harvest off in mid-August but – in retrospect – should have left it longer to get more from the himalayan balsam. The autumn ivy was excellent, with the bees working it here until at least mid-November. I’ve ended the season with more honey than I’ve had in the last 4 years, a dozen strong colonies and some overwintering nucs. As always, some things went well and some things went badly (or at least, less well) and I hope I’ve learnt from both.

Three day old grafts

Three day old grafts

Queen rearing was patchy to say the least. This was entirely my fault. Although I achieved consistently high ‘take’ rates for grafting my work commitments meant I lost a couple of batches of queens by not caging the cells early enough. With queen rearing, timing is critical. I used a mixture of Kieler mini-nucs and 3 frame nucs for queen mating, losing some of the former to wasps and – stupidly – getting a 50% return of mated queens from the latter because the plastic crownboard (pinned down along the central wooden divider) buckled or stretched from the heat of the colony allowing one of the virgin queens to slaughter the other. D’oh! Needless to say, this is being fixed for the 2015 season.

Morris board

Morris board …

On a more positive note both preventing and capturing swarms went very well. The combination of clipped queens and prompt use of the Demaree method kept my production colonies under control and I’m only aware of losing one swarm from an over-stuffed 5 frame nuc early in the season. I increasingly favour the Demaree system (or versions of it, such as the use of a Morris board) for swarm control – it requires minimal additional equipment and keeps the colony together. My bait hives for capturing swarms worked well, particularly as I’ve learnt the best way to set them up is to use foundationless frames. The incoming swarm has somewhere to build immediately and they only need to be checked every few days. The combination of a nail gun (for frame assembly) and foundationless frames was a revelation – the former slashing frame building times and the latter providing the obvious benefit of reduced foundation costs, and a number of less obvious (but greater) benefits in terms of improved colony vigour.

Smoker

Smoker

The first inspections of the 2015 season are still several months away so there’s ample time yet for preparation. This includes painting several more poly nucs, frame building and wax filtering. I’ll make an annual batch of mead in the hope that – one year – it will be drinkable. Beekeeping is too dependent upon the vagaries in the weather to make definitive plans or resolutions. However, I do intend to experiment with upper entrances during Bailey comb changes and Demaree swarm control, to use more foundationless super frames and to overwinter more nucs for the 2016 season.

Finally, this website has been running for about a year. Looking at the visitor stats it’s clear that the most popular posts have been on honey warming cabinets and Paynes poly nuc boxes (though in fairness, these were also some of the earliest posts), with visitors from over 100 countries in total. I hope you found something useful here.

Happy New Year

What it's all about …

Not too long to wait …