Category Archives: Equipment

Equipment for beginners

As a new beekeeping season gears up we’re approaching the time of year when beginners will start acquiring nucs or swarms to start their own colonies.

Beekeeping is an excellent hobby. It involves physical work outdoors. It is cerebral, requiring good observation, thought and interpretation. You produce delicious honey for your breakfast, your family and friends.

Honey

Honey

You can even recoup your – not inconsiderable – costs by selling products from the hive.

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby and it’s not one you can dependably make money from. Dependably is the important word here. You can certainly make money, by selling honey, bees, wax or propolis, but doing so needs a combination of a good season and the beekeeping expertise to exploit it.

The former is out of your control whereas the latter takes a combination of luck and practise.

You also need the time to develop the customers to sell your products (and not give everything away to friends and family 😉 ).

Hobbies and investments

If you’re interested in starting beekeeping to make money, think again. Instead, buy a 50:50 combination of index-linked gilts and global equity tracker funds. Leave this invested for 20 to 30 years and you’ll make money.

But if you’re starting beekeeping as a hobby (which might make you money in the dim and distant future) then it is worth investing in a minimum amount of good quality equipment.

If beekeeping is for you then you’ll continue using it.

If beekeeping isn’t for you 1 then you’ll be able to sell the equipment without too great a loss.

Buy cheap, buy twice … but this doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive either.

Hives

There are two main decisions to be made here. The material the hive is made from and the type of hive.

The material is immaterial 😉  The main choice is between polystyrene or cedar. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The bees will do fine in either if prepared properly for the winter.

In my view cedar is nicer to handle and a bit more robust. It looks and ‘feels’ more traditional. Poly might be better if you have very harsh winters. I use both more or less interchangeably.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

There are some really lovely cedar hives made, but for starters you cannot go far wrong with the Thorne’s ‘Bees on a Budget‘ hive. I bought my first one (second hand from a beginner who was giving up) and it’s still going strong. I have had hundreds of pounds of honey from that hive over the years.

The best of the poly hives that I’ve used is from Abelo. However, it’s an evolving market and there are lots of poly hives I’ve neither used or even seen.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives

The type of hive – National, Langstroth, Smiths etc. – is one of the most important beekeeping decisions you will make … and one of the first. It doesn’t really matter what type of hive you use 2, but the investment involved commits you to either continuing with that hive type, buying everything again or a lifetime of compatibility problems and frustration 😉

Use what the beekeepers around you use. You should be getting your bees locally and compatibility with them makes buying (and selling in due course) bees easier. It also makes cadging a frame of eggs to ‘rescue’ a queenless hive – or improve your stock – straightforward as the frame will fit into your hive.

Finally, it makes borrowing equipment e.g. spare supers to cope with a phenomenal nectar flow, possible … which brings me on to the an important point …

More hives

You will need some or all of an additional hive the first time you do swarm control. Vertical splits only need an additional brood body, but the classic Pagden artificial swarm requires an additional hive (floor, brood body, crownboard and roof).

In a good year you will also need more than the standard two supers that most ‘complete’ hives are sold with.

Two are better than one …

So … right at the outset it probably makes sense to purchase two complete hives.

Kerching!

Frames

You will need frames of the right size for all boxes you’ve bought. Super frames can be used year after year. Brood frames need replacing about every three years (or the comb does, the frame can be re-used).

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

Helpfully frames are sold in tens, whereas many boxes require eleven frames. D’oh! At least you’ll have some spares.

You will also need foundation for the frames. Buy the best quality you can get. The bees are going to ‘live’ in it and store your honey in it. There have been problems with poor quality foundation which may contain lots of impurities or chemicals.

In due course, but not right from the start 3, consider using foundationless frames. You will save money and have confidence that the wax is the best possible quality as the bees made it all themselves.

I emboldened all in the opening paragraph of this section deliberately.

There are few things more frustrating than grabbing an empty brood box (expecting a full one) when you’re in the middle of the swarming season.

Another one of those Don’t do as I do, do as I say statements 😉

Miscellaneous hive parts and other equipment

Some ‘complete’ hives (like the Abelo) are sold without a queen excluder.

So, not complete then 😉

The cheapo plastic queen excluders are OK, but a wood-framed metal excluder is easier to use, squashes far fewer bees and is much easier to clean.

You will also need a way to clear the supers of bees before the honey harvest. The Thorne’s Bees on a Budget hive comes with a couple of porter bee escapes and a suitable crownboard, but you’ll need to beg, steal or build something suitable if you buy the Abelo.

Hive tools are a very personal item. There are dozens of different designs and it will take some time to decide which best suits your beekeeping and your hands. Some are big and heavy, some are small and light. Choose a simple medium sized inexpensive one for starters.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And then buy another as you’ll probably lose it in the long grass 😉

Buy a honey bucket and keep your hive tools, together with a small serrated knife and a pair of scissors, in strong washing soda. You can leave this in the apiary. The tools will stay pathogen-free and be nice and clean when you next use them.

I’ve owned three smokers since starting. The first was small, a nightmare to start and worse to keep alight. The other two are the little and large Dadant smokers. These aren’t inexpensive, but they are easy to use and last forever.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Unless you reverse your car over it 🙁

Get another honey bucket to keep your smoker fuel in – once you’ve spent months deciding what works best.

That’s it … no bee brush, frame stand, powdered sugar shaker, queen clip or the 1001 ‘essentials‘ you find listed in the catalogues.

The sting and confidence

Bees sting and you will get stung. When you do  get stung it generally means you’ve done something wrong or you have temperamental bees. The latter can be due to the weather, the forage (or lack of it) or bad genes.

Working confidently with bees comes with practice and with the knowledge that you are wearing sufficient protection to keep the bees away from the most sensitive spots.

A good bee suit costs about as much as a complete hive and should last as long. BBwear and BJ Sherriff bee suits are high quality, well made, repairable and come in a myriad of colours. I’d recommend their basic models in a full suit style … as you gain experience you might progress to a jacket or even just a veil.

I still use the first BBwear suit I bought. It’s been washed hundreds of times and is a bit tatty but it has at least another decade of use in it.

Paradoxically, the gloves that give me the most confidence when working with bees are the thinnest I own. These are long-cuff blue nitrile gloves. They are thin enough to feel a bee if you’ve trapped it, rather than just squishing it as you would wearing thick gauntlets.

BBwear used to offer ‘free’ gauntlets with their suits. They were like welders mittens! Ask for a discount instead and use standard Marigold-type washing up gloves to start with. Stings can just about penetrate, but are attenuated. You’ll be reminded when you’re doing something wrong, but they enable far more dexterity than the sting-pheremone-accumulating leather gauntlets.

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t, whatever you do, buy heavy duty, black, long cuff household gloves.

Why not?

Remember that most bears don’t look (or behave) like Winnie the Pooh … 😉

Is that it?

More or less. I reckon everything above is essential for beginners (including a duplicate hive). I’ve only included the specialist beekeeping equipment and have excluded items you should borrow from your local association (or mentor … you do have a mentor?) such as an extractor. I’ve also excluded Varroa treatments, sugar/fondant for winter stores and the non-specialist stuff like a notepad, wellington boots or a bag to carry everything to the apiary.

There won’t be much change out of £500, but there should be some.

And you still have to get some bees 🙁

As I said, not inexpensive. I’ve got a half-written post on the economics of hobby beekeeping, including indications of where you can save money (and where you can make money).

Remember also that keeping two colonies is highly recommended, so doubling the equipment needed. Perhaps not in your first year, but – perhaps after a successful artificial swarm – something to plan for your second full season.

Luxury item

If this was Desert Island Discs you’d be allowed one luxury item. Although not a luxury as such, the one nearly invaluable additional item I’d add to the list above is a poly nucleus box.

Nuc boxes are probably the most useful pieces of equipment in beekeeping. You can overwinter colonies in them, catch swarms, keep the queen safe and use them for a very effective form of swarm control.

Again, like the poly hives there are lots of makes, all with their own particular quirks. You need one that takes the same frame size as the hives. However, unlike full size hives I’d only recommend polystyrene, not cedar. They are lighter and much better insulated.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

They are also more reasonably priced, so drop some hints before Christmas after your first full season of beekeeping.


 

 

 

 

Ready, Steady … Wait

Since you are reading an internet beekeeping site you are probably aware of the discussion fora like Beesource, BBKA, the Beekeeping Forum and Beemaster Forum.

Several of these have a section for beginners. The idea is that the beginner posts a simple beekeeping question and, hey presto, gets a helpful answer.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different 😉

The question might seem simple (“Should I start colony inspections this week?”), but the answers might well not be.

If there’s more than one answer they will, of course, be contradictory. The standard rule applies …

Opinions expressed = n + 1 (where n is the number of respondents 1)

… but these opinions will be interspersed with petty squabbles, rhetorical questions in return, veiled threats, comments about climate or location, blatant trolling and a long discourse on the benefits of native black bees/Buckfast/Carniolans or Osmia bicornis 2

Finally the thread will peter out and the respondents move to another question … “When should I put the first super on my hive?”

Climate and weather

Although it might not seem helpful at the time, the comment about climate and location refers to an important aspect of beekeeping often overlooked by beginners 3.

Climate and weather are related by time. Weather refers to the short term atmospheric conditions, whereas climate is the average of that weather.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

Climate and weather have a profound influence on our beekeeping.

We live on a small island bathed in warm water originating from the Gulf Stream. In addition, we are adjacent to a large land mass. The continent and the sea influence both our weather and climate.

For simplicity I’m going to only consider temperature and rainfall. The former influences the flowering period of plants and trees upon which the bees forage.

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Both temperature and rainfall determine whether the bees can forage – if it’s too cold or wet they stay in the hive.

And adverse weather (strong winds, heavy rain) can make inspections an unpleasant experience for the bees … and the beekeeper 4.

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

The North – South divide (and the East – West divide)

Compare the mean temperature in Fife (marked with the red star) with Plymouth (blue star). The average annual temperature is 8-9°C in Fife and 10-11°C in Plymouth. Although this seems to be a very minor temperature difference it makes a huge difference to the beekeeping season 5.

As I write this (mid-April) I’ve yet to fully inspect a hive but colonies are swarming in the south of England, and have been for at least a week.

When I lived in the Midlands I would often start queen rearing in mid/late April 6 whereas here inspections might not begin until May in some years.

The 6° of latitude difference between Plymouth and Fife (~415 miles) is probably equivalent to 3-4 weeks in beekeeping terms.

In contrast to the oft-quoted view that ‘Scotland is wet’, Fife only gets about 66% of the rainfall of Plymouth (800-1000 mm for Fife vs. 1250-1500 mm for Plymouth).

However, there is an East – West divide for rainfall in parts of the country. I’m writing this in Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of mainland Britain (yellow arrow), where we get about three times the annual rainfall as the arid East coast of Fife.

The rhythm of the seasons

The seasonal duties of the beekeeper are dependent on the weather and the climate. This is because the development of the colony is influenced by how early and how warm the Spring was, how many good foraging days there were in summer, the availability of sunny 20°C days for queen mating and the warmth of the autumn for late brood rearing.

And a host of other weather-related things.

All of which vary depending where your bees live.

And vary from year to year.

Which is why it’s impossible to answer the apparently simple question When should I put the first super on my hive?” using a calendar.

“Beekeeping by numbers (or dates)” doesn’t work.

You have to learn the rhythm of the seasons.

Make a note of when early pollen (snowdrop, crocus, hazel, willow) becomes available, when the OSR and rosebay willowherb flowers and when migratory birds return 7. The obvious ones to record are flowers or trees that generate most honey for you, but early- and late-season cues are also useful.

Most useful are the seasonal occurrences that precede key events in the beekeeping year.

Link these together with the recent weather and the development of your colonies. By doing this you will begin to know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. 

If the OSR is just breaking bud 8 start piling the supers on. If cuckoos are first heard a month before the peak of the swarming period in your area make sure you prepare enough new frames for your preferred swarm control method.

And preparation is pretty-much all I’ve been doing so far this year … though I expect to conduct my first full inspections over the Easter weekend.

Degree days

While doing some background reading on climate when preparing this post I came across the concept of heating and cooling degree days. These are used by engineers involved in calculating the energy costs of heating or cooling buildings.

Heating degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was below a certain level. 

Conversely, cooling degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was above a certain level.

You can read lots more about degree days on the logically-named degreedays.net , which is where the definitions above originated.

From a beekeeping point of view you can use this sort of data to compare seasons or locations.

Most ‘degree days’ calculations use 15.5°C as the certain level in the definitions above. This isn’t particularly relevant to beekeeping (but is if you are heating a building). However, degreedays.net (which have a bee on their BizEE Software Ltd. logo 🙂 ) can generate custom degree day information for any location with suitable weather data and you can define the level above or below which the calculation is based.

For convenience I chose 10°C. Much lower than this and foraging is limited.

The North – South divide (again)

So, let’s return to swarms in Plymouth and the absence of inspections in Fife … how can we explain this if the average annual temperate is only a couple of degrees different?

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Focus on the dashed lines for the moment. September to November (months 9, 10 and 11) were very similar for both Plymouth (blue) and Fife (red). After that – unsurprisingly – the Fife winter is both colder and longer. From December through to March the Plymouth line rises later, rises less far and falls faster. In Plymouth the winter is less cold, is shorter and – as far as the bees are concerned – the season starts about a month earlier 9.

2018 in Fife was an excellent year for honey. After a cold winter (and the Beast from the East) colonies built up well and I harvested record amounts (for me) of both spring honey (in early June) and summer honey (in late July/early August).

I’ve no idea what 2018 was like for honey yields in Plymouth, but the cooling degree days (solid lines) show that it was warmer earlier, hotter overall and that the season lasted perhaps a month longer (though this tells us nothing about forage availability).

Of course it’s the longer, hotter summers and cooler, shorter winters that – averaged out – mean the average annual temperature difference between Plymouth and Fife is only a couple of degrees Centigrade.

Good years and bad years

As far as honey is concerned the last two years in Fife have been, respectively, sublime and ridiculous.

2018 was great and 2017 was catastrophic.

How do these look when plotted?

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The onset of summer (solid lines – the cooling degree days – months 4-6) and the preceding winter (dashed lines – the heating degree days – months 9-11) were similar – the lines are nearly superimposed.

The 2016-17 winter was milder and shorter than 2017-18. The latter was extended by arrival of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma which brought blizzards in late February and continued unseasonably cold through March.

However, the harsh 2017-18 winter didn’t hold the bees back and the 2018 season brought bumper honey harvests.

In contrast, the 2017 season was hopeless. It was cooler overall, but the duration of the season was similar to the following year 10. Supers remained resolutely empty and my entire honey crop shared a single batch number 🙁

However, it wasn’t the temperature that was the main problem. It was the abnormally high rainfall during June.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010 …

Colonies were unable to forage. Some needed feeding. Queen mating was very patchy, with several turning out as drone laying queens later in the season.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

The spring nectar flows were a washout and the colonies weren’t at full strength to exploit the July flows.

Let’s see what 2019 brings …


 

Unknown knowns

If there’s one thing that can be almost guaranteed about the beekeeping season ahead it’s that it will be unpredictably predictable. I can be pretty sure what is going to happen, but not precisely when it’s going to happen.

These are the unknown knowns.

The one thing I can be sure about is that once things get started it will go faster than I’d like … both in terms of things needing attention now (or yesterday 🙁 ) and in the overall duration of the season.

So, if you know what is coming – spring build up, early nectar flow, swarming, queen rearing, splits, summer nectar flow, robbing, uniting, wasps, Varroa control and feeding colonies up for winter – you can be prepared.

As Benjamin Franklin said …

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

Preparation involves planning for the range of events that the season will (or could) produce.

It also involves ensuring you have additional equipment to cope with the events you’ve planned for.

Ideally, you’ll also have sufficient for the events you failed to include in your plans but that happened anyway 😉

Finally, it involves purchasing the food and treatments you need to manage the health and winter feeding of the colony 1 .

So what do you need to plan for?

Death and taxes 2

The two utterly dependable events in the beekeeping season are – and this is likely to be a big disappointment for new 3 beekeepers – Varroa control and feeding.

Not an outrageous early spring honey crop, not ten weeks of uninterrupted balmy days for queen rearing, not even lots of swarms in your bait hives (freebees) … and certainly not supers-full of fabulous lime or heather honey.

Sorry 😉

So … plan now how you are going to feed the colony and how you are going to monitor and manage mites during the season.

Feeding usually involves a choice between purchased syrup, homemade syrup or fondant. I almost exclusively use fondant and so always have fondant in stock. I also keep a few kilograms of sugar to make syrup if needed.

Buy it in advance because you might need it in advance. If it rains for a month in May there’s a real chance that colonies will starve and you’ll need to feed them.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

I’ve discussed mites a lot on this site. Plan in advance how you will treat after the summer honey comes off and again in midwinter. Buy an appropriate 4 treatment in advance 5. That way, should your regular mite-monitoring indicate that levels are alarmingly high, you can intervene immediately.

Having planned for the nailed-on certainties you can now turn your attention to the more enjoyable events in the beekeeping year … honey production and reproduction.

Honey production

Preparing for the season primarily means ensuring you have sufficient equipment, spares and space for whatever the year produces.

In a good season – long sunny days and seemingly endless nectar flows – this means having more than enough supers, each with a full complement of frames.

How many is more than enough?

More supers

More supers

Here on the east coast of Scotland I’ve not needed more than three and a bit per hive i.e. a few hives might need four in an exceptional summer (like 2018). When I lived in the Midlands it was more.

Running out of supers in the middle of the nectar-flow-to-end-all-nectar-flows is a frustrating experience. Boxes get overcrowded, the bees pack the brood box with nectar, the queen runs out of laying space and the honey takes longer to ripen 6.

Without sufficient supers 7 you’ll have to beg, borrow or steal some mid-season.

Which is necessary because … it’s exactly the time the equipment suppliers have run out of the supers, frames and foundation you desperately need.

And so will all of your beekeeping friends …

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Not that you’ve necessarily got the time to assemble the things anyway 😉

Don’t forget the brood frames

You’ll need more brood frames every season. A good rule of thumb is to replace a third of these every year.

There are a variety of ways of achieving this. They can be rotated out (moving the oldest, blackest frames to the edge of the box) during regular inspections, or you can remove frames following splits/uniting or through Bailey comb changes.

Irrespective of how it’s achieved, you will need more brood frames and – if you use foundation – you’ll need more of that as well.

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames …

And the suppliers will sell out of these as well 🙁

But that’s not all …

You will also need sufficient additional brood frames for use during swarm prevention and control and – if that didn’t work – subsequent rescue of the swarm from the hedge.

Swarmtastic

In a typical year the colony will reproduce. Reproduction involves swarming. If the colony swarms you may lose the bees that would have produced your honey.

You can make bees or you can make honey, but it takes real skill and a good year to make both.

And to make both you’ll need spare equipment.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Knowing that the colony is likely to swarm in late spring, you need to plan in advance how you will manage the hive to control or prevent swarming. This generally means providing them with ample space (a second brood box … so yet more brood frames) and, if that doesn’t work 8, manipulating the colony so that it doesn’t swarm.

Which means an additional complete hive (floor, brood box, yet more brood frames, crownboard, roof) if you plan to use Pagdens’ artificial swarm.

Alternatively, with slightly less equipment, you can conduct a vertical split which is essentially a vertically orientated artificial swarm.

Or you can use a nucleus (nuc) box to house the old queen … a very straightforward method I’ll discuss in more detail later this season.

Bait hives and skeps

I don’t like losing swarms. I’ve previously discussed the responsibilities of beekeepers, which includes not subjecting the general public to swarms that might harm or frighten them, or establish a colony in their roof space.

But I do like both attracting swarms and re-hiving swarms of mine that ‘escaped’ (temporarily 😉 ). I always set out bait hives near my apiaries. If properly set up these efficiently attract swarms (your own or from other beekeepers) and save you the trouble of teetering at the top of a ladder to recover the swarm from an apple tree.

But if you end up doing the latter you’ll need a skep 9 or a nice, light, large poly nuc box to carefully drop the swarm into.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Don’t forget the additional brood frames you will need in your bait hive or in the hive you eventually place the colony in the skep into 😉

Planned reproduction

You’re probably getting the idea by now … beekeeping involves a bit more than one hive tucked away in the corner of the garden.

Not least because you really need a minimum of two colonies.

A quick peek inside the shed of any beekeeper with more than 3 years experience will give you an idea of what might be needed. Probably together with a lot of stuff that isn’t needed 😉

Storage shed

Storage shed

By planned reproduction I mean ‘making increase’ i.e. deliberately increasing your colony numbers, or rearing queens for improving your own stocks (or those of others).

This can be as simple as a vertical split or as complicated as cell raising colonies, grafting and mini mating nucs.

By the time most beekeepers get involved in this aspect of the hobby 10 they will have a good idea of the additional specialised equipment needed. This need not be complicated and it certainly is not expensive.

I’ve covered some aspects of queen rearing previously and will write more about it this season.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Of course, once you start increasing your colony numbers you will need additional brood boxes, supers, nuc boxes, floors, roofs, stands, crownboards, queen excluders and – of course – frames.

And a bigger shed 😉


Colophon

The title of this post is an inelegant butchering of part of a famous statement from Donald Rumsfeld, erstwhile US Secretary of Defense. While discussing evidence for Iraqi provision of weapons of mass destruction Rumsfeld made the following convoluted pronouncement:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The unknown known

The unknown known

If you can be bothered to read through that lot you’ll realise the one thing Rumsfeld didn’t mention are the unknown knowns.

However, as shown in the image, this was the title of the 2013 Errol Morris documentary on Rumsfeld’s political career. In this, Rumsfeld defined the “unknown knowns” [as] “things that you know, that you don’t know you know.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, claimed that Rumsfeld doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” ... though she wasn’t referring to the unknown knowns.

 

Winter chores

After two weeks of mites, their diets and pedantry we’ll take a break this week for some practical beekeeping.

Or at least as close as you can get to practical beekeeping when it’s been as cold as -8°C.

Midwinter is a time to prepare for the season ahead, to stock up on new equipment during the winter sales, build more frames, plan the strategy for swarm control and think about stock improvement.

And – if you’re anything like as disorganised as me – it’s also the time to tidy up after the season just finished.

Which is what we’ll deal with today.

Tidy the shed

The original research apiary and bee shed is now under an access road for a new school. Fortunately, we managed to rescue the shed which has now been re-assembled in the new apiary.

In the longer term these sheds could together accommodate at least a dozen full colonies. However, in the shorter term it has allowed me to rationalise the storage, giving much more space to work with the colonies in the larger shed.

Supers and brood in the storage shed have all been tidied (see below) and are in labelled stacks ready to use. The other side of the store contains stacks of floors, split boards, clearers and roofs.

It’ll get messier as the season progresses, but it’s a good start.

I also spent a couple of weekends making some minor improvements to the bee shed following the experience last season.

The lighting has been increased and repositioned so it is ‘over the shoulder’ when doing inspections. On a dull winter day it is dazzlingly bright 1 but I fear it will still not be enough. I’m looking at creating some reflectors to direct the light better.

I’ve also used a few tubes of exterior sealant to block up all the holes and cracks around the edge of the shed roof. Last season was a bad one for wasps and we were plagued with the little stripy blighters.

Tidy the frames

Two of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has are drawn super frames and capped stores in brood frames.

Look after them!

I often end up uniting colonies late in the season, but then overwinter the bees in a single brood box. This means I can end up with spare frames of sealed stores. These should be protected from wax moth and mice (or anything else) as they are really useful the following year for boosting colonies that are light on stores or making up nucs.

Drawn supers can be used time and time again, year after year. They also need to be protected but – if your extraction is as chaotic as mine – they also usually need to be tidied up so they are ready for the following season.

I load my extractor to balance it properly, rather than just super by super. Inevitably this means the extracted frames are all mixed up. Since frames are also often drawn out unevenly this leaves me with a 250 piece jigsaw with billions of possible permutations, but only a few correct solutions.

Little and large - untidy frames and a breadknife

Little and large – untidy frames and a breadknife

And that’s ignoring all the frames with brace comb that accumulate during a good flow.

So, in midwinter I tidy up all the cleared super frames, levelling off the worst of the waviness with a sharp breadknife, removing the brace comb, scraping down the top bar and arranging them – 9 to 11 at a time 2 – in supers stored neatly in covered stacks.

And, if you’ve got a lot, label them so you know what’s where.

An hour or two of work on a dingy midwinter day can help avoid those irritating moments when – in the middle of a strong flow – you grab a super to find it contains just five ill-fitting frames, one of which has a broken lug.

The wax removed during this tidying up is usually lovely and white. Save it for making soaps, cosmetics or top-quality candles.

Wax extraction

Brood comb has a finite life. After about three years of repeated brood rearing cycles it should be replaced. Old comb contains relatively little wax but what’s there can be recovered using a solar or steam wax extractor. This also allows the cleaned frames to be re-used.

Processing a few dozen brood frames with a solar wax extractor during a Scottish winter is an exercise in futility. For years I’ve used a DIY steam wax extractor which worked pretty well but was starting to fall apart. I therefore recently took advantage of the winter sales and purchased a Thorne’s Easi-steam 3.

The Easi-steam works well and with a little further processing generates a few kilograms of wax for making firelighters or trading in … and a large stack of frames for re-use.

Remember to keep a few old dark brood frames aside for using in bait hives

Keep an eye on your bees

In between all these winter chores don’t forget to check on your bees.

There’s not a lot to do, but these checks are important.

Make sure the entrances are clear, that the mouse guards 4 are in place and that the roofs are secure.

Storm Eric brought us 50-60 mph winds and a couple of my hives lost their roofs. These had survived a couple of previous storms, but the wind was from a different direction and lifted the roofs and the bricks stacked on top. I got to them the following day but we’ll have to wait until the season warms up to determine if there’s any harm done.

Fondant top up

Fondant top up

Finally, as the days lengthen and it gets marginally warmer colonies should have started rearing brood again. Make sure they have sufficient stores by regularly ‘hefting‘ the hive. If stores are low, top them up with a block or two of fondant. This should be placed directly over the cluster, either over a hole in the crownboard or on the top bars of the frames.


 

Flawed floors

I’m a fan of Abelo poly National hives. They’re reasonably robust, well-insulating, correctly dimensioned 1 and pre-painted.

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

I’ve been using these boxes for well over a year now and will review them shortly.

The review will be generally positive.

Abelo floor and entrance reducer

Abelo floor and entrance reducer

‘Generally’ as I really don’t like the floors. They are by far the weakest part of the hive design and have a number of, er, flaws making them poorly suited to my beekeeping 2.

Rather than ‘taint’ a future review with negative comments on these flaws floors I’ll deal with them in this post and ignore them in the future 3.

The poly hive retails at about £125 for a hive with 2 supers. The Abelo floor alone costs £25.

What’s the floor for?

At its most basic the floor serves as something to stand a compatible brood box on.

But it does more than that.

It allows the bees to enter and exit and it often has features that discourage the entry of other animals … like mice.

These days open mesh floors (OMF) are commonplace, allowing mites dislodged by grooming or miticides to fall out and away from the colony.

But, if you think about it in a bit more detail you realise that the floor does other things as well and therefore needs additional features:

  • it’s what’s handled if you’re bodily picking up the entire hive
  • it needs to have an entrance that is easily and securely sealed for transporting hives
  • there is often an integrated landing board (for the beekeeper, rather than the bees)
  • for convenience it should have a Varroa tray to monitor mites that fall through the OMF
  • if used when vaporising oxalic acid-containing treatments it needs to be reasonably ‘gas tight’

How does the Abelo poly National floor 4 meet these requirements?

First, the good points

The Abelo floors are sturdy, ready-painted and nicely cast (molded? moulded? formed?) from dense poly. The paint (all mine are green or yellow though they may do blue as well) is tightly bonded to the poly surface and doesn’t easily wear away. I think the white patches in the picture below were there from manufacture, not from use.

Abelo floor - drone'e eye view

Abelo floor – drone’e eye view

The floors have an reasonable area of mesh, securely held in place. The mesh area isn’t as great as some wooden floors, but is at least as good as my homemade kewl floors.

On either side of the floor, on the underside, there is a recessed handhold that really helps in lifting hives. These recesses are also convenient anchoring points for an elasticated bungy to hold the roof in place 5.

Worms-eye view of an Abelo floor

Worms-eye view of an Abelo floor

Probably the best feature of these floors is that they’re fully compatible with other National hive components. I’ve mixed them with cedar or Swienty poly brood boxes and they fit perfectly. The interface between the boxes is flat, the correct dimensions and pretty hard-wearing.

Entrance blocks

Abelo do tend to design rather ‘fiddly’ equipment and they’re very keen on ventilation.

They usually include these fiddly design features to allow increased ventilation – or at least the option for it.

The entrance block is in two parts (see photo above). A grey plastic reversible full-width block that drops into two vertical slots on either side of the landing board. One way up the entrance is reduced to ~8cm wide. Inverted and the entrance is sealed.

Well, sort of sealed 🙁

There are four vertical ventilation holes that remain open on either side of the entrance block. Are these really needed? After all, the ventilation provided by the OMF far exceeds the little bit extra through the entrance block.

There’s a second green 6 plastic slider that can be added to the entrance block to provide an integral mouse guard. Or – more options – if inverted it can be used to further reduce the entrance to one bee width (or closed off altogether).

Ventilation and Varroa trays

Returning to the underside of the floor, the weakest part of the design is the Varroa tray.

Abelo floor Varroa tray - inserted

Abelo floor Varroa tray – inserted

The tray is unpainted polystyrene, square with a shallow lip. It slots into a recess in the underside of the floor, supported by two metal runners.

The area of the tray is approximately 75% of the floor area of a National brood box. With a full colony, some of the Varroa will fall outwith this area. This isn’t a major issue, but it could lead to underestimating the mite load in the colony.

The tray slides in and out easily, facilitated by a small protruding handle on the underside.

Abelo Varroa tray half withdrawn

Abelo Varroa tray half withdrawn

Unfortunately, there are some large gaps around the tray when it’s in place. If you sublimate oxalic acid a significant proportion of the vapour escapes around the edges of the Varroa tray.

The gaps around the tray are awkwardly shaped, so it’s not straightforward to plug them … other than with foam blocks perhaps. It’s also not possible to easily temporarily replace the tray with a Correx sheet. If you did it would need holding in place so potentially putting you too close to the hive and clouds of escaping oxalic acid vapour.

Resourceful beekeepers will work out solutions to these problems, but it would have been better if the defects weren’t designed into the floor in the first place.

Abelo floor, Varroa tray inverted

Abelo floor, Varroa tray inverted

And, before you ask, inverting the tray does not significantly seal off the gaps!

Poly Varroa trays

It is possible to make reasonably ‘vapour-tight’ poly Varroa trays. For example, the Thorne’s Everynuc has one that slots neatly in place. I’ve used these dozens of times and there is very little loss of vapour in my experience.

However, the Abelo floor (and the Everynuc Varroa tray) has the additional problem of being unpainted polystyrene. These very quickly become stained, with pollen, bee faeces and all of the usual rubbish that falls through the floor.

Abelo poly Varroa tray

Abelo poly Varroa tray

This staining makes counting Varroa much more difficult.

Again, a couple of coats of white gloss paint would seal the surface of the tray. However, this rather undermines the attraction of the ready-painted Abelo hives 🙁

Alternatively, you could source some white Correx sheet to make an insert that would be easy to draw a grid on, count Varroa in and clean.

And, inevitably, easy to lose.

Floors done well

In summary, the problems with these Abelo floors are three-fold.

  1. Intentionally (the entrance block) and unintentionally (the Varroa tray) leave too much ventilation to conveniently be used when sublimating oxalic acid. The success of these depends upon retaining the vapour within the hive while it condenses on internal surfaces. Allowing it to leak out excessively simply makes the treatment less effective.
  2. Even if you don’t control Varroa by oxalic acid vaporisation the Varroa tray gets dirty quickly and is difficult to clean.
  3. Finally, it’s not possible to securely fix the entrance for transporting colonies, other than by using loads of gaffer tape. Even if you do, the large landing board on these floors makes strapping hives together awkward.

Most of my hives have homemade kewl floors. These probably cost about £6 each to make and have none of the problems listed above. They offer additional benefits as the L-shaped entrance ‘tunnel’ prevents mice from entering the hive and reduces robbing by wasps.

Kewl floor and Correx landing board ...

Kewl floor and Correx landing board …

These DIY floors have a simple, easy to clean, Correx Varroa tray that is much more ‘gas-tight’ than the Abelo design. An L-shaped wooden entrance block can be screwed in place for transport and the landing board is effectively integral to the floor, replaceable if damaged and does not project in a way that inhibits strapping hives together for transport.

Cedar floor and plywood tray ...

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

Kewl floors are unsuited to being used in the bee shed. For these hives we use slightly modified cedar floors made by Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives. These have a ply removable Varroa monitoring tray that provides an excellent ‘gas-tight’ fit when sublimating. These floors are not inexpensive, but they are very well made.

Cedar floor with closed monitoring tray

Cedar floor with closed monitoring tray

Considering the quality of the rest of the Abelo National hives, these floors are a disappointment. I use them if I’ve run out of everything else and I kick myself when I discover – as I did a few weeks ago – that there are still some in use when the midwinter mite treatment is needed.

What do you call a stack of Abelo poly floors ...

What do you call a stack of Abelo poly floors …


Colophon

Hooke's microscope

Hooke’s microscope

Floor and flaw are homonyms, two words that sound the same but have different meanings. Floor, meaning in this context the ‘base of any cavity’ probably dates back to Old English (Anglo Saxon) ~317AD. Flaw in comparison is a young upstart, with the first recorded use being by Robert Hooke in 1665. Hooke was, amongst other things a microbiologist, and he used the word flaw in his book, Micrographia, which is about his observations using a microscope (and telescopes). Hooke was the first to use the word ‘cell’ following microscopic examination of plant cells, which have walls, because the appearance reminded him of honeycomb.

Abelo smoker box

Small Dadant smoker

Small Dadant smoker

There’s no smoke without fire.

That’s usually considered to be an idiom.

Unless you are a beekeeper, in which case it’s probably also a proverb 1.

A large, properly fuelled and well-lit smoker will produce smoke for a very long time. The right sort of fuel and a few puffs on the bellows, perhaps with an infrequent top-up, will keep a smoker going for several hours.

A smoker that’s “gone out” can often be resurrected with a few vigorous puffs. Indeed, after finishing in one apiary, stuffing the smoker nozzle with a twist of damp grass and driving to another apiary, it’s not unusual to be able to restart it without relighting it.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t very safe.

Too hot to handle

Most half-decent smokers have some sort of heat shield or cage. These stop you inadvertently melting your gloves or burning your fingers. Some heat shields are better than others but, frankly, none are really good.

The cage on the Dadant smokers I use is ‘barely there’ underneath the smoker. Polystyrene and Correx roofs are easily melted if you’re stupid enough to stand the smoker on them.

I am 🙁

And that also means that car upholstery can be damaged if you don’t ensure the smoker has cooled down before packing it away.

I’m reasonably careful about this, but it’s easy to overlook things when in a hurry or distracted. In the past, through inattentiveness, I’ve returned to the car to find it filling with smoke 2 and periodically stories circulate about a beekeepers setting their car/van alight when transporting smokers 3.

Abelo smoker box

All this explains why I was so grateful to receive the gift of a smart metal Abelo smoker box when I recently gave an evening talk at a beekeeping association.

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

The box is well designed and amply big enough to take the larger of the two Dadant smokers (which is one of the largest smokers on the market). It has a fold-flat handle on the top and a small, but secure, catch to hold the lid closed.

The base of the box (not shown in the pictures) is recessed by about half an inch. This means that a hot smoker cannot directly transmit heat through the metal to whatever the box is sitting on.

Finally, the inner rim of the lid has a strip of draught sealant around the edge. A lit smoker placed in the box should go out pretty quickly due to lack of oxygen.

Could it be improved? Smokers go out faster when laid on their sides. In this box (unlike the one used by Ron Miksha) the smoker stands upright … unless I lay the entire box on its side I suppose.

It’s midwinter. It’s a month since I last opened a box of bees and it’ll be at least another three months until I fire up the smoker again and inspect my next colony.

However, when I do I’ll be able to transport my smoker safely between apiaries.


Colophon

There’s no smoke without fire was first used in the 14th Century, appeared in collections of proverbs from the mid-16th Century and remains current today 4.

Bee shed musings

It’s the end of our third season using a bee shed, and the end of the first season using the ‘new and improved’ bee shed mark 2.

What’s worked and what hasn’t?

Why keep bees in a shed at all?

A bee hive provides a secure and weatherproof container to protect the colony 1. Why then keep bee hives inside a building, like the bee shed?

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Beekeeping, of necessity, involves regular inspections at 7-10 day intervals throughout the main part of the season. These inspections involve opening the hive and checking for disease, for evidence that the colony is developing as expected 2, for adequate stores and space, and for for the telltale signs that the colony is thinking of swarming.

Since these inspections involve opening the hive the weather needs to be at least half-decent. Heavy rain, low temperatures and cold winds make it a less than pleasant experience – for the bees and for the beekeeper.

That’s not a problem if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose days with benign conditions to inspect the colony.

But we don’t have that luxury.

The hives in the shed are used for research into the viruses (deformed wing virus and chronic bee paralysis virus) that are the major threats to colony health. Although we don’t conduct experiments in these hives we do use them as a regular source of larvae, pupae and workers for experiments in the laboratory 3.

We therefore must be able to open and work in the hives:

  • very early in the season
  • very late in the season – we’re still harvesting brood as I write this in early November
  • irrespective of the weather at particular times and/or days of the week

This is the east coast of Scotland. If it’s chucking it down with rain, blowing a hoolie 4, really cold or a combination of these (not unusual), then not only is it unpleasant for the beekeeper, but it’s also unpleasant for the bees …

… and they let us know about it.

The bee shed

Welcome ...

Welcome …

To protect the bees and the beekeeper we’ve built a shed to accommodate standard National hives, connected to the outside with simple tunnels.

From the outside it looks like a shed.

From the inside it looks like an apiary with wooden walls and less light 5.

Details of the first shed and its successor are posted elsewhere. The current shed is 16 x 8 feet and houses up to seven full colonies arranged along the south-facing wall.

There are windows along the entire length of this wall of the shed, sufficient storage space for dozens of spare supers, brood boxes, floors, the hivebarrow and a couple of hundred kilograms of fondant.

Hives are all arranged ‘warm way’ on a single full-length stand and inspected from the rear.

How does all this work in practice?

Space

The shed is probably still too small 🙁

Once all of that lovely storage space is in use there’s a relatively narrow passageway between the hives and the stacks of supers and fondant. For a lone beekeeper this isn’t an issue. For training purposes, or with multiple people working at once, it’s distinctly cramped.

Inspections involve lots of walking back and forwards to the door (see below) and this would be made much easier by:

  • not storing spare supers, fondant, broods and the wheelbarrow in the shed
  • only allowing very thin people with no concept of ‘personal space‘ to use the shed
  • having a much wider shed

Of these, the last option is probably the most realistic.

I’ve recently been asked for comments about using a shed for a school beekeeping association. Since this is likely to involve an element of training, with several trainees huddling around the hive, my advice would be:

  • reduce the number of hives to a maximum of three in a 16 foot long shed, each on individual stands with space to access the hive from both behind and the sides
  • buy a wider shed or store all those ‘essential’ spares elsewhere

Lighting

The shed has a solar powered LED lighting system running off a 100Ah ‘leisure’ battery. There are six of the highest power LED lights available (~120W equivalents … each ~700 lumens 6) immediately above the hives.

The lighting is great. It makes working in the shed ‘off grid’ in the evenings or on dull and dingy days much easier.

However, on a bright day this lighting is insignificant when compared to the light streaming in through the windows.

But, whatever the weather, the lighting inside the shed is still less than optimal when you’re looking for eggs or day-old larvae.

Perhaps it’s my increasingly poor eyesight but I find myself nipping out of the shed door to inspect frames for eggs or tiny larvae. It’s so much easier with the sun coming over your shoulder and angling the frame to illuminate the base of the cells.

I’m planning to rearrange the lighting so it runs down the centre of the shed rather than being directly over the hives. That way it will be ‘over the shoulder’ when inspecting frames.

And if that doesn’t work the only option will be to invest in banks of LEDs … or glasses 😎

On a brighter note – no pun intended – the solar panel, charge controller and large lead acid battery, coupled with a door ‘on when open’ switch, have worked flawlessly.

Windows

The shed windows are formed from overlapping sheets of perspex.

The weather cannot get in, but bees can easily get out. They crawl up the large pane, under the overlapping pane, and then fly from the 2cm slot between that and the top of the window aperture. It’s a simple and highly-effective solution to emptying a shed of bees after inspections.

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

But I’ve discovered this year that wasps can learn to enter the shed via the windows.

2018 was a bad year for wasps. I lost a nuc and a queenless (actually a requeening) colony to robbing by wasps in this apiary. At some point during the season wasps learnt to access the shed via the window ‘slot’ and for several weeks we were plagued with them. I think we were partly to blame because we had some comb offcuts in a waste bin that wasn’t properly sealed. Once the wasps had discovered this source of honey/nectar they were very persistent … as wasps are.

This hasn’t been a problem in previous years so I’m hoping that improved apiary hygiene will prevent it being an issue next year.

No smoke …

Our bees are calm and well behaved. However, we still use a limited amount of smoke during inspections 7. Leaving a well-lit smoker standing next to the hive throughout the inspection is a guaranteed way to become as kippered as an Arbroath smokie 8. It doesn’t take long to fill the shed with smoke.

Kippered

Kippered

I therefore leave the smoker standing ‘ready for action’ just outside the shed door. It’s easy (assuming the shed isn’t full of people) to take a couple of steps to the door, recover the smoker, give them a gentle puff, return the smoker and continue.

… without fire

Sheds are made of wood. Beehives are wood or polystyrene. The stacks of spare supers and broods are full of wax-laden frames.

All this has the potential to burn very well indeed.

I’m therefore very careful to leave the smoker, securely plugged with grass, on a non-flammable surface. The wire of a spare open mesh floor is ideal for this.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Colony management

Routine colony management – inspections, supering, swarm prevention and control, Varroa treatment – work just as well in the bee shed as outside.

There are a few limitations of course.

Vertical splits for making increase or swarm control aren’t an option as it’s not possible (or at least not practical) to provide an upper entrance with access to the outside world. 

Similarly, space adjacent to a hive is limited so a classic Pagden artificial swarm may not be possible 9. Instead I usually use the nucleus method of swarm control – removing the old queen and a frame of brood and stores to make a nuc, then leaving the hive in the shed to requeen.

Benefits for the bees

I suspect that the main beneficiaries of the bee shed are the beekeepers, not the bees. However, colonies do appear to do well in the shed.

The impression is that brood rearing starts earlier in the season and ends later, though formally we have yet to demonstrate this. We now have some hives inside and outside the shed fitted with Arnia monitors. With these we can monitor brood temperature, humidity, hive weight and activity.

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

Brood temperature is an indicator of brood rearing, with temperatures around 33°C showing that the queen is laying. By monitoring colonies over the winter we expect to be able to determine when brood rearing stops and starts again 10 and, by comparison, whether the season is effectively ‘longer’ for bees within the shed.

But it’ll be months until we’ll see this sort of entrance activity again …


 

Flour water salt yeast

FWSY

FWSY

Prompted by the first hard frosts of the year and the end of the beekeeping season, here’s a post that is of only peripheral relevance to beekeeping.

Though since you presumably prefer to eat honey on something, rather than on its own, it’s not completely irrelevant.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about breadmaking. In the intervening period I’ve baked a lot more bread … probably over 100 loaves. Almost exclusively I’ve been working from an outstanding book by Ken Forkish entitled Flour water salt yeast.

Forkish is an artisan baker from Portland, Oregon. The book, and his YouTube videos that accompany it are an excellent introduction to simple, easy and quick 1 methods for producing truly spectacular homemade bread.

Like this …

Overnight white loaf

Overnight white loaf

Matthew 4:4

Man cannot live by bread alone … well, I’m not so sure.

This bread is really good.

The general principles promoted by Forkish are:

  • Use high quality ingredients
  • Carefully control temperatures and timings
  • Use minimal amounts of mixing
  • Use small amounts of yeast and long rise periods
  • Bake in a very hot oven in a container to seal in the steam

Forkish earns his living writing and baking, so I’m not going to reproduce his recipes here – buy the book (or look for them online as some people have splurged them all over the internet).

What I will do is qualify some of points in the list above. Hopefully this will encourage you to have a go as well (and to learn from the few mistakes I made by either trying to cut corners or not reading the instructions).

Ingredients and environment

The flour you use has a big influence on the characteristics of the dough. I almost always use Bacheldre organic stoneground flours. These are strong, absorb water well and have a high protein content. They’re available direct from Bacheldre Mill and lots of places online. In my experience, the own-brand ‘strong bread flour’ sold by most of the supermarkets make a much sloppier dough than the Bacheldre flours. The resulting bread isn’t necessarily worse, but the dough is a lot harder to work with as it’s always trying to escape.

I use a thermometer to check the water temperature at the start. This ensures a uniform early development of the dough. I also check the temperature of the place I’m going to allow the dough to develop. If it’s much warmer or cooler than expected you might need to modify timings.

Mix, leave, mix, leave, mix …

One of the attractions of the breadmaking method promoted by Ken Forkish is that it involves very little work. For a standard loaf it probably takes no more than 8 minutes of mixing in total, in four blocks. And that includes rinsing your hands before and after working the dough.

All of the mixing is done in a large container.

A 30lb honey bucket is ideal.

How convenient 🙂

The flour and water are premixed to make an autolyse. This is allowed to sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt. Most of the recipes use very small amounts of yeast (much less than a gram for a 500g loaf) so the small, accurate scales used for weighing your oxalic acid (er, Api-Bioxal) are ideal.

After mixing the dough is allowed to develop with a further 2-3 quick ‘turns’ in the first 90 minutes or so. These ‘turns’ aren’t even really mixing. You just fold the dough over two or three times. It takes as long to write it as it takes to do it.

Then leave it overnight.

Cooking on gas

The following morning you turn the dough out, shape the loaf and allow it a final rise while the oven heats to a ‘serious-risk-of-burning-if-you-touch-anything-without-very-thick-oven-gloves-on’ 240°C 2.

As well as preheating the oven you also preheat the container you’ll cook the bread in. I use a Lodge 3 litre cast iron Combo Cooker (or Dutch Oven for convenience). These are $56 in the USA, or an uncompetitive £90 in the UK.

I was robbed 🙁

However, I then checked out the Le Creuset prices and felt a whole lot better 🙂

Any heat-retaining covered ovenproof container should be suitable. Cast iron is probably best. The goal is to trap the steam inside while the bread cooks to give the crisp crust. As an alternative to the Lodge Dutch Oven I’ve also used a large Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ which work almost as well.

Cooking takes 30 minutes with a further 15 minutes uncovered to crisp up the crust.

You can of course use an electric oven 😉

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Quick and easy

From start to finish a loaf takes about 16-18 hours.

Not quick.

However, during that period you’re only actually handling the dough for about 10 minutes. Almost all the time is a long overnight rise period while the yeast works its magic 3.

So … very easy.

The proof of the pudding

The resulting loaf tastes excellent, with a very crispy crust and wonderfully textured crumb. Since the yeast has worked hard overnight the crumb is full of large holes (which conveniently fill with honey or butter or marmalade). Assuming it’s not devoured when still warm it keeps well. If anything, the loaf improves if allowed to cool properly before scoffing 4. Once cold, just wrap it up in a plastic bag and you can use it up to 48 hours later, or perhaps longer as toast … though it never lasts that long in our house.

Final notes

The book Flour water salt yeast has about a dozen different bread recipes. Almost all use essentially the same steps I’ve outlined above. Some use an overnight starter (a biga or poolish) and these take a little bit more work, and a bit more time. Actually, with the exception of the ingredients, quite a bit of the book is rather repetitive as the mixing and cooking instructions are essentially the same for all the loaves.

The second part of Flour water salt yeast covers the preparation and use of levains or sourdough starters. These also make great bread, but take more work. With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition, so all of the comments here (and for at least half the book) are for loaves made with freeze-dried yeast.

For a standard weekend loaf you can’t go far wrong with a standard overnight white loaf, or a 10-30% overnight wholemeal loaf. These can be started on Friday evening, cooked early on Saturday and enjoyed all weekend.

Forkish explains each of the individual steps in the breadmaking process in a series of short YouTube videos. Of the 11 on his breadmaking 5 YouTube channel, the first 8 are relevant to loaves made without a levain, or sourdough starter. Watch them in sequence, ideally with the book to hand, and you’ll appreciate just how simple the process is.


 

Hive stands

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

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

Function

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

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

Do the bees care about any of these things?

No.

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

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

Hives on a pallet

Hives on a pallet

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

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

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

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

Beekeepers back

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

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

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

Decisions, decisions

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

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

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

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

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

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

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

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

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

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

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

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

Bigger is better

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

And a bit cumbersome.

Moving hive stands

Moving hive stands

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

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

Breeze blocks and metal rails

Breeze blocks and metal rails

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

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

Height and depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit wider would be better

A bit wider would be better

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

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

Bee shed hive stands

Bee shed hive stands

On the level

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

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

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

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

Scaffolding 'feet' for legs

Scaffolding ‘feet’ for legs

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

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

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


 

Ouch, that hurt

If you keep bees you’ll inevitably get stung.

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch! That hurt.

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

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

Why do bee stings hurt?

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

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

Mellitin

Mellitin

And this is where the pain and damage start …

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

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

Measuring pain

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

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

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

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

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

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed?

Standing on the shoulders of giants

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

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

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

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

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

Sting locations tested

Sting locations tested

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

Every time.

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

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

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

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

I’m not going to conduct it.

Points pain means prizes

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

And it was.

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

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

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

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

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