Tag Archives: supers

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 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 😎

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 ( 😉 ) 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°C) 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°C – 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.


Beekeepers’ holidays

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

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

Mallorcan market honey and (sort of) observation hive

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

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

Less is more …

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

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

Apiary in Andalucia

Apiary in Andalucia

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

Holiday solutions

It seems to me that there are three obvious solutions …

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

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

Benjamin Franklin was right

Bait hives ...

Bait hives …

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

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

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

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca

Thunderstorm overlooking the Bay of Pollenca, Mallorca …

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

§ I wish

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

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

Super poly bait hives

MB poly National

MB poly National

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

The dreaded overhang

The dreaded overhang …

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

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat …

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

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy

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

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

Floor detail … what could be simpler?


Foundationless frames reviewed

New comb ...

New comb …

One of the big successes of this season has been the use of foundationless frames. These have reduced my use of foundation by over 75%, leading to a significant accumulation of unused packets which were ordered before the season started (as an aside, if stored flat in a cool place foundation should be OK for years, simply needing a quick blast with a hairdryer to remove the pale bloom that appears). Aside from the economic benefits, I’m convinced that the bees draw comb on foundationless frames at least as fast as they do on frames with foundation. In some cases, given the choice, the queen also starts laying in the foundationless comb earlier. Finally, they are an ideal way to prepare a bait hive, providing the volume the scout bees are seeking coupled with the ‘order’ that will ensure that any swarm will build comb where you want it.

Foundationless frames

Super frames …

Preparing new foundationless frames takes a litte more effort – you need to drill the sidebars and ‘wire’ them with nylon monofilament fishing line before adding a narrow starter strip. At least, that’s what I do. In my view this effort is more than offset by the benefits they provide. Framebuilding is made almost pleasurable by using a nail gun … look out for special offers on these from Amazon where a suitable model (Tacwise EL191) was recently reduced to under £40.

Foundationless frames also work well in supers. I prepared a few boxes of these this season and extracted them using a radial extractor. With a couple of exceptions the frames all survived. The only two that collapsed were either partially drawn or incompletely filled. I treated the foundationless frames as roughly (or carefully) as those with foundation during extraction – I uncap with a hot air gun and wind them up to full speed as quickly as practical.

That's blown it

That’s blown it …


The only real problem I had with foundationless frames in supers was getting unwanted brace comb in boxes where the frames were not vertically aligned with the box below. For example, an eleven frame brood box topped with an undrawn 9 or 10 frame foundationless super sometimes resulted in the bees trying to build brace comb between the frames. This problem was partially, though not completely, solved by mixing foundationless frames with a few frames containing full sheets of foundation. Next year I will get the comb drawn in a super filled with foundationless frames, and then remove a couple and space them further apart.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

Other than the infrequent building of brace comb, which can usually be avoided by careful frame spacing, I’ve only had two issues with foundationless frames that might be considered problems.

The first is the bees chewing through the monofilament supporting ‘wires’. I’ve been using 15 kg breaking strain cheapo mono picked up from eBay. If the frame isn’t drawn evenly (perhaps because the hive isn’t perfectly level) the exposed mono on one side of a frame is targeted by workers and sometimes nibbled through. In a frame with three transverse strands (i.e. a deep, or brood frame) this is usually the one closest to the bottom bar. This isn’t a major issue – it leaves a trailing strand which needs to be snipped off but the majority of the frame is usually drawn sufficiently well that it’s robust enough for the usual stresses and strains of inspections. In over 100 foundationless brood frames used this year, none have been unusable after the mono has been chewed through (which only happened on half a dozen). I’ve bought a big spool of 30 kg monofilament to use next year. At about 1p per metre it’s good value but may be a little less easy to work with.

Foundationless brood frame ...

Foundationless brood frame …

The second ‘problem’ is minor and depends upon your chosen method of swarm control. Colonies often draw out significantly more drone comb in foundationless frames than they do on standard foundation. It’s not unusual to have big slabs of drone comb on one or more of the outer frames of the brood nest. As a consequence, these colonies have lots more drones present throughout the season. Interestingly, I’ve not had increased problems with Varroa and deformed wing virus in these colonies. I generally use the Demaree method of swarm control, shifting the original brood box containing all the sealed brood above the queen excluder for a three week period.

Drone graveyard ...

Drone graveyard …

Consequently, drones emerging in the upper box cannot get out of the hive. If they are not periodically released – for example, during inspections, or by lifting the roof and crown board every few days – they sacrifice themselves struggling to get through the excluder. The standard inspection interval can uncover hundreds of dead and dying drones wedged half way throught the excluder. This is unpleasant, both for the beekeeper and the drones. Next year I’ll experiment with adding an upper entrance to allow the drones to escape – either by proving a thin shim of softwood underneath three sides of the upper box, or by providing a temporary hole through the side of the box (closed with a cork when not needed).

Finally, using a steam wax extractor on foundationless frames destroys much of the tension in the monofilament. They might still be usable – I’ve not tried – but it’s an easy job to replace it.


Nail guns

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames

Putting frames together is one of those tasks that should be undertaken in the dark days of winter when it can be done at a leisurely pace. There’s a certain satisfaction from the mindless repetition of the process, whether for standard frames with foundation or foundationless frames (with the latter requiring a bit more effort due to the drilling and ‘wiring’ necessary). However, it’s cold in the winter and there’s certainly no satisfaction from bashing the end of your thumb with the hammer. Your fingers are semi-numb with cold, barely able to grip the gimp pin, which is too small to hold in a gloved hand. Self-harm is almost inevitable.


Supers …

Of course, in the summer, if you need more frames you need them yesterday. There’s nothing leisurely about it. There’s a flow on, the supers are filling faster than you can keep up, the bait hive has been occupied by a swarm and you need to set another up or you urgently need a dozen new frames so you can move the nucs to full brood boxes. With nucs being sold, swarm control and 8-10 honey producing colonies I get through a lot of new frames each season. I’ve not counted, but do know I’ve used nearly a full 100 metre spool of 15kg monofilament making foundationless brood frames alone, each using about a metre of nylon.

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

I needed six new supers with frames for the weekend inspection. There’s a good flow on, possibly lime, and I’ve more or less run out of boxes. Constructing the supers from flat-packed seconds bought in the winter sales was a trivial job. Knocking together the ~60 frames I needed to populate them also turned out to be quick and easy as I’d generously been given a Tacwise EL 191 Pro nail gun. This is a light duty electric model, using 18g nails from 10-35mm or type 91 staples from 15-30mm. This was the first time I’d used it for building frames. What a revelation!


Nailed …

The usual incessant tap, tap, tap (or, at best, tap, tap) for each of the 8 gimp pins in a frame was replaced with a satisfying ‘chunk’ as the nail gun drove the galvanised 20mm pin flush with the surface. It didn’t take long to get the positioning accurate and adding the six pins (four on the top bar and two holding one of the bottom bars in place) took less than 15 seconds. Most of the frames ended up with thin unwired foundation for cut comb so I fitted the second bottom bar with standard gimp pins. This is necessary as they are easy to remove (and I’ll need to add fresh foundation next season), whereas the nails driven by the nail gun are almost impossible to shift once they’re driven in flush.

Since the nail gun is essentially single handed there’s no chance (well, almost no chance) of injuring my thumb. I might even be able to use it with gloves on in the winter.

I now need to order some 18g 35mm nails – the largest this model takes – for building boxes 🙂