Tag Archives: bee shed

The day job

It’s no secret that I have both amateur and professional interests in bees, bee health and beekeeping.

During the weekend I sweat profusely in my beesuit, rushing between my apiaries in Central and Eastern Fife, checking my colonies – about 15 at the autumn census this year – averting swarms, setting up bait hives, queen rearing and carrying bulging supers back for extraction.

Actually, not so much of the latter in 2017¬† ūüôĀ ¬†I did get very wet though, much like all the other beekeepers in Fife.

The BSRC labs

The BSRC labs …

During the week I sit in front of a large computer screen running (or sometimes running to keep up with) a team of researchers studying the biology of viruses in the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex (BSRC) at the University of St. Andrews. Some of these researchers work on the biology and control of honey bee viruses.

During the winter the beekeeping stops, but the research continues unabated. The apiary visits are replaced with trips in the evenings and weekends to beekeeping associations and conventions to talk about our research … or sometimes to talk about beekeeping.

Or both.

This weekend I’m delighted to be speaking at the South Devon Beekeepers Convention in Totnes on the science that underpins rational and practical¬†Varroa¬†control.

Which came first?

I’ve been a virologist my entire academic career, but I’ve only worked on honey bee viruses for about 6 years. I’ve been a beekeeper for about a decade, so the beekeeping preceded working on the viruses of bees.

However, the two are inextricably entwined. Having a reasonable amount of beekeeping experience provides a unique insight into the problems and practicalities of controlling the virus diseases that bees get.

Being able to “talk beekeeping” with beekeepers has been very useful – both for the communication of our results to a wider audience and in influencing the way we approach our research.

Increasingly, the latter is important. Researchers need to address relevant questions, using their detailed understanding of the science to deliver practical solutions to problems1. There’s no point in coming up with a solution if there’s no way it’s implementation is compatible with beekeeping.

Deformed wing virus

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The most important virus for most beekeepers in most years is deformed wing virus (DWV). This virus¬†“does what it says on the tin”¬†because, at high levels, it causes developmental defects in pupae that emerge with shrivelled, stunted wings. There are additional developmental defects which are slightly less obvious, but there are additional (largely invisible) changes which are of greater importance.

DWV reduces the lifespan of worker bees. This is probably not hugely significant in workers destined to live only a few weeks in midsummer. However, the winter bees that get the colony through from September through to March must live for months, not weeks. If these bees are heavily infected with DWV they die at a faster rate. Consequently, the colony dwindles and dies out in midwinter or early Spring. At best, it staggers through to March and then never builds up properly. It’s still effectively a winter loss.

Our research focuses on how¬†Varroa influences the virus population. There’s very good evidence now that DWV transmission by¬†Varroa leads to a significant increase in the¬†amount of virus, and a considerable¬†decrease in the diversity of the virus population.

So what?

Well, this is important because if we want to control the virus (i.e. to¬†reduce DWV-associated disease and colony losses)¬†it must help to know the proper identity of the virus we are trying to control. It will also help us¬†measure how well our control works. We know we’re measuring the right thing.

We’re working with researchers around the world to define the important characteristics of DWV strains that cause disease and, closer to home, with entire beekeeping associations to investigate practical strategies to improve colony health.

Chronic bee paralysis virus

CBPV symptoms

CBPV symptoms

We’re about to start a large collaborative project on the biology and control of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This virus is becoming a significant problem for many beekeepers and is increasing globally. It’s a particular problem for some bee farmers.

CBPV causes characteristic symptoms of dark, hairless, oily-looking bees that sometimes shiver, dying in large smelly piles at the hive entrance. It typically affects very strong colonies in the middle of the season. It can be devastating. Hives that should be the most productive ones in the apiary fail catastrophically.

Why is a virus we’ve known about for decades apparently increasing in the amount of disease it causes? Are there new virulent strains of the virus circulating? Are there particular beekeeping practices that facilitate it’s spread? We’re working with collaborators in the University of Newcastle to try and address these and related questions.

I’ll write more about CBPV over the next year or so. It won’t be a running dialogue on the research (which would be crushingly dull for most readers), but will provide some background information on what is a really fascinating virus.

At least to a virologist ūüėČ

And perhaps to beekeepers.

Grow your own

As virologists, we approach the disease by studying the virus. Although we maintain an excellent research apiary, we don’t do many experiments in ‘the field’. Almost all the work is done in test tubes in incubators in the laboratory … or in bees we rear in those incubators.

Grow your own

Grow your own …

We can harvest day-old larvae (or even eggs) from a colony and rear them to emergence as adult bees in small plastic dishes in the laboratory. We use an artificial diet of sugar and pollen to do this. It’s time consuming – they need very regular feeding – but it provides a tightly controllable environment in which to do experiments.

Since we can rear the bees, we can therefore easily test the ability of viruses to replicate in the bees. Do all strains of the virus replicate equally well? Do some strains outcompete others? Does the route by which the virus is acquired influence the location(s) in the bee in which the virus replicates? Or the strains it is susceptible to? Or the level of virus that accumulates?

And if our competitors are reading this, the answer to most of those questions is ‘yes’ ūüėČ

We can even ask questions about why and how DWV causes deformed wings.

Again, so what? We suspect that DWV causes deformed wings because it stops the expression of a gene in the bee that’s needed to make ‘good’ wings. If we can identify that gene we might be able to investigate different strains of honey bee for variation in the gene that would render them less susceptible to being ‘turned off’ by DWV. That might be the basis for a selective breeding project.

It’s a simplistic explanation, but it’s this type of molecular interaction that explains susceptibility to a wide range of human, animal and plant diseases.

Bee observant

Bee health is important, and not fundamentally difficult to achieve. There are some basics to attend to … strong hives, good forage, good apiary hygiene etc. However, it primarily requires good powers of observation – does something look odd? Are there lots of mites present? How does the brood look?

If things aren’t right – and often deducing this means comparisons must be made between hives – then many interventions are relatively straightforward.

Not long for this world ...

Not long for this world …

The most widespread problems (though, interestingly, this doesn’t apply to CBPV) are due to high levels of¬†Varroa infestation. There are effective and relatively inexpensive ways to treat these … if they’re used properly.

More correctly, they’re relatively inexpensive whether they’re used properly or not. However, they’re pretty ineffective if not used properly ūüėČ

Regular checks, good record keeping, comparisons between hives and informed observation are what is needed. Don’t just look, instead look for specific things. Can you see bees with overt symptoms of DWV? Are there bees with¬†Varroa riding around on their backs? The photo above has both of these in plain view. Are some hairless bees staggering around the top bars with glossy abdomens, or clinging to the side bars shaking and twitching?

Don’t wait, act

I’ve no doubt that scientists will be able to develop novel treatments to control or prevent virus infections of bees. I would say that … I’m a scientist ūüėČ ¬†However, I’m not sure beekeepers will be able to afford them, or perhaps even want to use them, or that they’d be compatible with honey production or of any use in Warr√© hives¬†etc.

I’m also not sure how soon these sorts of treatments might become available … so don’t wait.

If there are signs of obvious DWV infection you need to do something. ‘Obvious’ because DWV is always present, but it’s usually harmless or at least tolerated by the bees. My lab have looked at thousands of bees and have yet to find one without detectable levels of DWV. However, healthy bees have only about 1/10,000 the level of DWV present in sick bees … and these are the ones that have obvious symptoms.

I’ve discussed¬†Varroa control elsewhere, and will again.

Unfortunately, if your colony has signs of CBPV disease then Varroa control is not really relevant. The virus is transmitted from bee to bee by direct contact. This probably accounts for the appearance of the disease primarily in very strong colonies.

At the moment there’s little you can do to ‘cure’ a CBPV-afflicted colony. I hope, in 2-3 years we will have a better idea on what interventions might work. We have lots of ideas, but there are a lot of basic questions to be addressed before we can test them.

Field work

Field work

Business and pleasure

The half of my lab that don’t work on bee viruses study fundamental mechanisms of virus replication and evolution. They do this using human viruses, some of which are distant relatives of DWV. They work on human viruses as it’s only these that have excellent model systems to facilitate the types of elegant experiments we try to do. They’re also relatively easy to justify in funding applications, and it allows us to tap into a much bigger pot for funding opportunities (human health R&D costs probably total ¬£2 billion/annum, bees might be ¬£2 million/annum).

And no, my lab don’t get anything like that much per year for our research!

Importantly, the two activities on human and honey bee viruses are related. Our experience with the human viruses related to DWV made us well-qualified to tackle the bee virus. They replicate and evolve in very similar ways, we quantify them in the same way and there may be similarities in some ways we could approach to control them.

And with the bee viruses I can mix business with pleasure. If I’m going to the apiary I’ll get to see and handle bees, despite it being officially “work”. It doesn’t happen as much as I’d like as I’m usually sat behind the computer and all of the ‘bee team’ have been trained to work with bees by the ESBA.

However, at least when I talk to collaborators or to the beekeeping groups we’re fortunate to be working with we – inevitably – talk about bees.

And that’s fun¬† ūüėÄ


1¬†Several years ago I delivered an enthusiastic and rather science-heavy talk at a Bee Farmers Association meeting. I thought it had gone reasonably well and they were kind enough to say some nice things to me … and then I got the question from the back of the room which went something like¬†“That’s all very well young man … but what have you made NOW that I can put into my hives to make them healthy?”.

I’m sure my answer was a bit woolly. These days the presentation would have had a bit less science and bit more justification. We’ve also made some progress and it’s possible to now discuss practical strategies to rationally control viruses in the hive. It’s not rocket science … though some of the science it’s based on is reasonably fancy.

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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 ūüėČ ) 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 actualit√©.¬†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¬įC – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20¬įC. 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¬įC).
  • 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 …

German bee houses part 2

In the first instalment I posted a series of pictures (kindly provided by Calum) of bee houses near Lindau in Bavaria, Germany. The images showed ‘properties’ towards the budget end of the market, offering the bare minimum – a roof overhead and sometimes little more. However, with a bit more time, ingenuity, money¬†and a willingness to ruthlessly exploit the planning laws all sorts of¬†things are possible …

Functional minimalism

Here are a couple of bee houses built to a similar design. A solid-looking shed with a good high ceiling (the pent roof design must offer good headroom over the hives, with ample space for the stacked supers or tall beekeepers) and reasonable levels of lighting by replacing the front wall with translucent corrugated plastic. Calum assures me that there is usually enough light in these bee houses for a proper frame inspection i.e. to see if there are eggs present.

Small corrugated bee house

Small corrugated bee house

It’s clear how the bees access the hives which – as last week – simply abut the front wall of the bee house. Since there are no opening windows as such I presume there’s a gap under the eaves through which the bees can escape during inspections.

Large corrugated bee house

Large corrugated bee house

Moving up in the world

The bee houses above are¬†a pretty good size, both in terms of the number of hives they¬†can accommodate and the space to work them and for storage. However, with lots of hives inevitably the space becomes more crowded. The following photograph is of the inside of a 30-hive bee house. The majority of the hives are of a design known as a Zander hive, with a few other Deutsch Normal (which, as Calum says,¬†“is funny as there is no standard in Germany”).

Crowded house

Crowded house

The roof lights provide pretty good illumination (they would be a welcome addition to my own bee shed) which makes it much easier to see the huge amount of additional ‘essentials’ that beekeepers accumulate.

Bee house and bench seat

Bee house and bench seat

And before we move on to the Rolls-Royce‚Ć of bee houses here’s another one (above), this time from the outside. I particularly like the sheltered porch area and bench seat, perfect for relaxing on with a cuppa after working up a sweat.

A luxury bee house

My bee shed starts to look rather plain and dowdy when compared with the nicely decorated side panels in the photograph above. All of the bee houses shown so far have provided basic weather protection together with more or less comfort for the beekeeper and space for storage or relaxation.

The final bee house is spectacular. It houses 40 colonies and has an extractor (centrifuge) room with an adjacent dining room¬†and living room. Upstairs there is space for a flat …¬†“planning laws¬†don‚Äôt really apply to beekeepers in Germany – as the need to keep them very happy is recognised”, says Calum).

Luxury bee house

Luxury bee house

Can you imagine building something like that in the association apiary?

Finally, here’s a close-up view of the entrances to this splendid building. The windows are hinged from the top and the area under the eaves is very shaded. It’s not clear whether the bees that fly during inspections escape through the open windows (in which case hinging them at the bottom would almost certainly be more effective as bees always crawl upwards) or¬†if they exit somehow above the windows.

Hive entrances and windows

Hive entrances and windows

The landing boards are painted to try and reduce drifting which might be a major issue with colonies packed so close together. Some of the brood boxes are also decorated with flowers or motifs to help the bees returning from orientation flights find the correct hive. There are a couple of wasp traps fixed to the front of the bee house, one just out of shot and one about 2/3rd the way along in the picture above.

That’s almost the last of this brief review of German bee houses from the photos that Calum kindly sent me. I’m saving one back for another posting which will appear sometime in the future. I’ve also received some additional images of bee houses from another part of Germany and northern France which I’ll post in due course.

I’m off to check the Scottish planning laws …


‚Ƭ†Actually Calum called this the ‘Mercedes’ of bee houses. This either reflects a German opinion of the relative merits of Daimler Benz Mercedes and Rolls-Royce (who are actually owned by BMW these days), or it might suggest that there are even more luxurious bee houses out there …

German bee houses part 1

After a bit more than a year of use I’m convinced of the benefits of a bee house or shed. They provide protection for both the hives¬†and the beekeeper, enabling inspections in otherwise borderline¬†conditions and – at least from my experience this season – earlier colony build-up and longer brood rearing. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to synchronise¬†colony inspections to¬†idyllic “shirtsleeve” days, with warm sunshine and light winds, either due to work commitments or (in our case) because we need brood at particular times of the week for research.

Learn from others and your own mistakes

My¬†bee shed is a simple re-purposed good quality garden shed¬†on a solid base with some holes cut in the walls and custom-built windows.¬†I’ve discussed the perceived and actual benefits of the bee shed previously, and described the design (and evolution) of the hive entrances and shed exits used by the bees. The functionality was achieved by discussion with contributors to the SBAi beekeeping forum, further informed by a tour of¬†a ‘shed’ owned by a respected and experienced UK beekeeper, and with a bit¬†of trial and error.

Despite being broadly satisfied with my current setup I’m always interested to see how others have¬†approached the problem of providing both shelter and access. I was therefore very interested to receive a series of photographs of bee houses from Calum, a regular reader and contributor, who lives in Lindau, Germany. With Calum’s permission I’m posting these as they might also be of interest to other readers.

A simple shelter from the elements

Lindau is¬†in Bavaria, on the northern shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee). The climate there is “mild and generally warm and¬†temperate”, with average temperatures of 9.1¬įC and rainfall of about 1133mm¬†(according to¬†climate-data.org). The average temperature in the warmest (July) and coldest month (January) is 18.7¬įC and -0.7¬įC‚Ć. This gives an idea of the type of conditions these bee houses were designed for. Calum tells me that there are at least 30 he’s aware of within 10km of Lindau.

This simple shelter provides some protection for the beekeeper working the colonies together with an extended porch area to protect the hive entrances – presumably from snow and sun. The hive entrances simply line up with a gap between the bottom of the front wall and the floor, that doubles as a landing board. I particularly like the solitary bee nestbox on one of the end walls of the shelter.

Here’s another that provides even less shelter for either the beekeeper or the hives, consisting of nothing more than a roof and end walls. Nevertheless, the roof looks pretty sturdy to keep the snow off and the hives are oriented to catch the morning sun.

Barely a bee house ...

Barely a bee house …

Three walls and a roof

Finally, here’s something a little more substantial. This is the bee house that Calum inherited when he started out, complete with the sign which I think reads¬†“Vorsicht Stechgefahr Bienen” (Caution danger stinging bees). Clearly this was a rather robust shed originally. Apparently it was built without the front wall making adding/removing hives a simple task – no need to negotiate the door. Security can be provided by installing a couple of planks from the inside that protect the hives. The¬†hives¬†are¬†higher than on a conventional stand, making inspections of a single/double brood box comfortable, but making the removal of supers from the top of the pile a precarious occupation.

Calum's bee house

Calum’s bee house

In¬†the next instalment (though not next week) I’ll post some rather grander designs, including one with integral dining and living rooms …

 


‚Ć For¬†comparison,¬†I live in Fife which enjoys about half the rainfall of Lindau and has an annual temperature average of 8.3¬įC and January and July averages of 2.5¬įC and 14.7¬įC respectively.

Varroa control in the bee shed

The last colonies to be treated for Varroa¬†this late summer (early autumn?) are those in the bee shed‚Ć. These have had consistently low levels of mites all season … levels were so low that we uncapped two full frames of drone brood (individually) from one of them in June without finding a single mite.

Nevertheless, because …

  • mite levels can rise dramatically from low levels if not tackled – for example, see the modelled expansion of the Varroa¬†population.
  • reduced queen laying at this time of year means mites have fewer pupae to target resulting in elevated infestation levels in the critical winter bees (and why this is important). In recent sampling of pupae we’ve seen an increase in the number of mites in capped in cells which we assume is due to this.
  • we need to keep these colonies with the lowest practical mite levels.

… they were treated anyway. I’m reasonably¬†confident that sublimated oxalic acid (which is the active ingredient in Api-Bioxal) does little or no harm to the colony, and am sure that the mite reduction is always beneficial. I’d therefore prefer to treat than regret not treating at a later stage in the winter or early next season.

Expose the bees to the vapour … not the beekeeper

There’s nothing fundamentally different about treating colonies in the bee shed than those outside. Using a Sublimox vaporiser is very straightforward. However, two points need a little more care than normal.

The first is the sealing of the colony. To be effective the vapour must be evenly spread throughout the hive. Because of the ‘tunnel-like’ entrances there are more potential gaps from which the vapour can escape. I therefore do my best to push the hive tightly against the entrance tunnel after sealing the latter with a block of foam. The floors on these hives were built by Pete Little and have a commendably leakproof Varroa¬†tray, making them ideal for sealing the open mesh floor. As an aside, don’t try squirting the vapour in from the entrance … direct inspection through the Perspex crownboard suggests that (at least in my setup) the vapour only poorly permeates the hive if administered like this. Been there, done that. The goal¬†is to get the oxalic acid crystals spread evenly and thoroughly throughout the hive, ensuring maximum exposure to the mites, and maximising the duration of activity¬†against,

The second point relates to the ‘leakiness’ of the hive and the fact that it’s in an enclosed space (the shed). There’s therefore no chance of standing upwind and allowing escaping vapour to drift away safely. Operator protection is particularly important as the shed is liable to fill with oxalic acid vapour. Eye protection and a suitable particle mask rated for acid particulates¬†are essential. It’s a case of “lighting the blue touch paper and retiring to a safe distance”. With a Sublimox you can simply invert the machine – into the ‘delivery’ mode – and leave it hanging out of a hole through the sidewall of the floor (see photo above right). There’s a couple of seconds before sublimation starts which you can use to¬†step out into the fresh air, only returning once the vapour has cleared.

Finally, if you run your vaporiser off a generator it should also be left outside the shed. Don’t gas the bees when you’re gassing the bees ūüėČ


‚Ć Plus a recalcitrant swarm that’s on it’s second round of treatment due to the stubbornly high mite levels. Grrrr.

Bee shed rules

The first rule of the bee shed ...

The first rule of the bee shed …

The bee shed is getting busy and now houses four full colonies and a nuc or two. With several people involved in sampling colonies for our¬†DWV research we’ve drawn up some simple rules‚Ä° to ensure things stay neat and tidy.

This post – slightly more frivolous than usual¬†– should automagically appear on my Twitter account as well. Normal service will be resumed shortly … with part 2 of “Spot the Queen“.


‚Ä°¬†The first rule¬†there are no rules”¬†is often thought to be¬†a reference to the 1999 film¬†Fight Club where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) welcomes the unnamed Narrator (Ed Norton)¬†and lists the eight rules that must be followed. In the film,¬†the first rule of Fight Club was: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club was: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!¬†Perhaps surprisingly (considering the subject of the film),¬†Fight Club does include a reference to bees … the following quote appears on the screen of the Narrators’ computer “Worker bees can leave. Even drones can fly away. The Queen is their slave”¬†… not entirely¬†biologically accurate.

“The rules are¬†… there are no rules”¬†actually comes from the 1978 film¬†Grease¬†…¬†a rather different film altogether.

Spot the queen competition

I’ve posted before about why clipping the queen helps … here’s a rather more dramatic example. This colony from the bee shed – in the middle of a Pagden artificial swarm – decided it was time to go. Since the queen was clipped they regrouped at the colony entrance so – at least as far as beekeeping is concerned –¬†‘all was not lost’.

Clipped queen swarm

Clipped queen swarm

“Clipping the queen” refers to the slight shortening of one of the queens wings. This prevents her from flying – or at least from flying any distance or with any control. Whilst it’s not possible to determine whether the queen feels any pain when its being done, clipped queens lead long, natural and productive lives, so I don’t think it’s detrimental to them. It’s certainly beneficial for the beekeeper and beekeeping. The wing on a queen is clipped¬†after she is mated … ūüėČ

I’ll discuss swarm control and prevention in the bee shed (when I achieve it) ¬†ūüėČ


This is the first of series of irregular midweek photograph posts.

Bee shed inspections

A¬†brief update on how things have been progressing¬†in the bee shed. This is my first full season keeping colonies full-time within a shed or building though I’ve¬†successfully overwintered mini-nucs in an unheated greenhouse in the past.

Under construction ...

Under construction …

When installed at the end of last season there was almost no need to open the hives, so it’s only this Spring that the pros and cons of the bee shed have begun to be properly understood.

The colonies are completely enclosed with simple tunnels leading to exits on the East/South East face of the shed. All the colonies are housed in standard National cedar boxes or poly nucs. Other than clear perspex insulated crownboards, there is no additional insulation and the shed is not heated. The shed is situated in open parkland with woodland and arable land nearby containing good forage and there is a permanent water supply nearby.

Colony development and Varroa loads

Colonies went through the winter in single National brood boxes, fed with fondant and treated with oxalic acid by vaporisation in September (before moving them to the shed) and in midwinter. The first inspection was conducted in late March. Colonies were building up well and were significantly stronger than colonies headed by sister queens in the same apiary or in my other apiary. Between late February and early May colonies dropped only 3-4 mites¬†in total, with¬†Varroa boards¬†located within pull-out trays in the hive floor. I’m sure I missed a few mites, but doubt it was very many. We’ve recently uncapped a full frame of drone brood – each cell uncapped individually – and found no¬†Varroa present. Mite levels are¬†therefore reassuringly low – for reasons to be discussed in a¬†future post – with no signs of DWV-related disease.

Varroa tray ...

Varroa tray …

Since mid-April colony development has been very good and they are now on double National brood boxes with 2-3 supers. A fourth super went onto one colony on the 25th of May and the stack now nearly reaches the shed roof.¬†A four¬†frame nuc has been split off one colony already to cool it down a little.¬†Quite a bit¬†of developing brood has also been harvested at weekly intervals for our research, usually by simply cutting a big slab out of the middle of a frame. This has probably also held the colonies back a bit and it’s only now I’m starting to plan for¬†swarm prevention/control.

Inspections

Inspections have been easier than expected. These colonies are headed by queens with reasonable genetics (Heinz queens – local mongrels of 57 varieties, reared by me in 2015). The bees are steady on the comb and tend not to fly up at you when the crownboard is lifted. They’re nothing particularly special, but would be considered reasonably placid and non-aggressive.

The colony is gently smoked from outside the shed (through the entrance tunnel) and a small amount is wafted under the crownboard or between the QE and the bottom super. After allowing them to settle the supers and crownboard are removed and placed outside on an overturned roof. The queen excluder and adherent bees are also left standing outside (unless it’s cold when the bees are shaken off into the open hive).

Inspecting the colony is straightforward. Any frames removed to make space are rested¬†on the hive stand. Double brooded colonies are split into two, with one box stood aside on an eke on the roof of an adjacent hive roof. Inevitably, the queenless half of the split tends to get tetchy within a few minutes, so it’s best to deal with them first. When frames need to be shaken free of bees¬†this can be done either over the open hive or, better still, directly into a¬†gap between the frames. If done outside many of the nurse bees on the frame fail to get back to the hive (they’ve probably not been on orientation flights yet).

The smoker is usually stood just outside the shed door … if you keep it in the shed during inspections you can end up being¬†kippered ūüėé

Flying bees

Perhaps surprisingly, even going through all 22 frames in a double colony,¬†the shed does not fill with a maelstrom of flying bees. Undoubtedly this is partly because they’re reasonably calm¬†colonies. Those that do fly rapidly find the window or open door and make their exit. When I first started doing inspections in the bee shed I’d manually help the stragglers outside after reassembling the hive. It turns out that there’s really no need … almost all the bees quickly vacate the shed by making a beeline ( ūüėČ ) for the bright lights of the windows or doors.

The great escape ...

The great escape …

Just how quickly the bees leave the shed was emphasised last Sunday when selecting larvae for grafting. I opened and inspected a double brooded colony, found a suitable frame with 24 hour larvae on it and placed it in a two frame nuc for protection. Within 5 minutes I could work without a veil (I react very badly to stings to the face so take particular care over this) without interruption from flying bees.

Weather and temperature

I’m sure that the temperature influences the behaviour of the colonies in the shed. They certainly forage – or perhaps collect water to use fondant or crystallised stores – at lower temperatures than those situated outside. When inspections are conducted on a cold day (say 10-11¬įC) they are even more steady than usual. However, those that do fly take longer to leave the shed and they can end up clustering in small, rather pathetic, little groups which then need to be scooped up on a hive tool and dropped into the colony. On cool days I don’t leave the supers or QE outside the shed as the bees would rapidly get chilled. Work commitments mean that inspections must be conducted on certain days, so I don’t have the luxury of simply waiting until it’s a bit warmer. Although the¬†shed is unheated the temperature differential between the inside and outside is significant – perhaps 4-8¬įC – or more if the sun is shining on the window side of the shed. On a warm, sunny day the temperature inside the shed can easily reach the mid-20’s which makes inspections a hot and sweaty activity.

Needless to say, inspections on damp or wet days are much better than on colonies located outside. I avoid days when it’s raining hard, partly for my own comfort to avoid getting¬†wet accessing the apiary, but also because I’d prefer not to force the bees to fly on a really wet day. However, on damp or drizzly days, inspections proceed as normal.

And the bad news is …

Almost everything I’ve written above is positive and my overall initial impression is that the bee shed offers very significant advantages for the sort of beekeeping I need to do. However, there are some drawbacks and design issues that either currently cause problems, or might in the future.

The first is that it’s too small. The shed is 12 x 8 feet and I should have got one at least half as long¬†again. This is largely because it’s also used for equipment storage and has a small table for working on. With four hives I need storage for 8-12¬†supers, additional brood boxes and spare frames. If I was starting again, knowing what I know now, I’d get an 18 x 10 shed with the intention of housing at least 6¬†colonies and some additional nucs (by contrast mine will accommodate 4 full colonies and 2 nucs¬†down the sunny side of the shed, with the possibility of 2-3 additional nucs at a squeeze). It’s not only equipment storage that takes up the room … you need considerable room to work as well, with space for turning, stacking and temporary placement of hive parts. Working in the bee shed encourages an efficiency of movement – or causes a lot of collisions – I’d not expected.

Essential storage ...

Essential storage …

Secondly the lighting is – at best – variable. On a sunny morning there’s ample light to see eggs and tiny larvae. However, as the colonies have grown, the added¬†supers restrict the amount of light getting through the windows. On an overcast day, or late in the afternoon, the lighting is pretty hopeless – good enough to see queen cups/cells, good enough to locate the queen, but (particularly on dark frames) too dim to see eggs, small larvae or to check frames for signs of disease. It’s not unusual to have to carry¬†frames outside to inspect them fully. I’m currently investigating 12V LED systems run from a solar panel-charged caravan battery. My only concern is that this might disorientate the bees and slow their exit from the shed during inspections.

Multiple supers ...

Multiple supers …

Thirdly, I should have spent more time designing the hive stands. I made them an inch or so too low which caused some problems with locating the hive entrances centrally in the T&G planks, but was¬†not insurmountable. More problematically, as a consequence of the leg locations it’s difficult to keep the floor clear of hive debris that falls through the OMF. With the¬†Varroa boards in place this isn’t an issue, but when they’re out – which I prefer if there’s a chance of the shed getting very warm – the debris needs to be regularly swept up to keep the shed clean. Some sort of removable debris trays would have been a good addition, but are not easy to fit retrospectively. However, the overall hive stand design – with the legs going through the suspended floor to avoid vibrations – works very well.

Finally, swarm control has yet to be tackled. My preferred simple method is¬†doing a vertical split¬†(or using a Snelgrove board that I’m experimenting with this year) but this requires an upper¬†entrance which, obviously, cannot easily be arranged. One possibility is using the Demaree method of swarm control. Alternatively, it would be straightforward to remove the queen into a nuc and let the colony requeen. Currently I’m trying to postpone the inevitable by removal of some brood, ensuring they have enough space within the brood boxes which I swap (top to bottom, bottom to top) periodically, ensuring they have sufficient space in the supers and keeping a close eye on them. The queens are clipped. If they do swarm they’re likely to end up in a lump outside the hive entrance – the ground is flagged and so they should hopefully be relatively easy to scoop up.


 

Nucs in the bee shed

Slow-mo of bees returning to a nucleus colony in the bee shed …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The bee shed is designed to accommodate a maximum of four National hives along one wall of its twelve foot length. However, space remains at the outermost¬†ends of the stands sufficient to house a couple of nucs, so I made the necessary modifications and installed a nuc¬†recently. They’re a bit squeezed into the corners but there’s still enough space to inspect them. Since there’s almost no time during the year¬†when there aren’t nucs in use these spaces will be well used, and the shelter offered by the bee shed will provide additional protection when overwintering smaller colonies.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

Almost all my nucs are of the Everynuc design sold by Thorne’s. With a little modification these Langstroth-sized poly nucs are excellent, though the entrance is¬†far bigger than it needs to be. These nucs have an integral feeder, a separate floor and¬†Varroa tray, a thin polycarbonate inner cover (it’s a bit grand calling it a crownboard) and a good thick roof. Importantly, as far as fitting them into the bee shed, they have a projecting ‘landing board’, which I found could be pushed flush with the wall of the shed so negating the need for an entrance tunnel of any kind. The remaining gap between the nuc body and the shed wall can be filled with a small block of dense foam.

Nuc entrance ...

Nuc entrance …

To make sealing¬†the colony easier or to add a queen excluder or single bee-width entrance I bodged together some scrap wood to make a simple holder – fitted onto the inside wall of the shed – into which suitably sized pieces of Correx or QE could be slotted. In the picture (bottom¬†right) the Correx is out of sight behind the nuc but this nuc is ‘overheight’ because it has a Miller-type feeder on. Finally, to ensure the nuc couldn’t be accidentally moved during inspections or when I was pottering around in the shed, I added a couple of tie-down points on the walls and so could run a lightweight strap around the floor of the nuc, securing everything in place.

Correx entrance thingy ...

Correx entrance thingy …

Late on Easter Sunday I visited my out apiary, sealed the nuc entrance with¬†foam and transported¬†it to the apiary with the bee shed –¬†these sites are several miles apart, so there was no issues with the bees returning to the wrong place. The colony was busy dealing with a block of fondant in the feeder compartment. After moving¬†them to the shed I left them to settle for ~20 minutes then gently removed the entrance foam and gave them a small waft of smoke. I then carefully¬†placed the nuc in situ. Not a single bee escaped. Why can’t it always be this simple?

Nuc in the bee shed ...

Nuc in the bee shed …

The following morning there were a few bees taking tentative first flights from the simple hole I’d bored through the wall of the shed. I’ve also built¬†them a Correx (no surprises there for regular visitors to¬†this site) landing board, both to help them land¬†– rather than clinging to¬†the shiny paint finish of the shed – and to help them orientate to the entrance. As you can see from the video (top of page), they largely ignore the landing board. The bee shed hive entrances have a variety of coloured landing boards to try and discourage bees from drifting between colonies … but it’s nothing like as distinctively (or artfully) decorated¬†as some of the bee houses on the continent.

 

Ribes sanguineum

Ribes

Ribes …

It’s often said that the flowering of the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a good indicator of when to conduct the first hive inspection of the year. The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping and the excellent¬†Get Started in Beekeeping by Adrian and Clare Waring (I consider the latter is one of the very best books for beginners) both contain this information. Of course, the advice is qualified by saying it should be a ‘shirtsleeve’ sort of day. I’ve even posted on this before, together with an image of the plant in full flower taken on the 11th of April in the Midlands. Today, more than a fortnight earlier than that photo was taken, I walked past a long row of them in full flower in St. Andrews.

Perhaps¬†there are different strains of the flower as it still feels far too early to inspect colonies. The month has been consistently cool, with temperatures rarely into double figures, even in sheltered locations. Most colonies are starting to get busy, taking pollen in during the warmest couple of hours of the day. However, inspection of the bottom boards shows relatively little brood¬†is being reared yet, with the characteristic darker nibbled wax cappings from¬†only 2-3 frames at best. So … despite the indications of the flowering currant, I’d usually prefer to leave them in peace until they’ve built up a bit more.

Spares ...

Spares …

Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous day and the bees were flying strongly when I checked on them at the bee shed. It was just over¬†10¬įC outside in the sun, but a balmy 19¬įC inside the shed. I fired up the smoker, popped on a jacket and had a brief look through one of the colonies. Ample stores, ample space and – most encouragingly – about 5 good frames of brood with the queen calmly sauntering about looking to fill in the gaps around the edges of the frame I found her on. Lovely. I switched a couple of frames of partially used stores to the outside, swapping them for drawn comb, so the colony could expand into the space, and quickly tidied up and closed the colony. I was finished in less than 5 minutes.

While the smoker cooled down the few bees that had¬†escaped made their way out through the windows, the colony settled quickly and I re-stacked some piles of spare equipment for the season ahead. It’ll still be a week or three before I open up other colonies, particularly those ‘outside’, but it’s good to be beekeeping again.