Line ’em up

Honey sold via a third party needs to carry a label with all sorts of information on it 1. A well-labelled jar of honey looks good on the shelves and undoubtedly helps sales.

However, an attractive label does not need to be fancy, printed in colour or expensive to produce. I firmly believe that the contrast between a simple black and white label and the rich golden colour of the honey enhances the appearance of the end product. This helps sales.

Honey

Honey

If you are selling via a shop they are often have more than one type of honey on display. Your honey might well be next to a row of brightly labelled, mass produced (Product of EU and non-EU countries … and we all know what that means), factory packed jars … all looking uniformly – though perhaps blandly – identical.

In contrast you’re selling a top-quality, artisan product that is probably being sold at a premium price.

And if it’s not, it should be.

Artisans and amateurs

Remember that artisan does not mean amateur. It means traditionally produced, high quality and handmade by a skilled tradesman.

Therefore, your honey should not look amateur. If the jar contents look attractive, with no antennae or obvious wax crumbs, and the label is good then the individual jar should be very appealing.

But how do they look half a dozen at a time? All lined up in a row?

If the labels are all higgledy piggledy 2, neither being level on the individual jar or level with its neighbours, then you might not be conveying the impression you want.

Or if you are, you might be able to convey a better impression 😉

Line ’em up

With a steady hand, good lighting and a convenient ‘guide’ it is easy to reproducibly label jar after jar after jar after jar after jar 3 of honey.

I use offcuts of wood laminate flooring as the guide 4. These are available in a range of thicknesses from about 8 to 15mm. For the sizes of jars I use these represent a suitable distance to place place the label from the bottom of the jar.

I ‘offer up’ the label just touching the wood ‘guide’, check that it’s level and centred on the jar, then press it into place with my thumbs.

Labelling honey jars

Labelling honey jars

Four things that help in getting a reproducible finished effect:

  1. Easy peel labels that can be removed and reattached if you get it wrong
  2. Working at a reasonably high table to help with the lateral alignment
  3. Using square rather than round jars
  4. Practice

The square jars really help. More specifically it’s the guide butting up against the side of the jar that helps. If I routinely used round jars I’d cut a semi-circular hole in the edge of the guide – in a choice of sizes reflecting the diameter of the jar – to help align the label.

Once the front label is in place it’s a simple (but repetitive) task to turn the jar around and add the anti-tamper label, unless you’re the type who prefers to ‘trap’ it under the front label … in which case it obviously has to go on first.

Alternative approaches

There was a prize awarded recently at one of the large conventions (perhaps the National Honey Show?) for a lovely handcrafted wooden ‘cradle’ that held the jar and aligned the label. The principle was identical to that described above … just implemented much more elegantly. I thought this was made by Thomas Bickerdike who also produces lovely handcrafted wooden spoons. However, my Google-foo has failed to find it, so if you remember seeing it please post a link below.

Or, for a few hundred pounds, you could buy a labelling machine …


Colophon

Nice to see you ...

Nice to see you …

Line ’em up was a game from US version of the eternally popular game show The Price is Right. Amazingly (have you ever seen it?) this was recently voted the fifth best gameshow of all time.

Extraordinary … but not in a good way.

Hive stands

The humble hive stand … so often ignored, overlooked or taken for granted. Hive stands fulfil an important function in the apiary. If designed properly they help both the beekeeper and the beekeeping.

In contrast, the bees themselves probably gain relatively little, though there are some benefits for the bees from using well-designed or constructed hive stands.

Function

The clue is in the name. The hive stand is the platform or support upon which the hive, er, stands. In terms of function they:

  • Raise the hive off the ground
  • Provide a sturdy and secure (and possibly even level) base for the hive
  • Are a convenient site to place things that would otherwise get lost in the grass or tripped over
  • Provide some clear working space around a hive for colony manipulations

Do the bees care about any of these things?

No.

Why not? Well, we could get into a philosophical discussion here about sentience in honey bees and whether they ‘care’ about anything. However, it’s probably easier to simply state that none of these things make any real difference to the bees within the hive.

They’re perfectly happy on the ground or, as below, on a pallet. There are thousands of bee hives sitting on pallets across the country. Bee farmers routinely use pallets, often with four hives in a square, each facing in different directions.

Hives on a pallet

Hives on a pallet

The pallet provides a relatively flat platform 1, it prevents weeds growing directly across the hive entrance and it is reasonably stable. It’s a perfectly adequate solution … unless your apiary is prone to flooding.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

My first research apiary was near a burn that flooded every winter. And most summers. We very quickly learnt that we couldn’t safely keep hives on pallets during any month of the season where it rained a lot i.e. any month of the season, since this is Scotland 😉

Beekeepers back

Many beekeepers develop bad backs. Hive inspections involve lots of lifting – hopefully of heavy supers – and bending over. Although you can inspect colonies on pallets from a kneeling position it’s not something I enjoy 2.

Therefore, if I’m going to be standing, it helps if the hives are closer to me than they’d be on a pallet.

Almost all of my hives are on hive stands of some sort or another.

Decisions, decisions

If you are building (perhaps too grand a word for most of the stands I use … cobbling together?) hive stands there are a few design decisions to be made.

  • One or more hives per stand?
  • Dimensions – primarily height above the ground and, sometimes, depth
  • Achieving the sweet spot that balances strength, cost and weight
  • How to make them level, or to provide a level platform in an uneven apiary

Single stands are fine, though they perhaps lack flexibility. They do little other than separating the hive from the ground. Most of the equipment suppliers sell them, some with inbuilt landing boards which is a nice touch, though unnecessary.

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

I’ve got a handful of these but they tend to get used for bait hives or as a last resort. Firstly, they’re a bit too low for me, only lifting the hive about 25cm above the ground. Secondly, they provide no ‘work area’ around the hive.

The advantage of a single hive stand is that the colony inspection cannot disturb any other colonies on the same stand. There’s nothing else on the stand to get jarred, bumped or disturbed. However, with care during inspections and calm bees, the benefits of a double (or more) hive stand outweigh the risk of disturbing a second colony.

I therefore prefer double or treble hive stands. Many of my hives are on double stands (on the right in the image below). This was an entirely pragmatic design decision as I’d managed to scrounge a pile of pressure-treated 1 metre pieces of wood from an unfinished fencing project.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I cut one fence panel in half to make the end pieces, with four others to make the sides and support rails. With four 3×2″ legs from pressure-treated decking joists (also scrounged) and a handful of screws these cost almost nothing and have worked very well.

Ironically, they’re ideal for one hive … this leaves space for the various colony manipulations.

Inevitably, most have two hives on them 🙁 Or three poly nucs.

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

Bigger is better

These double stands are easy to move about. They fit in the back of my small car. However, once you start making treble hive stands things get a bit heavy.

And a bit cumbersome.

Moving hive stands

Moving hive stands

If they’re built strongly enough to take three full hives (perhaps 250+ kg at the height of the season) they might also need intermediate legs for support 3.

As an alternative you can assemble hive stands on site from breeze blocks and horizontal bars. Again, a fencing project came to my rescue and I managed to get several 2.5m metal uprights that are immensely strong and make excellent rails to stand the hives on.

Breeze blocks and metal rails

Breeze blocks and metal rails

These are very effective as hive stands. Inexpensive, strong, big/wide and ‘bombproof’. Wooden rails are fine as well, but need to be substantial for multiple hives.

A collapsed hive stand does not make for happy and contented bees 🙁

Height and depth

The height of a hive stand is a personal choice. What fits me – standing 6’1″ in my wellies and beesuit – is probably too high for a slightly built beekeeper a foot shorter. I like the top bars to be about the same height as a roof stood on its edge i.e. ~17-20 inches.

This is because that’s often exactly where the roof ends up … leaning against the hive stand.

Three 140mm breeze blocks place the top rails of the stand just under 17″ from the ground, which is close enough for me.

Depth i.e. front to back distance, of the top of the stand should (obviously) be the depth of the hive. Any more and it can cause problems with the sublimators that need to be inverted during use.

However, what’s more important is the separation of the horizontal rails that support the hive. This is an ideal place to hang frames temporarily while you conduct inspections. Very low hive stands and very deep frames don’t mix well.

The steel fencing post and breeze blocks hive stands (above) have too narrow a gap for hanging frames. It can be done – and regularly is done – but they have to be placed at an acute angle.

A bit wider would be better

A bit wider would be better

In our bee shed the hive stands are higher than usual as we spend a lot of time with the hives open and this saves bending down too much. The colonies also get far fewer supers, so rarely get unmanageably tall.

The space immediately below the hive stands is used for storage, but there’s still sufficient space between the hives to hang frames on the horizontal rails that are 15 inches apart.

Bee shed hive stands

Bee shed hive stands

On the level

There are dozens of hive stand designs available, some simple – like those above – and some much more complicated. There are clever stands with folding legs that make transportation easier. I’ve not used these so can’t comment.

Apiaries very rarely have level ground … the paving slabs in the photos above are properly levelled, but very much the exception. However, hives generally need to be reasonably level. If you’re using foundationless frames they must be almost perfectly level perpendicular to the orientation of the top bar or the comb will be drawn at an angle to the top bar.

Try topping up a Miller feeder with a couple of gallons of syrup in a sloping hive …

Very few stand designs provide an easy way to level the hives … but here’s one that does. Calum, a regular contributor of comments on this site, sent me this photo some time ago. This hive stand is built using adjustable galvanised steel scaffolding feet as ‘legs’.

Scaffolding 'feet' for legs

Scaffolding ‘feet’ for legs

This is a neat solution. It probably needs some additional cross-bracing but is easy to dismantle and transport, and easy to level. The only thing stopping me from trying some like this is the cost of the base plates and screw jacks. These are widely available and on eBay are £35-45 for four. Lyson make something similar but, because it’s specifically for beekeeping, it costs $80 4.

If you know of a less expensive source please add a comment below.

Finally, I like my stands to have crossbars i.e. going from front to back between the rails. You can see some in the photo of the two hive stands on the hivebarrow. Most of my double stands are similarly set up. These crossbars provide a convenient secure point to put a strap around, effectively tying the hive to the stand. For poly nucs in particular this is essential if your apiary is exposed and windy.


 

Resistance is not futile

Apivar ...

Apivar …

Amitraz-containing miticides are sold in the UK as Apivar and Apitraz.

Until recently they were only available with a veterinary prescription. I expect – though I have not yet seen data to support this – that their usage in the UK will increase now they are off-prescription. These miticides are now widely available and so there is greater opportunity to use – and misuse – them.

If you’re using Apivar 1 for the first time this year you will soon have to remove the strips from the hive.

That’s assuming you started treating early enough to protect the all-important winter bees from Varroa and its deadly viral payload.

This post is a reminder to remove the strips at the right time. The alternative – leaving them in place until the first Spring inspections – risks help the development of resistance to amitraz, so further reducing our opportunity to control mites effectively.

Leave and let die

Without careful integrated pest management (IPM) 2 Varroa levels build up in the hive. Varroa transmits viruses – most important of which is deformed wing virus (DWV) – to developing pupae. High levels of DWV either kills the pupa or results in emergence with or without significant developmental defects. Even those bees that are apparently normally developed have a reduced lifespan 3.

Winter bees with a reduced lifespan prevent the colony from surviving through the winter until the queen starts laying again. I’ve also proposed recently that high levels of DWV, and the resulting increased rate of winter bee die-offs, probably accounts for some cases of isolation starvation.

So … intervention is needed to reduce mite levels, protect your bees and save your colonies.

Follow the instructions!

Apivar is one solution to reduce mite levels. It is an easy-to-apply chemical treatment that is very effective in reducing the Varroa load by ~95%. For a National hive it is applied as two polymer strips, each containing 500mg of slow-release Amitraz. Strips are hung between brood frames for 6-10 weeks and – for maximum efficacy – should be scratched with a hive tool and repositioned half way through the treatment period.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

Unlike some other miticides (e.g. Apiguard and MAQS) there are no temperature restrictions for Apivar usage. The colony does not need to be broodless (a requirement for trickled oxalic acid-based treatments) as the treatment period covers multiple brood cycles.

Other than not using it with supers present the only contraindication for Apivar is to not use it if Amitraz-resistant mites are present.

How does resistance develop?

When discussing parasites and pathogens, resistance 4 is a consequence of two things:

  1. A selective pressure that kills the pathogen
  2. A population which exhibits genetic diversity

The selective pressure could be anything … heat for example, antibiotics prescribed by your GP, an antiviral against HIV or – of relevance here – Apivar against Varroa.

Killing – at the population level – is not absolute. Some individuals within the population survive longer than others. They could be exposed to a slightly lower dose, or be located in a protected niche for example. However, treat for long enough and the majority will be killed.

But there’s more …

Pathogen populations are not genetically invariant. Actually, many are quite diverse and have replication cycles that – deliberately 5 – generate diversity.

Therefore some pathogens are genetically slightly less resistant and some are genetically slightly more resistant to a selective pressure. We can ignore the former as they’ll rapidly be killed off … but we must be concerned about the more resistant ones.

Keep taking the pills

All of this is a ‘numbers game’, better represented with graphs and equations. However, the take-home message is simple … to effectively control a pathogen you need to treat for long enough and with a high enough dose to kill the vast majority of the population.

That’s why you’re encouraged to “complete the course” of antibiotics … or to remove the Apivar strips after 10 weeks and not leave them in over the winter.

Because both courses of action result in selection of more resistant pathogens.

If you stop taking antibiotics too soon, you won’t have treated for long enough and with a high enough dose. You end up selecting for the more genetically resistant pathogens.

Similarly, if you leave Apivar strips in overwinter you’ll be “treating” the remaining mites 6 with a lower dose of the miticide, which is an ideal situation to favour the growth of the slightly more genetically resistant mites.

How does Amitraz resistance develop?

Resistance to Amitraz in Varroa is well documented. It’s been described in a number of countries including the USA and Europe, Mexico and Argentina 7. Generally resistance is defined in terms of a reduced level of mite killing, or – in laboratory experiments – an increased dose required to kill a certain proportion of mites.

However, I’m unaware of any studies defining the genetic basis of Amitraz resistance in Varroa.

But Amitraz is a widely-used acaricide 8 and the genetic basis of resistance in cattle ticks is well understood. In these, ticks resistant to Amitraz carry a mutation in the RMβAOR gene 9.

What 10 is the RMβAOR gene?

I’m glad you asked 😉

This gene encodes the β-adrenergic octopamine receptor protein and readers with good memories will recall that this is one of the targets that Amitraz binds to and inactivates 11.

If the protein carries a mutation the Amitraz cannot bind to it and so the mite – or more correctly the tick as it’s yet to be formally demonstrated in mites – is therefore resistant.

(Bad) practical beekeeping

What does all this mean in terms of practical beekeeping?

It means use the correct number of Apivar strips for the colony and leave them in for the right length of time.

Do not …

  • Use one strip on a full colony mid-season to ‘knock back the mites a bit’ 
  • Re-use the strips in another colony (yes really!)
  • Use improperly stored strips (or out of date strips) in which the effective Amitraz dose is reduced

I’ve heard examples of these types of misuse this season. All increase the chance of selecting for Amitraz-resitant mites.

And (the real reason for posting this at this time of year) …

  • Do not leave the strips you added in late summer in the colony throughout the winter

Removing the strips takes seconds. Prize off the crownboard, grab the tab projecting above the top bars, gently withdraw the strip and close the hive up again.

Finally, because of the incestuous lifestyle 12 of Varroa the genetic diversity (and therefore potential presence of more resistant mites) in the population is likely to be increased by the high mite levels that prevail late in the season.

All the more reason to use the effective treatments we currently have in a way that helps ensure they remain effective.


Colophon

Resistance is futile

Resistance is futile

Resistance is futile is the title of a 2018 album by the Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers.

More specifically, in the context of this post, it was the phrase routinely used by the Borg – the alien cyborgs sharing a collective mind – in the Star Trek franchise. Borgs rarely speak, but when they do they usually include this phrase. For example “We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.” The warning about resistance being futile was usually accompanied by the threat that the target would be assimilated”.

I’d started writing this post using the title ‘Resistance is futile’ but realised late on that – as far as Varroa are concerned – resistance is anything but futile 13.

Resistance – to miticides – gives Varroa a reason to live. Literally.

Let’s not help them 🙂

Ouch, that hurt

If you keep bees you’ll inevitably get stung.

Not necessarily often and not necessarily badly, but getting stung goes with the territory.

You’ll probably get stung more often if your bees are stroppy, or if you are clumsy. But even if you’re careful and the bees are calm there’s always the chance of being stung.

I moved a very feisty colony late one evening last week 1. The hive was sealed, moved and re-located to an out apiary. Knowing they were, er, rather temperamental I let them settle for 15 minutes, then gently lifted the entrance block.

Out they boiled … as I beat a very hasty retreat 🙁

I thought I’d got away with it, but driving home 20 minutes later I was stung on the ankle by a stowaway in my boot.

Ouch! That hurt.

I’ve only been stung a few times all season. Most didn’t hurt much at the time and were forgotten within minutes. That sting on the ankle hurt like hell and was sore for a further 48 hours.

Why does it hurt when you’re stung? Furthermore, assuming stings are inevitable, which parts of the body hurt more when stung … and so deserve additional protection?

Why do bee stings hurt?

The honey bee sting is a hollow barbed tube used to deliver the venom. About 50% of bee venom by weight is the small protein mellitin.

It’s fair to say that mellitin is small but potent. It’s only 26 amino acids 2 long and forms a tetramer in aqueous solution. The ‘noughts and crosses’ shape it adopts hides the hydrophobic parts of the peptide and therefore allows it to ‘dissolve’ in venom. However, the tetramer dissociates at or near cell membranes into which monomeric mellitin embeds itself.

Mellitin

Mellitin

And this is where the pain and damage start …

Membrane-association causes cell lysis 3. This results in the release of all sorts of cytokines from the cells which signal ‘damage’ to the body, leading to the inflammatory response usually associated with bee stings. That’s the long-term effect of a bee sting. However, simultaneously, mellitin triggers the expression of proteins known as sodium channels in pain receptor cells. These allow large amounts of sodium to flow across the membrane. It is this that is directly responsible for the pain sensation when you are stung.

So, if being stung is almost inevitable and if bees have evolved stings to cause pain (which they have), in which parts of the body is the pain sensation most marked?

Measuring pain

Pain is a subjective response. What’s painful to me might hardly be noticed by someone with a higher pain threshold. Two individuals receiving the same sensory input can experience very different sensory responses 4.

As an aside it’s well documented that there are differences in the pain felt by males and females 5. All the pain reported in this article is from studies – or personal experience – by males.

Therefore, to meaningfully determine how much pain a sting causes, from a particular insect or at a particular location for example, it’s essential that the studies are properly controlled. This includes taking account of variation between individuals and variation within an individual on a day to day basis.

These are not the sorts of studies that attract large numbers of volunteers 😉

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scientific work in this field is often published in single author papers in which the author alone is the ‘volunteer’.

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index

Before discussing honey bees specifically a brief diversion must be made to introduce the seminal studies by Justin Schmidt.

Schmidt is an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Centre in Arizona. He’s interested in haemolysis (the cell lysis caused by mellitin and other constituents of insect venom) and whether the evolution of sociality in hymenopterans (bees, ant and wasps) required the evolution of toxic and painful stings.

Over about twenty years Justin Schmidt published a number of papers on hymenopteran venoms and the pain that they cause. In his early papers he rated stings on a scale of 1 – 4 (actually 0 upwards, but 0 was totally painless to humans).

Only a very few insects scored 4, including bullet ants about which Schmidt comments “Paraponera clavata stings induced immediate, excruciating pain and numbness to pencil-point pressure, as well as trembling in the form of a totally uncontrollable urge to shake the affected part“.

You can’t fault his commitment, but you might question his sanity.

Schmidt published his magnum opus in 1990 in which he ranked stings by 78 hymenopteran species covering 41 genera 6. His descriptions of the pain induced are often entertaining.  The aforementioned bullet ant is “pure, intense, brilliant pain…like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel“.

Another sting scoring 4, that of Synoeca septentrionalis (the warrior wasp) is accompanied by the statement “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”.

Why indeed?

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Bees and wasps scored 2 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. What Schmidt didn’t investigate was the influence of the location of the sting on the pain experienced.

Which brings me to Michael Smith. In 2014 Smith published an entertaining paper entitled Honey bee sting pain index by body location. It’s published in the journal PeerJ and the full paper is available for download.

It’s a well controlled study written in an engaging style that most readers will appreciate.

Building on the landmark studies by Schmidt, Michael Smith rated the pain endured from honey bee stings in 25 different locations.

Some of these locations should really be protected with a bee suit.

Sting locations tested

Sting locations tested

Smith controlled the study by always including an “internal control” i.e. comparing two test locations with three stings to his forearm.

Every time.

All locations were tested in triplicate (randomly). This meant that Smith was stung a minimum of five times for 38 consecutive days. Ouch.

There are some excellent quotes in the paper … “Some locations required the use of a mirror and an erect posture during stinging (e.g., buttocks)“. Scientists involved in studies that require ethical approval will appreciate the comments made in the paper on self-experimentation.

And the results? To quote directly from the paper “The three least painful locations were the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm (all scoring a 2.3). The three most painful locations were the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft (9.0, 8.7, and 7.3, respectively)” 7. Interestingly, skin thickness did not correlate with the pain experienced.

My experience of stings is limited. Those I’ve had to the face (including the lower lip) have been relatively painless, but the subsequent inflammatory response has been dramatic. Smith only scored immediate pain … I think a follow-up study on inflammation and its duration is needed.

I’m not going to conduct it.

Points pain means prizes

You can’t fault the dedication shown by Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith 8. That sort of dedication should be recognised with prizes and honours.

And it was.

Schmidt and Smith shared the 2015 Ig Nobel prize for Physiology and Entomology. The Ig Nobels – a parody of the Nobel prizes – recognise unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research.

The list of Ig Nobel prizes awarded is eclectic and highly entertaining … Medicine (2013) “for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork“, Economics (2005) for the inventors of “Clocky, an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday” and Psychology (1995) for “their success in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet9.

Sir Andre Geim received the Physics Ig Nobel in 2000 for levitating a frog by magnetism. Yes, really. Ten years later he was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics for his studies on graphene. He’s the only holder of a Nobel and Ig Nobel.

Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel awards, regularly tours giving talks on Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel prizes.

Go if you get the chance … it’s highly entertaining.


 

 

Mad honey

Attractive ... briefly

Attractive … briefly

Over the next couple of years I will be establishing a new apiary in a region that is currently heavily overgrown with rhododendron. In moderation rhododendron are attractive evergreen ornamental shrubs that flower profusely for a short period in spring.

However, in many areas where rhododendron has been introduced, they have become highly invasive shrubs that have spread widely through seed dispersal and suckering.

As a beekeeper there are some interesting links between rhododendron, bees and honey.

Rhododendron ponticum

The common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) is native to Southern Europe and South West Asia. Although it was probably present in Great Britain before the last Ice Age it only became re-established after the late 18th Century when reintroduced by nurseries for ornamental gardens.

On the west coast, particularly in Snowdonia and western Scotland 1, rhododendron has become highly invasive, covering large areas of land and even entire hillsides. It swamps native trees and the development of understory growth by cutting out any light getting to the ground. In addition it poisons the soil to prevent competition from other plants.

Rhododendron is considered a major problem and grants are available for its removal. Estimated costs for eradication of rhododendron from Snowdonia and Argyll and Bute are £11M and £9.6M respectively 2.

It looks striking when it’s in flower … but for most of the year it just looks green.

Rhododendron ... lots of it

Rhododendron … lots of it

Unless you’ve got acres of the stuff in which case it just looks awful … all the time 😉

Rhododendron, bees and toxins

Rhododendron are insect pollinated and produce large amounts of sugar-rich nectar to ‘reward’ visiting pollinators. A number of species of bees are known to pollinate rhododendron, including honey bees. Surprisingly – for an insect pollinated plant – rhododendron nectar contains high levels of diterpines which are toxic to many different animals. These types of toxins are usually produced by plants to reduce foliar grazing.

The most important (by amount) diterpine in rhododendron nectar is grayanotoxin.

Grayanotoxin is a neurotoxin. It works, i.e. its toxicity is due to, interference with voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSC) in neurones. We’ve discussed VGSC’s before in the context of resistance of Varroa to Apistan.

Although the modes of action of apistan and grayanotoxin are different, the consequences are not. If you block neuronal activity, stuff 3 that’s important often stops working properly – ‘stuff’ like the heart 🙁

Symptoms of grayanotoxin poisoning include cardiovascular problems, nausea, vomiting and loss of consciousness.

But wait, there’s more. Add to that heady mix one or more of the following … blurred vision, dizziness, hypersalivation, perspiration, weakness and paresthesia4 in the extremities and around the mouth.

In higher doses, symptoms can include loss of coordination and severe, progressive, muscular weakness. Fatalities are rare but not unknown.

These are all symptoms in humans experiencing grayanotoxin poisoning.

Great … could it possibly get worse?

Grayanotoxins and honey bees

Recent studies have suggested that grayanotoxins are also toxic for some bees. In these laboratory studies, honey bees fed syrup laced with field-realistic doses of grayanotoxin were twenty-times more likely to die than those fed undoctored syrup 5.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that honey bees foraging in the natural environment are twenty-times more likely to die.

The laboratory experiments effectively ‘force-fed’ bees syrup containing the toxin. Toxicity was monitored 6 hours post feeding. Perhaps they were hungry and, having no choice, ate the stuff 6 and consequently poisoned themselves.

In the natural environment there are probably a wide range of nectars available simultaneously. Perhaps the bees simply change their diet and choose these nectars instead?

I don’t think that this has been formally tested. At least, not yet.

It might be an interesting experiment to conduct. You could set up a feeding station with syrup, train the bees to use this sugar-rich source and then add grayanotoxins to the syrup. If the bees continue to gorge themselves on the toxin-laced syrup (and showed increased mortality) then they presumably either can’t taste the grayanotoxin or can, but don’t care 7.

Alternatively, they might switch away from the toxin-laced syrup and use other plant and tree nectars and, in doing so, not jeopardise their longevity.

Although this experiment hasn’t been conducted, we do have evidence that honey bees forage on nectar from rhododendron.

Mad honey

If bees forage on rhododendron the grayanotoxin-containing nectar would get processed in the hive to create toxin-laced honey 8. Since grayanotoxins are known to be toxic for humans this honey would be expected to exert some adverse, or at least interesting, effects.

And that’s exactly what is seen.

The most common cause of grayanotoxin poisoning in humans is from eating honey made by bees foraging on rhododendron. Small doses cause light-headedness and hallucinations. In large doses it is overtly toxic and induces the range of symptoms described above.

In Nepal and parts of Turkey this so-called ‘mad honey’ is deliberately produced. You can buy mad honey online … a snip at $199 for 250g 9.

As well as causing light headedness and hallucinations, mad honey is consumed – particularly in Turkey – because of its perceived therapeutic benefits for conditions such as diabetes, bowel disorders and hypertension. Perceived because I’m not sure there’s real evidence of benefits for any of these conditions.

Mad honey, or deli bal in Turkish, is also thought to enhance sexual performance 10. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mad honey poisoning is most commonly observed in middle-aged men 😉

The proof of the pudding honey is in the eating

Are Welsh or Scottish bees foraging in rhododendron-infested areas able to produce ‘mad honey’?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. After all … there’s a lot of rhododendron.

Rhododendron ... lots more

Rhododendron … lots more

There are a few disputed reports of honey toxicity case studies in the British Medical Journal. Some are very old and are suggested to actually be caused by fructose intolerance. There is also a reported Scottish case where a man licked rhododendron nectar from his hands and rapidly experienced paraesthesiae (‘pins and needles’), loss of coordination and an inability to stand, symptoms which resolved completely a few hours later 11.

However, I strongly suspect that a range of factors mean that although a beekeeper might be mad to try and produce honey in these areas, he or she would be unable to produce mad honey. Rhododendron blooms relatively early in the season, the climate of the UK and Nepal/Turkey are dramatically different and there are known to be significant strain-specific variations in grayanotoxin production between rhododendron.

On the island of Colonsay – the first black bee reserve – there are extensive tracts of invasive rhododendron and yet Andrew Abrahams, the local beekeeper, produces excellent heather honey there.

In the meantime I’m busy removing rhododendron from my site …


 

Fondant fancies

My colonies are all busy piling in the calories in preparation for winter.

Late season supers hiding fondant blocks

Late season supers hiding fondant blocks

As always, at this time of the year I only feed my colonies using bakers fondant. This is exactly the same stuff you get on the top of iced buns. It’s available plastic-wrapped and boxed in 12.5kg blocks from a variety of sources ranging from your friendly local baker to wholesale food suppliers.

I purchase it on a pallet with friends in my local beekeeping association. If you buy enough delivery is free and this year we’ve been paying about £10.50 per block (12.5kg) when purchasing about half a metric tonne.

It’s worth buying in bulk as it keeps well. Store it somewhere dry and cool. Don’t stack it more than 3-4 blocks high if it’s likely to get warm … we kept some in the bee shed for a year and the boxes at the bottom of the pile were horribly misshapen after a warm summer. Next year sugar prices might be significantly more and it will always come in.

300kg of fondant

300kg of fondant

Convenience foods

I’ve discussed the benefits of feeding fondant in 2014 and 2016. Many of the benefits can be grouped under the heading of convenience.

  1. It’s easy to transport, easy to store, keeps well and is ready to use.
  2. Takes minutes (or less) to add to a hive.
  3. Needs no specialised feeders (so there’s also nothing to be stored for the other 11 months of the year).

However, as important, I think there are significant beekeeping benefits from feeding fondant.

  1. Compatible with most/all autumn Varroa treatments – sublimation, Amitraz, Apiguard etc.
  2. No spillages … so less risk of encouraging robbing by wasps or bees.
  3. Taken down more slowly than syrup, so leaving space in the brood box for the all-important rearing of late-season brood for overwintering.

Feeding fondant

Full-sized colonies get an entire block of fondant in late summer. As described previously, simply slice the block in half using a breadknife (or spade), open it up like a book and place it face down on top of the frames.

Do not remove the plastic. Leave it in place to stop the fondant drying out. The bees access it from below and – in due course – leave an empty ‘husk’ of blue plastic that can be removed late in the year 1.

Adding the fondant block takes seconds and, with a very small amount of smoke, barely disturbs the colony.

Sticky stuff

The fondant block is heavy and sticky. If, for whatever reason, you want to access the hive whilst you’re feeding the colony do not place the fondant directly on top of the frames 2.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

You probably don’t need to conduct inspections this late in the season, but there may be reasons you need to go into the brood box. If this is the case make your life easier by putting the fondant face down on top of a framed wire queen excluder 3. You can then simply lift the entire block off, do what you need to do, and replace it very easily.

I use a lot of Abelo hives and they have a rather fussy crownboard. It turns out these are ideal for feeding fondant. Simply pop out a few of the ventilated disks and add the fondant on top. The crownboard is rigid and so can easily be lifted off if needed and the bees have no problems accessing the fondant.

Headspace

A fondant block is about 17x17x31 cm. Cut in half it’s therefore a little over 8cm thick. You need to provide space to accommodate this under the crownboard and roof.

The simplest solution is to use an empty super. Alternatively, the insulated crownboards I use are reversible and provide 5cm of headspace. I either use these with a simple eke, or – by judicious use of a wellington boot and my weight (!) – squash the fondant block until it’s 5cm thick.

Either way I try and keep the top of the hive insulated and warm (for example, using polystyrene supers and/or insulation over the crownboard) so that the bees continue to take the fondant down even if the temperature outside is dropping.

Feeding nucs

Although I own a few Miller-type feeders for nucs I generally feed fondant directly in the nuc brood box, taking advantage of the inbuilt feeder in the Everynucs I favour.

Fondant blocks for nucs

Fondant blocks for nucs

These have a limited capacity so I prepare blocks of fondant wrapped in clingfilm and add them as the bees finish the last block off.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

As long as the feeding compartment is largely vacant you can easily prise up the plastic crownboard and slide a couple of blocks of unwrapped fondant into the feeder.

Relax

That’s it.

It’s all over.

With colonies treated for Varroa 4 and fed for winter, now is the time to take a holiday.

Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca

Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca

Which is what I’m now doing 😉


Colophon

If you came here looking for a recipe for fondant fancies and have had to wade through paragraphs of irrelevant beekeeping information then I recommend you try these by Mary Berry.

Mary Berry's fondant fancies

Mary Berry’s fondant fancies

Botulism

Do not feed to infants

Do not feed to infants

I was recently asked, Why can’t you give young babies honey?

You can.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And on this point the NHS guidelines are very clear. You should not give honey to babies under 12 months of age because there is a risk that they might get botulism.

Bacteria, toxins and Botox

Botulism is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. As it grows, C. botulinum produces neurotoxins which cause a flaccid (floppy) paralysis and can result in respiratory failure. About 5-10% of cases are fatal, but infections thankfully very are rare.

Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, blurred vision and difficulty speaking and swallowing. The paralysis is ‘descending’, generally starting in the head and neck, then moving to the shoulders, arms, chest and lower limbs.

Botulinum toxin

Botulinum toxin

Unusually for a bacterial infection there is no fever. This reflects the fact that there’s probably only limited bacterial growth (which typically induces fever) and the potent neurotoxicity of the botulinum toxin. This toxin stops the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the nerve endings, thereby causing paralysis.

Botulinum toxin is one of the most acutely lethal toxins known. The lethal dose depends upon the route of administration, but is between 1.3 and 13 ng/kg 1.

Remember, botulinum toxin is the active ingredient in Botox.

No thanks. I’ll stick with the wrinkles 😉

Botulism cases in the UK/Europe

Botulism is a notifiable disease. Consequently, we have good data on the incidence of botulism in the UK and Europe. In 2014 there were 91 confirmed cases in the EU, with 14 cases reported in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Other than injecting drug users, a significant proportion of the cases are in infants – see below.

C. botulinum is widespread in the environment and infection usually occurs by ingestion of improperly prepared food e.g. undercooked or improperly canned foods, in which the bacteria survives.

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium botulinum

The bacteria grows in the absence of oxygen and produces the toxin during growth. Although the toxin is heat-inactivated if properly cooked (over 85°C), the bacterium also produces heat-resistant spores during growth. These spores can withstand temperatures over 100°C for long periods and usually require both high temperatures and pressures to inactivate them.

As a consequence of this the spores are also very widespread in the environment … cue the Jaws soundtrack … just waiting to encounter the correct conditions to germinate and initiate a new round of bacterial growth (and toxin production).

Botulism cases in children

About a third of all cases of botulism are in the 0-4 age group. I’ve been unable to find a more detailed breakdown by age, but there have been 19 cases of infant (children less than 12 months old) botulism in the UK since 1978.

In many cases of infant botulism the source of the spores is unknown. However, other than well-documented cases of contaminated milk powder, honey is the only food regarded as a significant risk factor. About 60% of cases of infant botulism are in babies with a history of honey consumption 2 and, in several cases, epidemiological follow-up has confirmed that honey was the source of the infection.

Treatment is not with antibiotics as it’s the toxin that causes the symptoms, not the bacteria. Instead patients are treated with immunoglobulin (antibodies) specific for the toxin. These inactivate toxicity fast and recovery is usually complete, but can be protracted.

C. botulinum spores in honey

Oxygen inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. So do acidic conditions. Honey is acidic, with a pH of about 3.9, which is too low for the bacterium to grow. However, the spores remain viable at low  pH. It is this contamination of honey with C. botulinum spores that poses a risk for infants.

It is possible to microbiologically examine honey for contamination with C. botulinum spores. When this has been done, 6-10% of honey samples tested were contaminated, with contamination levels estimated at 5 to 80 spores per gram of honey. The infectious dose for a human is estimated at 10-100 spores 3.

So … much less than one teaspoon of contaminated honey.

Despite this, there is no requirement for honey to carry a label warning that it should not be fed to infants. Instead, the Food Standards Agency recommend honey carries a warning that it is unsuitable for children under one year of age.

Why is infant botulism so rare?

If up to 10% of honey is contaminated with C. botulinum spores, why are there not many more cases of botulism in infants? After all, European paediatricians have even been known  to recommend honey – a long-standing traditional solution – as a means of soothing crying babies4.

The intestine of the developing baby is full of bacteria – the so-called commensal microbiota – all competing to get established and to lead a long, happy and healthy association with their human host. The spores of C. botulinum have to germinate and establish an infection in the face of this competition and, usually, they fail. A likely possibility is that infant botulism only occurs in babies in which the commensal microbiota have not properly developed … either because they are so young, because broad-spectrum antibiotic use has prevented the development of the microbiota or for a pre-existing genetic condition.


 

Shelter from the storm

The new bee shed is in an apiary with space for about a dozen additional hives around it. The apiary is fenced and heavily sheltered from cold easterly winds by a convenient strip of woodland. However, the site is open and exposed to westerlies. These can whip in across the fields and their impact is exacerbated by the apiary being elevated on a small mound a few feet above the low lying – and often flooded – adjacent land.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

The bees occupying the hives in the shed are protected from the full force of the westerlies by the shed itself, which is angled slightly to deflect the wind. However, those outside in the apiary get the full impact, and the wire mesh security fencing provides no shelter.

We’ve had one summer gale that lifted a few polystyrene hive roofs and caused a bit of damage. Better preparation might have prevented this; I should have heeded the weather forecast and strapped the hives to the stands.

Inspection deflection

The major problem isn’t gales though. Instead, it’s the impact of the wind on returning foragers and the irritation it causes the bees during inspections on a blustery day.

Several of the hives face west so the bees often approach the entrance downwind. They can get a real buffeting and often have to make repeated crash-landings and attempts to reach the hive entrance.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

In marginal weather or on a cold day some inevitably get chilled and don’t make it back. The apiary has a compacted hardcore base and – unlike long grass – it’s easy to spot the bees ‘lost in action’.

Hive inspections are conducted from behind the hive. On a windy day – and it’s not always possible to inspect on calm days – the bees can show their disapproval when the crownboard is lifted. They’re not really aggressive, but can be a bit surly and are certainly less appreciative of the disturbance than those inside the shed.

It has become obvious that some additional shelter is needed.

Shelter belt

Herbage

Herbage

As a long-term solution we’ve planted a double row of mixed native hedging plants (predominantly blackthorn but with a smattering of hazel, crab apples and dogwoods) mixed 1:2 with goat willow (Salix caprea). The latter is fast-growing and provides excellent early-season pollen at a time when colonies need it for brood rearing.

We planted 60-80cm ‘whips’, cut them back to ~35cm, wrapped them in perforated spirals to deter the rabbits and pretty-much left them to it. We’ve had a dry summer so have inevitably lost a few 1. However, the majority are now at or well above the spirals.

We didn’t – but should have – used old carpet tiles or cardboard squares as a weed suppressor around each plant. This was due to lack of preparation on the day and lack of organisation subsequently. The plants would undoubtedly have done better if they’d been given a bit of help competing with the surrounding weeds.

The intention will be to cut this hedging back so that it provides a light screen and an abundance of pollen, rather than letting it develop into an impenetrable barrier around the apiary.

We’ll let it grow for another couple of years and then start staggered pruning as required.

In addition, and a little further from the apiary, we planted more willow which we’ll allow to grow larger – though probably still coppice it periodically. This will help landscape the otherwise rather unattractive earth mound and help it merge better with the trees to the east.

Windbreak

Although willow is relatively fast-growing, it’s not fast enough to provide protection from this autumn’s westerlies. Using the security fence as a support we’ve therefore installed a 2m high netting windbreak around part of the apiary.

Windbreak netting

Windbreak netting …

This netting was easily ‘zip’-tied to the fencing and is claimed to reduce windspeed on the lee side by 50%. From the outside – see above – it’s a bit of an eyesore. This is partly because the viewpoint is oblique and partly because it’s viewed against a dark backdrop.

And partly because it’s a bit ugly 😉

However, from inside the apiary – which is where I usually view things from – it’s far less obvious. We’ve had no strong winds since installing it but even with gentle westerlies the initial impression, in terms of the shelter provided, is positive. We’ll see how it performs in the winter gales.

Now you see me, now you don't ...

Now you see me, now you don’t …

The netting has the added advantage of forcing all the bees ‘up and over’ as they exit the apiary, making them even less of a problem to passers-by 2. The security fencing has ~15x5cm rectangular ‘holes’ in it and already forced most of the bees to fly above head height, but the addition of the netting reroutes them all.

I’ve previously discussed urban beekeeping and suggested engineering the flight lines of foragers by facing the hives up against a fence. As an alternative I’ve seen hives in a back garden encircled by a tall mesh net 3 that forced the bees up about ten feet before they set off foraging.

In that situation the net is present to protect the people outside. In my apiary it’s there to protect the bees inside … until the hedge grows.

The view from the west ...

The view from the west …


Colophon

Shelter from the storm is the title of track on the 1975 studio album Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan – Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 and University of St Andrews Honorary Doctorate in Music 2004. Widely regarded as being one of his greatest albums 4 it has been interpreted as recounting the turmoil in his life due to estrangement from his wife Sara. Although – perhaps inevitably – Bob Dylan has denied this, his son Jacob said it was “my parents talking”.

Survival of the fattest

Winter bees have high levels of vitellogenin, a glycolipoprotein 1, deposited in their fat bodies which act as a food reservoir for the long winter.

These fat winter bees are essential for the successful overwintering of the colony.

Last week I discussed the major points that need attention for overwintering i.e. strong, healthy colonies with ample food in a weathertight hive.

This week I want to explore the relationship between colony strength, health – specifically with regard to Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV) – and isolation starvation.

Isolation starvation describes the phenomenon where a small colony of tightly clustered honey bees gets isolated from the honey stores laid down in autumn, resulting – typically during protracted cold periods – in the colony starving to death.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

It’s both a pathetic and distressing sight. Bees, with their heads crammed into the bottom of cells searching for food, dying from starvation when literally inches away from capped stores.

Deaths and births

In temperate climates the winter is characterised by low temperatures and little or no forage for the bees. The queen usually stops laying sometime in autumn and starts again around the turn of the year. During the intervening period she may lay intermittently, but generally in limited amounts.

The fat bodied winter bees that are reared in late summer and early autumn are long-lived (about 6 months) and are responsible for getting the colony through the winter. They protect the queen, thermoregulate the hive and they help rear the brood raised in the autumn and through the winter.

In their absence – or if there are just too few of them – the colony will perish.

Winter bees do not all live for 6 months. The usual figure quoted is ~175 days 2. Some live shorter lives, some longer … up to 9 months under certain conditions.

Importantly, in studies I’ve discussed at length previously, high levels of DWV reduces the lifespan of winter bees. We know this because, in Varroa-infested colonies, researchers 3 have shown that the winter bees die off faster 4.

Live fast, die young

Winter bees with high levels of DWV don’t really live fast … but they do die young. In the studies above the average lifespan of winter bees was reduced by 20% in the colonies that died overwinter.

There are a couple of important things to note here. Dainat and colleagues were not looking at bees in the presence or absence of Varroa, or in the presence or absence of high or low levels of DWV. They simply looked at hives that succumbed in the winter or that survived, then measured DWV and Varroa levels. It’s a subtle but important difference. Their surviving colonies still had Varroa and DWV.

From analysis of hives that died or survived, and having marked known numbers of bees in late summer, they could determine the life expectancy of workers – in their surviving colonies it was ~88 days, in those that died it was ~71 days.

Healthy colonies

The gradual death of bees through the winter coupled with the reduced lifespan of winter bees with high levels of DWV explains why colonies need to be strong and healthy.

The following graphs are based upon modelled data 5, but show the influence of colony size and winter bee lifespan.

The first graph – the least important – simply shows the lifespan of bees. The graph plots the number of bees (on the vertical axis) in a population that die at a particular time (on the horizontal axis) after the start of the experiment. The blue bees have a longer average lifespan than the red bees 6.

Lifespan of winter bees

Lifespan of winter bees

In the following graphs remember that the blue bees are healthy, with low levels of Varroa and – consequently – low levels of DWV. The red bees are unhealthy and have high levels of Varroa and DWV.

Using this lifespan data we can look at the influence on the total number of winter bees in a colony (on the vertical axis) over time (horizontal). Imagine that the horizontal axis is the long, dark, wet and cold months of winter. Starting in early September and running through until late March.

Brrrr 🙁

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

It is clear, and of course entirely predictable, that the numbers of bees in the healthy (blue) colony are higher than those in the unhealthy colony at each time point. If the average lifespan is reduced (by disease) more bees will have died by a particular time point when compared with a healthy colony at the same timepoint.

Finally, consider that the shaded section of the graph represents the lower limit of bee numbers for viability. If the number of bees in the colony drops into this region the colony will perish.

Simplistically – and in reality – starting with similar numbers of bees a healthy colony will survive longer than an unhealthy colony.

Strong colonies

Using a similar approach we can also look at the influence of the average lifespan of winter bees on the survival of strong or weak colonies.

The following graph shows the numbers of bees in the colony over time for a strong colony (solid line) and a weak colony (dashed line) where worker bee lifespan is identical 7.

Winter bee numbers in strong and weak colonies.

Winter bee numbers in large (strong) and small (weak) colonies with the same average lifespan.

The shaded section of the graph again represents colony oblivion.

Large (strong) colonies take longer to drop below the threshold for viability and so – all other things being equal – will survive longer 8.

Mix’n’match

A strong colony with high levels of Varroa and DWV might actually survive less well than a weak but healthy colony.

Strong unhealthy colonies might survive less well than weak healthy colonies.

Large unhealthy colonies might survive less well than small healthy colonies.

In this graph the weak but healthy colony drops below the ‘viability threshold’ after the strong but unhealthy colony 9.

Winter bees and brood rearing

This is modelled data, but it makes the point clearly. Large and/or healthy colonies retain more of the all-important winter bees and so survive longer.

Simples.

The differences might not appear marked. However, for convenience 10 I’ve omitted the influence of winter bee numbers on the ability of the colony to rear brood.

If there are more winter bees, the colony is able to thermoregulate the hive better. It’s therefore able to keep any brood present warm. It’s therefore able to rear more brood.

As a consequence, the differences in bee numbers between the large or small, or the healthy and unhealthy, colonies will be much more striking.

Critically 11 the strength of the colony coming out of the winter is often the rate-limiting determinant for spring build-up to exploit early season nectar flows. Weak colonies develop less well.

Isolation starvation

Finally, returning to that pathetic little cluster of starving bees in the image at the top of the page. What is the relationship between colony health, strength and isolation starvation?

It’s now time to dust off my weak-to-non-existent Powerpoint skills …

Isolation starvation schematic

Isolation starvation schematic

Again, it’s straightforward. A large (strong) overwintering colony (A above) only has to move a short distance to access stores in midwinter. In contrast, a small (weak) overwintering colony has to move much further.

Consequently, small colonies become isolated from their stores during long, cold periods when the colony is clustered.

Prediction

Many beekeepers will be familiar with isolation starvation of overwintering colonies.

Most would explain this in terms of “very cold weather and the cluster was unable to reach its stores”.

Some would explain this in terms of “the colony was far too small to reach the stores when clustered”.

Very few would explain this in terms of “the Varroa and DWV levels were too high because of poor disease management last autumn. Inevitably most of my winter bees died off early in the winter, leaving a very small cluster of bees that were unable to reach the stores..

I suspect the real cause of isolation starvation is probably disease … specifically poor management of Varroa levels and consequently high levels of DWV in the colony.


Colophon

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Another post, another poor pun in the title. Survival of the fittest encapsulates the Darwinian evolutionary principle that the form of an organism that survives is the one able to leave the most copies of itself in future generations. Darwin didn’t actually use the term until the 5th edition (1869) of his book On the origin of the species. Instead, the phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer in 1864 after reading Darwin’s book. Whilst ‘survival of the fittest’ suggests natural selection, Spencer was also a proponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Lamarckism.

They think it’s all over!

We’re gently but inexorably segueing into early autumn after an excellent beekeeping season. The rosebay willow herb is almost over, the farmers are busy taking in the harvest and colonies are – or should be – crowded with under-occupied workers.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Drones are being ejected, wasps are persistently looking for access and there’s a long winter – or at least non-beekeeping period – ahead.

There’s a poignancy now in being in the apiary conducting the last few inspections of the season. Only a few short weeks ago, during late May and early June, the apiary was a scene of frenetic productivity … or complete turmoil, depending upon your level of organisation or competence.

Now there’s little activity as there’s not much forage available.

Colonies are busy doing nothing.

The most important time of the season

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do.

Rather, I’d argue that late August and early September is probably the most important period during the beekeeping year.

However well or badly the season progressed, this is the time that colonies have to be prepared for the coming winter. With good preparation, colonies will come through the winter well. They’ll build up strongly in spring and be ready to exploit the early season nectar flows.

In Fife, this is about 8 months away 🙁

This explains the poignancy.

There are some colonies inspected last weekend that probably won’t get properly opened again until mid/late April 2019. Queens I saw for the first time in August won’t get marked or clipped until next spring 1.

Au revoir!

Spot the queen ...

Spot the queen …

To survive the winter and build up well in the spring the colony has few requirements. But they are important. A lack of attention now can result in the loss of the colony later.

To appreciate their needs it’s important to understand what the colony does during the winter.

Suspended animation

Honey bees don’t hibernate in winter. In cold weather (under ~7°C) they cluster tightly to conserve energy and protect the queen and any brood in the colony.

At higher temperatures the cluster breaks but they largely remain within the hive. After all, there’s little or no forage available, so they use their honey and pollen stores.

The fat-bodied overwintering bees that are reared in autumn have a very different physiology to the ephemeral summer workers. The latter have a life-expectancy of 5-6 weeks whereas overwintering bees can live for many months 2.

But they’re not immortal.

Throughout the winter there’s a slow and steady attrition of these workers. As they die off the clustered colony gradually reduces in volume, shrinking from the size of a medicine ball, to a football, to a grapefruit … you get the picture.

Some brood rearing does occur. The queen often stops laying after the summer nectar flows stop 3 and laying might be sporadic through the autumn, dependent upon weather and forage availability.

Late summer brood frame from a nuc ...

Late summer brood frame from a nuc …

However, by the turn of the year she starts laying again. At a much reduced level to her maximum rate, but laying nevertheless and, with sufficient workers in the colony and as forage become available, this rate will increase.

The amount of brood reared during the winter period (late autumn to early spring) isn’t enough to make up for the losses that occur through attrition. This explains why colonies are much smaller in the spring than the early autumn.

Strong, healthy, well-provisioned and weathertight

Knowing what’s happening in the colony during the winter makes the requirements that must be met understandable.

  • Strong colonies start the winter with ample bees. Assuming the same attrition rate, a larger colony will get through the winter stronger than a smaller one. There will be more workers available to ‘reach’ stores (I’ll deal with this in the next week or two) and keep the queen and brood warm. Hence there will be more foragers to exploit the early crocus, snowdrop and willow.
  • Healthy colonies will have a lower attrition rate. The overwintering workers will live longer. High levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) are known to shorten the life of winter bees. To minimise the levels of DWV you must reduce the levels of Varroa in the colony. Critically, you must protect the overwintering bees from Varroa exposure. Treat too late in the season and they will already be heavily infected …
  • Well-provisioned colonies have more than enough stores to survive the winter. The clustered colony will have to move relatively short distances to access the stores. As a beekeeper, you won’t have to constantly meddle with the colony, lifting the lid and crownboard to add additional stores in midwinter.
  • Weathertight colonies will be protected from draughts and damp 4.The hive must be weathertight and, preferably, not situated in a frost pocket or damp location 5.

Winter preparation

Once the honey supers are off all activities in the apiary are focused on ensuring that these four requirements for successful overwintering are achieved in a timely manner.

Clearing bees from wet supers ...

Clearing bees from wet supers …

Weak colonies are united with strong colonies. At this stage in the season – other than disease – the main reason a colony is likely to be weak is because the queen isn’t up to the job. If she’s not now, what chance has the colony got over the winter or early spring? 6

Varroa treatment is started as early as reasonably possible with the intention of protecting the overwintering bees from the ravages of DWV. This means now, not early October. Use an appropriate treatment and use it correctly. Apiguard, oxalic acid (Api-Bioxal), Apivar etc. … all have been discussed extensively here previously. All are equivalently effective if used correctly.

All colonies get at least one block (12.5kg) of bakers fondant, opened like a book and slapped (gently!) on the tops of the frames. An eke or an empty super provides the ‘headspace’ for the fondant block. All of the Varroa treatments listed above are compatible with this type of feeding simultaneously 7.

Hopefully, hives are already weathertight and secure. Other than strapping them to the hive stands to survive winter gales there’s little to do.

They think it’s all over!?

It is … almost 🙂


Colophon

They think it’s all over! is a quote by Kenneth Wolstenholme made in the closing stages of the 1966 World Cup final. Some fans had spilled onto the pitch just before Geoff Hurst scored the the last goal of the match (England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time), which Wolstenholme announced with “It is now, it’s four!”. This was the only World Cup final England have reached, whereas Germany have won four.

As Gary Lineker says “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”