Synopsis: Think laterally, use your imagination, hoard stuff … there’s lots you can repurpose to make both your beekeeping and bank balance better. And it’s something to fill the months until the season starts.
The big equipment suppliers – Thorne’s, Abelo, Dadant etc. – are very happy to sell you everything you need for your beekeeping … and a whole lot of stuff you probably don’t. A ‘hard sell’ approach to marketing isn’t needed, they simply provide an enticing catalogue or website and rely upon the long, cold, dark, wet and windy winter to do the rest.
It’s disturbingly effective … I’ve got the receipts.
An enthusiastic beginner might need a second mortgage after a trip to Rand or a winter afternoon in front of the fire browsing the catalogue.
Beekeeping is not an inexpensive pastime 1 when starting from scratch. Hives, beesuits, bees, smokers, hive tools, multi-purpose eke/clearer/insulated crownboards 2 and other essentials leave little change from a substantial chunk of moolah.
Buster the hivebarrow
Of course, with certain exceptions, buying shiny new kit makes things easy. Equipment is compatible, it’s been tested, built to a high standard and ‘just works’. It’s one less thing to worry about when starting out, and – midseason – it provides a quick fix to rectify an urgent problem.
However … as well as sometimes being painfully expensive 3, it turns out that the suppliers don’t sell everything you need. With a little effort, some opportunism, a sprinkling of imagination and those long winters you can rectify this and save money.
Today I’m going to discuss repurposing things you beg, borrow or steal find (or perhaps buy cheaply) to enhance, or even improve, your beekeeping.
Synopsis : Foundation is getting more expensive. Try foundationless frames; save money and reduce miticide contamination in your hives.
While preparing some minor updates for a talk this week 1 I had cause to look up the price of foundation.
Foundation is one of the beekeeping basics. It’s effectively a consumable item that you periodically have to replace … or more correctly you replace the frames containing new sheets of foundation. It is recommended that brood frames are replaced every three years; this means you should expect to replace 3-4 frames per season in a National hive.
Like other basics, such as eggs and pasta, the price of foundation is rising inexorably. The last stuff I bought – premium National wired worker deep – was about £13 from Thorne’s. I bought ~15 packets and it hurt.
It’s now £15.60 a packet (for 10 sheets) 2. If it goes up much more I’ll have to trade in a kidney before visiting Brian at Thorne’s of Newburgh.
Synopsis : Queen rearing is enjoyable and educational. Don’t let the experts put you off. You don’t need to graft day-old larvae to rear queens.
A long time ago 1 I bought, read and re-read Ted Hooper’s excellent book Guide to Bees and Honey. Every time I read it I’d find something I’d missed the last time and, even now, there are nuanced comments I think I am only now beginning to understand.
I’m exaggerating slightly when I say ’read and re-read’ as there was one chapter I pretty-much skipped over each time.
That was the chapter on queen rearing.
What put me off?
It was probably his description of opening queen cells with the tip of a penknife to check how far development had progressed, re-sealing the cell and returning the frame to the hive.
She’s gone …
I knew enough about bees to know that the future success of the hive depended upon it successfully requeening after swarming.
But I didn’t know enough to stop them swarming 😉 .
I’d also already had to ‘borrow’ a frame of cells from a friend to rescue a terminally queenless colony of mine. ’Enthusiastically clumsy’ defined my beekeeping skillset, and was probably the comment the 2 examiner made in his notes during my BBKA Basic assessment.
The prospect of meddling with developing queens, with something so precious, seemed like total madness.
Surely it’s better to let them get on with it?
For the first couple of years of beekeeping, I thought of queens as an exquisitely fragile – and by implication valuable – resource. The prospect of rearing them, handling them, putting them in little boxes or – surely not? – prising a cell open to see if they’d developed sufficiently, was an anathema to me.
Consequently, I repeatedly skipped the chapter on queen rearing.
Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.
The BBKA Annual Convention
Before they moved the event to Harper Adams, the BBKA used to hold its spring convention at the Royal Agricultural showground just outside Warwick. My (then) local association provided stewards for the event and I was asked – or volunteered – to help the late Terry Clare run the queen rearing course one year.
I’d never done any queen rearing … and still hadn’t completely read that chapter in Hooper’s book.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to those who paid to attend the course … at least those who received any ‘help’ from me, though everything else about the course was very good.
Checking grafted larvae
After an introductory lecture from Terry, we spent a warm afternoon in a poorly lit room practising grafting larvae. A thin cloud of disorientated bees circled our heads before being ushered out through the windows. Most of the larvae on the frames were visible from across the room 3 but at least they didn’t turn to mush with our neophyte fumblings as we transferred them from comb to plastic queen cups.
Terry moved from table to table, checking progress. He explained things well. Very well. The preparation and procedures seemed a whole lot more accessible than they had in Hooper’s book.
I’m a reasonably quick learner and that afternoon convinced me I should, and could, at least try it on my own.
The session ended with a wrap-up lecture in which Terry encouraged us all to ‘have a go’, and not be put off by an initial lack of success.
He assured us it would be worthwhile and enjoyable.
We dispersed into the late afternoon sun, talking of bees and queens and our plans for the season ahead.
Balmy April weather
There was an early spring that year, colonies had overwintered well and were strong. The Convention was held in early April if I remember and the good weather continued for at least another 2-3 weeks.
Well before the end of the month I had my first successfully grafted larvae being reared as queens.
It wasn’t an overwhelming success.
I probably grafted a dozen, got half accepted, lost more during development 4 and ended with just two virgins. I don’t have notes from those days, but I’m pretty sure only one got successfully mated.
So, success in a very limited way, but still success 🙂 .
It still makes me smile.
Terry’s presentation had clarified the mechanics of the process. It no longer seemed like witchcraft. It was all very logical. He’d made it clear that the little specialised equipment needed was either ’as cheap as chips’5 or could easily be built at home by someone as cack-handed as I was am 6.
The practical session had given me confidence I could see and manipulate huge fat larvae that were far too old to be reared as queens larvae. Even with my ’hands like feet’ moving a delicate larva from comb to plastic queen cup seemed possible, if not entirely natural.
JzBz plastic queen cups
I scrounged some JzBz cups from someone/somewhere, built a cell bar frame and some fat dummies7 the week after the Convention and used one of my colonies as a cell raiser and the other as the source of larvae.
And, at a first approximation, everything sort of worked.
I could rear queens from larvae I had selected 🙂 .
Try, try and try again
I repeated it again the following month. I was more successful. The nucs I produced were either overwintered or built up strongly enough to be moved into full hives.
I think one went to my mentee. My association encouraged relative newcomers to mentor, probably one of the best ways to improve your beekeeping (other than queen rearing).
Within a year I had 6-8 colonies or nucs and twice than number the year after that.
Almost all were headed by queens I had reared … ‘almost’ as my swarm control skills were still developing 😉 .
Now, over a decade later, my swarm control skills have improved considerably … as has my queen rearing.
I remain resolutely cack-handed but I’m now a lot more confident in my hamfistedness.
I still mainly use the same technique Terry Clare taught on that course in Stoneleigh, though I’ve now also used a number of other approaches and successfully reared queens using most of them. Even the cell bar frame I built is still in use, though I’ve built some fancier fat dummies.
Fat dummy … with integral feeder and insulation
Queen rearing has taught me more about keeping bees than any other aspect of the hobby … more about judging the state of the colony, the quality of the bees, the suitability of the environment, the weather, the forage etc.
Queen rearing has improved the quality of my bees, year upon year, so that they suit my environment and colony management.
But – more importantly and perhaps a little selfishly – queen rearing has given me more enjoyment than any other aspect of beekeeping.
I’d prefer to rear queens than get a bumper honey crop … but because I rear queens that suit me and the environment, I do pretty well for honey as well.
I give 20-30 talks a season to beekeeping associations. When I’m talking about queen rearing I usually ask the organisers about the number in their association that actively rear queens.
By actively I mean that do more than simply allow colonies to requeen themselves during swarm control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating this essential aspect of beekeeping. We all (have to) do it.
To me ‘active’ queen rearing doesn’t necessarily mean grafting larvae, incubators, mini-nucs and all that palaver. But it does mean:
preparing a colony to be in a suitable state to rear new queens 8.
rearing queens from larvae selected (though not necessarily individually selected) from a colony with desirable characteristics e.g. good temper, productivity, frugality.
rearing more than one queen at a time, with the excess used for making increase, for sale, for ’just in case’ situations etc.
There’s perhaps a slightly grey area where you split a hive (with desirable characteristics) that’s making swarm preparations into multiple nucs, each of which gets an immature queen cell.
But, let’s not get bogged down in definitions … that’s not the point of this post (which, although it might not be obvious yet, is to encourage you to ’have a go’).
And, when I ask 9, I’m regularly told that only a small number, perhaps ~10%, of association members actively rear queens.
Why so few?
Enjoyable, educational, useful … choose any three
Of course, there’s no requirement that a beekeeper gets involved in queen rearing. You can keep bees for years without rearing queens, other than during swarm control and by making up splits. I know a few beekeepers who have been keeping bees like this for decades … by many criteria they are skilled and successful beekeepers.
But sometimes, which might mean ‘often’, being able to rear queens and having some of those ‘spare’ queens available is extremely useful.
Spare queens, heading nucs in the apiary, can be overwintered to make up losses. These can be sold or donated in Spring to meet the enormous10 demand for bees early in the season. The availability of a queen can ‘fix’ an aggressive colony, can rescue an otherwise doomed colony, or can effectively ‘gain’ a month of brood rearing and nectar collection should the old queen fail.
And that extra month of brood might make the difference between successful overwintering or not.
In my view, once you can rear your own queens you are pretty-much self-sufficient … there are very few situations that cannot be rescued.
And all of those benefits are before you even consider the two other things I mentioned above:
that successful queen rearing will inevitably improve your more general skills as a beekeeper, and
you will get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing it … literally ’the most fun you can have in a beesuit’11.
Why so few?
Beekeeping, like many other hobbies, can appear an esoteric pastime. Weird terminology, hierarchical organisation 12, specialised equipment, unusual costumes and a tendency to still use arcane practises.
And queen rearing – probably like candle making or the production of excellent mead 13 – is a specialised niche within what is already a rather niche activity.
It has its own terminology, equipment and methods.
To the uninitiated – even to another beekeeper, like me reading Ted Hooper’s book – it can appear fiendishly difficult.
And, unfortunately, some practitioners make it sound esoteric, specialised and difficult.
It’s a sort of one-upmanship.
They promote methods that may not suit the beginner, that require lots of resources, or that involve techniques that sound exceptionally skilful, even when they’re not. Not deliberately perhaps, but that’s what happens.
All of which means that:
people are dissuaded from trying it in the first place
those that do try (with trepidation because, you know, ”it’s difficult”) and that achieve only limited success, have their initial impression reinforced and are unlikely to try again
It’s very easy to talk yourself out of trying something you think will be difficult and/or you are unlikely to succeed at.
Actually, it’s not only easy, it’s also entirely understandable.
Why go to all that trouble if it’s unlikely to work?
After all, you can usually buy queens ‘next day delivery’ for £50 … surely that would be easier?
Perhaps … if they’re available when you want them. Really early in the season? Think again. During the peak swarming season when everyone else wants to requeen their colonies they accidentally destroyed all the queen cells in. Nope.
But, as Terry Clare so ably instructed … it is not that difficult to rear your own.
There’s more than one way to do it
I’ve written an entire post on this topic and it applies as much to queen rearing as it does to other aspects of our hobby.
If not more.
There are many different ways of successfully achieving the three key components of the process:
preparing the colony to receive larvae
presenting the larvae
getting the resulting virgin queens mated
Today’s post isn’t an introduction to queen rearing … it’s meant instead as an encouragment to try queen rearing.
If you’ve got a year or two of beekeeping experience and one, or preferably two, colonies you have the essentials you need to start. It’s what I started with … and look how that ended 😉 .
Over the next three months I’ll write two or three more posts on the basics, in good time for you to ’have a go’ in 2023.
Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing
If you’re impatient to read more, I’ve already written about two methods I have used extensively – the Ben Harden system and queen rearing with a Cloake board.
However, throughout these descriptions I’ve emphasised the use of individualgrafted larvae.
Grafting is the transfer of larvae from the comb where the egg hatched to a wax or plastic queen queen cup. For best results the larvae should no more than ~18 hours old.
A suitable larva may well be no bigger than the egg it hatched from.
Already I can feel beginners switching off … “Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.”
Although grafting is an easily learned and reasonably straightforward technique it can appear very daunting to the beginner.
Perhaps I’m therefore also guilty of making queen rearing sound ‘esoteric, specialised and difficult’.
Am I guilty as well?
But … in my defence please consider the two recent posts on ’Picking winners’.
The purpose of those posts was to highlight – for people (like me) that already routinely use grafting as part of their queen rearing – that the bees may choose different larvae to rear as queens than the beekeeper might choose.
The beekeeper is essentially non-selective, whereas the bees are very selective.
I think this is interesting and it’s got me wondering about the qualities the bees select and whether they’d be beneficial for my beekeeping.
But there’s another equally important ‘take home message’ from these two posts. This is relevant to beekeepers who do not already rear queens (but who would like to) but that are put off by the thought of grafting.
And that is that you can easily produce excellent quality queen cells without grafting or ‘handling’ larvae at all.
If you refer back to that three point list above, point 2 ( ‘presenting the larvae’) can be as straightforward as simply adding a frame of eggs and larvae to a suitably prepared hive.
What could be easier?
No magnifying glasses, no headtorch, no treble ‘0’ sable paintbrush, no JzBz plastic cups, no cell bar frame, no ’do I or don’t I prime the cups with royal jelly?’, no desperate searching around the frame for larvae of the right size, no worries about larvae getting chilled, or drying out …
Pick a frame, any frame
As long as it has eggs and young larvae … and comes from a donor colony that has the characteristics you like in your bees.
Eggs and young larvae
There’s little point in rearing queens from poor quality bees.
For starters I’d suggest you select a frame from a colony of calm, well behaved bees.
If none of your colonies are dependably calm and well behaved you definitely need to learn to rear queens, but you should ask a friend or mentor 14 for a frame of eggs and larvae from a good colony.
Bees are very good at picking larvae suitable for rearing into queens. Let them do the ‘heavy lifting’. Once the queen cells are ready you cut them out of the frame and use them in the same way as you would use cells from grafted larvae.
So, having hopefully convinced you that you don’t need to graft larvae to produce queen cells, that seems like a logical place to end this post.
In future posts I’ll discuss points 1 and 3 in that numbered list above.
You already know almost everything you now need to know about point 2 😉 .
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?
The good late summer September weather1 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, 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 … 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
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.
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.
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 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 … 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 …
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.
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.
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 madehive 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
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 😉
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’sone I made earlier.
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 😉
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
I think the two most important features of a hive stand are its stability and 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.
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).
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
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.
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.
The photo sent to me back in 2016 …
Four ‘legs’ and just four bits of wood. I like the hive roofs.
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).
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).
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.
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 🙂
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