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 …
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 …
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.
Old brood frame …
Covered OMF …
Poly 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 …
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.
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 …
Spring – better late than never
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 …
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 …
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 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 …
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.
Soft set honey was often called creamed honey before that description was effectively outlawed – at least for labelling purposes – under the trade descriptions act because it ‘contains no cream‘. It’s the stuff that’s spoonable and spreadable, it feels like velvet on the tongue because the crystals are so fine (hence creamy) and it remains looking good for a long time. The long shelf life more than compensates for the (relatively small) effort required to produce it … you don’t have to sell it or give it away quickly before granulation takes over and the appearance is spoiled. Winter is a good time to prepare soft set honey as it requires low temperatures.
Granulated honey label
All honey granulates. At least, all honey that hasn’t been subjected to the sorts of heating and filtration used by commercial packers to produce a uniform and sometime bland product with a very long shelf life. The rate at which honey granulates is related to its composition. Honey with a relatively high glucose to fructose ratio – such as oil seed rape – granulates faster. Granulation is also influenced by temperature and particulates (e.g. pollen) that acts as a ‘seed’ for granulation. My honey carries a label indicating that granulation is a completely natural process and is a sign of high quality honey.
Soft set honey
Soft set honey is honey in which the granulation has been controlled. A small amount (~10%) of honey with a soft, fine grain, is used as a ‘seed’ for liquid honey. As the latter granulates it takes on the consistency of the seed honey. The principle is straightforward and an industrial process was patented by Elton Dyce in the 1930’s. However, this requires rapid heating and cooling of bulk honey, something most beekeepers are unable to achieve. There are some good descriptions online about making soft set honey, including a useful video by ‘BeekeeperDevon’ on YouTube. There are also a lot of conflicting methods published and some that are, frankly, either nonsense or wrong.
This is how I do it … followed by some details on a few of the critical bits.
Extracted honey should be left to completely crystallise in honey buckets. This might take several weeks. The honey, particularly if it’s OSR, is likely to be spoonbendingly hard. In the following description I’m assuming the honey has only been (at least) coarse filtered on extraction, so will almost inevitably still contain bits of wax and the odd leg or antenna.
Melt a full bucket of crystallised honey completely. For a 30lb bucket I find this takes about 24-36 hours at 50ºC in my honey warming cabinet. Stir it once or twice during this period if you get the chance – this speeds up the process. Honey should not be kept at elevated temperatures for extended periods to avoid the build up of HMF.
Cool the filtered honey to 35ºC in the honey warming cabinet. At the same time, warm the seed stock (see comments below) to 35ºC in bucket with a tap. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed stock will not be destroyed.
Add the filtered bulk honey to the seed stock. Mix gently but very thoroughly. The intention is to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mixed honey. You can use a stainless steel corkscrew and drill, or a honey creamer. Of the two I prefer the latter. Try and avoid incorporating air during the mixing (hence ‘gently’) to avoid frosting in the final product.
Cool the honey to less than 14ºC, mixing every 12 hours or so. It’s easy to achieve this temperature in winter in an unheated outhouse, pantry or conservatory. In the summer you can do this by adding a succession of freezer blocks to the warming cabinet (but it’s hard work). The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and will – within a week or less (and possibly within a couple of days) – set. This is soft set honey.
Re-warm the bucket of honey to 35ºC and bottle it. See comments below.
The seed stock
You need about 10% by weight of a suitable seed stock to make soft set honey. You can use more or less, it’s not critical. Much less than 5% and it won’t be enough to ensure even crystallisation, or will take a very long time to finally crystallise. More than 10% is unnecessary and you’d be better saving it for another batch of soft set honey. If you’ve not got a seed stock of a suitable consistency (by which I mean of the consistency you want your final soft set honey to have) you can make, borrow or buy some.
Pestle and mortar …
To makeyour seed stock grind hard set crystallised honey using a pestle and mortar until it has a wonderful, even consistency. It will start as hard unyielding lumps and end up with the consistency of thick toothpaste. This is hard work but you might only need to do it once, so do it well. You can borrow your seed stock from a neighbouring beekeeper who has something suitable, returning the same amount after you’ve prepared your own soft set honey. Finally, you could even buy your seed stock from a supermarket. If you insist on buying the starter, at least steer clear of the “mix of EU and non-EU” honeys (why don’t they just state “sourced from goodness knows where”?) which could have just about anything in them. You are aiming to produce a top quality product. The type of honey you use as your seed stock is immaterial; it will only comprise a small amount of the final product, the consistency is what matters.
Bottling soft set honey
At 35ºC the prepared soft set honey will barely flow through the honey tap. However, with a little effort, and a long handled spoon to gently stir it, the thixotropic honey can usually be made to flow sufficiently to get it into jars. Again, to avoid frosting try not to mix air into the honey; hold the jar just under the honey tap with the bucket slightly inclined.
Keep about 3lb of your first batch of soft set honey – I use these useful sealable plastic containers – to use as the seed for your next bucket. This might be the following week or the following year – I’ve just used up the last of my 2014-prepared seed stock. If you’re preparing batch after batch of soft set honey on a weekly basis you can simply leave the seed stock in the bottom of the bucket with a tap. I’ve found silicone spatula spoons really useful for mixing honey, for getting the last few ounces out of the honey bucket and for quickly removing all the honey from the last three 1lb jars after you realise you’ve just bottled the seed stock for the next batch 😉
With the days getting shorter, the weather worsening and the bees hunkering down until the spring there’s little to do in the apiary. The warm weather, weekly inspections, swarm collection and queen rearing are months away … and it feels like it 🙁 However, things are already happening in the fields that hint at the season to come. The winter-sown oil seed rape (OSR) has been through for at least a month and is now 4-6″ tall. There’s a field just outside the village with acres of the stuff and it will be good to watch it develop into a sea of yellow next spring.
I have a few colonies well within range of this field, as do at least a couple of other beekeepers. Using a Google Maps Area Tool I measured the field at about 17 hectares. Although primarily self-pollinated there’s evidence that the yield and quality (i.e. the percentage that germinates) of OSR seed or its oil content, are all increased if honeybees are present at a density of about 2 colonies per hectare. So, ample to go round for the colonies I’m aware of in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, if colonies are located close to the OSR field boundaries, honeybees forage for a considerable distance across the field – certainly hundreds of metres. This is in contrast to wild pollinators – like solitary bees and bumble bees – which tend to decline in density away from the field margins (see also this recent paper which reports the same thing; PDF). Whilst this is a compelling argument for wide, species-rich field margins and smaller fields, the reality of modern farming is unfortunately very different. However, the benefits of honeybees (and for honeybees) mean that it might be worth having a chat with the farmer and moving a few colonies onto the field.
OSR honey isn’t to everyones taste and it certainly involves more work for the beekeeper. It must be extracted soon after the supers are collected or it crystallises in the comb. In addition, unless it’s converted into soft-set or ‘creamed’ honey it will inevitably set rock-hard in the jar, resulting in many bent teaspoons. On a more positive note, the availability of large amounts of pollen and nectar relatively early in the season helps colonies build up strongly. With good weather it’s an ideal time to replace comb, getting the bees to use the OSR nectar to build brand new comb – perhaps on foundationless frames – free of diseases for the season ahead. A great way to start the year.
Two images from the last week showing the oilseed rape (OSR) going over. The first – from the last day of May – nicely sums up the weather we’ve enjoyed this Spring. The OSR is already fading fast.
Mainly dry …
The excellent Bablake School weather station recorded May 2015 as having more rain, less sunshine and colder temperatures than the 30 year average for Coventry. The average maximum temperature was 15.2ºC (1.4ºC lower than average) explaining the slow build-up of colonies. The OSR was in full flower before most colonies were able to fully exploit it and even strong colonies were hampered from foraging by the weather.
Yellow path …
And a week later (7th June) it’s gone. Typically, colonies that have been foraging on OSR get bad tempered once flowering is over. It’ll be interesting to see whether this happens this year when they’ve hardly had the opportunity to use the OSR. In the photo above it’s not clear why the only OSR flowering is along the footpath … I suspect these were slightly lower growing plants which were a bit more sheltered. Some of the sheltered field margins also had flowers lingering. However, there were almost no bees on the flowers and it’s effectively over for the year.
Almost exactly two months ago I photographed a farmer spraying the oilseed rape (OSR) crop. At the time it was about 5″ tall, with perhaps 4-6 leaves. Here’s an image (below) from the same gateway – it’s now in full flower and should be providing an orgy of nectar and pollen opportunities for colonies within range. However, the spring has been cold and many colonies have yet to build up properly. Our local weather station reports that last week was 2.6ºC below the average temperature for the 18th week of the year.
Oil seed rape
Yesterday was warmer, but ended in rain and it’s chucking it down as I write … it looks like the OSR won’t give a bumper crop this year. However, it looks set to reach 15ºC or more next week and a bit of warm and settled weather – although it might be too late for the majority of the OSR – means some of my generous neighbours might be donating some swarms for my bait hives 😉
In addition, the hawthorn is preparing to flower … this can be a good source of pollen and nectar, but beekeepers often apparently mistake it (not the tree, but the source of nectar being collected) for sycamore which flowers at the same time.
So much for my queen rearing plans … that’s on hold for another week at least until the cell raisers are ready. In the meantime, I have identified some well-behaved colonies as a source of suitable larvae.
The first hive inspection of the year always involves a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Although observing activity at the hive entrance – foragers returning with pollen – or the use of clear crownboards gives an indication of how well the colony has overwintered, it’s only when the box is opened and the frames are inspected that a proper evaluation of the colony is possible. There’s little to be gained from inspecting too early however tempting it might be … until there’s a reasonable level of new brood it’s not really possible to judge overwintering performance. I wait for a settled, warm few days. With the exception of 2011 which had an unseasonably warm spring (I was queen rearing in mid-April) suitable weather usually coincides with the flowering of ornamental currants (Ribes sanguineum) which attracts lots of attention from bees.
Don’t do this at home …
Last Friday (10th April) the weather was warm and settled and I inspected a dozen colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs. With two exceptions the colonies were in pretty good order, with about 3-6 frames of brood, no evidence of DWV damaged bees, reasonable levels of stores and sufficient space for the queen to expand the brood nest. One colony appeared to have a failing or failed queen … she was present, but there was almost no brood (though what was present was worker, so she wasn’t a drone laying queen; DLQ). This colony was very small and had a very large amount of stores left. I suspect the colony are doomed and that the queen was either poorly mated last year, or is otherwise unfit for purpose. A second colony had a blocked hive entrance which I’ll post about next week. Two further colonies were in great condition though the plywood brood box they were occupying had almost completely delaminated and will need replacing very soon.
Going up …
Blue marked queen …
Varroa trays …
The strongest colony, overwintered on a “brood and a half” (a brood box over a full honey super) had expanded up into the eke that had contained a block of fondant. The bees were beautifully calm as I tidied up the box for the coming season. Only one of the queens I found (10/12) was not marked and I suspect she was a late season supercedure last year. The last full inspection was mid/late August and there was ample time and good weather after that for the colony to have replaced her successfully. The final task of the afternoon was to find and scrub clean the Correx Varroa trays and put them in place for a week to count the early season mite drop (which isn’t really a particularly accurate way to determine Varroa infestation for reasons that will be covered later this year).
Apple blossom …
OSR flower buds …
Foragers collecting water …
All around there were signs that the season was gathering pace … loads of foragers were slurping up water from dirty puddles in the track, presumably to help use crystallised stores, the apple trees in the hedgerows were covered in blossom and the oil seed rape (OSR) buds looked ready to break in the next week or so.
So lots to be excited about and no need for the apprehension 🙂
Farmers are complaining that the current ban on three neonicotinoids by the EU is making the crop more susceptible to pests and diseases (of which there are no shortage), so necessitating additional pesticide spraying with pyrethroid-based chemicals. Yesterday was a lovely day, with the bees flying strongly for the first time this year. Just over the hedge from one of my apiaries the farmer was out spraying. The crop looked healthy enough to me and there was no real risk to the bees as there’s nothing in the field to interest them at the moment. However, in a few weeks this field will be dazzling yellow colour and will be full of bees* … I hope that if additional spraying is necessary, for example to suppress pollen or flea beetles, the spraying can be done late in the evening to minimise spray damage to my bees.
The last Sunday in April is ‘World Pinhole Photography Day‘ … a great opportunity to turn a high-end DSLR – with the help of a thin sliver of aluminium, a needle and some gaffer tape – into a very simple camera. With almost infinite depth of field and very, very, soft focus these produce very distinctive images.
It’s about eight weeks now until the autumn sown oil seed rape (OSR) is in full flower (late April). At the moment it’s about 4″ tall and looking rather sorry for itself in the waterlogged heavy clay soil. However, as the day length increases and the temperatures rise it will soon grow. To properly exploit the abundant OSR nectar and pollen a colony needs to be strong. That means that the workers laid in the next month or so are critical – some will be foragers during the main flow, others will be responsible for raising these workers.
Maximum daytime temperatures here are still 6-8oC … just about warm enough for flights during the middle of the day. However, not warm enough to forage for long or to travel far to collect pollen. The colonies are no longer clustered and a peek through the perspex crown board shows they are pretty active and expanding in numbers. To give them a bit of a protein boost to raise the all-important brood over the next few weeks I’ve today given them some pollen. Although it’s usually recommended to prepare pollen patties bees will also directly use dried pollen, and this is much easier to prepare and administer.
Tuck in !
I’ve prised up the corner of the crown board on my colonies, scraped away a bit of the brace comb on the top bars to provide a flat surface and laid a small piece of card on top containing no more than a tablespoon full of dried pollen. I’ll top this up as needed during March. I think it’s important not to give them too much … firstly, there won’t initially be the need for it and, secondly the damp atmosphere in the colony means it might go mouldy before it’s used. It’s a 10 second job to give them a top-up – the crown board doesn’t even need to be removed, just lifted slightly along one edge.
The fields full of bright yellow flowering OSR feel a lifetime away on a squally, cold, early March morning. However, a bit of preparation now means the colonies should be in great condition to exploit the heavy flow and for queen rearing.