Income and outgoings

I discussed beekeeping economics a couple of weeks ago.

I used some potentially questionable survey data on hive numbers, winter losses, honey yields and pricing, together with ‘off the shelf’ costs for frames, sugar and miticides.

Even ignoring the costs of travel and depreciation on equipment the ‘profit’ was not substantial.

Actually, it was just £102 per colony.

Consider the hard work involved, the heavy lifting, the vagaries of the weather and the amount of honey given away to friends and family.

You are not going to get rich fast (or at all) and the Maldives will have to remain a dream.

What a fantastic beekeeping year that was …

Most of us 1 keep bees for pleasure. However, a small profit from our endeavours can’t do any harm, and may actually do some good.

It might pay for a “sorry I was late back from the apiary … again” crate of beer/bunch of flowers 2 or for the new smoker to replace the one you reversed the car over.

Smoker still life

Smoker

So how do you fund the purchase of a crate of beer/bunch of flowers and a new smoker?

How do you increase the profit per colony from that rather paltry £100 to something a little more substantial?

It’s clear that to do this you need to reduce your outgoings and increase your income.

Income and outgoings

I’m going to restrict myself to the same range of outgoing costs and sources of income to those I covered on beekeeping economics.

I’m ignoring most equipment costs, depreciation, petrol, honey gifts to friends etc. All these reduce ‘profit’.

Here is the summary table presented earlier. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum 3.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Cutting your food costs

Not a whole lot of leeway here I’m afraid.

Granulated sugar is probably the least expensive way of feeding your bees for the winter. Other than shopping around for the best price there’s not much option to reduce your outgoings.

However, before buying sugar it’s always worth asking your local supermarket for any spoilt or damaged packets. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce waste and can usually be persuaded to support something as environmentally-friendly as local bees.

It costs nothing to ask.

Many beekeeping associations will arrange bulk purchases of either Ambrosia-type invert syrup or fondant. I’ll comment more extensively on this later.

Cutting your medicine costs

There are even fewer opportunities for savings if you want to use VMD-approved miticides.

I’ve discussed miticide costs extensively in the past. The figures are now a bit dated (and they omitted Apivar which was not available off-prescription at the time). However, it remains broadly true that the annual cost per hive is about the same as a jar of honey 4.

If you’re using Api-Bioxal for midwinter trickling remember that you can safely dilute it to a final concentration of 3.2% (w/v), rather than that recommended on the label. Historically the UK has used oxalic acid at 3.2% and there’s no increase in efficacy at the higher strength. Full details are provided on the preparation of oxalic acid elsewhere.

At 3.2% w/v a 35g “10 hive” pack of Api-Bioxal will treat 15 hives.

There … at £11.95 a packet I’ve just slashed your midwinter treatment costs from £1.20 a hive to  80p.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves 😉

Frames and foundation

First quality ‘off the shelf’ frames with foundation cost about £3 each. Obviously it makes sense to shop around and/or buy in bulk.

However, much more substantial savings are possible if you do three things:

  • re-use frames after steaming and sterilising
  • use second quality frames bought on supplier ‘sale days’
  • use foundationless frames

If you nail and glue frames during construction they usually survive at least a couple of trips through a steam wax extractor. Yes, there’s some work involved in cleaning them up afterwards, but it’s no more work than building new frames each year.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Second quality frames are sold in packs of 50 for about £37.50 5. Of the hundreds I’ve used I’ve had few (~2% or less) that were unusable due to knots, shakes, splits or other weaknesses.

Foundationless frames take a bit longer to build and you have additional expenditure on bamboo or wire/nylon. However, this outlay is insignificant when compared with the saving made on foundation.

Remember that foundationless frames built with bamboo supports can go through a steam wax extractor and be put back into service. Don’t use wax starter strips. Use lollipop sticks or tongue depressors fixed with waterproof wood glue.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Purchased premium foundation is lovely stuff but freshly drawn comb on a foundationless frame is even better. Contamination-free, robust once fully drawn and much easier to clean from the frame when it eventually goes through the steamer.

Taken together – re-use, second quality and foundationless – I calculate that frames cost me ~25p each. This equates to a saving of £36.75 over a year 6. Remember also that additional outlay on brood frames is needed to produce nucleus colonies (see below) where the savings would be £13.75 per nuc produced.

That’s more like it 🙂

A co-operative association intermission

Beekeeping associations often have co-operative purchasing schemes. Bulk purchasing reduces both individual item costs and (often substantial) P&P costs. These schemes are often organised to pass on the majority of the discount and retain a small amount of the savings for association activities.

The larger the association the greater the savings that can be made, and there’s no reason why neighbouring associations or regional groupings cannot act together.

Yes, of course, it takes some organisation. If your association doesn’t have such a scheme either find one that does or set up your own.

My beekeeping alma mater (Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers) offered excellent discounts on jars, honey buckets, foundation, Ambrosia, fondant and gloves … and probably a load of other things I didn’t take advantage of when I was a member 7.

Products of the hive

That’s enough about outlay, what about income?

Honey bees make honey and bees.

Both are very valuable.

You can maximise income in two ways.

You can make more of either (or both) or you can sell them at a higher price.

You might even be able to achieve both.

I’ll deal with these in reverse order …

Maximising the prices of honey and bees

I’ve discussed honey pricing recently. If you’re producing a unique, high quality, well packaged product (and if you’re not, you should be) you need to price it accordingly.

More local honey

That’s not the £4 a pound charged for the imported, blended, filtered, pasteurised, uniform, dull, available-by-the-tonne-anywhere rubbish stuff sold by the supermarkets.

Look in the delicatessens and local artisan outlets … you might be surprised.

£10 a pound is not unreasonable.

£10 a pound is readily achievable.

But let’s not be greedy, let’s assume a very conservative £7.50 a pound.

Local honey

At £7.50/lb the average UK yield of 25lb of honey per hive equates to £687 (for the four hives) after paying out £63 for jars and labels 8

Two factors contribute to the price you can realise for bees (which, for this exercise, means nucleus colonies):

  1. Timing – to maximise the price you need to sell when demand is the highest and supply is limited. This means early in the season. You therefore must overwinter nucs and ensure they are strong and healthy in mid-late April. Four to six weeks later there’s a glut of bees available as colonies start swarm preparation … prices drop precipitously. Nucs are easy to overwinter with a little TLC.
  2. Quality – with a small number of colonies it is not easy to improve your stocks. However, by judicious replacement of poorly-performing queens/colonies you should be able to produce perfectly acceptable bees for sale. Don’t try selling bad bees – chalkbrood-riddled, poorly behaved, patchy brood or diseased (high Varroa, overt DWV etc.).

If you are selling one or more nucs you should expect to allow them to be inspected before the sale. Just like honey tasting, nothing is more convincing than trying the product.

Maximising the amount of honey and bees

All other things being equal 9 stronger colonies will produce more honey and generate more ‘spare’ nucs.

Compare a productive commercial colony and an unproductive amateur colony at the height of the season. What’s the difference?

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

The productive colony is on a double brood box underneath three or four full or rapidly filling supers. There are 16+ frames of brood and the beekeeper has already split off a nuc for swarm control.

In contrast, the unproductive colony has about seven frames of brood in a single brood box topped by an underwhelmingly light super. There’s little chance of producing a spare nuc this season … or much honey.

But at least they might not swarm 🙂 10

Generating these strong colonies requires good genetics and good beekeeping.

With further good management the productive colony could produce another couple of supers of late-season honey and at least one more nuc for overwintering.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

How does that help the bank balance?

Let’s assume an ambitious-but-not-entirely-unrealistic one nuc per colony and 75lb of honey per annum in total (being sold at £175 per nuc and £7.50 a pound for honey). Honey ‘profit’ for the four colonies in our hypothetical apiary works out at £2061 11 with a further £700 for the sale of four nucs at £175 each 12.

That works out at a very much more impressive £690 per colony.

Minimising losses

But wait, surely we have to use some of those valuable nucs to make up for the 25% overwintering colony losses that the average UK beekeeper experiences?

No we don’t 🙂

If you have the beekeeping skills to manage strong colonies you almost certainly also have below average overwintering losses.

And that’s because strong colonies are, almost by definition, healthy colonies which have low mite and virus levels. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, low virus levels means reduced winter losses.

This minimises the need for nucs to maintain overall colony numbers and so maximises the nucs for sale 🙂

For the sake of finishing this already overly long post, let’s assume overwintering colony losses are 12.5% (because it makes the maths easier … 10% or lower is readily achievable) rather than the 25% national average.

That being the case, for our four hive hypothetical apiary, we’ll need one replacement nuc every two years. Therefore, over a four year period we might generate 16 nucs and use just 2 of them to replace lost colonies.

Kerching!

Here are the figures for our hypothetical four colony apiary. These assume good bees, good beekeeping, low winter losses, good forage, good weather and a following wind.

I’ve assumed savings are being made where possible on frames and foundation, but also increased the number of frames (and miticides) needed to reflect colony size and strength.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 7.50 13
Miticides 76.00 14
Food 52.00 15
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 189.00 16 2250.00 17
Nucleus colony 5.00 18 612.50 19
Sub totals 329.50 2862.50
Profit 2533.00

Per colony the overall profit is £633/annum (cf £102/colony/annum for an ‘average’ hive and beekeeper).

These figures are not unrealistic (though they’re not necessarily typical either).

They won’t be achieved every year. They are dependent upon good forage, good weather and having the beekeeping skills needed to maintain strong healthy colonies.

They might be exceeded in some years. With good forage and a good season 100+ pounds of honey per colony can be achieved.

You have no control over the weather 20, but you can influence the other two factors. You can place your bees on better forage and you can continuously try and improve your skills as a beekeeper.

And learning how to maintain (and keep!) really strong healthy productive colonies is demonstrably a very valuable skill to acquire.

E & OE

Just like in the previous article, I’ve made all sorts of assumptions and cut all sorts of corners.

Managing big strong double-brood colonies producing a nuc each every year and topped by at least three supers inevitably means investing in lots more brood boxes, supers and nuc boxes 21.

It also means a lot more work.

Extracting and jarring hundreds of pounds of honey takes time. It also benefits from some automation … an extractor, a creamer, settling tanks, a honey processing room, a warm room for supers etc.

But that lot is not needed for our well-managed four hive hypothetical apiary.

The other things I’ve deliberately omitted are alternative ways of managing colonies for profit. For example, as suggested by Calum in a previous comment, propolis is a very valuable product of the hive. You can split a strong colony very hard to generate 6-10 nucs (but no honey). You can rear queens (very easily) and you can sell wax.

You could even produce Royal Jelly …

And it’s that endless variety and options that make beekeeping so fascinating.


 

 

Matchstick miscellany

White propolis

What is propolis for?

Why, when you go to open a hive that you’ve not visited for some time, is the crownboard invariably stuck down with propolis?

Are the bees trying to stop you looking in? Do they think a thin bead of propolis is defence against a well-aimed hive tool?

Of course not.

What they are doing is sealing up every tiny nook and cranny, every gap and interstice.

You might think the crownboard is a snug fit.

The bees don’t.

Even the brand new, smooth, flat plastic interface between an Abelo crownboard and brood box get glued together within days.

Every fissure through which wasps 1 could gain access or heat could escape or water enter or whatever is gummed shut with a liberal helping of propolis.

Propolis is of course also antibacterial and has a host of other great properties, but for the purpose of this post I’m restricting myself to its use as a sort of “No Nonsense Decorators Caulk” of the bee world 2.

Mind the gap

Additional evidence that bees really do ‘mind the gap’ is easy to find if you use crownboards with holes in them.

Not the great gaping opening(s) designed to accommodate a porter bee escape (I’ll return to these shortly), but instead something like the ventilated disks in the grossly over-engineered Abelo poly crownboards.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Here’s a brand new one, just out of the packing, with all the little fiddly ventilated plastic disks and poly plugs to cover them.

And this is what one of those ventilated holes looks like after a few weeks use …

Exhibit A … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

And the same thing applies to wire mesh screens when I use split boards as crownboards (because I’ve run out … even of the 25p polythene ones).

Split board

Split board …

Which end up looking like this …

Exhibit B … are you getting the message?

Matchsticks … don’t try this at home

I’m an increasingly irregular visitor and even less frequent contributor to the online beekeeping discussion forums. On one 3 there’s a perennial discussion thread around this time of year concerning matchsticks.

Matchless matches

Essentially the discussion starts with a question or comment on the need for matchsticks as spacers to separate the crownboard from the brood box during the winter.

You’ll find this advice in many beekeeping books going back more than half a century and you’ll hear it in many ‘Start beekeeping’ winter courses … often taught by beekeepers who learned their beekeeping half a century ago.

In many cases the online forum discussion is started by a recommendation in the monthly BBKA 4 newsletter, or another online forum or Facebook group (again often BBKA-based).

The subsequent ‘discussion’ is generally nothing of the sort. The advice is (in my view rightly) criticised but as much or more effort goes into bashing the BBKA as evidencing why the advice is wrong.

I’m not here to bash the BBKA and I’ve already provided the unequivocal evidence why it’s wrong.

Much better use …

If you provide a narrow space or gap over the top of the colony they will try and seal the gap closed with propolis.

So don’t.

If you want to use matchsticks in the winter … build a model of Notre Dame instead. The bees will appreciate it more.

What are the bees telling you?

The speed with which bees seal up gaps and crevices tells you that that they ‘prefer’ not to have have these types of spaces overhead.

I’m using the word ‘prefer’ here in place of some convoluted justification around evolutionary selection of traits that benefit the long-term survival of the colony and maintenance/transmission of the genes in the environment.

They seal the gaps because to not do so, over eons, is detrimental to Apis mellifera. Not necessarily to that colony per se, but to the species.

Whether they do it to reduce robbing, to stop draughts or rain entering or to prevent the loss of warm air is, in many ways, irrelevant.

Do beekeepers really know better than millions of years of evolution?

No.

The “I always used matchsticks and my bees do well” justification

Is so deeply flawed it barely deserves contradicting.

But since I’m here, I will.

Bees have a fantastic ability to survive and even flourish despite the most cackhanded fumbling by beekeepers 5.

Just because your bees overwintered successfully with a gaping void in the crownboard does not mean they need that gaping void to survive 6.

Observe what the bees do and apply it to your beekeeping.

But what about crownboards with a big hole in for a porter bee escape? The bees don’t block those with propolis.

No, they don’t. But that’s still not justification to leave a void above the cluster. Bees seal gaps smaller than ‘bee space’ (say 8-9 mm) with propolis.

Perhaps they don’t seal up these large holes in the crownboard because the ‘triggers’ that make them seal smaller gaps aren’t present.

As an aside, I wonder if they deploy guard bees to defend these large holes above the cluster? 7

But back to the matchsticks; these create a gap significantly less than 8mm and the bees clearly demonstrate – each and every time you crack open the crownboard – that this is far from optimal.

I’m not going to get into the chimney effect, lost heat, holes in trees, water ingress, draughts etc.

Whether it’s a good idea to ventilate the winter cluster, to get rid of excess humidity or anything else, the evidence is compelling 8the bees would rather you didn’t.

Winter preparation miscellany

The two propolis-adorned crownboard pictures above were taken during an apiary visit in mid-October. I was opening hives for the final time this year. It was 12-13°C and bees were flying, bringing back pollen I presumed was largely from the ivy flowering nearby.

They fancied that fondant

Most had finished their final half block of fondant. The empty wrapper, eke and QE 9 were removed.

Others still had fondant left. In this case I bodily lifted off the QE, fondant and eke/super to give me access to the brood box.

Unfinished fondant

If you feed fondant above a QE you can balance it on an eke or empty super, so avoiding crushing the hundreds of bees clustered underneath the fondant 10

And the reason I needed access to the brood box was to recover the Apivar strips.

If the strip is fixed near the top of the frame this takes just seconds and a small amount of dexterity with a suitable hive tool.

The strips also have a small hole top and centre allowing them to be hung between frames on a matchstick.

But I don’t have matchsticks in the apiary 😉 so instead use the spike to fix them in the comb.

Apivar strips should not be left in for longer than the approved treatment period (6 – 10 weeks; these went in on the 28th of August, so are being removed after 7 weeks). This is important to avoid the reduced levels of amitraz in the ageing strips selecting for Apivar-resistant mites.

The few colonies I checked more thoroughly had little or no brood. All boxes were reassuringly heavy.

I saw a single drone amongst the dozen or so colonies I opened. Not long for this world I fear.

Since there was still pollen coming in I delayed fitting mouseguards to the colonies that need them.

I’ll deal with that once the frosts start 11.

Not long now 🙁


 

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Honey pricing

The best way to start beekeeping is to learn by example.

Join an association, go to a Beginning beekeeping’ course over the winter and browse the catalogues.

Get a mentor, buy a nuc of well-behaved local bees in May/June and enjoy yourself.

And talk beekeeping with other beekeepers.

Ask questions, lots of them

In case you’ve not noticed, if there’s enough tea and digestives available, beekeepers can talk a lot. Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get at least five answers 1.

They’ll talk about swarming and queen rearing, about how imports are ruining beekeeping and about hive designs.

They’ll discuss how imported queens head calm and productive colonies and why ‘brood and a half’ is the solution to most beekeeping problems 2.

Some will enthusiastically talk about half-assed DIY ‘solutions’ to barely existent problems or why comparisons between treatment-free beekeeping and anti-vaxxers is unfair 3.

Local honey

They’ll talk about anything, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure.

Well, not quite anything

The observant tyro will notice that there are a few topics on which experienced beekeepers are a bit less opinionated or, er, helpful.

Could you help me requeen my ‘colony of sociopaths’ this weekend?

Can you give me the phone number of the farmer with 40 acres of borage?

How did you prepare that prizewinning wax block for the annual honey show?

How much do you charge for your honey?

And not just unhelpful … they can be downright evasive.

Healthy competition

Topics like these are where beekeeping becomes a competitive pastime (except for the requeening one, which is simply self-preservation).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want the best forage for our bees so that colonies are strong and healthy. We want good nectar sources so that supers are heavy and numerous. We want to win ‘Best in Show’ so we can add the magic words ‘Prizewinning local honey’ to our labels which – for some at least – means we’ll be able to charge a premium for our honey.

Vulture

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But think back to when you were a beginner.

That first year you had a real surplus of honey 4.

After the circling vultures of friends and family had had a jar or two for their porridge/tea/toast or acne 5. After you’ve sold half a dozen jars at the village fete, or to colleagues at work.

When you’ve actually got quite a few jars left over you’d like to sell ‘at the door’, or through an excellent local organic cafe or outstanding artisan cheese shop 6.

How much do you charge for your honey?

Firstly, if you’re in precisely this situation, don’t expect any simple answers here.

But also don’t necessarily expect any straight answer from your beekeeping colleagues.

Assuming you’re not actually dependent upon the income, in a way it doesn’t really matter what you charge. As long as you recoup your costs – jars, labels, petrol, Apivar, fondant etc. – you’ll have a hobby that pays for itself and gives you enjoyment 7.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Except you can.

If you charge £3 a pound and cover your costs you might be able to charge £4.50 a pound and buy a new hive tool.

Or hive.

In your dreams

Or something totally unrelated to beekeeping that you’ve always wanted.

Like a Harley Davidson Softail Fat Boy 😉

Or you could charge £9 a pound and have a busman’s holiday in New Zealand every winter with the Manuka honey farmers.

Or you could charge £12.50 a pound … and sell virtually none of it because the beekeeper down the road is only charging £3 and you can buy *&%$£’s Everyday Essentials honey for 99p 8.

Tricky.

What is the competition?

Not inexpensive

With few exceptions, supermarket honey is cheap. Where there are exceptions it’s because the honey is either inexpensive … or exorbitantly priced Manuka.

Cheap and inexpensive aren’t the same thing at all. The former is produced down to a price, like the jar mentioned above priced just below the psychologically important £1 threshold.

I’d bet that any almost honey produced by a local beekeeper, whatever the forage available, however poorly it had been filtered or presented, would be better than most of these cheap supermarket honeys.

I should note in passing that any comments I make here assume the honey is actually honey (it’s not corn syrup for example) and that it’s not fermenting and hasn’t been overheated during preparation. The first of these regularly occur in the millions of tons of ‘honey’ traded globally each year, whereas the other two are more likely to be problems encountered – or caused – by inexperienced amateur beekeepers.

The inexpensive supermarket honey is (usually) bought and sold in bulk, blended, often nicely labelled and attractively packaged. It’s perfectly good honey. It’ll probably taste OK and it might sell for £3 to £4 for 340 g.

The exorbitantly priced Manuka honey is an oddity. It might well be fake and it tastes pretty awful in my view. It’s a marketing triumph of hype over substance.

So is £4 a jar the baseline?

It depends upon the size of the jar 😉

It also depends upon the effort you are prepared to make on the bottling, labelling and marketing 9.

But you’re not bottling, labelling and marketing bulk produced, blended, imported ‘Produce of EU and non EU countries’.

What you have is a far, far more valuable product than that.

You’ve had complete control over its production from start to finish – from siting the hives, through extracting, storage and jarring.

Local apiary, mid-July 2018

The provenance of the honey is without question.

There’s very few products sitting on supermarket shelves that you could say that about.

It’s very rare. This doesn’t in itself make it valuable. After all,  Ebola is thankfully very rare in the UK. However, for some people (actually many people) buying something that’s not available in every supermarket across the country is a distinct plus point.

It’s rare and its availability is limited because it’s local honey. You’ve not got 5,000 colonies spread over half a dozen postcodes in the county 10. There aren’t barrels of the same stuff in warehouses across the country 11.

What you’ve got is a few buckets of mixed floral honey from about 9 square miles (at most, probably significantly less) of the countryside around your apiary.

Known provenance

And local honey should attract a premium price.

Many people want to buy local produce and eat local food. Their definition of local and the one I use above may not align perfectly. For me, local might be the two shallow valleys and the arable farmland my bees forage in.

For the potential buyer, ‘local’ might be anything within Fife (about 500 square miles).

And Fife has a population of about a third of a million people. Which is a lot of potential customers wanting ‘local’ honey. Which means demand should or could be high.

Which, in turn, increases the price you could sell your honey for.

So, I reckon that £4 a jar is about the lowest amount you should charge.

If you can find small enough jars 😉

The £10 ceiling

But what about slightly larger jars? After all, small jars are a pain to fill. How much can you realistically charge for a one pound (454 g) jar of honey?

At the moment the upper limit seems to be about a tenner.

If you look at ‘high-end’ outlets selling good quality local produce you’ll find that there appears to be an upper price limit of about £10.

Remember that this price includes a shop markup of perhaps 20-30%. After all, they have staff, rent, insurance and other costs to cover.

Which perhaps finally gets near the answer to How much do you (or can I) charge for honey?’

Go and look in local outlets and see what they are charging for truly local honey. Not the (perfectly fine quality) honey from the larger regional suppliers (this isn’t local, it’s regional at best and, more likely, national), but the stuff from individuals within 10-15 miles or so.

Take off the guesstimated markup and that’s a reasonable guide to the price 12.

What?

There isn’t any on the shelves?

This can only mean one of three things:

  • They’ve already sold out because demand is so high = opportunity 🙂
  • There aren’t any local beekeepers selling local honey = opportunity 🙂
  • The shopkeeper has yet to realise the benefits of selling local honey = (yes, you guessed it) opportunity 🙂

I’m going to return to this topic several times over the winter.

In the meantime, back to the borage and that prizewinning wax block …

Oh dear, I’ve just reached 1500 words which is my (oft-ignored) self-imposed cutoff for waffle each week.

Those subjects will have to wait 😉


 

Quick fixes

Honey bees are remarkably resilient creatures.

As beekeepers we blunder around the hive on a weekly basis trying to ensure they don’t leave us for pastures new.

The custodians of the environment fill it with chemicals and replace those pastures with acres of distinctly bee-unfriendly monoculture.

Rather too much arable …

And, to add insult to injury, we crowd hives together and move bees with little consideration of the gallimaufry of pests and diseases we are helping to transmit.

Yet, despite this, colony numbers worldwide are increasing 1. This reflects the popularity of beekeeping, the value of honey as a commodity and the important use of honey bees to provide ‘ecosystem services’ (largely pollination) for agriculture.

Home is where the hive is

So, considering all the problems bees face when they’re out and about gathering nectar and pollen, the least we can do is provide them with well-built, watertight, secure and draught-free accommodation.

And, most of the time we do.

The quality of most commercial 2 hives these days is generally excellent. Independent manufacturers and the big national suppliers all sell very good beehives.

Even the flat-packed, second or third quality stuff you fill your car boot with on the annual ‘sale days’ is more than adequate.

You build it, you fill it with bees and they thrive.

They overwinter well, they build up strongly in the spring, you make some early splits to increase stocks and avert swarming.

They continue to thrive. It’s turning into a bumper season. You run out of supers during the strong spring nectar flows.

And then the swarming begins … and you run out of brood boxes (you’ve already run out of supers), crown boards, roofs etc.

This is when you discover all sorts of quick fixes that the bees cope just fine with. These allow you to continue beekeeping through periods with too many bees and too little equipment.

I’m going to use mostly pictures rather than lots of words. This is not an exhaustive list and it’s not restricted to the May and June swarming frenzy.

I’m sure many readers have their own solutions to short-term (or long-term) beekeeping problems. Feel free to post them in the comments section.

Hive stands

Abelo hives on pallet. Note entrances face in opposite directions.

Wooden pallets work fine as hive stands, as do stacked car tyres, or even simply stacking one hive on top of another (which saves a roof). If doing the latter it can help (the bees, but not necessarily the beekeeper) to have the entrances pointing in opposite directions.

Floors

You don’t need a fancy open mesh floor with an adjustable entrance. A sheet of Correx and some strips of softwood can be perfectly adequate.

Inside ...

Cheapy, cheapy floor … when you’ve run out of everything else.

And if you’re really running short of kit drill a hole through the sidewall of an eke and place it on the roof of another hive i.e. no floor at all.

It’s critical the hole is about the diameter of the cork from a good bottle of red wine. This is essential. For obvious reasons … you do want to use it as an eke again sometime in the future 😉

Boxes

Two stacked supers are a bit deeper than a single brood box (National hive). If you haven’t run out of supers (yet … you will) they make a perfectly adequate substitute.

Under offer ...

Two stacked supers, in this case set up as a bait hive. Note also the hive stand. And the roof.

Half of my bait hives are built from two supers.

As an aside, if you want to unite bees from these Paradise/Modern Beekeeping poly hives (see photo above) over the top of a standard National brood box, you’ll need a thin, wide shim to avoid bee-sized holes at the junction.

Shim

Shim …

This shim wrecks the ‘bee space’ but it’s only in use for a few days so it isn’t a problem 3.

Which, in a way, is the definition of the sort of quick fix I’m describing here … something that’s pressed into service for a relatively short period of time and that works satisfactorily, though perhaps not perfectly.

And is often still in use years later 😉

Crownboards

That’ll be 25p please

Poly crownboard ...

Poly crownboard …

… though a (well washed) fertiliser sack works just as well and is even cheaper.

Roofs

Might not be necessary at all if you stack another hive on top (see above).

However, if they are then Correx roofs take some beating.

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Literally.

These cost about £1.50 each to make, take minutes to build and are fully weathertight 4. I’ve got several that are over 5 years old and still going strong.

Not a quick enough fix for you?

Planting tray roof …

My bait hives were popular this year and I caught two swarms on successive days to a hive in the same location. I used an upturned planting tray for the roof of one of the bait hives and the bees didn’t seem to mind at all.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Clearer boards

Having planned to reduce my colony numbers this year I singularly failed to do anything of the sort.

I therefore ran out of clearer boards when I came to harvest the summer honey 5. I could have made multiple trips to the apiary but solved it with a quick fix.

Undaunted, a combination of some 4 cm ekes, a sheet or two of Correx (of course), a bit of gaffer tape (what else), a ‘lozenge’ escape or two, a Stanley knife and the inevitable half a dozen Band-Aids … and voila!

Quick fix clearer board – super side

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

These worked just fine and can be disassembled in minutes should I need the ekes again.

I’d bet good money they are used again next year …

etc.

To me, one of the great attractions of beekeeping is that it is an inherently practical occupation. In addition to the pleasure of working with the bees to produce a delicious, high quality and valuable product, you often need to use practical skill and ingenuity – coupled with Correx and gaffer tape – to solve day-to-day problems on the way.

For example, if you’re moving hives any distance it’s important they are well ventilated and that the frames don’t slide about with the consequent risk of crushing bees 6.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

Fibreglass net insect screening makes an ideal travel screen and is easily held in place with staples (in most poly hives) or an eke and a couple of stout straps.

And to stop the frames from sliding about a block or two of closed cell foam wedged between the hive wall and the dummy board is ideal.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

This type of closed cell foam is regularly supplied in packing material and is well worth saving if you find any. It’s the perfect example of a ‘quick fix’ that solves a problem at little or no cost.

Of course , you can never have too much gaffer tape. A quick fix to wasp problems until you find the errant entrance block.

Gaffer tape … remember to cover the sticky bit on the reverse to protect the bees.

And finally … you can never have too many straps to hold hives together or hold roofs down.

But you can often have too few.

Batten down the hatches … too few straps and fondant to the rescue

This photo was taken on the 14th of June, 2018. It looks balmy, but the windspeed was approaching 50 mph. I’d arrived to find some roofs already off 7 and too few straps to hold everything down.

There are two quick fixes in the picture. On the left a wooden plank holds the middle hive down with straps holding it (and the roofs on the flanking hives) in place. On the right, 25kg of fondant was press-ganged into service.


 

Crime doesn’t pay

At least, sometimes it doesn’t.

In particular, the crime of robbery can have unintended and catastrophic consequences.

The Varroa mite was introduced to England in 1992. Since then it has spread throughout most of the UK.

Inevitably some of this spread has been through the activities of beekeepers physically relocating colonies from one site to another.

However, it is also very clear that mites can move from colony to colony through one or more routes.

Last week I described the indirect transmission of a mite ‘left’ by one bee on something in the environment – like a flower – and how it could climb onto the back of another passing bee from a different colony.

Mite transmission routes

As a consequence colony to colony transmission could occur. Remember that a single mite (assuming she is a mated female, which are the only type of phoretic mites) is sufficient to infest a mite-free hive.

However, this indirect route is unlikely to be very efficient. It depends upon a range of rather infrequent or inefficient events 1. In fact, I’m unaware of any formal proof that this mechanism is of any real relevance in inter-hive transmission.

Just because it could happened does not mean it does happen … and just because it does happen doesn’t mean it’s a significant route for mite transmission.

This week we’ll look at the direct transmission routes of drifting and robbing. This is timely as:

  • The early autumn (i.e. now) is the most important time of year for direct transmission.
  • Thomas Seeley has recently published a comparative study of the two processes 2. As usual it is a simple and rather elegant set of experiments based upon clear hypotheses.

Studying phoretic mite transmission routes

There have been several previous studies of mite transmission.

Usually these involve a ‘bait’ or ‘acceptor’ hive that is continuously treated with miticides. Once the initial mite infestation is cleared any new dead mites appearing on the tray underneath the open mesh floor must have been introduced from outside the hive.

All perfectly logical and a satisfactory way of studying mite acquisition.

However, this is not a practical way of distinguishing between mites acquired passively through drifting, with those acquired actively by robbing.

  • Drifting being the process by which bees originating from other (donor) hives arrive at and enter the acceptor hive.
  • Robbing being the process by which bees from the acceptor hive force entry into a donor hive to steal stores.

To achieve this Peck and Seeley established a donor apiary containing three heavily mite-infested hives of yellow bees (headed by Italian queens). These are labelled MDC (mite donor ccolony) A, B and C in the figure below. This apiary was situated in a largely bee-free area.

They then introduced six mite-free receptor colonies (MRC) to the area. Three were located to the east of the donor hives, at 0.5m, 50m and 300m distance. Three more were located – at the same distances – to the west of the donor apiary. These hives contained dark-coloured bees headed by Carniolan queens.

Apiary setup containing mite donor colonies (MDR) and location of mite receptor colonies (MRC).

Peck and Seeley monitored mite acquisition by the acceptor hives over time, fighting and robbing dynamics, drifting workers (and drones) and colony survival.

Test a simple hypothesis

The underlying hypothesis on the relative importance of robbing or drifting for mite acquisition was this:

If drifting is the primary mechanism of mite transmission you would expect to see a gradual increase of mites in acceptor colonies. Since it is mainly bees on orientation flights that drift (and assuming the egg laying rate of the queen is constant) this gradual acquisition of motes would be expected to occur at a constant rate.

Conversely, if robbing is the primary mechanism of mite transmission from mite-infested to mite-free colonies you would expect to see a sudden increase in mite number in the acceptor hives. This would coincide with the onset of robbing.

Graphically this could (at enormous personal expense and sacrifice) be represented like this.

Mite acquisition by drifting (dashed line) or robbing (solid line) over time (t) – hypothesis.

X indicates the time at which the mite-free acceptor colonies are introduced to the environment containing the mite-riddled donor hives.

These studies were conducted in late summer/early autumn at Ithaca in New York State (latitude 42° N). The MDC’s were established with high mite loads (1-3 mites/300 bees in mid-May) and moved to the donor apiary in mid-August. At the same time the MRC’s were moved to their experimental locations. Colonies were then monitored throughout the autumn (fall) and into the winter.

So what happened?

Simplistically, the three mite donor colonies (MDC … remember?) all collapsed and died between early October and early November. In addition, by mid-February the following year four of the six MRC’s had also died.

In every case, colony death was attributed to mites and mite-transmitted viruses. For example, there was no evidence for starvation, queen failure or moisture damage.

But ‘counting the corpses‘ doesn’t tell us anything about how the mites were acquired by the acceptor colonies, or whether worker drifting and/or robbing was implicated. For this we need to look in more detail at the results.

Mite counts

Mite counts in donor (A) and receptor (B, C) colonies.

There’s a lot of detail in this figure. In donor colonies (A, top panel) phoretic mite counts increased through August and September, dropping precipitously from mid/late September.

This drop neatly coincided with the onset of fighting at colony entrances (black dotted and dashed vertical lines). The fact that yellow and black bees were fighting is clear evidence that these donor colonies were being robbed, with the robbing intensity peaking at the end of September (black dashed line). I’ll return to robbing below.

In the receptor colonies the significant increase in mite numbers (B and C) coincided with a) the onset of robbing and b) the drop in mite numbers in the donor colonies.

Phoretic mite numbers in receptor colonies then dropped to intermediate levels in October before rising again towards the end of the year.

The authors do loads of statistical analysis – one-way ANOVA’s, post-hoc Wilcoxon Signed-Rank tests and all the rest 3 and the data, despite involving relatively small numbers of colonies and observations, is pretty compelling.

Robbery

So this looks like robbing is the route by which mites are transmitted.

A policeman would still want to demonstrate the criminal was at the scene of the crime.

Just because the robbing bees were dark doesn’t ‘prove’ they were the Carniolans from the MRC’s 4. Peck and Seeley used a 400+ year old ‘trick’ to investigate this.

To identify the source of the robbers the authors dusted all the bees at the hive entrance with powdered sugar. They did this on a day of intense robbing and then monitored the hive entrances of the MRC’s. When tested, 1-2% of the returning bees had evidence of sugar dusting.

Returning robbers were identified at all the MRC’s. Numbers (percentages) were small, but there appeared to be no significant differences between nearby and distant MRC’s..

Drifting workers and drones

The evidence above suggests that robbing is a major cause of mite acquisition during the autumn.

However, it does not exclude drifting from also contributing to the process. Since the bees in the MDC and MRC were different colours this could also be monitored.

Yellow bees recorded at the entrances of the dark bee mite receptor colonies.

Before the onset of significant robbing (mid-September) relatively few yellow bees had drifted to the mite receptor colonies (~1-2% of bees at the entrances of the MRC’s). The intense robbing in late September coincided with with a significant increase in yellow bees drifting to the MRC’s.

Drifting over at least 50 metres was observed, with ~6% of workers entering the MRC’s being derived from the MDC’s.

If you refer back to the phoretic mite load in the donor colonies by late September (15-25%, see above) it suggests that perhaps 1% of all 5 the bees entering the mite receptor colonies may have been carrying mites.

And this is in addition to the returning robbers carrying an extra payload.

Since the drones were also distinctively coloured, their drifting could also be recorded.

Drones drifted bi-directionally. Between 12 and 22% of drones at hive entrances were of a different colour morph to the workers in the colony. Over 90% of this drone drifting was over short distances, with fewer than 1% of drones at the receptor colonies 50 or 300 m away from the donor apiary being yellow.

Discussion and conclusions

This was a simple and elegant experiment. It provides compelling evidence that robbing of weak, collapsing colonies is likely to be the primary source of mite acquisition in late summer/early autumn.

It also demonstrates that drifting, particularly over short distances, is likely to contribute significant levels of mite transmission before robbing in earnest starts. However, once collapsing colonies are subjected to intense robbing this become the predominant route of mite transmission.

There were a few surprises in the paper (in my view).

One of the characteristics of colonies being intensely robbed is the maelstrom of bees fighting at the hive entrance. This is not a few bees having a stramash 6 on the landing board. Instead it involves hundreds of bees fighting until the robbed colony is depleted of guards and the robbers move in mob handed.

As a beekeeper it’s a rather distressing sight (and must be much worse for the overwhelmed guards … ).

I was therefore surprised that only 1-2% of the bees returning to the mite receptor colonies carried evidence (dusted sugar) that they’d been involved in robbing. Of course, this could still be very many bees if the robbing colonies were very strong. Nevertheless, it still seemed like a small proportion to me.

It’s long been known that mites and viruses kill colonies. However, notice how quickly they kill the mite receptor colonies in these studies.

The MRC’s were established in May with very low mite numbers. By the start of the experiment (mid-August) they had <1% phoretic mites. By the following spring two thirds of them were dead after they had acquired mites by robbing (and drifting) from nearby collapsing colonies 7.

It doesn’t take long

The science and practical beekeeping

This paper confirms and reinforces several previous studies, and provides additional evidence of the importance of robbing in mite transmission.

What does this mean for practical beekeeping?

It suggests that the late-season colonies bulging with hungry bees that are likely to initiate robbing are perhaps most at risk of acquiring mites from nearby collapsing colonies.

This is ironic as most beekeepers put emphasis on having strong colonies going into the winter for good overwintering success. Two-thirds of the colonies that did the robbing died overwinter.

The paper emphasises the impact of hive separation. Drifting of drones and workers was predominantly over short distances, at least until the robbing frenzy started.

This suggests that colonies closely situated within an apiary are ‘at risk’ should one of them have high mite levels (irrespective of the level of robbing).

If you treat with a miticide, treat all co-located colonies.

However, drifting over 300 m was also observed. This implies that apiaries need to be well separated. If your neighbour has bees in the next field they are at risk if you don’t minimise your mite levels … or vice versa of course.

And this robbing occurred over at least 300 m and has been reported to occur over longer distances 8. This again emphasises both the need to separate apiaries and to treat all colonies in a geographic area coordinately.

Most beekeepers are aware of strategies to reduce robbing i.e. to stop colonies being robbed. This includes keeping strong colonies, reduced entrances or entrance screens.

But how do you stop a strong colony from robbing nearby weak colonies?

Does feeding early help?

I don’t know, but it’s perhaps worth considering. I don’t see how it could be harmful.

I feed within a few days of the summer honey supers coming off. I don’t bother waiting for the bees to exploit local late season forage. They might anyway, but I give them a huge lump of fondant to keep them occupied.

Do my colonies benefit, not only from the fondant, but also from a reduced need to rob nearby weak colonies?

Who knows?

But it’s an interesting thought …

Note there’s an additional route of mite transmission not covered in this or the last post. If you transfer frames of brood from a mite-infested to a low mite colony – for example, to strengthen a colony in preparation for winter – you also transfer the mites. Be careful.


Colophon

The idiom “Crime doesn’t pay” was, at one time, the motto of the FBI and was popularised by the cartoon character Dick Tracy.

Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run used the quote “I think crime pays. The hours are good, you travel a lot.”

Flower mites

Where do all those pesky mites come from that transmit pathogenic viruses in and between colonies?

Unless you are fortunate enough to live in the remote north west of Scotland 1 or the Isle of Man then bees, whether managed or feral, in your area have the parasitic mite Varroa destructor.

And if you take a mite-free colony from, say, north west Scotland and stick it in a field in Shropshire 2 it will, sooner or later, become mite-infested.

Sooner rather than later.

In our studies we see mite infestation (capped drone pupae with associated mites) within a few days of moving mite-free colonies to out apiaries.

Where did these mites originate and how did they get there?

Direct or indirect? Active or passive?

They don’t walk there.

Mites are blind and have no directional abilities over long distances.

Essentially therefore there are just two routes, both involving the host honey bee 3.

Direct, in which phoretic mites are transferred on honey bees between colonies, or indirect, in which they are transferred via something that isn’t a bee in the environment.

Like a flower.

Mite transmission routes

With an infested hive (the Donor) and a mite-free hive (the Acceptor 4) the direct routes involve the well-established processes of drifting and robbing.

As far as the acceptor hive is concerned, drifting is a passive process. The bees just arrive at the entrance and are allowed access.

In contrast, robbing is an active process by the acceptor hive. The foragers that rampage around pillaging weak colonies bring the phoretic mites back with them.

There have been two recent papers that have considered the relative importance of these routes and, in the case of indirect transmission, whether there is evidence that it can occur.

Both papers are from Thomas Seeley and colleagues at Cornell University. Seeley conducts simple and elegant experiments and, apart perhaps for the statistics, both papers are pretty readable, even without a scientific background.

I’ll deal with indirect transmission here and return to drifting and robbing in the future.

Say it with flowers … send her a mite

There is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that horizontal transmission via flowers may occur. This includes evidence that mites can survive on flowers for several days (in the absence of bees). If ‘presented’ with live or dead bees these mites could then climb onto the bee.

But clambering aboard a dead bee held in a pair of tweezers is very different from boarding a live bee making a transient visit to a flower.

Like this.

This short video is by David Peck, the lead author on a 2016 manuscript on acquisition of mites by bees visiting flowers 5. The paper is open access and freely available so I’ll cut to the chase and just present the key details.

The mites and bees came from the same colony. Mites were harvested by sugar roll and placed on flower petals. Different flower species were baited with the same anise-flavoured sugar solution to make them equally attractive to foraging bees.

Video recording of bee visits enabled the scientists to determine whether the mite attached to a bee, if it was subsequently groomed off (in the vicinity of the flower) and how long any interaction took. The latter was measured in bee seconds i.e. the cumulative number of seconds a bee was present before the mite attached.

Mite transmission to bees from flowers

In 43 independent tests, using a total of three different flower species, every mite successfully managed to clamber onto a visiting bee. Of these, 41 left the flower with the bee (the two that didn’t fell off or were groomed by the bee).

Speed and efficiency

It took on average just two minutes of bee visits for the mite to climb aboard. In one test the mite successfully attached in just 2 seconds.

About 50% of the mites attached after the first contact with a bee. The average number of contacts needed was just over two (usually to the same bee).

We’ve all watched bees visiting flowers. They approach, orientate, land, take off again, reorientate, land again. Sometimes they walk across the inflorescence.

That’s all it takes.

The mites didn’t move about the flower much. They didn’t chase the bee around the flower. None moved more than 1 cm.

They simply waited for the bee to come close enough.

Mites haven’t got eyes but they have exquisitely sensitive chemosensory receptors on their forelegs (not four legs, they have eight 😉 ). They use these to detect the approaching bee and are then nimble enough to embark, as the video above shows.

Mites on daisy (Bellis sp.) or speedwell (Veronica sp.) relocated to a bee much more rapidly than those placed on an Echinacea flower. It’s not clear why – the flowers are larger on Echinacea so perhaps it’s something to do with the way a bee interacts with these when foraging?

Case proven m’lud?

Mites are transferred between colonies via flowers … it’s a fact.

Not quite.

What this study shows was that mites on flowers can readily attach to a visiting bee.

Specifically to a visiting bee from the same hive that the mite was ‘harvested’ from for the experiments.

Mites absorb the cuticular hydrocarbon profile of their host hive i.e. they smell like the bees do. Perhaps they were less readily detected by the visiting mite-free bee? Would they transfer to bees from a foreign colony less efficiently?

Conversely, host-parasite theory would suggest that the mite would have evolved mechanisms to preferentially infest ‘foreign’ visiting bees 6. At least they should if this route provided a suitable selective pressure, which would involve it providing an advantage to the mite (over other routes like robbing or drifting, for example). This remains to be tested.

But there’s something else missing until we can be certain that mites are transferred indirectly between colonies via flowers.

Have you ever seen a flower with a mite on it?

I haven’t either.

Which of course doesn’t help support or refute a role for flowers in mite transmission.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

A limited survey of flowers around apiaries also failed to detect Varroa 7 which is as little help as our own observations (see above).

So we’re left with half a story. Mites can transfer (quite efficiently) from flowers to bees. What we don’t know is whether – or how – they get from infested bees to the flower in the first place.

And if they do, whether it happens frequently enough to be of any real relevance as a mite transmission route between hives.

Next week I’ll revisit robbing and drifting as mite transmission routes to discuss some recent studies looking at their relative importance.

One last thing … one of the co-authors of the 2016 study described above is Michael L. Smith. In 2014 he published the honey bee sting pain index. I’m pleased to see he’s moved on to less painful scientific studies 🙂


Colophon

Flour mite (c) Joel Mills

The flour mite (Acarus siro), a distant relative of Varroa destructor, is a contaminant of grain and – unsurprisingly – flour which “acquires a sickly sweet smell and becomes unpalatable”.

Which isn’t a huge recommendation for Mimolette cheese. This cheese originates from Lille in France. It has a grey crust and an orange(ish) flesh, looking a bit like a cantaloupe. The crust hardens over time.

The appearance, the hardening (?) and certainly the flavour of the crust is due to the addition of flour mites (aka cheese mites) which are intentionally introduced during production of the cheese. Yummy.

Cabinet reshuffle

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the totally dysfunctional state of British politics at the moment 1.

Once the honey supers are removed there’s seemingly little to do in the apiary. There is a temptation to catch up on all those other jobs postponed because I was “just off to the bees”.

Well, maybe temptation is a bit strong. After all, like all good procrastinators, I can usually find an excuse to postpone until next week something that could be left until at least tomorrow.

However, as I said last week, preparations for winter are very important and should not be delayed.

I covered feeding and the all-important late summer mite treatments in that post. Here I’m going to briefly discuss the various late season hive rearrangements that might be needed.

Clearing additional supers

I use very simple clearer boards to get the bees out of my supers. However, there are a couple of instances when not all the supers end up being removed:

  1. If some frames are empty or fail the ‘shake test’ I’ll rearrange these into the bottom super 2. I then clear the bees down into the bottom super and leave it for the bees.
  2. If the colony is really strong and is unlikely to fit into the brood box(es) I’ll often add a super above the queen excluder to clear the bees down into. Sometimes the bees will add a few dribbles of nectar to this … not enough to ever extract, and I’d prefer they put it in the brood box instead.

In both these situations I’ll want to remove the additional super before winter. I don’t want the bees to have a cold empty space above their heads.

Feed & clear together

I usually do this at the same time that I feed the bees.

I rearrange the boxes so that the ‘leftover’ super is above a crownboard on top of the super that is providing the headspace to accommodate the fondant blocks.

Since access to this top super is through a small hole the bees consider it is ‘outside’ the hive and so empty the remaining nectar and bring it down to the brood box 3.

If there are sealed stores in any of these super frames I bruise 4 the cappings with a hive tool and they’ll then move the stores down.

Substandard colonies

A very good piece of advice to all beekeepers is to “take your winter losses in the autumn”. This means assess colonies in the late summer/early autumn and get rid of those that are weak or substandard 5.

Substandard might mean those with a poor temper.

This is the colony which you put up with all season (despite their yobbo tendencies) because you believe that aggressive bees are productive bees’.

Were they?

Was that one half-filled super of partially-capped honey really worth the grief they gave you all summer?

Unless substandard (not just aggression … running, following, insufficiently frugal in winter etc.) colonies are replaced the overall standard of your bees will never improve.

I’ll discuss how to ‘remove’ them in a few paragraphs.

It’s probably a reasonable estimate to suggest that the ‘best’ third of your colonies should be used to rear more queens and the ‘worst’ third should be re-queened with these 6.

Over time 7 the quality will improve.

Of course, a substandard colony might well make it through the winter perfectly successfully. The same cannot be said for weak colonies.

TLC or tough love?

At the end of the summer colonies should be strong. If they are not then there is probably something wrong. A poorly mated queen, an old and failing queen, disease?

The exception might be a recently requeened colony or a new 5 frame nuc.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Colonies that are weak at this stage of the season for no obvious reason need attention. Without it they are likely to succumb during the winter. And they’ll do this after you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of feeding and treating them … 8

There are essentially two choices:

  1. Mollycoddle them and hope they pick up. Boosting them with a frame or two of emerging brood may help (but make sure you don’t weaken the donor colony significantly). Moving them from a full hive to a nuc – preferably poly to provide better insulation – may also be beneficial. In a nuc they have less dead space to heat. An analogous strategy is to fill the space in the brood box with ‘fat dummies‘ or – low-tech but just as effective – a big wodge of bubble wrap with a standard dummy board to hold it in place.
  2. Sacrifice the queen from the weak hive and unite them with a strong colony.

Sentimentalism

Of the two I’d almost always recommend uniting colonies.

It’s less work. There’s no potentially wasted outlay on food and miticides. Most importantly, it’s much more likely to result in a strong colony the following spring.

However, we all get attached to our bees. It’s not unusual to give a fading favourite old queen ‘one more chance’ in the hope that next year will be her last hurrah.

Uniting notes

I’ve covered uniting before and so will only add some additional notes here …

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

  • You cannot generate a strong colony by uniting two weak colonies. They’re weak for a reason. Whether they’re weak for the same or different reasons uniting them is unlikely to help.
  • Never unite a colony with signs of disease. All you do is jeopardise the healthy colony.
  • Find the queen and permanently remove her from the weak or poor quality (substandard) colony.
  • If you can’t find the queen unite them with a queen excluder between the colonies. In my limited experience (I usually manage to find the unwanted queen) the bees usually do away with a failing queen when offered a better one, but best to check in a week or so.
  • I generally move the de-queened colony and put it on top of the strong queenright colony.
  • Unite over newspaper and don’t interfere with the hive for at least another week.
  • You can unite one strong colony and two weak colonies simultaneously.
  • Uniting and feeding at the same time is possible.
  • You can unite and treat with a miticide like Amitraz simultaneously. You will have to make a judgement call on whether both boxes need miticide treatment, depending on the strength of the weak colony.
  • If you’re uniting a strong substandard colony and a strong good colony you will need to use an amount of miticide appropriate for a double brood colony (four strips in the case of Amitraz).
Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The goal of all of the above is to go into autumn with strong, healthy, well-fed colonies that will survive the winter and build up strongly again in the spring.

A very small or weak colony 9 in autumn may survive, but it’s unlikely to flourish the following spring.

“It takes bees to make bees.”

And a weak colony in spring lacks bees, so cannot build up fast.

In contrast, an overwintered strong colony can often yield a nuc in May the following year. You’ve regained your colony numbers, but have a new, young queen in one hive with most of the season ahead for her to prove her worth.

I’ve merged three topics here – clearing supers, stock improvement and getting rid of weak colonies before winter – because all involve some sort of hive manipulation in the early autumn. I usually complete this in late September or early October, with the intention of overwintering strong colonies in single brood boxes packed with bees and stores.


Colophon

The heading of the final paragraph is the opening line of To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats wrote To Autumn exactly two hundred years ago (September 1819, his last poem) while gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. Despite this, and his doomed relationship with Fanny Brawne, the poem is not about sadness at the end of summer but instead revels in the ripeness and bounteousness of the season.

Of course, all beekeepers know that the first stanza of To Autumn closes with a reference to bees.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

The flow must go on

Except it doesn’t 🙁

And once the summer nectar flow is over, the honey ripened and the supers safely removed it is time to prepare the colonies for the winter ahead.

It might seem that mid/late August is very early to be thinking about this when the first frosts are probably still 10-12 weeks away. There may even be the possibility of some Himalayan balsam or, further south than here in Fife, late season ivy.

However, the winter preparations are arguably the most important time in the beekeeping year. If you leave it too late there’s a good chance that colonies will struggle with disease, starvation or a toxic combination of the two.

Long-lived bees

The egg laying rate of the queen drops significantly in late summer. I used this graph recently when discussing drones, but look carefully at the upper line with open symbols (worker brood). This data is for Aberdeen, so if you’re beekeeping in Totnes, or Toulouse, it’ll be later in the calendar. But it will be a broadly similar shape.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Worker brood production is down by ~75% when early July and early September are compared.

Not only are the numbers of bees dropping, but their fate is very different as well.

The worker bees reared in early July probably expired while foraging in late August. Those being reared in early September might still be alive and well in February or March.

These are the ‘winter bees‘ that maintain the colony through the cold, dark months so ensuring it is able to develop strongly the following spring.

The purpose of winter preparations is threefold:

    1. Encourage the colony to produce good numbers of winter bees
    2. Make sure they have sufficient stores to get through the winter
    3. Minimise Varroa levels to ensure winter bee longevity

I’ll deal with these in reverse order.

Varroa and viruses

The greatest threat to honey bees is the toxic stew of viruses transmitted by the Varroa mite. Chief amongst these is deformed wing virus (DWV) that results in developmental abnormalities in heavily infected brood.

DWV is well-tolerated by honey bees in the absence of Varroa. The virus is probably predominantly transmitted between bees during feeding, replicating in the gut but not spreading systemically.

However, Varroa transmits the virus when it feeds on haemolymph (or is it the fat body?), so bypassing any protective immune responses that occur in the gut. Consequently the virus can reach all sorts of other sensitive tissues resulting in the symptoms most beekeepers are all too familiar with.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

However, some bees have very high levels of virus but no overt symptoms 1.

But they’re not necessarily healthy …

Several studies have clearly demonstrated that colonies with high levels of Varroa and DWV are much more likely to succumb during the winter 2.

This is because deformed wing virus reduces the longevity of winter bees. Knowing this, the increased winter losses make sense; colonies die because they ‘run out’ of bees to protect the queen and/or early developing brood.

I’ve suggested previously that isolation starvation may actually be the result of large numbers of winter bees dying because of high DWV levels. If the cluster hadn’t shrunk so much they’d still be in contact with the stores.

Even if they stagger on until the spring, colony build up will be slow and faltering and the hive is unlikely to be productive.

Protecting winter bees

The most read article on this site is When to treat? This provides all the gory details and is worth reading to get a better appreciation of the subject.

However, the two most important points have already been made in this post. Winter bees are being reared from late August/early September and their longevity depends upon protecting them from Varroa and DWV.

To minimise exposure to Varroa and DWV you must therefore ensure that mite levels are reduced significantly in late summer.

Since most miticides are incompatible with honey production this means treating very soon after the supers are removed 3.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Once the supers are off there’s nothing to be gained by delaying treatment … other than more mite-exposed bees 🙁

In the graph above the period during which winter bees are being reared is the green arrow between days 240 and 300 (essentially September and October). Mite levels are indicated with solid lines, coloured according to the month of treatment. You kill more mites by treating in mid-October (cyan) but the developing winter bees are exposed to higher mite levels.

In absolute numbers more mites are present and killed because they’ve had longer to replicate … on your developing winter bee pupae 🙁

Full details and a complete explanation is provided in When to treat?

So, once the supers are off, treat as early as is practical. Don’t delay until late September or early October 4.

Treat with what?

As long as it’s effective and used properly I don’t think it matters too much.

Amitraz strip placed in the hive.

Apiguard if it’s warm enough. Apistan if there’s no resistance to pyrethroids in the local mite population (there probably will be 🙁 ). Amitraz or even multiple doses of vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide such as Api-Bioxal 5.

This year I’ve exclusively used Amitraz (Apivar). It’s readily available, very straightforward to use and extremely effective. There’s little well-documented resistance and it does not leave residues in the comb.

The same comments could be made for Apiguard though the weather cannot be relied upon to remain warm enough for its use here in Scotland.

Another reason to not use Apiguard is that it is often poorly tolerated by the queen who promptly stops laying … just when you want her to lay lots of eggs to hatch and develop into winter bees 6.

Feed ’em up

The summer nectar has dried up. You’ve also removed the supers for extraction.

Colonies are likely to be packed with bees and to be low on stores.

Should the weather prevent foraging there’s a real chance colonies might starve 7 so it makes sense to feed them promptly.

The colony will need ~20 kg (or more) of stores to get through the winter. The amount needed will be influenced by the bees 8, the climate and how well insulated the hive is.

I only feed my bees fondant. Some consider this unusual 9, but it suits me, my beekeeping … and my bees.

Bought in bulk, fondant (this year) costs £10.55 for a 12.5 kg block. Assuming there are some stores already in the hive this means I need one to one and a half blocks per colony (i.e. about £16).

These three photographs show a few of the reasons why I only use fondant.

  • It’s prepackaged and ready to use. Nothing to make up. Just remove the cardboard box.
  • Preparation is simplicity itself … just slice it in half with a long sharp knife. Or use a spade.
  • Open the block like a book and invert over a queen excluder. Use an empty super to provide headroom and then replace the crownboard and roof.
  • That’s it. You’re done. Have a holiday 😉
  • The timings shown above are real … and there were a couple of additional photos not used. From opening the cardboard box to adding back the roof took less than 90 seconds. And that includes me taking the photos and cutting the block in half 🙂
  • But equally important is what is not shown in the photographs.
    • No standing over a stove making up gallons of syrup for days in advance.
    • There is no specialist or additional equipment needed. For example, there are no bulky syrup feeders to store for 48 weeks of the year.
    • No spilt syrup to attract wasps.
    • Boxed, fondant keeps for ages. Some of the boxes I used this year were purchased in 2017.
    • The empty boxes are ideal for customers to carry away the honey they have purchased from you 😉
  • The final thing not shown relates to how quickly it is taken down by the bees and is discussed below.

I’m surprised more beekeepers don’t purchase fondant in bulk through their associations and take advantage of the convenience it offers. By the pallet-load delivery is usually free.

Fancy fondant

Capped honey is about 82% sugar by weight. Fondant is pretty close to this at about 78%. Thick syrup (2:1 by weight) is 66% sugar.

Therefore to feed equivalent amounts of sugar for winter you need a greater weight of syrup. Which – assuming you’re not buying it pre-made – means you have to prepare and carry large volumes (and weights) of syrup.

Meaning containers to clean and store.

But consider what the bees have to do with the sugar you provide. They have to take it down into the brood box and store it in a form that does not ferment.

Fermenting stores can cause dysentry. This is ‘a bad thing’ if you are trapped by adverse weather in a hive with 10,000 close relatives … who also have dysentry. Ewww 😯

To reduce the water content the bees use space and energy. Space to store the syrup and energy to evaporate off the excess water.

Bees usually take syrup down very fast, rapidly filling the brood box.

In contrast, fondant is taken down more slowly. This means there is no risk that the queen will run out of space for egg laying. Whilst I’ve not done any side-by-side properly controlled studies – or even improperly controlled ones – the impression I have is that feeding fondant helps the colony rear brood into the autumn 10.

Whatever you might read elsewhere, bees do store fondant. The blocks I added this week will just be crinkly blue plastic husks by late September, and the hives will be correspondingly heavier.

You can purchase fancy fondant prepared for bees with pollen and other additives.

Don’t bother.

Regular ‘Bakers Fondant’ sold to ice Chelsea buns is the stuff to use. All the colonies I inspect at this time of the season have ample pollen stores.

I cannot comment on the statements made about the anti-caking agents in bakers fondant being “very bad for bees” … suffice to say I’ve used fondant for almost a decade with no apparent ill-effects 11.

It’s worth noting that these statements are usually made by beekeeping suppliers justifying selling “beekeeping” fondant for £21 to £36 for 12.5 kg.

Project Fear?


Colophon

The title of this post is a mangling of the well-known phrase The show must go on. This probably originated with circuses in the 19th Century and was subsequently used in the hotel trade and in show business.

The show must go on is also the title of (different) songs by Leo Sayer (in 1973, his first hit record, not one in my collection), Pink Floyd (1979, from The Wall) and Queen (1991).

Women without men

The title of the post last week was The end is nigh which, looking at the fate of drones this week, was prophetic.

Shallow depth of field

Watch your back mate … !

After the ‘June gap’ ended queens started laying again with gusto. However, there are differences in the pattern of egg laying when compared to the late spring and early summer.

Inspections in mid/late August 1 show clear signs of colonies making preparations for the winter ahead.

For at least a month the amount of drone brood in colonies has been reducing (though the proportions do not change dramatically). As drones emerge the cells are being back-filled with nectar.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The data in the graph above was collected over 50 years ago 2. It remains equally valid today with the usual caveats about year-to-year variation, the influence of latitude and local climate.

Drones are valuable …

Drones are vital to the health of the colony.

Honey bees are polyandrous, meaning the queen mates with multiple males so increasing the genetic diversity of the resulting workers.

There are well documented associations between colony fitness and polyandry, including improvements in population growth, weight gain (foraging efficiency) and disease resistance.

The average number of drones mating with a queen is probably somewhere between 12 and 15 under real world conditions. However studies have shown that hyperpolyandry further enhances the benefits of polyandry. Instrumentally inseminated queens “mated” with 30 or 60 drones show greater numbers of brood per bee and reduced levels of Varroa infestation.

Why don’t queens always mate with 30-60 drones then?

Presumably this is a balance between access, predation and availability of drones. For example, more mating would likely necessitate a longer visit to a drone congregation area so increasing the chance of predation.

In addition, increasing the numbers of matings might necessitate increasing the number of drones available for mating 3.

… and expensive

But there’s a cost to increasing the numbers of drones.

Colonies already invest a huge amount in drone rearing. If you consider that this investment is for colony reproduction it is possible to make comparisons with the investment made in workers for reproduction i.e. the swarm that represents the reproductive unit of the colony.

Comparison of the numbers of workers or drones alone is insufficient. As the graph above shows, workers clearly outnumber drones. Remember that drones are significantly bigger than workers. In addition, some workers are not part of the ‘reproductive unit’ (the swarm).

A better comparison is between the dry weight of workers in a swarm and the drones produced by a colony during the season.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons must be made on colonies that make as many drones as they want. Many beekeepers artificially reduce the drone population by only providing worker foundation or culling drone brood (which I will return to later).

In natural colonies the dry weight of workers and drones involved in colony reproduction is just about 1:1 4.

Smaller numbers of drones are produced, but they are individually larger, live a bit longer and need to be fed through this entire period. That is a big investment.

Your days are numbered

And it’s an investment that is no longer needed once the swarming season is over. All those extra mouths that need feeding are a drain on the colony.

Even though the majority of beekeepers see the occasional drone in an overwintering colony, the vast majority of drones are ejected from the hive in late summer or early autumn.

About now in Fife.

In the video above you can see two drones being harassed and evicted. One flies off, the second drops to the ground.

As do many others.

There’s a small, sad pile of dead and dying drones outside the hive entrance at this time of the season. All perfectly normal and not something to worry about 5.

Drones are big, strong bees. These evictions are only possible because the workers have stopped feeding them and they are starved and consequently weakened.

A drone’s life … going out with a bang … or a whimper.

An expense that should be afforded

Some of the original data on colony sex ratios (and absolute numbers) comes from work conducted by Delia Allen in the early 1960’s.

Other colonies in these studies were treated to minimise the numbers of drones reared. Perhaps unexpectedly these colonies did not use the resources (pollen, nectar, bee bread, nurse bee time etc) to rear more worker bees.

In fact, drone-free or low-drone colonies produced more bees overall, a greater weight of bees overall and collected a bit more honey. This strongly suggests that colonies prevented from rearing drones are not able to operate at their maximum potential.

This has interesting implications for our understanding of how resources are divided between drone and worker brood production. It’s obviously not a single ‘pot’ divided according to the numbers of mouths to feed. Rather it suggests that there are independent ‘pots’ dedicated to drone or worker production.

Late season mating and preparations for winter

The summer honey is off and safely in buckets. Colonies are light and a bit lethargic. With little forage about (a bit of balsam and some fireweed perhaps) colonies now need some TLC to prepare them for the winter.

If there’s any reason to delay feeding it’s important that colonies are not allowed to starve. We had a week of bad weather in mid-August. One or two colonies became dangerously light and were given a kilogram of fondant to tide them over until the supers were off all colonies and feeding and treating could begin. I’ll deal with these important activities next week.

In the meantime there are still sufficient drones about to mate with late season queens. The artificial swarm from strong colony in the bee shed was left with a charged, sealed queen cell.

Going by the amount of pollen going in and the fanning workers at the entrance – see the slo-mo movie above – the queen is now mated and the colony will build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully.


Colophon

Men without Women

Men without women was the title of Ernest Hemingway’s second published collection of short stories. They are written in the characteristically pared back, slightly macho and bleak style that Hemingway was famous for.

Many of these stories have a rather unsatisfactory ending.

Not unlike the fate of many of the drones in our colonies.

Women without men is obviously a reworking of the Hemingway title which seemed appropriate considering the gender-balance of colonies going into the winter.

If I’d been restricted to writing using the title Men without Women I’d probably have discussed the wasps that plague our picnics and hives at this time of the year. These are largely males, indulging in an orgy of late-season carbohydrate bingeing.

It doesn’t do them any good … they perish and the hibernating overwintering mated queens single-handedly start a new colony the following spring.