Category Archives: Boards

Winter projects

Synopsis : Now is the time to make plans for the long winter ahead; frame building, winter projects, some light reading or an escape to somewhere warmer and with better wine?

Introduction

The good late summer September weather 1 has been replaced with the first of the equinoctial gales. Actually, more of a 30-40 mph stiff breeze with an inch or two of rain than a real gale. Nevertheless, wet and windy enough to preclude any outdoor jobs, and instead make my thoughts turn to winter projects.

The more northerly (or southerly) the latitude, the longer the winter is. Here in north west Scotland there’s virtually no practical beekeeping to be done between the start of October and early/mid April i.e. over 6 months of the year.

Some beekeepers fill these empty months by taking a busman’s holiday … disappearing to Chile or New Zealand or somewhere equally warm and pleasant, where they can talk beekeeping – or even do some beekeeping – and, coincidentally 2 enjoy some excellent wines.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

Others ignore bees and beekeeping for the entire winter and think (and do) something completely different. They build model railways, or practise their ju-jitsu or – if really desperate – catch up on all the household chores that were abandoned during the bee season.

They then start the following season relatively unprepared. Almost certainly, next season will be similar to last season. They’ll make similar mistakes, run out of frames mid-season and lose more swarms than they’d like.

Rinse and repeat.

Alternatively, with a little thought, some reading, a bit of effort and some pleasant afternoons in the shed/garage/lounge, they can both plan for the season ahead and prepare some of the kit that they might need.

As Benjamin Franklin said ”By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Looking back to look forward

I’ve discussed beekeeping records previously (and should probably revisit the topic). My records in the early years were terse, patchy, illegible and of little real use, perhaps other than in the few days that separated colony inspections.

Better than nothing

Better than nothing … just.

My records now are equally terse, but up-to-date and reasonably informative. I’ve got a numbering system for my colonies and queens that means they can be tracked through the season. The records are dated (rather than ’last Friday’) so I can calculate when important events – like queen emergence or mating – are due.

They’re also legible, which makes a huge difference. I could just about read my old scrawled pencil notes a few days after an inspection, but would have had no chance 5 months later.

By which time I’d have lost the little notebook anyway.

So, at some point over the next few months – sooner rather than later – I’ll look through my records, update the ‘queen pedigree’ table 3 and summarise things for the season ahead.

In the spring I’ll update a new sheet of records with a short note on overwintering strength/success and then we’ll be ready to go.

But, in reviewing the records I’ll remind myself about the things I ran out of, the timing of swarm control (when there’s the maximum pressure on available kit) and ideas I might have noted down on how things could have been done better 4.

Reading and listening

The winter is a great time to catch up on a bit of theory. Some beekeepers do exam after exam, pouring over Yates’s Study Notes until they can recite chapters verbatim.

I’ve done enough exams in my lifetime for … a lifetime, and have no intention of doing any more.

However, I’m always happy to do a bit of reading. I’ve currently got The Native Irish Honey Bee and Joe Conti’s The Hopkins Method … (which I’ll return to shortly) by my desk. I’m also partially successfully at keeping up with some of the relevant scientific literature 5.

A larger and more enthusiastic audience than usually seen at a beekeeping talk

There are also numerous winter talks available. Some are through local associations, others are available more widely. I ‘virtually’ attended one this evening where there were questions from as far apart as Orkney and Tasmania.

Of particular relevance to Scottish beekeepers, it’s worth noting that our association membership fees are usually significantly less than south of the border (probably because your SBA membership is separate), so you can inexpensively belong to a couple of associations and benefit from their talks programmes and – if you’re lucky – Co-Op purchasing schemes 😉

My attendance at these talks is less good than it should be, largely because I give a lot of talks each winter, but I instead benefit from the Q&A sessions which can be both entertaining and informative.

OK … enough theory

Theory is all well and good, but beekeeping is a practical pastime and just because it’s dark, cold, wet and windy, doesn’t mean there isn’t practical stuff you could be doing.

Competitive beekeepers will use the time to prepare the perfect wax block or bottle of mead for their – local or national – annual honey show.

I’m not competitive, and my wax is pretty shonky but I’ve had fun making (and more fun testing) mead 😉

But there are lots of other things to do …

The known knowns

By reading your comprehensive notes you will know that you ended the season with 5 colonies, that swarming started in mid-May but was over by early July, and that you’ve got one really stellar queen you’d like to raise 2-3 nucs from.

All of which means you are going to need a minimum of 60 new frames next season. These need to be ready before swarming starts.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

How did I get to 60?

About a third of brood frames should be rotated out and replaced each season (~20). The nucleus method of swarm control uses the fewest frames, but you’re likely to have to use swarm control for all your colonies (~25). Then there’s a further 15 frames for the 3 additional nucs you want to prepare. Of course, if you’ve got lots of stored drawn comb 6 or you use double brood boxes, or Pagden’s artificial swarm method these numbers will be different.

The point is, you will need extra frames next season.

I’m ending this season with about 20 colonies and so expect to need over 200 frames next year, possibly more if queen rearing goes well. Some frames will be recycled foundationless frames but others will contain normal wired foundation.

And what about supers? 2022 was a good year for honey. If you had enough supers and super frames you’ll probably be OK in an average year.

Whether it’s average or not, it’s always easier to build the frames – well-fortified with tea and cake – in the winter, rather than in a rush as you prepare to go to the apiary.

Exactly the same type of arguments apply to any other routine piece of kit – broods, supers, crownboards, roofs, clearers. Buy or assemble and prepare them in the winter.

After Tim Toady try something new

A few weeks ago I introduced the Tim Toady concept. For just about any beekeeping activity, there are numerous ways that it can be completed. There must be dozens of different methods for swarm control or queen rearing, perhaps more.

Of course, however many methods there are, all – at least all the effective ones – are based upon the basic timings of brood development and of the viable fractions of the colony. These things don’t change.

The biology of the honey bee is effectively unvarying.

Queens take 16 days to develop, drones take 32 days (from the egg) to reach sexual maturity. A queen and the flying bees are a viable fraction, as are the nurse bees and young brood etc.

Despite being based around these invariant 7 biological facts, not all swarm control or queen rearing methods are equal. Certainly, the end results might be similar, but some methods are easier, use less equipment, need less apiary visits or whatever i.e. some methods probably suit your beekeeping better than others.

My advice about this plethora of different methods to achieve the same ends remains exactly what it was a month ago … learn one method really, really well. Understand it. Become so familiar with it that you don’t need to worry about its success 8.

And then, after a bit of winter theory, plan to try something different.

And the winter is the ideal time to build any new things you might need to try this alternative method next season.

Here are a couple of my past and current winter projects.

Morris boards

Probably 90% of my queens are produced using the Ben Harden approach. It was the method I first learnt, and remains the method I’m most confident with. I’ve found it a reliable small scale method for rearing queens.

But, as they say, ’familiarity breeds attempt’ (at something new) and I’ve always liked the elegance of the Cloake board. This is a split board with an integral queen excluder and a horizontal slide. You place it between the boxes in a strong double-brood colony. By inserting the slide, opening upper front and lower rear entrances and simultaneously closing the front lower hive entrance you render the top box temporarily queenless and enable it to get stuffed with all the returning foragers 9. The queenless upper box is now in an ideal state for starting new queen cells from added grafts.

Morris board

But most of my west coast bees don’t end up as booming double brooders … the standard Cloake board needs too many bees for my location.

Parallel Cloake boards 

Which is where the Morris board comes in. It’s effectively two parallel Cloake boards. Paired with a ‘twinstock-type’ divided upper brood box (or two cedar nuc boxes) it works in the same way as the Cloake board, but only needs sufficient bees to pack a 5-frame nuc so is better suited to my native bees.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

You can buy Morris boards … or you can easily build them. This was one of my winter projects in ’20/’21. I’ve used them for the last two years successfully and have been pleased with the results.

I don’t think I understand their use as well as the Ben Harden system … but I will. In particular, I have yet to crack the sequential use of one side, then the other to rear a succession of queens.

Portable queen cell incubator

This was my one big project last winter. Unfortunately, we had a shocker 10 of a summer on the west coast and it was rarely used. I did put a few queen cells through it successfully, but queen rearing generally was hit and miss (mainly miss) so it’s yet to prove its full worth.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

This is version 2 of the incubator. I’m gradually compiling a list of opponents for version 3 11 that should correct a few things that could be improved – capacity, level of insulation, heat distribution – though the current incarnation is probably more than adequate.

Building – and testing, which actually took a lot more time – the queen cell incubator was a lot of fun. I discovered (and created 🙁 ) a series of problems that needed to be solved and, relatively inexpensively 12, enjoyed sorting them all out. I could work in my warm, well-lit workroom, drink gallons of tea, and dabble with 12V electrickery without endangering my life.

I’ve used it this season powered by a 12V transformer indoors, from an adapter in the car or from a battery with solar backup in the apiary.

However, to use it properly I need to rear more queens … which brings me to … 

Queen rearing without grafting

Both the Ben Harden and Cloake/Morris board methods of rearing queens use a suitably-prepared colony in which young larvae are presented. Typically 13 these larvae are grafted from a suitable donor colony.

Grafting is perceived by some as a ‘dark art’ – though perhaps not exactly malicious – involving a combination of sorcery, spells, fabulous eyesight and rock-steady hands 14.

It isn’t, but this perception certainly dissuades many from attempting queen rearing.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

I find grafting relatively easy and routinely expect 80-90% ‘take’ of the grafted larvae. My sorcery and spells are clearly OK. However, in the future, my eyesight and manual steadiness/dexterity are likely to decline as I get older 15.

I’ve also been reading some papers on how the colony selects larvae to develop into queens. Their strategy isn’t based upon what they can see and pick up with a 000 sable paintbrush … funny that.

I’m therefore going to try one of the graft-free methods of rearing queen cells, and the approach I intend to use is the Hopkins method. Hence the part-read copy of Joe Conti’s book mentioned earlier.

The Hopkins method of queen rearing

This method involves the presentation of a frame of suitably-aged eggs and larvae horizontally over a brood box packed with young bees. Importantly I mentioned both eggs and larvae as, under the emergency response colonies preferentially rear new queens from 3 day old eggs.

The resulting queen cells are cut from the frame and used to prime nucs or mini-nucs.

Even with my presbyopia and ’hands like feet’ I should be able to manage that 😉

The intention is to couple the Hopkins method with a 12-frame double-brood queenless nuc box which is subsequently split into several nucs for mating the new queens. And, if that wasn’t enough, I’m hoping I can integrate this with some swarm prevention for the donor colonies … time will tell.

All of that means I need some new kit 🙂

Before butchery photo … an eke being adapted for the Hopkins method of queen rearing

I purchased some Maisie’s poly nuc boxes, floors, feeders and ekes in the summer sales. In the winter I’ll spend some time butchering them with my (t)rusty Dremel ‘multi-tool’ to accommodate the horizontal brood or super frames (and a cell bar with grafts for good measure) before painting them a snazzy British racing green or Oxford blue 16.

More poly hive butchering

I’ve already done a little poly hive butchering this winter.

I’ve got about 20 Everynucs from Thorne’s. These are a thick-walled, well made nuc with a couple of glaring design flaws. However, I’m prepared to overlook these as, a) they’re relatively easy to fix, and b) they cost me a chunk of money and I’m loathe to spend at least the same amount again to replace them.

In addition, bees overwinter fantastically well in them.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

I’ve also got a few compatible feeders which are really designed for feeding syrup. You can add fondant, but the bees then need to follow a rather convoluted path to access it.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

I decided to modify the feeders to allow both by fitting a syrup-proof dam about half way along the feeder and drilling some 3-4 cm holes through the resulting ‘dry’ side of the feeder 17 .

Wooden syrup-proof dam and holes in an Everynuc feeder

Fondant, ideally in a transparent/translucent plastic food container 18 is inverted over the holes and the bees have direct access to it, even in the very coldest weather.

Munchity crunchity … direct access to the fondant

The Ashforth-type syrup feeder still works if needed and I no longer need 8 gallons just to top up each nuc 19. Typically my nucs won’t need feeding in midwinter, but if they do I should be able to position the fondant directly over the cluster allowing them the best chance of reaching it.

Winter weight

This is a practical project carried over from last year. I’m interested in the changing weight of the hive as the colony segues from ‘maintenance’ mode to early season brood rearing. I’ve drawn some cartoon graphs where there’s a clearly visible inflection point, with the hive weight dropping much faster once brood rearing starts.

Hive scales

I’m keen to have some real data rather than just my crummy cartoons. I already have the tools for the job, my no expense spared made hive scales. Tests last year showed that these were pretty accurate; I was about 8% shy of the actual weight (which doesn’t matter a jot, it’s the percentage change in weight that’s critical) and, more importantly, produced readings that were reproducible within a percent or two.

However, last year I was thwarted by bad weather, a lack of Gore-tex and an unexpected delay in evolving gills. I’ve now bought a sou’wester and, in the name of science, am preparing to brave the elements every week or so to weigh half a dozen hives.

And in between all that lot I’ll be building frames 🙂 20


Note

The other winter project already part-completed is moving this site to a new server. Frankly this has been a bit of a palaver, but I think it’s now sorted.

If you had problems connecting over the last few evenings, apologies. If things still seem odd, slow, broken or unresponsive drop me a note in the comments or by email. Of course, if you can’t connect at all you’ll never read this postscript 🙁 .

The changes I’ve made will enable some new things to be incorporated over the next few months, once I’ve got a bit of spare time and have built all of those frames 😉

More queen rearing musings

Synopsis : What happens when your queenright cell raiser swarms? Are cells being reared under the supersedure response doomed? This and other musings on miscellaneous aspects of queen rearing, together with some comments on clearing supers on queenless hives.

Introduction

I described queen rearing last week as The most fun you can have in a beesuit ™. That’s my opinion. You may prefer making candles, or beeswax wraps or extracting and jarring honey 1 and I wouldn’t argue, though none of them come close to the satisfaction I get from queen rearing.

The term ‘queen rearing’ sometime conjures up images of booming, chest-high queenless cell starters, dozens of grafted larvae on each cell bar frame, incubators and serried rows of mini-nucs waiting for virgins … or even clinical instrumental insemination apparatus.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells on a cell bar frame (produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing approach)

This is the industrial scale production of queens, and it’s rare that enthusiastic but nevertheless small-scale amateur beekeepers need that number of queens.

Or have the resources to produce them.

For convenience I think of queen rearing as an activity that can occur at three different scales:

  1. One or two queens at a time – e.g. adding a frame of selected (i.e. good quality) eggs/larvae to a terminally queenless hive. Surplus cells can be cut out and distributed elsewhere.
  2. Five to ten at a time – often using selected larvae transferred to a cell starter colony by grafting, a Cupkit-type system, cell punching or (fewer manipulations still) the Miller or Hopkins methods.
  3. Dozens of queens at a time – almost always using grafting and a strong queenless cell starter colony.

I’ve run 10-20 colonies for a decade or more and rarely need more than 20 queens a season (a number which includes some spares to make up nucs).

In addition, I live in an area with variable (i.e. often poor) weather where queen mating can be ’hit and miss’.

Little and often

For these reasons I prefer to produce a few queens at a time so I don’t have to devote significant resources to an activity that might be thwarted by a month of lousy weather.

I’d rather try and produce half a dozen queens three or four times a season, than dozens at once.

The latter requires a major commitment of resources (colonies and equipment). Depending upon the weather I might end up with a glut of queens.

Or an apiary-full of laying workers 🙁

In contrast, the methods I use allow me to produce a handful of queens every few weeks. If the weather is kind, all will get mated. If not, it’s not a total disaster.

West coast weather, mid-May to mid-June 2022 (average 13°C, range 6.2°C to 23.9°C)

Over the last month we’ve only had 2-3 days with conditions normally associated with successful queen mating i.e. light winds, sunshine and temperatures of 20°C.

Predicting this type of ‘weather window’ 2-3 weeks in advance is almost impossible.

It’s better to be prepared to repeat things again.

And again 😉

Apiary vicinity mating

In fact, queens don’t need ‘perfect’ conditions for mating. If they did, sustainable beekeeping 2 would be impossible – or at least very difficult – in many northern latitudes. Queens can be successfully mated in sub-optimal conditions 3.

Part of my interest in monitoring the local weather at my apiary is to try and determine just how poor the conditions can be whilst still getting queens mated.

Native Apis mellifera mellifera (black bees) are reported to use apiary vicinity mating (AVM) and so may not need optimal conditions to fly to distant drone congregation areas. Jon Getty has written more about AVM on his website.

However, wherever or whenever they get mated, I prefer to produce repeated batches of queens using queenright cell raisers. By doing this I’m not putting all my ‘eggs in one basket’. Essentially these cell raisers are standard (honey) production hives manipulated in simple ways to provide the conditions needed to rear suitably-presented larvae as queens.

And inevitably, because they’re queenright, things can sometimes go wrong 🙁

Queenright queen rearing

The two methods I’ve used are the Ben Harden approach and a Morris board. Both use a single colony to start and finish the queen cells, and the queen remains present – albeit separated from the developing cells – throughout the 10-12 days from grafting until the cells are used.

The Morris board

A Morris board is essentially the same as a Cloake board. These are boards that separate the queenright lower brood box from an upper brood box in which the queen cells are produced. The board has an integrated queen excluder and the provision to separate the upper and lower box with a metal or plastic divider.

Morris board (lower side)

With the divider inserted queen cells are started in the top box under the emergency response. However, once started, the divider is removed and the cells are finished under the supersedure response.

The Morris board is more complicated than a Cloake board; it is used with a divided upper brood box – allowing separate batches of cells to be started every week or so – and has a series of doors for bleeding off and redirecting returning foragers to the correct compartment.

It’s a clever idea and one that shows considerable promise for my queen rearing.

I’ll write more about my use of a Morris board in due course, or you could track down the article Michael Badger wrote in Bee Craft.

The Ben Harden approach

I’ve discussed the Ben harden approach extensively already – try here for starters. The method, although perhaps popularised by the eponymous Irish beekeeper (and excellent instructors like the late Terry Clare) was also described nicely by the National Bee Unit’s Mike Brown and David Wilkinson twenty years ago in the American Bee Journal 4.

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing (note the ‘fat dummies’ occupying much of the upper box)

Until the last couple of years this is the method I’ve used for most of my queen rearing.

The queen is confined below a queen excluder to the lower brood box. Grafted larvae are added to the upper box, space within which is often restricted by the use of ‘fat dummies’.

The queen cells are therefore started and finished under the supersedure response.

Supersedure vs. swarming responses and colony swarming

In preparation for swarming a colony naturally produces several charged queen cells 5. Assuming the weather is suitable, the colony usually swarms on the day that the first cells are sealed.

If the weather is poor then swarming is delayed, but they often then go at the first opportunity … so much so that even a borderline day after a period of poor weather during the normal swarming season is often characterised by lots of swarms.

In contrast, newly sealed supersedure cells – and these are usually very few in number (often just one) – are incubated for a further 8 days until emergence of the virgin queen.

The superseding colony does not swarm.

The new queen goes on a few mating flights and starts laying.

At some point after that the old queen simply disappears.

One day you’re surprised to find two laying queens in the hive but at the next inspection (or the one after that) only the shiny new one remains.

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

Advantages (and disadvantages) of queenright queen rearing methods

For the small scale beekeeper – perhaps 2-20 colonies – queenright methods offer a number of advantages (with a few disadvantages) for queen rearing:

  • the quality of the cell starter/finisher is immaterial as long as the colony is strong. You simply provide it with larvae from good quality stock.
  • no interruption 6 to nectar collection. In a good nectar flow you simply keep piling on supers as needed and the bees raise the cells and fill the supers.
  • if there’s no nectar flow you will have to feed the colony, so you must remove any supers to avoid tainting any stored nectar with syrup.
  • if you do simultaneously use the colony for honey production and cell raising the hive can get tall and heavy. Mind your back.
  • you can use a single hive for the entire process if needed; cell starter, sourcing larvae, cell finisher and populating mini-nucs. You might even get some honey as well 😉 7

The queenright methods outlined above exploit the supersedure response for cell raising. This means that the colony will not swarm in response to capping of the cells in the upper box.

But …

That is not the same as saying that the colony will not swarm 🙁

Don’t forget, there’s a laying queen in the bottom box. She will continue to lay while the new cells are being started, fed, nurtured and sealed.

And if she runs out of space the colony can still make swarm cells in the bottom box and so may swarm.

Here are a couple of examples where this has happened … and the consequences for my queen rearing.

A swarming Ben Harden cell raiser

When I lived in the Midlands I routinely started queen rearing during April. Queens produced in April could be mated as early as the first week of May in a good year, and occasionally, even earlier.

Colonies got a massive boost during this part of the season from the oil seed rape. The photo below is from the 19th of April 2014.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

When rearing queens using the Ben Harden approach during a strong nectar flow you can safely relocate the upper brood box above the top super. In a busy hive the developing cells still get more than enough attention.

In addition, this can help increase ‘take’ 8 by reducing the concentration of queen pheromones due to the separation of the bottom brood box (containing the original queen) and the box containing the grafted larvae.

When using this method it is important to check the upper box for queen cells on the day the grafts are added. This box, being separated from the queen-containing brood box, has reduced queen mandibular, and no queen footprint, pheromones.

Consequently, it’s not unusual for the bees to start drawing queen cells. These must be destroyed or – being more advanced than the grafted larvae – they will emerge first and destroy all your hard work.

I had done this and added the grafts which, on checking 24 hours later, had all been accepted.

Chipmunks are Go! 9

Out of sight is out of mind

However, I had failed to check the bottom box for queen cells on the days before I added the grafted larvae.

The colony promptly swarmed, probably before the newly developing queen cells were capped.

This was either before I routinely clipped my queens, or I’d missed this particular queen. Whatever, she and a significant proportion of the bees disappeared to pastures new.

I can’t remember how (or when) I realised the colony had swarmed. It might have been reduced entrance activity during the strong OSR nectar flow, or I might have just (finally!) conducted a regular inspection.

The bottom box contained sealed queen cells, no queen and no eggs 🙁

But, all was not lost.

The cells containing grafted larvae were capped and looked good. They’d clearly received sufficient attention 10 and I was therefore hopeful they’d emerge, mate and produce usable queens.

And they did.

I knocked back all the sealed queen cells in the bottom box and then – on the day I used the cells from the grafted larvae – added one of the latter to the lower brood box.

I removed the queen cells in the lower box for two reasons:

  • it prevented a new queen emerging there while I had cells above the queen excluder, and
  • it allowed me to use a cell raised from larvae sourced from a better quality colony.

So, a swarming cell raiser isn’t necessarily a disaster.

A more recent, but less successful, attempt

My first attempt at queen rearing this season involved using a Morris board.

I added the Morris board and upper brood box on the 18th of May. I then did all of the necessary Morris board manipulations – closing the slide, opening entrances, closing others – to pack the upper box with bees.

On the 25th I did the grafting and – at the same time I added the grafts on the cell bar frame – I destroyed a small number of queen cells in the upper box 11.

On the following day 7-8 of the larvae had been accepted and the cells were capped on or around the 30th.

Cell bar frame festooned with bees

I was off beekeeping elsewhere so didn’t check the hive again until the 1st of June … and was dismayed to find all of the cells had been torn down.

Torn down queen cells. The cell on the right has a gaping hole on the opposite face.

There was no queen in the upper box and the queen excluder was intact. The cells appear to have been torn down by workers. I’ve had this happen before when there’s been a dearth of nectar, but this box was getting 300 ml of thin syrup every 48 hours.

D’oh!

Of course, I eventually checked the bottom box and found:

  • one vacated queen cell. This cell was situated on the lower edge of one of the central frames.
  • a virgin queen running about and no sign of the original clipped and marked queen 🙁

The single queen cell might suggest supersedure. However, its position (though far from a reliable indicator) was more like that of a swarm cell.

A vacated queen cell

In addition, the absence of eggs or any sign of the original queen, strongly suggested that the colony had swarmed. This probably happened – coincidentally – on the day the cells containing the grafts were sealed.

I say ‘coincidentally’ because I suspect the swarming was triggered by emergence of the new queen in the lower box and had nothing to do with my grafted larvae. That would fit with two things – the timing of the previous inspection (18th) and the fact that swarming is delayed when the incumbent queen is clipped.

However, because she was clipped, the colony was not depleted of workers. The original queen was lost, but that was all.

An alternative interpretation would be that the new queen simply did away with the original queen.

But why were the cells containing grafted larvae torn down?

One possibility was that the new queen pheromones were sufficiently strong that the workers realised they didn’t need additional queens. Alternatively – though she wasn’t by the time I saw her – I suppose there’s a possibility that the virgin queen was small enough to squeeze through the queen excluder, slaughter the developing queens, and squeeze back down to the lower box.

Learning from my mistakes 12 

Both examples above were due to my not maintaining a proper inspection schedule on the lower, queenright, brood box.

Guilty, m’lud.

Despite the advantages outlined above, cell rearing colonies should still be treated in the same way – vis-à-vis regular inspections – as any other production hive.

Other than forgetfulness, sloth and stupidity 13 there’s no reason not to inspect the lower brood box properly on a 7 day cycle.

Once the larvae are accepted you can remove the upper box (and all the bees it contains), gently set it aside and go though the bottom box. The workers with the developing queen cells will look after them for the 10 minutes or so this takes.

Conversely, there’s no reason to interfere with the upper box other than to check acceptance and confirm, in due course, that the cells are sealed. If you assemble the queenright cell rearing colony and wait a week before adding grafts to the upper box (as described above) they cannot start new queens from anything other than the larvae you add.

What else would you be looking for?

Just one more thing 14

There were several comments last week about honey production in queenless colonies.

I collected more supers on Monday containing spring honey. This included recovering supers from several queenless (or currently requeening – some may have contained virgins) colonies.

I have previously noticed that supers are cleared less well – using my standard clearer boards overnight – from queenless colonies.

A not-cleared-as-well-as-I’d-like super above a queenless colony

You always get a few bees remaining in the super, but there were consistently lots more in queenless colonies.

I didn’t count them … few is less than some, which is quite a bit less than lots, which – in turn – is appreciably less than ‘did I put the clearer on inverted?’

This was the second batch of supers I’d collected, a week after the first. I’d left the supers on longer because:

  • there were too many to transport
  • some still had unripe nectar which failed the ‘shake test’ over a hive roof (see photo below), indicating that the water content was too high to extract without risking the honey fermenting

Unripe nectar is easy to shake out of super frames.

Luring the bees down from the supers

In an attempt to speed up clearing bees from the supers of queenless colonies I added the clearer underneath the full supers, but on top of a wet super from which I’d already extracted honey.

A wet super being used to ‘lure’ bees down from full supers in a queenless colony

This worked well.

The heady smell of honey 15 in the wet super resulted in significantly fewer bees in the cleared supers.

I have to transport these cleared supers ~200 miles back home for extraction. If I had a trailer or a truck a few stragglers wouldn’t normally be an issue.

But I don’t … these supers are in the car with me.

Biosecurity

Actually … stragglers would still be an issue, even with a trailer/truck.

My Fife bees have Varroa (low levels, but it’s definitely present) but my west coast bees do not. I take biosecurity seriously and don’t like finding any bees in the car after the journey.

I also really don’t like finding bees in the car at 65 mph on the A9 … and, if I do, I stop and let them out.

The combination of the better-cleared supers and a sharp thwack on any frames with adhering bees reduced the stowaways to zero.

And the five hour return journey 16 was notable for stellar views of an osprey, a stunning male hen harrier and the sun setting over Creag Meagaidh 🙂


 

 

Correx: cheap, light, useful. Choose any three

Synopsis : From quick fixes to permanent solutions, Correx – extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene – has multiple uses in beekeeping. If you learn how to fold, stick and shape it you can save time, money and space. Here are just a few of the things I use it for.

Introduction

The Spring honey is almost ready to harvest. Supers went from ”filling nicely” to ”Woah! Damn that’s heavy” in the space of a week. They’re now fast approaching ”No more than two at a time” territory which means; a) they’re full, and/or b) I’m less strong than I used to be 1.

The corpulent supers prompted me to rummage through a teetering stack of equipment to try and find sufficient clearer boards to use before removing the honey supers for extracting.

Clearer boards are effectively one-way ‘valves’ that funnel the bees down into the brood box 2.

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

These are two and bit times a season pieces of kit … the Spring and Summer honey harvests and irregular usage to empty the odd brood box when compressing colonies prior to the winter. The rest of the time they sit, unused, unwanted and – not infrequently – in the way.

And, for convenience, you need more than one.

I like to have one for every hive in the apiary, particularly when taking the summer honey off. That way you can strip all the hives simultaneously, so avoiding problems with robbing. None of my apiaries are particularly big, but it still means I’ve needed up to a dozen clearer boards at a time.

That’s a lot of wood and limited-use kit to sit around unused. I therefore build lots of them from Correx.

Clearer boards – one wood and six made from ekes and Correx

This post isn’t about clearer boards. I’ve described those before.

Instead it’s about Correx and the myriad of uses that it can be put to.

If you don’t use it you’re probably missing out.

If you do, you probably have some additional uses to add to the list below.

Correx

Correx is a registered trademark owned by DS Smith. Other trademarks (by other companies) include Cartonplast, Polyflute, Coroplast, FlutePlast, IntePro, Proplex, Twinplast, Corriflute or Corflute … and there are probably some I’ve missed.

It’s all very similar stuff, variously described as corrugated plastic or corriboard, and perhaps more accurately described as an extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’re probably familiar with the material they make For Sale signs from … that’s Correx 3.

Under offer ...

For sale …

Correx is lightweight, impervious to most oils, solvents and water, relatively UV resistant and recyclable. These characteristics make Correx ideal for a range of beekeeping applications.

It is easy to cut and can be folded, with or across the ‘grain’ if you know the tricks of the trade.

Correx is available in a range of thicknesses – typically 1-8 mm. Two millimetre Correx is often used as a protective floor covering in new buildings. However, it’s rather thin and flimsy.

Almost everything I use is 4 mm and so, unless I state otherwise, assume that’s what I’m referring to in the text below.

Almost certainly the stuff I use is not Correx, but I’ll call it Correx for convenience 4.

Before discussing 5 applications I’ll make a few comments on sourcing Correx and cutting, gluing and folding it.

Free Correx

For Sale signs belong to the estate agent selling the house. However, they’re often not collected after the house sale completes and are dumped in a nearby ditch, stuffed down the side of the garage or otherwise discarded. Many still have the 2.4 m wooden post attached.

If they really are unwanted it’s often a case of ’ask and ye shall receive’ … and, if the sign is in a ditch, you don’t probably even need to ask.

When I lived in a semi-urban area I used to carry a handsaw in the car to help my repurposing of these sorts of signs.

Elections are another good source, particularly if the candidate in your ward a) loses ignominiously, and b) immediately retires. It’s unlikely the political party will find another Archibald Tristan Cholmondeley-Warner to stand for them, so the electioneering signs are – like the politician – surplus to requirements.

As always, never walk past a part-filled skip without having a good look at the contents 😉

Never!

Buying Correx

Correx is relatively inexpensive when bought in multiples of 2.4 x 1.2 metre sheets 6. I’ve paid about £10 a sheet delivered for 5 or more, purchased from eBay, but can’t find anything quite that price when I had a quick look this week.

You might not think you need 14 square metres of Correx but you’d be surprised at the things it can be used for. It’s also easy to store behind a bookcase or in the shed.

Correx sheet

Correx sheet …

It’s also worth asking at local plastics and printing companies that may have offcuts or failed print runs. It doesn’t matter what’s printed on the Correx 7. There’s a beekeeper in Northern Ireland that crafted a nuc box out of election propaganda bearing a photo of the candidate. The nuc entrance was arranged to be the politicians mouth.

Be creative.

Finally, Correx is often used to make guinea pig cages or runs, so befriend a cavie-keeper and you might locate the mother lode 8 😉

Correx engineering

Thin Correx (4 mm) is easy to work with. It can be cut with a Stanley knife. All you need is a good straightedge, a steady hand 9 and a sharp blade. Marking up the sheets is easiest in pencil as many pens don’t work on the smooth impervious surface 10. Pencil works equally well on black or white sheets.

I’d recommend you don’t use scissors as they tend to crush the sheet. It’s also difficult to cut large sheets with a small pair of scissors.

Folding Correx

Correx has a ‘grain’ created by the vertical internal ribs that connect the upper and lower faces of the sheet. If you need to fold the sheet you’re working with, the method used depends whether you are folding across or with the grain.

To fold across the grain you need to crush the ribs without cutting through the upper face of the sheet. To achieve this use a pizza cutter and a straightedge. A pizza cutter is usually sufficiently blunt that the sheet isn’t cut. The crushed side of the sheet becomes the inner angle of the fold.

Pizza cutter

Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx

Making folded corners requires a little ingenuity but is obvious once you realise how the sheet folds 11.

Corner detail

Corner detail …

To fold with the grain requires a small amount of surgery. First cut on either side of a rib, then fold the sides back leaving a T-shaped piece – formed by the rib and a small piece of the upper face of the sheet – protruding. Then, with a steady hand and a sharp knife, cut the leg of the T away.

Folding Correx with the grain – cut one of the ribs away

The sheet then folds easily with the uncut face forming the outer angle of the corner.

Gluing Correx

This is tricky. I’ve tried every glue in my workshop and none of them work. The surface of Correx has some sort of treatment that means that glues do not adhere. There are tricks that involve flaming the surface to remove the treatment, but – at least in my experience – they are hit and miss.

Usually miss 🙁

There are commercial hotmelt adhesives 12 that can be used – like the ones the estate agents use to stick two signs back-to-back – but they are quite expensive.

Whatever the surface treatment is, it also prevents many sticky tapes adhering properly or permanently.

But there’s one exception … Unibond Power Tape Plus. It’s available in silver and black. Critically for beekeeping it’s both waterproof and temperature resistant. This tape is about a fiver a roll and this represents excellent value for money.

Sticky stuff ...

Sticky stuff …

I’ve got some Correx hive roofs held together with Unibond Power Tape that have been in constant use since 2014, outdoors (obviously) in temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 30°C or more 13.

Highly recommended.

To help the tape stick even better it’s worth gently abrading the surfaces to be taped together using wet and dry sandpaper and then cleaning with a solvent like acetone. Press the tape down firmly and check it in about a decade or so.

Uses

I’m going to concentrate on the uses I make of Correx, because those are the things I have experience of.

There are lots of other things you could use it for … for example, I’ve not built nuc boxes from Correx, but I know you can. They are increasingly used by the bulk commercial nuc suppliers. If you don’t want to build your own you can purchase these boxes for £9 to £12 each 14, flat-packed, in National or Langstroth formats. These boxes tend to use interlocking tabs to hold them together, rather than tape or glue. They might be suitable for short term, summer usage, but not for overwintering a nuc colony.

Roofs

I’ve made lots of Correx roofs and they are still in everyday use, either on hives or on stacks of spare boxes. I’ve described how to build them in detail, together with their pros and cons.

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Everything I wrote 7 years ago is still valid, so I won’t repeat it here.

A single 2.4 x 1.2 sheet of Correx is big enough to produce 8 roofs. Even if you can’t find Correx cheaper than £13 a sheet that’s still less than £1.75 a roof including the cost of the tape holding it together 15.

I routinely successfully overwinter colonies with Correx roofs covering a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan insulation.

Semi-permanent division boards e.g for vertical splits

In my experience these are one of the few things 16 that cannot be satisfactorily made from 4 mm Correx.

These types of boards might be separating brood boxes for a month or more while one half of a vertical split requeens. During this time the board tends to warp. The bee space increases on one side and is destroyed on the other. Consequently the bees build unwanted brace comb above and below the frames.

Split board ...

Correx split board …

I now only use my 4 mm Correx split boards in extremis. I know that some of the commercial beekeepers use 6 mm or 8 mm Correx split boards. The additional rigidity of the thicker Correx presumably withstands warping sufficiently.

If When I run out of equipment I’ve been known to use split boards as crownboards. For the same reasons – warping – I try and avoid using horizontal sheets of Correx in the hive for extended periods.

Temporary division boards e.g. Cloake and clearer boards

In contrast, Correx is ideal when used for limited periods in the hive. One obvious application is the removable slide in a Cloake board for queen rearing.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Mine was built from a For Sale sign rescued from a skip in Newcastle. It’s one of the thicker pieces of Correx I’ve used (6 or 8 mm) and is significantly more rigid than the standard 4 mm sheets. However, I’m sure that 4 mm would do as the slide is only in place for about 24 hours to induce the emergency response and initiate queen cell production.

As I wrote in the introduction, the majority of my clearer boards are built from Correx. I now zip tie the escapes to the underside of the board 17 and then pair them with a simple eke when I need to use them for clearing supers.

Zip tied escape on a Correx clearer board

These work fast and efficiently, they don’t warp and they can be separated from the eke and stored separately (where they take up little space) if/when the eke is being used for something else (like a spacer to provide an upper entrance, or whilst vaporising from above the brood box).

Floors

The only floors I’ve built with Correx are those for bait hives when paired with two stacked supers. These work really well.

Inside ...

Bait hive floor

Bait hives should have solid floors, so if I want to use an open mesh floor on a bait hive I simply lay a small sheet of Correx on the mesh and remove it once the hive is occupied.

Varroa trays

Most, or at least many, commercial Varroa trays are made of Correx 18. To make counting mites easier it helps to draw a grid on the tray.

Varroa tray gridded to make counting mite drop easier

Of course, to make counting mites really easy it helps if there are few of them. Use miticides properly and at the right time. In that way your Varroa levels will never get too high and you’ll never run out of fingers when counting the mite drop 😉

OK, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly easier to count low numbers of mites rather than thousands. I’ve seen post-treatment mite drops so heavy you could trace patterns through the mite corpses with your finger, and the easiest way to count them was with a digital lab balance.

Ewww!

Landing boards

Almost all of my hives have Correx landing boards. Some are integral to the kewl floors I use …

Correx kewl floor landing board

… while others are attached to the outside of my bee shed.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

You can paint Correx with a variety of different types of paint. Radiator enamel or car spray paint works well. Using different colours and/or decorating the landing board with distinctive shapes helps bees orientate to the hive entrance and reduces drifting.

For vertical surfaces, try sprinkling sand onto the semi-dry paint before over-spraying to provide laden foragers better grip when entering the hive.

My white Correx landing boards are starting to exhibit UV damage after 4-5 years of use. Either avoid white, paint them or put up with having to infrequently (and inexpensively) replace them.

Miscellaneous

Most of my nucs are red 19 or blue. When I’m making up lots of nucs for queen mating I pin Correx shapes above the entrance to help the bees – and particularly the queens – distinguish between the hives. Again this reduces problems with drifting.

Correx signage on poly nucs

Almost all my nuc boxes are Thorne’s Everynucs. These are well designed except for the cavernous entrance. Again, Correx can be used to fix the situation; I use it to block the entrance entirely for travel, or to provide a much reduced entrance that is easier for the small colony to defend.

Correx, the beekeepers friend ...

Correx, the beekeepers friend …

I’m currently busy rearing my first queens of the season. The method I’m using involves sealing the standard hive entrance and redirecting the bees to an upper entrance 20. This process is really speeded up by leaning a sheet of Correx against the front of the hive, directing the returning foragers to the upper entrance.

Correx sheet redirecting returning foragers

Doing this stops the bees milling around the original entrance and is particularly helpful in borderline weather conditions e.g. low temperatures and intermittent showers 21, when it prevents bees getting chilled.

Correx and tape were used to build these ‘fat dummies’

Fat dummies for queen rearing? Correx to the rescue.

I could go on … but I won’t.

You’ve got the general idea by now.

If you’ve found additional uses for Correx then please add a comment below.


 

In the bleak midwinter

Winter has finally arrived.

Green thoughts in a white shade

We’ve had temperatures fluctuating around 0°C for the last two to three weeks now, with some very hard frosts and more than enough snow to make the track impassable.

Like the bees, I’ve spent the time hunkered down focusing on keeping warm and conserving my stores.

Unlike my bees, I’ve benefited from triple glazing and a wood burning stove 😉

And the main thing I’m worried about running out of is milk for my cappuccino 1.

The 20th was particularly cold with temperatures well below -5°C and stunningly clear. There was something strange about the conditions, as the loch froze. The surface, for 30 metres or more from the shore, had a thin film of ice covering it.

Ice, ice baby

As the tide dropped the shore was left with a sparkling crust of 1mm thick glass-like ice confetti.

The salinity of seawater is typically ~3.5% … this amount of salt reduces the freezing point to about -2°C, a temperature we’ve regularly experienced in the last fortnight. This suggests the ‘strange’ conditions were probably the absence of any swell coupled with the really calm conditions.

Whatever the cause, it was beautiful.

Early season forage … you must be joking 😉

Under conditions like these the bees are effectively invisible. They’re very tightly clustered . With daytime temperatures rarely reaching 3°C none venture out of the hive. With the exception of cleansing flights and the removal of corpses – and it’s too cold for either of these – there’s little reason for them to leave the hive anyway.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

The only thing flowering is gorse and it would be a foolhardy bee that attempted to collect pollen at the moment.

I’ve previously written about the genetically-determined flowering time of gorse. In an attempt to improve forage at certain times of the year I’ve been collecting seed from suitable plants and germinating it indoors. As soon as the weather improves I’ll plant these seedlings out 2 as the amount of gorse around the apiary is quite limited.

Gorse (and some broom) seedlings

Gorse seed is painful to collect and germinates poorly. I pour boiling water over the seed and then let it soak for 24 hours, which improves germination at least ten-fold.

Hive checks

Every fortnight or so I check the hive weights by hefting. Only two colonies have had any extra fondant yet and that was through ‘an abundance of caution’. I suspect they actually didn’t really need it.

The next eight weeks (here 3 ) is when brood rearing should be starting to really ramp up. It’s during February and March that starvation is an issue.

Here on the west coast, my colonies are rearing brood. This tray has been in for about a week. I’m including it as I’ve been asked several times about how to determine if a colony is rearing brood without opening the hive.

Biscuit coloured (or a bit darker) cappings indicating brood rearing in this colony

The red arrows indicate the biscuit coloured cappings that have fallen from the seams in which they are rearing brood. The inset shows a magnification of the indicated part of the image. The photo was taken with a camera phone and the cappings are perhaps a bit darker than usual (though I also know there are a few older brood frames in this hive 🙁 ).

And if the conditions are right, even with a well-insulated poly hive, you can identify which wall the cluster is up against by the evaporation of the overnight damp from the outer surface of the hive.

The location of the cluster is clearly visible on this Abelo poly hive

This is the front of the same hive from which the Varroa tray was photographed – the cappings on the tray and the cluster location correspond perfectly.

By the way … don’t bother looking for Varroa on the tray. This hive is in a Varroa-free region 🙂

As I’ve said before, it’s not unusual for colonies in poly hives to cluster tightly against the wall in winter. Those in cedar are more often away from the wall in my experience (and the same thing applies to brood rearing other than at the height of the season).

Hey good lookin’

The Abelo hive above is a nice looking box. The paint finish is bonded well to the polystyrene and provides good protection.

If you leave unpainted polystyrene out in the elements it starts to look pretty tired, pretty quickly.

I don’t have any pictures as none of my poly hives are unpainted.

At least, none are any more 😉

I’d acquired some new Maisemores nucs with bees and had a number of unused and unpainted Everynucs. Most manufacturers recommend you paint poly hives with masonry paint of some kind, or they sell (often quite pricey) paint that’s suitable.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

I’ve painted a lot of nucs with masonry paint, using a paint spray gun. It goes on fast and is reasonably hardwearing … but not great.

Swienty brood box ...

Swienty brood box …

In contrast, my Swienty brood boxes look as good now as when they were first painted 5 years ago. These received two coats of ‘Buckingham green’ Hammerite Garage Door paint.

This paint is designed for galvanised metal garage doors (the clue is in the name 😉 ). It contains a bunch of unpleasant sounding solvents but, when dry, appears to be entirely safe. I’d recommend not reading the 13 pages of safety data sheets or you might never dare open the tin because of the imminent risk of explosion.

Melting polystyrene

These solvents have the effect of slightly ‘melting’ the surface of the poly hive. This creates a really strong bond between the paint and the hive surface. The melting isn’t enough that you can notice the surface texture change … it’s just an invisible chemical reaction going on as you brush the stuff on.

Maisemore’s poly nuc after the first coat

However, this reaction might account for the rather patchy coverage of a single coat. If you paint it on thickly enough to try and produce a nice even finish it tends to run and sag a bit.

So give it two coats … and then it looks excellent.

Oxbridge Blues – a few painted poly nucs ready for the season ahead

Several months ago I bought a ‘remaindered’ tin of Hammerite paint in Oxford blue. I had wanted a contrasting colour (to my other boxes) for these nucs to help orientate returning freshly mated queens.

I paint the entire box, avoiding any of the ‘touching’ faces which are left unpainted. Some paint usually seeps into joins between the roof, body and/or floor, but you can easily prise them apart with a judiciously applied hive tool.

I’m rather pleased with how smart they now look.

I’m somewhat less pleased with the quality control on some of the Everynucs 4. Several had the mesh floor stuck down incorrectly, with parts unattached. In places the gaps were big enough for a bee to enter.

Open mesh floor and big gap at the side in an Everynuc

I simply pulled them off and restuck them down with a glue gun. This is an easy fix but really should not be necessary on a nuc box that costs almost £60 🙁

A+E

With the current Covid pandemic we have a responsibility to minimise the demands we are placing on our heroically overstretched healthcare workers.

For this reason I’ve been avoiding doing any DIY for beekeeping for many months now 😉

However, the season is looming ever-closer and I want to try some new things.

My toolbox contains approximately equal amounts of disconcertingly sharp implements and elastoplast. I’m well prepared 😉

I’m also currently living very remotely. In the event of a bad injury I’m unlikely to ever trouble the staff in A+E … unless the accident conveniently coincides with the ferry timetable 🙁

I therefore decided to risk life and limb by building the things I need to try queen rearing using a Morris board.

I’ll describe full details of the method later in the year.

For me, this method should offer advantages due to the type of bees, the size of my colonies, the number of queens I want to rear and the period over which I want to rear them.

You can buy these boards (for about £30 each) … or you can build better ones for about a fiver from offcuts from the wood bin, a bit of queen excluder and a piece of aluminium. They are a bit fiddly to build, with four opening doors and a ‘queenproof’ slide, but the cost savings and satisfaction you gain more than outweigh the blood loss involved.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

The very fact I’m still able to write this post shows that I managed to retain all my fingers. Whether or not the Morris board works 5 I consider that fact alone a success 🙂

Doing the splits

The Morris board works by allowing access to 5 frame upper brood box for defined periods. I therefore also needed a brood box divided in half.

I’ve been doing a lot of wax extracting recently and a couple of cedar boxes have cracked under the stress of repeated steam cycles. I split one down to its component boards, burning the bits that were unusable, but recycling one side into the central division of another old cedar box.

Split brood box – detailed view of my very poor workmanship

I’ll be queen rearing in two apiaries simultaneously, so will need two of these upper boxes. However, I only managed to salvage one sufficiently large board from the steam-damaged box.  Fortunately I have some cedar nucs built precisely (so clearly not by me 😉 6 ) to National hive dimensions, so I can use two of these side-by-side with the same design Morris board.

Late afternoon sun, 24th January

But queen rearing remains both a distant memory and a very long way off in the future. Until then it’s a case of enjoying the short winter days and drinking cappuccino in front of the fire.

Good times


Notes

Hammerite Garage Door paint is usually £15-20 a tin (750 ml). It’s worth shopping around as there’s quite a bit of variation. I found it remaindered and paid under a tenner 🙂

I reckon there’s enough in one tin to do two coats on 9-10 nucs as long as you take care not to over apply the first one. You could probably thin it a bit (though I’m not sure what with 7) but I’d take care you don’t create something that just melts the poly box.

Even at £20 it still works out at only about £2 a nuc. Considering these can cost £40-60 it seems like a reasonable investment of money to keep them looking smart for years.

And a good investment of time (it took me ~15-20 minutes per coat) … after all, what else are you going to do in the bleak midwinter?

A New Year, a new start

The short winter days and long dark nights provide ample opportunity to think about the season just gone, and the season ahead.

You can fret about what went wrong and invent a cunning plan to avoid repetition in the future.

Or, if things went right, you can marvel at your prescience and draft the first couple of chapters of your book “Zen and the Art of Beekeeping”.

But you should also prepare for the normal events you expect in the season ahead.

In many ways this year 1 will be the same as last year. Spring build-up, swarming and the spring honey crop, a dearth of nectar in June, summer honey, miticides and feeding … then winter.

Same as it ever was as David Byrne said.

That, or a pretty close approximation, will be true whether you live in Penzance (50.1°N) or Thurso (58.5°N).

Geographical elasticity

Of course, the timing of these events will differ depending upon the climate and the weather.

For convenience let’s assume the beekeeping season is the period when the average daytime temperature is above 10°C 2. That being the case, the beekeeping season in Penzance is about 6 months long.

In contrast, in Thurso it’s only about 4 months long.

More or less the same things happen except they’re squeezed into one third less time.

Once you have lived in an area for a few years you become attuned to this cycle of the seasons. Sure, the weather in individual years – a cold spring, an Indian summer – creates variation, but you begin to expect when particular things are likely to happen.

There’s an important lesson here. Beekeeping is an overtly local activity. It’s influenced by the climate, by the weather in an individual year, and by the regional environment. You need to appreciate these three things to understand what’s likely to happen when.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016, Fife … OSR and snow

Events are delayed by a cold spring, but if there’s oil seed rape in your locality the bees might be able to exploit the bounteous nectar and pollen in mid-April.

Mid-April 2014, Warwickshire

Foraging might extend into October in an Indian summer and those who live near moorland probably have heather yielding until mid/late September.

Move on

You cannot make decisions based on the calendar.

In this internet-connected age I think this is one of the most difficult things for beginners to appreciate. How many times do you see questions about the timing of key events in the beekeeping season – adding supers, splitting colonies, broodlessness – with no reference to where the person asking, or answering, the question lives?

It often takes a move to appreciate this geographical elasticity of the seasons at different latitudes.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland 3 in 2015 I became acutely aware of these differences in the beekeeping season.

When queen rearing in the Midlands my records show that I would sometimes start grafting in the second week in April. In some years I was still queen rearing in late August, with queens being successfully mated in September.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

In the last 5 years in Scotland the earliest I’ve seen a swarm was the 30th of April and the latest I’ve had one arrive in a bait hive was mid-July. Here, queen rearing is largely restricted to mid-May to late-June 4.

All of this is particularly relevant as most of my beekeeping is moving from the east coast to the west coast of Scotland this year.

I’m winding down my beekeeping in Fife and starting afresh on the west coast.

The latitude is broadly the same, but the local environment is very different.

And so are the bees … which means there are some major changes being planned.

What are local bees?

I’m convinced about the benefits of local bees. The science – which I’ve discussed in several previous posts – shows that locally-reared bees are physiologically adapted to their environment and both overwinter and survive better.

But what is local?

Does it mean within a defined geographical area?

If so, what is the limit?

Five miles?

Fifty miles?

What is local? Click to enlarge and read full legend.

I think that’s an overly simplistic approach.

The Angus glens are reasonably ‘local’ to me. Close enough to go for an afternoon walk, or a summer picnic. They’re less than 40 miles north as the bee flies 5.

However, they’re a fundamentally different environment from my Fife apiaries. The latter are in intensively farmed, low lying, arable land. In Fife there’s ample oil seed rape in Spring, field beans in summer and (though not as much as I’d like) lime trees, clover and lots of hedgerows.

The Angus glens

But the Angus glens are open moorland. There’s precious little forage early in the season, but ample heather in August and September. It’s also appreciably colder in the hills due to the altitude 6.

I don’t think you could keep bees on the Angus hills all year round. I’m not suggesting you could. What I’m trying to emphasise is that the environment can be dramatically different only a relatively short distance away.

My bees

I don’t name my queens 7 but I’m still very fond of my bees. I enjoy working with them and try and help them – by managing diseases, by providing space or additional food – when needed.

I’ve also spent at least a decade trying to improve them.

Every year I replace queens heading colonies with undesirable traits like running on the comb or aggression or chalkbrood. I use my best stocks to rear queen from and, over the years, they’ve gradually improved.

They’re not perfect, but they are more than adequate.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland I brought my bees with me.

Forgot the scythe

Delivering bees from the Midlands to Fife

I ‘imported’ about a dozen colonies, driving them up overnight in an overloaded Transit van. The van was so full of hive stands, empty (and full) beehives and nucs that I had a full hive strapped down in the passenger seat. Fortunately the trip went without a hitch (or an emergency stop 🙂 ).

Passenger hive

Passenger hive

They certainly were not ‘local’ but I’d invested time in them and didn’t want to have to start again from scratch. In addition, some hives were for work and it was important we could start research with minimum delay.

But I cannot take any of my bees to the west coast 🙁

Treatment Varroa free

Parts of the remote north and west coast of Scotland remain free of Varroa. This includes some of the islands, isolated valleys in mountainous areas and some of the most westerly parts of the mainland.

It also includes the area (Ardnamurchan) where I live.

Just imagine the benefits of not having to struggle with Varroa and viruses every season 🙂

Although I don’t feel as though I struggle with managing Varroa, I am aware that it’s a very significant consideration during the season. I know when and how to treat to maintain very, very low mite levels, but doing so takes time and effort.

It would certainly be preferable to not have to manage Varroa; not by simply ignoring the problem, but by not having any of the little b’stards there in the first place 😉

Which explains why my bees cannot come with me 8. Once Varroa is in an area I do not think it can be eradicated without also eradicating the bees.

A green thought in a green shade … Varroa-free bees on the west coast of Scotland

I’ve already got Varroa-free bees on the west coast, sourced from Colonsay.

Is Colonsay ‘local’?

Probably. I’d certainly argue that it’s more ‘local’ to Ardnamurchan than the Angus glens are to Fife, despite the distance (~40 miles) being almost identical. Both are at sea level, with a similar mild, windy and sometimes wet, climate.

Sometimes, in the case of Ardnamurchan, very wet 🙁

My cunning plans

Although the season ahead might be “same as it ever was”, the beekeeping certainly won’t be.

My priorities are to wind down my Fife beekeeping activities (with the exception of a few research colonies we will need until mid/late 2022) and to expand my beekeeping on the west coast.

Conveniently, because it’s something I enjoy and also because it’s not featured very much on these pages recently, these plans involve lots of queen rearing.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In Fife I’m intending to split my colonies to produce nucs for sale. I’ll probably do this by sacrificing the summer honey crop. It’s easier to rear queens in late May/June and the nucs that are produced can be sold in 2021, or overwintered for sale the following season.

If I leave the queen rearing until later in the summer I would be risking either poor weather for queen mating, or have insufficient time to ensure the nucs were strong enough to overwinter.

It’s easier (and preferable) to hold a nuc back by removing brood and bees than it is to mollycoddle a weak nuc through the winter.

And on the west coast I’ll also be queen rearing with the intention of expanding my colonies from two to about eight. In this case the goal will be to start as early as possible with the aim of overwintering full colonies, not nucs. However, I’ve no experience of the timing of spring build up or swarming on the west coast, so I’ve got a lot to learn.

Something old, something new

I favour queen rearing in queenright colonies. This isn’t the place to spend ages discussing why. It suits the scale of my beekeeping, the colonies are easy to manage and it is not too resource intensive.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Ben Harden system. I have used this for several years with considerable success and expect to do so again.

I’ve also used a Cloake board very successfully. This differs from the Ben Harden system in temporarily rendering the hive queenless using a bee-proof slide and upper entrance.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Using a Cloake board the queen cells are started under the emergency response, but finished in a queenright hive. It’s a simple and elegant approach. In addition, the queen rearing colony can be split into half a dozen nucs for queen mating, meaning the entire thing can be managed starting with a single double brood colony.

One notable feature of the Cloake board is that the queen cells are raised in a full-sized upper brood box. During the preparation of the hive this upper box becomes packed with bees 9. This means there are lots of bees present for queen rearing.

Concentrating the bees ...

Concentrating the bees …

It’s definitely a case of “the more the merrier” … and, considering the size of my colonies, I’m pretty certain I can achieve even greater concentrations of bees using a Morris board.

A Morris board is very similar to a Cloake board except the upper face has two independent halves. It’s used with a divided brood box (or two 5 frame nucleus boxes) and can generate sequential rounds of queen cells. I understand the principle, but it’ll be a new method I’ve not used before.

Since the bees are concentrated into half the volume it should be possible to get very high densities of bees using a Morris board.

And since I like building things for beekeeping 10, that’s what I’m currently making …

Which explains why I’ve got bits of aluminium arriving in the post, chopped up queen excluders on my workbench and Elastoplast on three fingers of my left hand 🙁

Happy New Year!


Notes

I’m rationalising my beekeeping equipment prior to moving. I have far too much! Items surplus to requirements – currently mainly flat-pack National broods and supers – will be listed on my ‘For Sale‘ page.