Category Archives: DIY

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 😉

The ultimate hive stand?

Synopsis : A hive stand provides a strong and stable support for hives, a space to work and protection for your back. A well designed hive stand should be easy to assemble, rot proof and able to cope with uneven ground. Here’s one I made earlier.

Introduction

Beekeepers can be passionate advocates of their particular choice of hive type, the material it’s made from, or even the orientation of the brood frames. Equally fervently they may criticise the choices others make. They’ll argue about the best way to clear supers, the fastest way to build frames, or the need for landing boards at the hive entrance.

But they rarely, if ever, say very much about what the hive is sitting on.

Storms expected and I’ve run out of hive straps

The hive stand … possibly the most passive and overlooked item in the apiary 1.

At its most simple, the hive stand is not so much ignored as omitted altogether. The hive is just placed on the ground.

You can easily identify beekeepers who don’t use hive stands; they either have bad backs or dirty knees.

Which neatly makes the point that the hive stand does more than just function as something to stand the hive on.

The purpose of a hive stand

I can think of several functions that a good hive stand provides, or any hive stand should provide. These include:

  • keeping the hive off the damp ground
  • preventing vegetation from blocking the entrance
  • providing a stable, level or adjustable platform for the hive and – in a good season – its teetering tower of heavy supers
  • space to place frames removed from the hive during inspections
  • additional working space for boxes (supers, second brood boxes etc.) when inspecting colonies
  • positioning hives at a better height to prevent, or delay, beekeepers back.

Not every hive stand provides all these, and some offer little more than one item from the list above.

Not even every hive stand I’m currently using provides more than one thing from this list 🙁

Perhaps that’s why they’re largely overlooked? Even poor hive stands work. Up to a point.

Which is not the same as saying that we shouldn’t aspire to something better.

I’ve been giving this some thought as my beekeeping activities expand on the west coast. The hive stands I’ve just completed are a significant improvement on anything I’ve used before.

I live on the side of a hill. There’s almost no level ground. Even the sitting room slopes a bit, and it’s a lot worse in what I laughably call the ‘garden’ 2.

It’s also a damp hill.

I wanted a hive stand that wouldn’t dissolve into mush over a couple of seasons.

But before discussing what I currently think will solve the majority of my problems here’s a quick overview of several DIY and commercial hive stands … the good, the bad and the ugly.

A pictorial overview of hive stands

I’ll whizz through these and make a comment or two on each.

The ‘no hive stand’ hive stand

All well and good until the grass grows and obscures the entrance.

The ‘no hive stand’ hive stand i.e. the ground

In my defence, these were research colonies and we’d completely run out of anything suitable in this particular apiary. Not at all good for your posture … which is why we have PhD students to do most of the bending, lifting and carrying 3.

On a positive note, hive stands like these won’t cost you much 😉

Pallets

These provide a convenient flat surface. However, it’s only a horizontal flat surface if the ground underneath is. Or if you spend time wedging stones or bits of wood in the right places to make the top of the pallet level.

A pallet hive stand

Even two stacked pallets leaves the hive at an uncomfortable working height for anyone taller than four foot one (125 cm). Since I’m six foot one the setup above was decidedly temporary. In addition, although the snow isn’t deep, it’s already covering the hive entrance.

Abelo poly hives on pallets

Pallets are soon overgrown by the surrounding herbage in summer. The photo above was taken in January. That apiary was mown once a year but the hives were almost invisible by June.

Nicot sell a plastic pallet designed for two (European, not National?) hives that can be stacked, is rot proof and can be moved with a fork lift truck 4 … not unlike a wooden pallet you’ll get free with your next large order of jars from C Wynne Jones 😉

I’m not a fan of pallets though I regularly use them.

Tyres and milk crates

I’ve used both. Old tyres actually make quite good hive stands and it’s relatively easy to wedge things underneath them to make them level. Two is a reasonable working height, but three might suffer stability issues. Bigger tyres with flat sidewalls stack better.

Poly bait hive on a hive stand of old car tyres

There’s no issue with them rotting and you can ‘work’ the hive from any angle if the ground surrounding is suitable. However, this also means that there’s nowhere convenient to balance a frame or two while you complete your inspections.

Arguably they’re also not really aesthetically pleasing … a sentiment I agree with. I wouldn’t have used these for the bait hive (above) had I not found them discarded underneath the rhododendron I cleared from the site.

Under offer ...

A bait hive on a milk crate

I’ve only used milk crates for temporary bait hives. The footprint of a National hive is larger than a standard milk crate and a full hive, with stores, would be unstable. For bait hives they’re great … and commendably light.

DIY and commercial ‘proper’ hive stands – with ‘legs’ and horizontal bars

I’ve grouped this lot together as it covers a very wide range of broadly similar designs. Two horizontal wooden or metal rails 5 supported at or near each end with wooden or metal legs, or by a stack of breeze blocks.

Breeze blocks and metal rails

Almost all of the hive stands I’ve used have been of this sort of design. They suit my beekeeping. One or more hives sit on the stand, with space between them to place frames or dummy boards. Sometimes there’s additional space to stack supers as well.

A variety of homemade (rickety) wooden hive stands

Several manufacturers produce hive stands that are similar in design. Thorne’s sell one for two hives for £92.50 that looks as though it really needs flat ground due to the design of the legs. Abelo have what looks like a nicely designed set of adjustable metal legs (you need to provide your own wooden rails) for £125.

Abelo hive stand

I’ve not tried either of these hive stands 6. Both appear reasonably well designed though I think there are improvements that could be made that I’d want to see for the sort of money they’re asking. I note that both are currently out of stock suggesting that many (previously wealthy) beekeepers buy them.

Levelling up

Not the ‘defining mission’ of our current government 7 … instead the need – or not – to have your hives standing on a flat and horizontal surface.

If you only use foundation-filled frames then it doesn’t really matter if the hive stand slopes a bit – left to right or front to back. Or both.

Some beekeepers who use solid floors tilt the hive so any moisture can drain out of the entrance, rather than pooling at the back of the hive. This is clearly irrelevant for those of us who use open mesh floors.

However, if you use foundationless frames it really helps to have the hive horizontal, at least in the orientation perpendicular to the frames. Bees draw comb vertically in relation to gravity. A hive tilted forwards, with frames the warm way (i.e. parallel to the entrance) would end up with comb at an angle to the side bars. This means you could never reverse a frame, or use it in another hive that wasn’t similarly angled.

Comb is drawn vertically on foundationless frames.

And when I say ‘could’ I (of course) mean ‘can’.

I’ve done this and it’s infuriating 🙁

So, although a perfectly horizontal hive stand is not a necessity, the option of being able to easily make the stand horizontal is useful. The Abelo stand described above appears to be adjustable in 1.5 cm increments … so horizontalish, but possibly not truly horizontal unless you dig a hole for one foot, or place a shim under another.

I think we can do better than that 😉

Clickbait and originality

Let’s get a couple of important points cleared away before I get to the big reveal.

  • the title of this post is rhetorical and/or simply designed to drive up page views 8 so I can rake in yet more money from this site’s highly intrusive advertising and sponsorship 9. I’m more than happy to accept that there are better/cheaper/more adjustable/taller/lighter hive stands out there … but I’m not aware of them and this is the best design I’ve made.
  • the most important feature – the legs – aren’t my idea. Regular reader Calum Grigor sent me a photo of a very similar design almost six years ago 10. I liked it then, I liked it when I first mentioned it in passing in a 2018 post, and I like it even more now I’ve finally got round to making a couple. It’s not the first time Calum has passed on a good idea to me, and I hope it won’t be the last 11. Thanks Calum!

Design features

I think the two most important features of a hive stand are its stability and strength.

Strength

At the height of the season a full hive could weigh 100+ kg (double brood box plus four full supers). A stand that will safely support that sort of weight needs to be strong and securely assembled.

Lots of full, heavy supers

If you intend to have multiple hives on the same stand 12 then the weight increases accordingly. Remember, they’re all likely to be at full strength/maximum weight at about the same time.

Stability

In addition, the majority of the weight is in the supers, meaning hives can be very ‘top heavy’.

Hive toppled by a summer storm

A hive stand with the feet placed close together will probably be unstable. In this regard, the Abelo stand pictured earlier is very good (and the one in the photograph above is – obviously – rather poor).

Convenience

The rails need to be spaced appropriately for the hive floor. However, it also helps if they are sufficiently far apart to accommodate removed frames during inspections 13.

A bit wider would be better

A bit wider would be better

This is a convenient way to keep a frame safe and out of the way as you go through the remainder of the box. However, placing the frame like this really requires two hands.

Frames can be placed like this with one hand

I therefore usually balance the frame at an angle – on one lug and the bottom bars (see above) – something I can easily achieve one handed.

Security

If there’s any risk of the hive being exposed to strong winds it needs to be strapped down. I regularly strap hives front-to-back i..e. with the strap across the hive entrance.

Strapping hives down. L) Front to back around rails, or R) side to side with a bar underneath hive.

However, it’s more convenient to have a bracing bar underneath the hive so it can be strapped side-to-side. This also makes it easier to strap down poly nucs which are usually longer (front to back) than a National hive.

The ultimate hive stand?

The original photo Calum sent me is reproduced below.

Scaffolding 'feet' for legs

The photo sent to me back in 2016 …

Four ‘legs’ and just four bits of wood. I like the hive roofs.

Scaffold jacks

The legs are termed scaffold jacks, scaffold levelling jacks or sometimes screw jacks.

These are typically 600 mm in total height, rated to 4 tonnes 14 and made of galvanised steel. The outer thread diameter is 38 mm and there is an infinitely adjustable nut that runs on the thread, and is retained by a defect in the thread about 100 mm from the top i.e. providing 500 mm of adjustable height (~16 cm more than the Abelo stand pictured earlier).

The ultimate hive stand?

Scaffold jacks can be purchased new for about £12 each 15, or secondhand for a smallish jar of honey (though my experience suggests that most people selling scaffold jacks prefer beer tokens).

Rail supports

To support the longitudinal hive rails I built lateral supports from 4 x 2 offcuts. I drilled a 40 mm hole through them to take the scaffold jack screw thread. I used a centre distance of 50 cm, leaving exactly 46 cm to accommodate a National hive. In retrospect, making these rail supports a bit longer would have provided a wider, and therefore more stable, base 16.

It would also allow my favoured poly nuc (Thorne’s Everynuc which has a long dimension of 58 cm) to be placed anywhere on the stand. Maisemore’s poly nucs are also 50 cm long so cannot be placed directly in line with the scaffold jacks (though also see below).

Rails

The intention is that I’ll eventually use pressure treated 4 x 2 (or even 6 x 2) timber as the longitudinal rails on most of these hive stands. I’m waiting for some building work to be completed so I can use the larger offcuts.

In the meantime I’ve repurposed a set of steel gateposts. These are 2.4 m in length and incredibly strong. They have 8 mm threaded captive nuts built into them for the hinges. Conveniently this means I can bolt through from the underside of the rail support into the captive nut, recessing the bolt head so that it doesn’t foul the scaffold jack height adjustment nut.

Recessed bolt head under the rail support

The position of the captive nuts in the gatepost dictates a distinct overhang at one end. I’ll use this to hang frames and/or place the supers aside.

The overhang … the bars will also support the frame on ‘one lug and the bottom bar’ as shown earlier

The metal posts are strong enough to carry 4 full hives, 18 cm apart. Or three hives plus ample space to stack supers or brood boxes.

However, I can see some advantages in using 6 x 2’s as rails. They will raise the hive floor above the tops of the scaffold jacks (at least if these are adjusted appropriately) and so will accommodate the poly nucs easily. In addition, they will provide a deep ‘skirt’ under the open mesh floor – a bit like standing the hive on an empty super – and so reduce draughts 17. These wooden rails will either be bolted through or held in place with galvanised L brackets.

Finishing touches

I added a diagonal cross brace to keep the stand square. In due course (i.e. when I can find some suitable wood) I’ll add another. These make strapping hives to the stand very easy.

The angled cross brace keeps everything squared up

The top of the scaffold jack screw thread is designed to fit within a scaffold pipe. It is therefore unfinished and mine had very rough edges. Without modification this would result in lacerations to my bee suit and permanent scarring to my hands.

While making coffee prior to putting the angle grinder to work I noticed that a green plastic milk bottle top looked about the same size as the scaffold jack screw thread.

Patented beesuit and hand protectors fitted

And it is.

Ninety seven cappuccinos later I had the four milk bottle tops necessary for the legs on one stand. Not only do these prevent shredding your bee suit, gloves and flesh, but they also stop water running down inside the leg 18.

But, I bet they’re not UV stable and will degrade in a year or two 🙁

So … more coffee 🙂

Portable? … yes, just about.

Scaffold jacks are quite heavy. However, if you’re strong enough, the component parts can be disassembled and easily transported by car. The one I’ve built with metal rails will fit inside my little car and can be put together in about 5 minutes with a single spanner.

Uneven ground … no bother. This stand is waiting for longer and stronger rails.

Or it can be taken to a sheltered and remote part of the garden to accommodate mating nucs.

Once the legs are placed on solid ground, the rail supports and rails are added and – using a spirit level – each leg in turn is adjusted until the rails are horizontal and level. There’s no need to dig holes, or wedge stuff under the jacks. This takes another 5 minutes.

Should the ground subside a bit, or get compacted with the weight of the hives, you can easily raise or lower the appropriate part of the stand to get things level again.

Job’s a good ‘un 🙂


Note for Facebook followers

Facebook has changed 19 the way posts here are automagically also posted there. I don’t use Facebook and haven’t got a Scooby Doo how to fix this, so it’ll stay broken for the moment I’m afraid.

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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.


 

Beeswax wraps

One of the great things about beekeeping as a hobby is that you are never short of gifts for friends and family 1. A jar or two of honey instead of a bottle of wine – or in addition to a bottle of wine – for dinner parties is always received with enthusiasm.

In your first year or two of beekeeping honey might not be available in excess. You get caught out by swarming or you lose the colony through poor mite management.

However, with a little more attention to swarm prevention / control and timely application of miticides your colony strength increases. Your colony numbers also probably increase. Together these, coupled with favourable weather and a geographically well-sited apiary, ensure a good honey crop.

You’ll never again be short of a last minute gift 🙂

But bees don’t only produce honey

With increasing hive numbers you will also start producing surplus wax. Bits of brace comb, wax cappings or wax melted out in a steam wax extractor … it all starts to add up.

Oops … brace comb

Before you know it you’ve got a few kilograms of wax and you need to find something creative to do with it.

Wax block

Or uncreative … the simplest solution is to trade it in for fresh foundation 2. The block shown above has been filtered through a sheet of kitchen paper and is reasonably clean. In my experience, the wax doesn’t need to be anything like this clean to still be acceptable for exchange.

Of course, the obvious thing to do with excess wax is to make candles.

You need good quantities of nice quality wax, a bain-marie, moulds, wicks and significantly more skill than I’ve got 3. It’s also useful to have a very understanding and patient spouse … there will be spillages 🙁

Alternatively, with relatively little wax you can easily make beeswax wraps to seal food – or food containers – in the fridge or for lunches.

Beeswax wraps

‘The eco-friendly, plastic free, alternative to clingfilm’.

That’s how Thorne’s advertises the beeswax wraps they sell. At two for about £13 (24 cm square) or three for £6 (12 cm square) they are not inexpensive … and when you see how easy they are to make yourself you’ll a) be gobsmacked/impressed 4 at the profit margin and, b) want to make some yourself for use or gifting.

We’ve been using commercial (a gift, in a coals to Newcastle way, from a non-beekeeper) or homemade wraps for at least a year now. The ones I have made are at least as good as the commercial ones, though they don’t come in the nice brown recycled packaging 5.

If you get your skates on you probably have sufficient time to prepare these before Christmas for last minute, in person, gifts.

If I’d written this a month or two ago you’d have also had time to post them – and they’re ideal for this for obvious reasons – but the last posting date 6 for Christmas was probably in October 🙁

Ingredients

The wraps are beeswax-impregnated cotton fabric of some sort. I’ve used plain or patterned cotton of a variety of colours. Depending upon the quality of the wax the material will discolour slightly, so it usually helps to have an off-white colour to start with.

I’ve no idea of the density or weight of the fabric. For comparison, I’d say it was similar to sheets or pillowcases.

Fabric and pinking shears

The beeswax is prepared with jojoba oil (to provide some antibacterial properties), almond oil (to increase pliability) and powdered pine rosin (to provide the ‘tack’ or stickiness).

You’ll need the following:

  • Cotton fabric cut into suitably-sized pieces. Use pinking shears to generate a run-free edge.
  • 100 g clean, filtered beeswax.
  • 10 g jojoba oil (100 ml @ £6.49) 7.
  • 10 g almond oil (500 ml @ £6.99).
  • 70 g powdered pine rosin (500 g for £8.99).

Ingredients for beeswax wraps

The pine rosin (the left-overs from turpentine distillation from pine resin) is usually sold in yellow to amber-coloured translucent lumps. Before use it needs to be ground into a powder. I use a pestle and mortar but I suspect you could do a much faster job with a coffee grinder 8.

In addition to the ingredients above you will also need a limited amount of additional ‘equipment’:

  • some means of melting the ingredients and holding them at temperature. A slow cooker is ideal for this purpose though you could also do this in a homemade bain-marie (e.g. a pyrex bowl in a saucepan of water over a low and controllable heat). Wax is flammable. Take care.

Slow cooker …

  • a metal oven tray and an oven to put it in.
  • baking parchment.
  • a dedicated poor quality paintbrush. ‘Dedicated’ as it will be useless for anything else afterwards. ‘Poor quality’ as we’re not discussing fine art here … it’s just for spreading the melted stuff evenly over the fabric.
  • disposable wooden stirring sticks (lolly sticks, or similar).

Instructions

beeswax wraps

Evenly spread the beeswax mix

  1. Add the powdered pine rosin to the slow cooker and allow it to melt with occasional stirring. I set my slow cooker on medium heat for this.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients to the melted rosin. I weigh the oils and add the solid wax and allow everything to melt together with more gentle stirring.
  3. Pre-warm the oven to ~125°C.
  4. When the mix is ready place the metal oven tray covered with a sheet of baking parchment and the first piece of pre-cut fabric in the oven for a couple of minutes.
  5. Place the pre-warmed metal tray and fabric on a heatproof and newspaper-covered surface 9 and ‘paint’ the fabric with the beeswax mix. To reduce drips from the paintbrush I use an old coffee scoop to add the beeswax mix to the fabric and then spread it evenly with the paintbrush.
  6. Put the tray and coated fabric back in the oven for two minutes.
  7. Remove again and use the paintbrush to ensure the beeswax mix is spread evenly, with no lumpy bits or excess. This usually involves using the paintbrush to sort of spread the excess off to the sides 10.
  8. Lift the now covered fabric wrap by two corners and hold over the metal tray (not the floor!) for 15 seconds or so to catch any drips. Remember, it’s likely to still be hot. Use tongs of some sort if you have heat-sensitive fingers.
  9. Lay the finished wrap aside once it is sufficiently cool. This takes just a few seconds. You’ll often see instructions to hang these on a drying rack but I’ve never bothered.
  10. Add another piece of fabric and go back to #4 in these instructions. Repeat until you’ve run out of beeswax mix, fabric or patience.

beeswax wraps

Here are some I prepared earlier

Once cooled they can be folded gently and stored.

Notes

The quantities by weight in the ingredients list above are sufficient to make (at least) a couple of dozen wraps 11. If that’s more than you need, or if you want to prepare the beeswax mix in bulk in advance, simply pour it into a suitable container (e.g. a plastic ice cream tub) that has been pre-treated with something like FloPlast Silicone Spray to allow its easy removal for re-melting.

You can make large wraps suitable for a loaf of bread in the same way. Just fold the fabric over so that it fits onto the metal tray. Turn it over to ensure that the fabric is full impregnated with the beeswax mix.

beeswax wraps

Large wraps

I found the recipe above somewhere online. I tried a couple and this worked best for me 12.

The wraps I make are a little thicker and quite a bit ‘tackier’ than the commercial ones I’ve seen.

I’m using tacky here as an adjective meaning ‘sticky’ … not as the informal ‘poor taste or quality’ !

This tackiness is an advantage as it is a little more self-adhesive when you’re wrapping things, and it probably makes the wrap last a little longer as well. You could probably reduce the rosin content to make a ‘drier’ beeswax wrap, but I can’t guarantee it will stay wrapped.

The same sorts of guidance applies to the use of these wraps as any commercial ones. Do not use them to wrap raw meat or fish. If they get dirty wash them in lukewarm water with a very small amount of detergent. If they lose their ‘stick’ revitalise them by placing them in the over for 5 minutes at 125°C.

Have fun 🙂


Note

Elaine Robinson, a regular reader and commenter, sent me a description of an alternative way of preparing and applying the beeswax mix. Having mixed the ingredients she pours it onto a wetted piece of plywood where it sets in a thin sheet.

Preparing this sheets of beeswax wrap mix

Having floated this off in water she freezes it – or them as it makes sense to prepare a lot in advance – in a tub and then, by simply shaking the tub, turns it into broken shards.

Here are some that were prepared earlier – sheets of beeswax wrap mix

Using about 16 g of shards per 30 cm square wrap Elaine stacks the fabric and shards on a baking tray and places them in an oven at ~80°C.

Ready to use shards – use them straight from the freezer to avoid stickiness

After melting everything all that is then needed is a brush to ensure the edges of each of the beeswax wraps are fully covered … followed by folding the wraps and popping them into some very neat custom-made brown paper sleeves that she also prints at home.

All done!

Which look very impressive and made my efforts look rather inadequate 😉

 

Portable queen cell incubator

One of the earliest posts on this site, back in January 2014, described my honey warming cabinet.

Both that post and the cabinet are still going strong.

The cabinet has been used to process a lot of honey … and the post has been read tens of thousands of times and still remains in the top 10% of most read pages (of ~450 now) in 2021.

I attribute the popularity of the post to two things:

  • it was an erudite article written in an elegant and entertaining style 1
  • the design reflected the sort of inspirational genius rarely seen outside a Dyson factory 2
  • almost all beekeepers find that a honey warming cabinet is very useful
  • similar 3 commercial honey warming cabinets are a daft price

Today’s post is on a niche DIY project … a portable queen cell incubator. However, like the honey warming cabinet, it is something that can be built for significantly less than a similar commercial model.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

Unlike the honey warming cabinet, this is something that will be of interest to only a subset of beekeepers.

Or perhaps fewer.

The fraction of a fraction of a small proportion

Firstly, only a small proportion of beekeepers actively 4 rear queens. Quite how big or small that proportion is I don’t know … perhaps 10%.

Secondly, only a fraction of that 10% of beekeepers will want to use an incubator for queen emergence or short-term storage 5.

And finally, only a fraction of that fraction might need the queen cell incubator to be portable.

But I’m one of them, and I know there are a few others who are regular readers … 6.

It also seemed appropriate to balance the article on frames – of general relevance, if not interest – last week with something of very specialist interest … reflecting the wonderful diversity of our hobby.

Design criteria

I discussed some general features of a portable queen cell incubator when I described my first attempt at building one back in July.

Broadly the design criteria were as follows: 

  • automatic temperature controlled environment maintained at between 33.3 °C (92 °F) and 35.5 °C (96 °F) 7
  • ideally with the temperature controlled to between 34.4 °C to 35 °C (94-95 °F)
  • high humidity
  • able to accommodate at least 10 queen cells in Nicot cages
  • portable and powered by a 5V or 12V supply so it could be used in a car (or from a battery)

Version 1 was a case of ‘close, but no cigar’.

It worked up to a point. Queens emerged in it and I successfully transported virgin queens across Scotland (including hotel stops), maintaining them for up to a week before introducing them (also successfully) into hives. 

Version 1 … a bit primitive if I’m honest … but it did work (more or less)

But it was a bit of a botch-up.

It consisted of a polystyrene box with a 5 V vivarium heat mat. Temperature control was not automatic, but was more sort of ‘hit and hope’.

If at first you don’t succeed … 

However, I’ve spent some time since then making version 2 which – remarkably – meets all of the design criteria listed above 🙂

I don’t intend to provide a step-by-step guide to building this portable queen cell incubator. You might want a bigger one, or one for mains power only, or to house bare cells rather than queens in Nicot cages, or one coloured red or whatever. 

But what I will show are the general ways I met my design criteria, with a list of parts and lots of pictures showing how it was put together. I’ll highlight the critical features that actually made it work as intended. I’ll also discuss testing and performance, which are as important as the design and construction.

Overview

The portable queen cell incubator consists of an insulated picnic box with a 12 V 15 W heating element. Supported above the element is a block of foam insulation to hold the Nicot cages. Temperature control is automatic and a very stable temperature is achieved by circulating the air in the incubator with a small fan. Ten Nicot cages can be accommodated at a suitable temperature for hours/days at a time in ~90% humidity.

It’s winter … so this hasn’t been tested with queens or queen cells.

Caveat emptor.

A list of parts is followed by cross-sectional diagram and lots of photos, with comments, of some of the components. Towards the end of the post I describe the testing process and the results.

OK, for the six readers who have not already moved on … buckle up. Here goes.

Materials

This is what I used. I didn’t shop around much for bargain prices, so you might be able to do better. Note that I struggled to find anywhere other than RS Components that sold suitable heating mats.

  • Insulated picnic box – e.g. an Andes 5 litre coolbox at £14.99
  • Piece of wooden laminate flooring (from my spares bin)
  • Silicone 15 W heating mat – e.g. one from RS Components at ~£30
  • A5 6mm aluminium sheet – purchased from eBay for £4.50
  • Offcuts of a cheapo plastic queen excluder (from my spares bin)
  • 20 mm M4 roofing nuts and bolts (from my spares bin)
  • Closed cell foam – the stuff they pack computers in when shipping (from my spares bin)
  • 40 mm 12 V computer fan – e.g. a Noiseblocker BlackSilent Fan XM-1-40mm at ~£4.50 8
  • STC-1000 12 V temperature controller – e.g. an Aideepen at £14. Make sure you choose a 12 V model.
  • Plastic food container for the electrics – stolen from the kitchen (from my spares bin)
  • Velcro tape, Sugru, zip ties, cable gland, thin bits of foam, some wire and a few electrical connectors (from my – yes, you guessed it – spares bin)
  • 12 V mains power supply with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (from a woefully poor BT broadband modem via my spares bin)
  • 5.5 x 2.1 mm female power jack sockets (about £9 for half a dozen)
  • 12 V car cigar lighter adaptor with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (about £8) 9

Testing, testing

For development and testing I used a Raspberry Pi Zero with DS18b20 external temperature sensor(s) and DHT22 temperature/humidity sensor to monitor the environment in the incubator. For the technically-minded these recorded internal and external temperatures and/or humidity at 1 minute intervals, displaying the results via ThingSpeak. Perl or python scripts were run via cron jobs and data was saved to CSV-format files for subsequent analysis.

Computer geekery used for testing purposes – Raspberry Pi Zero, two DS18b20 and one DHT22 sensors

You don’t need this type of computer geekery, but you do need to be able to accurately determine the temperature (at least) inside the incubator and to calibrate the STC-1000 thermostatic controller.

Ideally you want a thermometer small enough that you can place it in different locations to determine how even the heating is within the incubator.

Cross-sectional diagram of the queen cell incubator

Early attempts just placing the foam (holding the Nicot cages) directly above the heating element were an abject failure. Temperature control was all over the place.

It turns out that you need a 1 cm gap between the foam and the element and you need a fan to circulate the air. That was the breakthrough … after which it was pretty much plain sailing.

Queen cell incubator schematic

A very humid environment is not ideal for electrical things like fans or thermostats. I therefore opted to house everything except the fan in a plastic food container velcro’d to the outside of the insulated picnic box.

Mission control

Not pretty … but functional.

If I was doing this again I’d do exactly the same thing … it works perfectly well.

Calibrate the STC-1000

The STC-1000 is a widely used and inexpensive thermostatic controller. It has a power input, a temperature sensor (probe) and separate controllable heating and cooling circuits. Both 12 V and 240 V models are available. 

You set the control temperature on the STC-1000 and a delta (offset) temperature of, say, 0.3 °C. Every time temperature drops below the set temperature minus delta the heating circuit switches on. When the sensor reports the temperature exceeds the set temperature plus delta the cooling circuit switches on. In the narrow range of set temperature ± delta the STC-1000 just keeps track of the temperature. 

This project did not use the cooling circuit.

The STC-1000 temperature sensor is on a long piece of wire. It is almost certain that the displayed temperature is not the actual temperature.

Calibrating the STC-1000

I worked out the temperature difference by placing the sensor in a Thermos flask (no lid) of hot water (~50 °C), together with thermometer(s) I trusted. I then recorded the temperatures at 10 minute intervals as the water slowly cooled and plotted the results.

STC-1000 calibration

My STC-1000 consistently over-read by ~1 °C across the tested range (28 – 49 °C). The STC-1000 has a function (F4 in the menu) to calibrate the unit so that the display – and therefore the thermostat settings – reflect the accurate temperature.

It’s worth doing this before embarking on the build, though you will need to adjust it again later (see below).

The F2 function on the STC-1000 sets the temperature delta (offset) away from the set temperature. Set this to the minimum, which is 0.3 °C. You want the temperature to fluctuate over a limited range.

The heating element

This is the single most important and expensive component.

I used a 12 V 15 W 100 x 150 mm silicone heating mat from RS Components. 

WARNING – these heat pads MUST be thermostatically controlled. Without thermostatic control these pads can reach ~200°C. Not only will this cook your queens, it will probably also melt your car, burn your house down and run off with your spouse. You have been warned!

Of course, I immediately wired it up (without a thermostat) to a 12V source and determined that it didn’t reach anything like 200°C particularly fast … though I dare say it would reach it eventually.

It did get too hot to touch, but you have to try these things, don’t you? 10

Silicone heating pad, wooden insulation and aluminium plate

To avoid damaging the inner floor of the box 11 I placed it on top of a ~1.5cm thick offcut of wood laminate flooring. I stopped this moving about with some fillets of closed cell foam.

To help dissipate the heat more evenly I stuck the heating mat to the underside of a 6mm thick piece of aluminium. The heating mat I purchased had an adhesive pad on one side of it.

Make sure the heating mat is central and stuck down with no air bubbles. Protect the wiring from the sharp edges of the aluminium pad with some gaffer tape.

With hindsight, a larger heating mat may work better. RS Components do a 30W version which is A5-sized (approximately) and would fit in the insulated picnic box I used. It should heat the box faster and may provide a more evenly heated surface 12.

The box

I chose a small (5 litre) square-sided picnic box designed to take 6 x cans of beer (or Coke … or iced-tea or whatever). The sides and base are foam-filled. The lid appears to be just hollow plastic. 

The box has a carry handle 13. There is no lock or catch to keep the lid shut, but it is quite tight and should be secure enough.

The intention at the start was to mount the STC-1000 through the side-wall of the insulated box, hence the choice of a square-sided model. I quickly abandoned this idea when I realised the humidity level inside the box and just how limited in volume it was.

There are similar, and slightly bigger insulated sandwich/picnic boxes that might well be better insulated and/or a better choice 14.

The internal bits 15

I drilled a hole through the rear wall of the box to take the wiring for the STC-1000 temperature sensor, heating mat and fan. In addition, I drilled a hole for a thermometer for use when testing the unit (subsequently filled in with a bit of foam and taped over, but it’s there if I need it again).

The foam block to hold the Nicot cages needs to be supported ~1 cm above the aluminium sheet. I used an offcut of plastic queen excluder held in place with 6 ‘legs’ created from M4 roofing bolts. These are a reasonably good fit through the holes in the queen excluder, but require a nut and washer each side to hold them firm and square to the plastic.

Legs for the foam support

This support was placed ‘screwhead down’ on top of the aluminium sheet.

Queen excluder support for foam block

The foam block goes on top of the queen excluder. I had to cut small recesses in the underside of the block to accommodate the protruding ends of the M4 roofing bolts. This is important as it keeps the queen excluder and foam properly aligned and flush fitting.

The foam block must be carefully shaped … this needs:

  • the ability to visualise the finished item in 3D
  • a sharp breadknife
  • a steady hand … or Elastoplast

The idea is to maximise the area to accommodate the Nicot cages, but to allow good airflow around the four edges of the block. I achieved this by leaving protruding corners that fitted very snugly into the box, but cut ~1 cm ‘recesses’ in the block on all four sides.

Foam block corner detail

The foam block I started with was ~5 cm thick, but I thinned it to ~3.5 cm to provide space for the Nicot cages.

My greatest smallest fan

The fan is located centrally, supported at the corners on the queen excluder and attached to the underside of the foam block. I cut a 40 mm diameter central hole through the block using a holesaw and then, using a scalpel, cut a recess for the fan. The fan was just taped in place. The airflow is intended to push warmed air from the aluminium plate UP through the central hole, so make sure you get the fan in the correct orientation.

I discovered that it helps to cut away the queen excluder underneath the fan to maximise the airflow. These little fans are pretty puny … don’t obstruct them if you can avoid it. 

The fan I purchased had a speed controller/reader wire which wasn’t needed, so I just cut it off.

The fan fits centrally in a recess cut into the underside of the foam block

I cut eleven suitably-sized (~2 cm diameter) plugs out of the block using a holesaw for the Nicot cages. Rather than cut right through the foam I cut through partially (~2 cm deep) and then used a very thin and sharp scalpel through the side of the block to cut across the bottom of the plug, so releasing it.

The intention was to grip the Nicot cage, but to have the queen cells protruding into the airspace over the foam … where hopefully the temperature would be even and constant.

Almost finished …

Wiring it all up

I’m not going to embarrass myself or risk your electrocution by showing the gory details of the rats nest of wiring I ended up with.

What a mess … 12V makes this a whole lot easier and safer

Suffice to say that working with 12V probably saved my life more than once 😉

It’s worth remembering that the heating (and cooling) circuits on an STC-1000 are not powered but the temperature sensor is, so you need to take a spur off your power input to provide juice to the heating mat.

I based my wiring on the following diagram, ignoring both the yellow/green earth wires as I was using 12 V and the cooling terminals.

STC-1000 wiring diagram. For 12 V omit the yellow/green earth wires.

Actually, it was a little more complicated than that as I also wired the fan directly into the power so that it was always running. Preliminary tests showed that this gave reduced temperature fluctuations than when wired in parallel with the heating mat.

More ‘shockingly bad’ wiring

The temperature sensor and wires to the heating mat and fan are routed via a cable gland from the plastic box on the outside, through the hole in the sidewall of the picnic box. I sheathed the wires in some flexible cable sleeving I had from another project.

Cable gland and sleeve

The power supply feeds into the plastic ‘control box’ via a near-ubiquitous 5.5 x 2.1 mm socket (shown above). 

The temperature sensor needs to be fixed in a central location on the inside of the lid of the picnic box.

Temperature sensor

To ensure repeatable temperature control this sensor must be in a fixed location. Do not just leave it flapping around in the box 16. Make sure you have sufficient wire free to the sensor to allow the lid to open easily, without fouling anything in the box.

Ready for testing

With everything assembled the inside of the box should look something like this:

Almost ready to go

I still have a little more tidying to do with the wiring to the heating pad and the temperature sensor. They will both be held in place with zip ties and I’m intending to construct a smaller seal on the inner wall using Sugru mouldable silicone glue (which is extraordinary stuff).

The recesses to hold the Nicot queen cages are numbered.

Having put everything together I then tested it 17

Temperature testing

The temperature within the Nicot queen cages is not identical in every position in the box.

It varies, in a very reproducible manner, from position to position 18. The variation between positions is mostly with 1°C, so the aim was to adjust the thermostat so as many of the Nicot cages as possible were within the optimum part of the temperature range.

In the following graph the temperature was measured for 1-2 hours with the Nicot cage containing my testing thermometer in each location, with positions #5 (light bars) or #9 (dark bars) occupied by the water source to maintain humidity. Error bars indicate the standard deviation in each position.

Temperature testing

Red lines indicate the lowest (dashed) and highest (solid) temperatures acceptable for incubating queen cells. Blue lines indicate the low and high limits on the optimum range.

Positions #5 and #11 were consistently warmer. The heating mat must have a ‘hotspot’ in this central region. Position #9 was consistently cooler (and was the most variable position).

Using position #9 for the water source, 8 of the remaining 10 positions maintain the temperature within the optimum range of 34.4 °C to 35 °C. The two outside this range (positions #3 and #10) are only ~0.4 °C cooler.

Nice 🙂

Calibration of the STC-1000 … what, again?

But you will not achieve figures like those above without again calibrating the temperature offset in the STC-1000.

With the temperature sensor suspended from the lid of the box there is a temperature differential between the sensor and the location of the queen cell within the Nicot cage.

You therefore need to work out this difference and then recalibrate – via the F4 function – the offset on the STC-1000. 

Accurately measure the temperature where the queen cells will sit and then compare this temperature with that shown – once a steady temperature is reached – by the STC-1000. For example, if the STC-1000 is set at 34.5 °C, but your thermometer reads the Nicot cage temperature as only 33.5 °C, you need to adjust F4 by -1.0 °C.

This takes a little time, but the goal is to end up with the set temperature on the STC-1000 being the temperature at which you want to incubate your queen cells.

Frankly, I was delighted 19 I could get such accurate and reproducible temperatures 🙂

The ambient temperature in my workshop was 15-17 °C throughout these tests, but I also confirmed that the temperature did not fluctuate when the box was moved outdoors (8 °C).

Humidity

Queens need a humid environment. I used a folded up piece of kitchen towel fitted tightly into a Nicot cage and then soaked in water. This sits in position #9. Using this I could maintain humidity at a fraction over 90% as long as the lid of the box was closed.

Humidity measurements

From a ‘cold start’ humidity increases to ~91% after one hour and remains high. The humidity drops to ~70% when the box was briefly opened (after 2 hours 40 minutes, above) but quickly returned to over 90%.

That’s good enough for me and should be good enough for my queens 🙂

Heating and cooling

The graph above shows that the box takes about one hour to reach working temperature. In repeated tests this was very reproducible from an ambient (workshop) temperature of ~17 °C.

Heating and cooling

If the lid was kept closed the temperature drops from ~34 °C to ~25 °C in one hour when the power is turned off. The temperature drops much faster if the lid was left open 20.

All of the temperature measurements shown in the bar chart above involved repeated opening and closing the lid to move the test thermometer about. This is not dissimilar to the manipulations when introducing, checking or feeding queens. Under these conditions the temperature fluctuated by only 1-2 °C and returned to the set temperature within a few minutes.

Again, that’s more than good enough for me and my queens 🙂

What’s in a name?

There is a commercial portable queen cell incubator, the Carricell, made in New Zealand.

Carricell queen cell incubator

This is primarily designed to carry cells … hence the name. I don’t think it’s a queen cell incubator, despite what it says on the side of the unit. It keeps cells warm, but you couldn’t incubate sealed cells until they emerged … but what do I know, as I’ve never seen or used one?

I’ve also never seen any data on the temperature stability of the Carricell. However I do know they cost an eye-watering €636 from Swienty (for the mid-sized 70 cell model).

The Carricell is for professional bee farmers who want to transport lots of cells at a time. 

My incubator is for a small number of cells only (but could be scaled up now the basic design problems are solved).

I need a name for the box I’ve described as ‘portable queen cell incubator’ is much too sensible and unwieldy. 

I currently favour the name PortaQueen 21 … can you think of anything better?

In use

Unless you’re in the fraction of a fraction of a small proportion of beekeepers who actually need one of these you might have read 22 the last 3700 words and be wondering “That’s all very well, but what the hell is it used for?”

Here are the three things I expect to use this for next season:

  1. Incubating queen cells started and capped in my cell rearing colonies. This frees up the cell rearing colony to rear a second batch of queens. A capped cell just needs to be kept warm. The queen emerges and is then introduced to a colony for subsequent mating. Alternatively, the queen cell can be used just prior to emergence to prime a newly made up nucleus colony.
  2. Keeping virgin or mated queens warm and safe during transport between apiaries 23. You can feed virgin queens with honey and water and keep them alive for several days prior to introducing them into a colony. It is always good to have a spare queen or two ‘on hand’ in case of emergencies, opportunities or stupidity.
  3. Transporting eggs or very young larvae for grafting in a distant apiary. I don’t have space to write about this more here, but may cover it in the future.

Here’s one I produced earlier

If you attempt to build one of these I’d be interested to hear how you got on.


Note

Almost forgot … this box needs a 12 V supply, but the heating pad and fan are about 16 W total (and the former is only on ~50% of the time). I calculate it could be powered by a 7 Ah sealed lead acid battery for a few hours if needed. Coincidentally (not) I’ve previously built solar powered battery boxes that house 7Ah SLA batteries to drive my trail cameras which could also be used with the PortaQueen.