Tag Archives: bee bag

Small, but perfectly formed

We’re in the hiatus between the end of the beekeeping season and the start of the beginning of the planning for the preparation for the next. Or, I am.

Of course, if you’re reading this from Australia (G’day … the 5th largest readership globally) or Chile (Hola … 62nd in the list) then things are probably just getting really busy.

Inevitably things here are going to be a bit quiet for a few months. Have patience.

Getting ready for winter

Here in the Northern hemisphere, at a latitude of about 56°N, the nights are rapidly getting longer and the temperature is tumbling. We’ve had several sharp frosts already. I checked my bees yesterday through the perspex crownboards – where present – and most were pretty tightly huddled together. In the very warmest part of the day there were a few flying in the weak sunshine, but the majority of colonies were quiet.

Since many of the most recent posts have been rather long (and I’m pressed for time with work commitments) I’m going to restrict myself to a few brief comments about this tidy – and tiny – little hive tool from Thorne’s.

Pocket hive tool

Pocket hive tool

One of the final tasks of the year is to slice off the brace comb built in places along the tops of the frames while feeding colonies. I only use fondant, usually adding 12.5 kg to start with and then a further few kilograms if I think the hive is a bit light. All this fits nicely under one of my inverted, insulated perspex crownboards. However, as the fondant it taken down and stored, the bees tend to build little pinnacles of comb under or around the plastic bag.

Before closing the colony up for the season all these bits of brace comb need to be tidied away. I simply run a sharp hive tool along the top bars of the frames, remove the wax and – eventually – melt it down in my steam wax extractor. If you leave the wax in place you can’t put the crownboard back the right way up … or, when you do, you risk crushing bees.

Bargains in the sales

In the Thorne’s summer sales this year I bought the usual range of stuff I have almost no use for, together with half a dozen of the cheapo copies of their claw hive tool to replace those I’ve lost or lent during the year.

In addition I bought a couple of their ‘pocket hive tools’ (shown above) for a quid each.

These are small and neat, have a simple frame lifter at one end and a very good, sharp, chisel tip at the other. They are made of stainless steel. They fit neatly into the palm of the hand, don’t project too far and yet are enough to provide the leverage to separate all but the most stubbornly propolised frames.

For tidying up the top bars of my hives before closing them up for year this little hive tool was just the job.

‘Pocket hive tool’ is a bit of a misnomer though. It’s certainly small enough to fit into your beesuit pocket, but just about sharp enough it won’t be staying there long. Any serious pressure, for example as you get back into the car/van/truck risks either a nasty injury ( 😯 ) or it will eventually escape through a neatly sliced-through seam.

It might be better to keep it in your bee bag, or – as I do with other hive tools – store it in a bucket of soda in the apiary.


The phrase small, but perfectly formed is at least 200 years old. Google Books first lists it in the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of 1779 (though in those days they used a medial or long ‘s’ so the title was the Gentleman’s Magazine and Hiſtorical Chronicle) where it appears in an article by Mr Rack describing (or deſcribing) a new found aquatic animal. Whether ‘small, but perfectly formed‘ is now an idiom or a cliche is unclear. The usually excellent Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2014) defines the idiom as meaning “something noticeably small but compensating for this by a perfection of quality”. Their first reference to the phrase occurs in a letter written in October 1914 by Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, later his wife, and quoted in Artemis Cooper’s Durable Fire (1983): ‘Your two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar’. The expression was probably not original to Cooper but drawn from the fashionable talk of the period. The usage is often tongue-in-cheek or journalistically formulaic for anything small … which is exactly how I’ve used the term in the title of this post.




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.


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.

The bee bag

Beekeepers toolbox

Beekeepers toolbox

I’ve seen some wonderful examples of well-organised solutions to transport ‘stuff’ to and from the apiary. A place for everything and everything in its place. The ‘tool tidy’ trays are popular with some beekeepers and Thomas Bickerdike has previously blogged about his Rolls Royce box of goodies. The majority of these are boxes built by enthusiastic amateur beekeepers with demonstrably better DIY skills than I have, though some are available commercially (the one shown here is from Heather Bell Beekeeping Supplies in Cornwall for about £50). Some are even craftily based upon a 5-frame nuc box … though what you do with the contents should you have to use the nuc box is not clear.

However, these rigid containers always seem to have certain limitations to me. If they’re big enough to contain what you might need they’re likely to be cumbersome and awkward to carry. If they’re small and eminently portable you’ll probably end up with additional stuff in your pockets. And if they’re open-topped you’ll inevitably trip over a trailing bramble one day and spend the rest of the afternoon on your hands and knees looking for your queen clipping scissors in the long grass … and kneeling on a “crown of thorns” queen marking cage which you’d also dropped.

Which is really a paragraph-long excuse for my rather less sartorially elegant solution …

Bag lady man

Busy bee bag ...

Busy bee bag …

For years I’ve used one of those 20p ‘bags for life’ from the supermarket. These are nearly indestructible, at least semi-waterproof and reasonably capacious. If you’re happy to wear a beesuit you will, by definition, not be self-conscious about your appearance (“Does my bum look big in this?” Damn right). Therefore carrying a bulging bright blue polypropylene bag emblazoned with “Every little helps” should cause no embarrassment at all.

These bags are great. Cheap enough to replace without a second thought when you melt a hole through it with the smoker. Available more or less everywhere. Flexible to accommodate odd-shaped bits and pieces. Small enough to be convenient but big enough for the extras needed when grafting for queen rearing. Comfortable to carry. Wipe clean. I could go on …

Ice cream container

Ice cream container

To provide a bit of internal order and coordination I use ice-cream containers to house the essentials, organised into boxes labelled ‘Daily’ and ‘Queen stuff’, indicating the usual role of their contents. This also means there’s less stuff to pick up should the bag contents be disgorged across your apiary. I recommend you take some time and care sourcing these containers … for example, you really should try Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream (though the container it comes in is wholly unsuitable being waxed cardboard). The best I’ve found is 2.5 litre Lidl Gelatelli vanilla … the box is excellent and the contents aren’t bad either.

An additional box carries the things needed for grafting larvae, but this only goes into the bag when I’m queen rearing. A similar box is useful for offcuts of brace comb or propolis, though I usually end up squidging it into a lump and putting it into a plastic bag en route to the steam wax extractor.

A bag for life ...

A bag for life …

So, what’s in the bag?

The daily box contains the sort of things that might be needed on any visit to the apiary – this includes drawing pins, a magnifying glass, drone brood uncapping fork, queen excluder scraper, digital voice recorder, sample collecting tubes, pencil and/or pen, yellow Posca marking pen, tin foil and matches.

The queen stuff box contains the items that specifically relate to handling, marking and introducing queens, but excludes the things I use for grafting. So, this box contains Fiskars dressmaking snips (for queen clipping), blue, white and metallic pink Posca marking pens, queen marking cage, a variety of queen introduction cages (JzBz and Nicot), paperclips and a clingfilm-wrapped lump of queen candy.

Most ‘bags for life’ will easily accomodate two of these Lidl Gelatelli boxes end-to-end, with ample additional space underneath or down the sides for the following essentials:

  • newspaper for uniting colonies … no staples makes it easier to use
  • spare hive tool … the ‘in use’ hive tool is kept in the apiary in a bucket of soda, together with a small ‘Kitchen Devil’-type knife for a variety of uses
  • spare gloves
  • a squashed egg box or two … the smoker-free smoker
  • a couple of hive straps and a block of foam … for moving hives in an emergency
  • a bee brush … though I don’t remember the last time I used it and usually use a handful of grass to gently remove bees from a frame

Finally, there’s space on top of the Lidl ice cream boxes for the smoker, a blowtorch and a camera which I always take to the apiary.

Two things that don’t easily fit into the bag are the L-shaped hive entrance blocks I use on my kewl floors and smoker fuel. The former I usually leave in the apiary for use when needed and the latter gets its own bucket that stays in the car.

Why all those Posca pens?

I’m colourblind so just use white and blue pens on alternate years for queen marking. I find the red and green pen colours virtually indistinguishable and almost impossible to see in the mass of bees on the frame. The yellow is visible and very rarely gets used for queen marking but is useful to write notes on the hive roof, or mark frames as necessary. The metallic pink pen is used to mark queens going into an observation hive.

Bee bag and hivebarrow ...

Bee bag and hivebarrow …

though they may have stopped making this as I’ve not seen it for a few months.