Category Archives: Hive products

Jarring honey

Synopsis : Jarring is the final stage in honey production. Done properly it generates a good looking (and great tasting), high quality product for sale or gifting.


For some beekeepers, honey production is the raison d’être for their beekeeping, everything is geared to maximising the crop. For others it is a sticky inconvenience that – indirectly – gives them a bad back and gets in the way of queen rearing.

But for me, it’s one of the very many benefits and pleasures of beekeeping that I periodically curse and wish there was a bit less of.

I love the look of pleasure that an unexpected gifted jar produces or the ’oohing and aahing’ at a dinner party when I produce a bottle of red and a ‘matched brace’ of spring and summer honeys.

A winning combination

I’m a lot less keen on shifting half a ton of supers from the apiary to the car to the warming cabinet to the extractor 1, or the interminable washing up after extracting … or, for that matter, the repetitiveness of jarring and labelling very large amounts of honey.

However, I do welcome selling a bit of honey to offset the cost of new nucs, or DIY bits for my queen cell incubator, or replacing the (many) hive tools I misplace.

And, as the adage goes, ”If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”.

So I do my best to produce good looking and great tasting honey, sold through local farm shops, organic cafes and similar artisanal outlets. I tend to prepare batches of 24-36 jars to order i.e. about a bucket at a time, 90% of which sells within 20 miles of my apiaries. This approach works for me; not too much repetitive boredom, no need to store large amounts of jarred honey and I can make a virtue of any hive to hive, or apiary to apiary, variation.


I’m a small scale beekeeper. I’ve got ~8-12 production colonies, a 9 frame radial extractor and a slightly dodgy back. In a poor year I might produce 150 kg of honey, in a really good year over three times that amount.

If you’re semi-commercial, own a thermostatically controlled homogenizer/creamer or a filling machine this post isn’t for you 😉 .

Almost all of my honey is produced in Fife where there are spring and summer crops, usually harvested in early June and mid/late August respectively. I also get a (very) limited amount of heather honey on the west coast but am hoping this will increase as I learn more about colony management and good apiary locations. Everything in this post relates to east coast (Fife) honey.

Just imagine the noise and the wonderful smell!

Supers are collected from one apiary at a time and extracted. I try and extract individual supers into single buckets. The extractor is run with the gate open and the honey passes through coarse and medium filters, directly into 15 kg honey buckets. Inevitably there’s a bit of mixing in the extractor, but this can still produce honeys with distinctive flavours.

I’d prefer to try and maintain this variation than produce a single uniform product from everything merged together.


Each bucket is weighed (usually 11-14 kg), the water content measured using a calibrated refractometer, sealed and labelled. The buckets get a two letter code e.g. HN, for spring 2022 (H), bucket N, and are then stacked away in a cool location until needed. Labelled on the side of the bucket, they’re readable without sorting through the stacks … don’t label the lids 😉 .

The accurate way to test the water content of honey

I’ve never needed to use the last few letters of the alphabet for any particular spring or summer harvest.

The weight, water content and code (together with additional notes such as apiary and extraction date) get added to a database so I can easily find any particular bucket wanted when needed for jarring.


Over time almost all honey will crystallise. Glucose-rich spring honey, often rich in OSR nectar, crystallises very fast (weeks, or even days … or in the comb 🙁 ), whereas some summer honey takes months or more. A simple poke of the sidewall of the stacked bucket gives a good indication of the amount of crystallisation.

All of my spring honey is produced as soft set or creamed honey. This is produced using either an abbreviated Dyce method or a honey creamer.

  • in the Dyce method the honey is melted, cooled to 33°C, seeded with a honey of a good crystal structure and allowed to recrystallise at ~12-14°C
  • creamed honey is produced with a Rapido/Rasant creamer and a powerful drill

Neither of these methods require that the honey is filtered again. The medium filter used during extraction removes all but the smallest pieces of wax and – importantly – all the legs, wings and antennae.

Rapido or Rasant honey creamer

In contrast, to produce my clear, runny, summer honey I warm the bucket and filter it through a reasonably fine nylon filter. I don’t want to remove the pollen and other goodies, but I do want to exclude very fine granules of wax, or anything that’s going to make the honey ‘cloudy’.

Remember, I’m producing honey for consumption, not for show … this isn’t a 200 micron filter or anything daft like that.

All of the warming is done in my trusty honey warming cabinet which takes a couple of buckets at a time. I’ve built various filter holders and other things to make this preparation relatively straightforward.

The honey, whether soft set or clear, finally ends up in a bucket with standard 1.5” plastic tap and is then left to settle in the honey warming cabinet set at ~33°C.

Get rid of the ‘scum’

Inevitably all that mixing, filtering, stirring and decanting will have introduced air bubbles into the honey. These rise to the surface, leaving a ‘scummy’ layer floating on top of the honey. In my experience there tends to be more of this on prepared soft set honey and very little on my clear, summer honey.

Whilst you can leave the frothy scum there, it reduces the total number of jars you can fill from a single bucket as it is difficult to stop it from ‘contaminating’ the last few jars 2.

Therefore, the best course of action is to remove the scummy layer before starting to jar the honey.

I simply lay a sheet of clingfilm on top of the scummy layer, excluding as many bubbles as possible and ensuring it reaches the very edges of the bucket. I then confidently lift it off and drop it into an adjacent bowl.

The critical word in that last sentence is ‘confidently’.

Like Radio 4’s Just a minute any hesitation, repetition or deviation is fatal 😉 .

Yes, you ‘lose’ a bit of honey … but the final product will look much better. Do this just before you’re ready to jar the honey.

One fault I often make is not allowing the honey to settle for long enough before jarring it. It’s worth remembering that a temperature of 33°C is about the temperature of the honey in the hive and so it will not be damaged by standing for a day or two before jarring. I’ll return to this later.

Choices, choices, choices

There are a huge range of different type of honey jar to choose from 3; round, square, hex, small, medium, large, gold lids, black lids etc.

Although I don’t think it matters too much which style of honey jar you choose I do think it matters that you use a honey jar as opposed to one more usually associated with jam or chutney or gherkins.

12 oz hex jar

I get all my jars from C Wynne Jones. They only list two ‘traditional’ honey jars  together with squeezy bears (!), but they also list a range of hexagonal, octagonal, square and round jars. Separately they list preserve jars, and some of the round jars are described as pickle, jam or chutney jars.

You, of course, can choose whatever jar you want but it’s worth keeping three points in mind:

  • some shoppers will associate a jar shape with particular types of contents; if you bottle your honey in a chutney jar it might be ignored
  • you can sell any weight you want (as long as it’s labelled appropriately) but customers are often used to 227 g, 340 g and 454 g, both for honey and other types of jams and preserves; if a customer is price conscious an ‘odd’ weight will make comparisons difficult (this might work in your favour, but don’t depend on it)
  • consider the other honey yours might share shelf space with; you want something distinctive and attractive in appearance

Several years ago I settled on square jars with black lids and now use nothing else 4.


The jars I use are only available in 4, 8 and 12 oz (114, 227 and 340 g) sizes. This isn’t a problem as a 1 lb jar (454 g) would now be well over the psychological £10 barrier 5 so I just use the 8 and 12 oz size.

Although the proportional profit margin for 4 oz jars might be larger, the prospect of preparing large numbers of them fills me with dread. I once fulfilled an order for several hundred tiny hex jars and regretted it after the first 50 … and vowed ‘never again’ after a gross.

1 lb jar of honey

1 lb jar of honey …

The choice of jar size should probably be made having looked at what ‘competing’ honey sells in. If they’re all 227 g jars priced around £8-9 your 340 g jars priced at £12 might get overlooked.

None of this is a particularly exact science and I certainly don’t pretend to know much about marketing honey. My aim is to provide a recognisable product, distinctive, attractive and priced accordingly. The shelf price is dictated by the store, but will be influenced by the price you sell them the honey at.

Jars are expensive, heavy and take up a lot of storage space. Buy in bulk and, if you live anywhere vaguely remote, be prepared for a hefty shipping surcharge and factor it in to the cost price of your honey.

The last delivery I received came on a lorry too large to negotiate the very long, steep track to our house. The driver – to his eternal credit – walked up to the house to find me and finally left my pallets of jars by the roadside. It took me three return trips in the 4×4 to collect them.

Jarring honey

I only use brand new and washed jars. I know many beekeepers use the jars directly from the cardboard boxes but I always put them through the dishwasher first 6. Washing the jars is probably unnecessary … however, the jars are stored in my shed (nominally in sealed boxes, but who knows where spiders get) and I’m always concerned of tiny glass chips resulting from the handling of boxes in transit to me (or by me).

Better to be safe than sorry.

Honey that won’t be sold, such as the dregs from a bucket or a reference jar (see later), goes into whatever recycled honey jars I’ve got at home.

If I’m jarring soft set honey I always prewarm the jars as I think it helps prevent frosting. I’m less certain of this than I used to be, but I’ve got into the habit of warming the jars and so still do. I should test this sometime …

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

In principle, jarring honey is straightforward … and it is when compared with doing a hip replacement or learning Swahili 7. You put the jar under the tap, zero the scales, open the tap, close the tap once the right amount of honey is in the jar, and repeat … ad nauseam.

In practice of course there are a few tricks that make things even easier.

Honey bucket tipper

As the honey bucket is emptied you need to tilt it at an angle to get the last of the honey out. However, even with the best ‘scum removal’ (see above) you probably want to avoid the surface layer of the honey entering jars for sale.

Again, the way to achieve this is to gradually increase the angle at which the bucket is tipped the more jars you fill.

But there is a problem … some of those residual scummy bubbles cling to the sides of the bucket. Therefore, if you tip the bucket forward, then rest it back level, then tip it forward again, the surface layers of the honey get mixed with the bulk of the bucket.

You could try holding the bucket stably tilted with one hand. However that only leaves one hand for moving jars … and if your honey tap drips at all that’s a certain recipe for madness. You want to be able to remove one jar and replace it immediately with another.

Which is where a honey bucket tipper comes in. I built mine well over a decade ago and there are now commercial versions available. These are £40-55 … don’t bother.

Honey bucket tipper

Mine cost £1.20 and that was only because I had to buy the hinges.

As the bucket is emptied into jars you simply slide in a larger ‘spacer’ to increase the angle of incidence. On a good day I can manage to leave no more than ~300 g of honey in the bucket.

Honey bucket tipper in use

This simple gadget is a game changer.

I won’t suggest it makes jarring honey a pleasure, but it does make the task less of a chore.

The dregs, reference jars and more jarring

If I’m emptying the bucket I usually run the last of the dregs into a recycled jar for home use. If the order is a large one (for me, not on the scale of a commercial beekeeper of course) I might prepare an additional ‘reference’ jar to put aside. It’s very rare there are any issues with properly prepared honey, but it’s sometimes useful to have ’one I prepared earlier’ for comparison.

I usually jar honey every week or two. To save a bit of time preparing soft set honey it’s possible to leave 1-2 kg in the bottom of the bucket and use it as the ‘seed’ for the next batch. If you’re going to do this tip the bucket with the tap up (‘backwards’ if that makes sense) to empty the tap before adding the melted bulk of the next batch. That ensures better and more even mixing right from the first jar. Remember to wrap the tap tightly with clingfilm to keep it clean and avoid any drips making a mess.

More bubbles

When jarring honey you can minimise the amount of mixing and aeration by holding the jar close under the tap until you’re approaching the final weight. Only then place it back on the balance to top the jar off.

However, particularly with clear honey, this still often leaves a few bubbles that mar the lovely golden translucence of the jar.

Recently jarred honey … with bubbles

I therefore put the lids on the jars and return them to the honey warming cabinet (still at 33°C) for a few hours. All the bubbles rise to the surface and … ’pfffft’ … disappear 🙂 .

Honey is a variable product, which is both a good and bad. It means that there is almost certainly batch to batch variation, depending upon its origin and preparation. My clear honey exhibits the most variation in flavour, often depending upon the amount of lime nectar the bees have had access to. To me, and seemingly to customers, this type of variation is welcome.

If they wanted a truly uniform product they’d buy some squeezy bears filled with the ’Produce of EU and non-EU countries’ 🙁 .


However, the variation that causes me problems are the residual micro-bubbles in soft set honey (despite apparently preparing it in an identical manner). In many batches these remain invisible – if they’re present in the first place – in others they ever-so-slowly rise to the surface and get ‘stuck’ on the shoulders of the jar.

The solution is probably to allow the mixed soft set honey to settle for much longer before jarring, but even that doesn’t always solve things. Certain jar shapes are more or less susceptible to these, with hex jars being particularly prone in my experience.


I make my own labels and will discuss them again when I write something on the provenance of honey. Each jar carries two labels. The front label, which has all the important and required 8 information, and a clear anti-tamper label attaching the lid to the jar.

I make sure my labels are placed level and at a standard height on every jar. I expect them to be lined up on the shelves and want them to look good. For square jars (or hex’s) this is a trivial task; I just use a piece of wood (a sample of wood flooring) as a spacer and stand the jar on a non-slip foam surface so it doesn’t slide backwards as I press the label into place.

Makes level labelling of round jars easier

For round jars it helps to have a recess cut into a piece of wood of the right thickness … the photo above is of my, now redundant, ‘spacer’ to help me line up labels in ‘1 lb rounds’.

The one thing I try and avoid is tipping the jar so that the honey contacts the underside of the lid. Yes, it may drip off while standing on the shelf, but why not try and leave the inside of the jar as good looking as the outside? All my labelling is done with the jar horizontal.

There’s little to say about adding the anti-tamper label. If you use black lids make sure there are no greasy fingerprints or dust trapped when you attach the anti-tamper label.

Finally, do make sure the lid is on properly before adding the anti-tamper label … or selling the honey 😉 .

Alternatively, buy one of these


Infernal contradictions

Synopsis : The manufacturer’s instructions for miticide use are often poorly worded, confusing or contradictory. Many beekeepers already struggle to control Varroa and this makes things worse.


How many beekeepers read the documentation that accompanies the miticides they use for Varroa control? How many understand what all the terms – including the pharmacological ones – mean?

Posology anyone?

What about the phrase “Withdrawal period”? 

Can all miticides containing the same active ingredient be used in the same way? If not, why not?

What about repeat usage? Can you repeat a treatment (if needed) if the instructions do not explicitly state that repeat treatments are not allowed? 1 Or can you only administer a second application if the instructions explicitly state that it is allowed?

And if a you are allowed to apply a second treatment, can you administer a third? What about treating in November and the following January? Two different calendar years, but well under one year apart.

Don’t expect any answers to these or related questions in this post 😉 .

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The intention here is to highlight the slightly shambolic nature of the documentation that accompanies (and sometimes does not accompany, but which you are probably expected to read!) the miticides approved for use in the UK. I don’t have time to cover all the miticides in a single post so will restrict this post 2 to two containing formic acid and one that contains oxalic acid.

And … while we’re at it … which are the legally binding instructions? Those in teensy-weensy lettering on the purchased product or the ones listed in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) database?

MAQS and FormicPro

MAQS (Mite Away Quick Strips) and FormicPro are very similar products.

Actually, they are so similar that it’s rather difficult to tell them apart.


The packaging is similar – a cardboard box or plastic tub filled with sachets, each containing two strips impregnated with formic acid (and some other stuff – but what isn’t specified). Even the price is similar; two doses (by which they mean sufficient to treat two hives, or one hive twice, cost an eye-watering 3 £16.50. I’ve not checked other suppliers, but Thorne’s list the 2, 10 and 30 dose boxes of MAQS and FormicPro at identical price points 4.


If you bother to read the online documentation (which you should) you will see that both are marketed by NOD Apiary Ireland Limited, and that each strip contains 68.2 g of formic acid. Even the description of the individual gel strips is very similar:

Brown, semi-rigid to soft gel strip covered in a biodegradable laminated paper, which maintains form (FormicPro).

Each strip is an off-white to caramel coloured gel wrapped in white laminated biodegradable paper (MAQS).

So, we have the same active ingredient, formulated in the same way, packaged in a similar manner, with identical diagrams for how to apply two strips to the brood box. The temperature range recommended for use is identical and both have similar warnings about queen damage.

The same but different

But, although MAQS and FormicPro appear to be essentially the same, from a practical beekeeping standpoint they are very different.

MAQS can be used with honey supers on the hive but FormicPro cannot.

Of course, pedantically, that’s not exactly true.

You could use them ’any-damned-way’ you please, but you would probably be breaking the rules.

You are allowed to use MAQS when there are honey supers present, but you are not allowed to use FormicPro – in all other regards an identical product – when there are honey supers on the hive. 

Here are the relevant words from the online SPC’s (Summary of Product Characteristics) 5:

Supers with honey must be removed from the hive prior to product application. See Section 4.5. Honey stored in super(s) put on for the treatment period must be removed and not used for human consumption. Spent strips must be removed before supers intended for harvest are placed on the hive (FormicPro – section 4.11 ‘Withdrawal period’).

The strips may be applied during honey flow; put on honey supers if honey flow is anticipated, to allow adequate space for colony expansion (MAQS – section 4.5 ‘Special precautions for use’).

There is one other difference as well … you can buy FormicPro whereas MAQS appears to be out of stock from all the suppliers I’ve checked.

Perhaps it has been withdrawn already by the manufacturer … ?

This is going to confuse a lot of beekeepers who have come to value MAQS as a short-term and effective treatment for Varroa management during the season.

Many will continue to use FormicPro in the same way that they used MAQS … which could be problematic if they are visited by a Seasonal Bee Inspector.

Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC)

Any miticides you purchase should be accompanied by a set of instructions – on the outside of the box, or the foil packet or wherever. These are often like ’ant tracks’ – illegibly small printing, almost impossible to read without the use of a binocular microscope 6.

Api-Bioxal … where’s my microscope?

Importantly, the packet will also carry a lot number and a use by date – you need to keep records of the former for several years 7 after use. I almost always forget to write this into my notes, but I always photograph the packet so have a dated copy on my ‘phone.

Use the VMD search facility to avoid the budgie treatments

If you want to review the official documentation for the miticide you need to visit the Veterinary Medicines Directorate Product Information Database. With a bit of rummaging around (Hint .. the search facility is your friend 8 ) you can usually find at least two official documents for each authorised product:

A document prefixed SPC (the Summary of Product Characteristics).

A document prefixed QRD (for Quality Review of Documents), which is the Product Literature; essentially the labelling and text that is supplied when you purchase the product.

If you read these you will find a large amount of duplication. These documents are periodically revised – the MAQS and FormicPro paperwork is all dated June 2022, with MAQS being first authorised in 2013 and FormicPro in 2021.

Discrepancies and confusion

Aside from the ‘biggy’ (not being allowed to use FormicPro when there are supers on the hive) there are other discrepancies or confusing text in these documents.

I’ve already listed one example …

The MAQS SPC indicates the ability to use the product when supers are present under section 4.5 ’Special precautions for use’.

In contrast, the FormicPro SPC indicates that the product cannot be used when honey supers are present under section 4.11 ’Withdrawal period’, though they do refer to section 4.5 (where, perplexingly, only empty honey supers are mentioned).

Section 4.5 seems to me to be the logical place to mention the ever-so-slightly-critical matter of not being allowed to use FormicPro when there are honey supers present.

Does anyone proof read or sanity check these documents?

If so, why don’t they ever define the term withdrawal period?

If you do a search online for ’withdrawal period’ there are all sorts of things about hormonal birth control and legal contract cancellations, but you need to scroll down to the penultimate item on the first page to get the relevant meaning:

The time that must elapse between the last administration of a veterinary medicine and the slaughter or production of food from that animal, to ensure that the food does not contain levels of the medicine that exceed the maximum residue limit.

And that’s from the European Medicines Agency; it wasn’t until somewhere on the third page of results I could find anything from the VMD 9.

Helpful? Not 🙁 .

Of course, there’s an argument that if you’re applying the ‘medicine’ then you should understand all the paperwork and seek further advice if needed.

But I suspect many do not.

More vagueness

Whilst very specific in places e.g. duration of treatment, maximum temperature for use 29.5°C (Really? Does that 0.5°C make a difference? How many domestic thermometers are that accurate?), the documentation also carries other contradictory or vague instructions.

Both MAQS and FormicPro contain the following words under Section 4.4 (‘Special warnings for each target species ‘) of the SPC

Use according to local treatment recommendations, if available.

Who makes these local treatment recommendations? Are they legally binding? Can you just invent them? What can they cover or not cover? Could the local treatment recommendations state “Use five strips for a month”?

And what about disposal of the used, unused and waste products? Here you will find instructions in two separate places in the SPC.

When removed, dispose of by composting (FormicPro, Section 4.9 “Administration”).

The strips do not need to be removed from the hive after the application period of 7 days as the honey bees dispose of the spent strips. If they are removed, dispose of by composting (MAQS, Section 4.9 “Administration”).

And, confusingly …

Any unused veterinary medicinal product or waste materials derived from such veterinary medicinal products should be disposed of in accordance with local requirements (MAQS and FormicPro Section 6.6 ‘Special precautions for disposal’)

So can they be composted, or do ‘local requirements’ take precedence?

I can’t even be bothered to comment on section 4.6 ‘Adverse reactions’ which helpfully define very common, common, uncommon, rare etc events, but then only apply them to one adverse reaction, despite listing many others.


I’ve spent a career trying to make sense of badly worded, confusing, verbose, self-contradictory documents (until the arrival of ChatGPT this was the norm for both student essays and University administrative paperwork) but some of these instructions still baffle me.


The active ingredient in Api-Bioxal is oxalic acid (OA). I’ve discussed this extensively in previous posts. There are several other miticides listed on the VMD database that have OA as the active ingredient; Oxuvar, VarroMed (which also contains formic acid), Dany’s BienenWohl powder/solution and Oxybee. Of these, the last two may not be routinely available in the UK.

I’m going to restrict my (brief) discussion to Api-Bioxal as it’s the only one I’m familiar with and because it highlights a different form of internal infernal contradiction in the official instructions and paperwork.

The Api-Bioxal SPC and instructions clearly state (in section 4.5 ’Special precautions for use’ … or ‘the logical place’ as it should be known) that it should be administered when supers are not present on the hive.

In addition, it also clearly states that the withdrawal period is ‘Zero days’ 10.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser … phoretic mites don’t stand a chance

The duration of application for MAQS and FormicPro is seven days and the formic acid permeates the cappings and kills mites in capped cells. In contrast, Api-Bioxal is a single shot treatment … it may (or may not) remain active in the hive for some time after administration, but you essentially apply it and walk away.

Job done 🙂 .

Oxalic acid does not penetrate capped cells and so is only effective if the colony is broodless. The instructions are clear on this point (to their credit).

A single shot used once … or twice?

The instructions describe two approved methods of administering Api-Bioxal. Trickling a 4.2% (w/v) solution made up in 1:1 (‘thin’) syrup onto the visible seams of bees, or vaporising a hive with up to 2.3 g of Api-Bioxal.

Administration by trickling … Up to two treatments per year (winter and/or spring-summer season in brood-free colonies). The treatment should be made in a single administration.

Administration by vaporisation … Maximal dose 2.3g per hive as a single administration. One treatment per year.

I think the ‘single administration’ means that you cannot split a treatment into two e.g. vaporise 1.15 g twice, or trickle 2.5 ml per seam and then repeat it the following day.

What’s odd is that trickling can be conducted twice per year, whereas vaporisation cannot. What about vaporising in December and January? i.e. once in each of two successive years … which could even be on successive days (31/12 and 1/1).

This is odd for two reasons – firstly it seems strange that the same compound can be administered a different number of times depending upon the route of administration.

Well, OK, perhaps it’s really bad for the colony to be vaporised? In that case it would be understandable, though some explanation of the point would help.

The good old days … trickle treating colonies before Api-Bioxal

Trickling and vaporising do cause differential damage to colonies, but it is trickling that does more damage. Trickled OA damages open brood and studies from the LASI group in Sussex showed that colonies trickle-treated when brood was present were subsequently weaker than those that were vaporised (Al Toufailia et al., 2015).

Conversely, several studies of repeated vaporisation have shown that it is well tolerated by the colony.

So, in this instance the instructions are at odds with my understanding 11 of the current science.

Zero days

If the withdrawal period for Api-Bioxal is zero days (it is), can you add a stack of supers to the colony the day after vaporising or trickle treating a colony?

I think you can 12.

Which is a little odd as the oxalic acid remains active in the colony for several days after it is added. If you apply Api-Bioxal and then monitor mite drop on a daily basis over about a week it often peaks a day or two after it is administered, but goes on at a reducing rate for ~5-6 days. Whilst it could just be taking its time killing the mites 13, I think it is more likely that residual activity remains for several days.

Perhaps the wording in the instructions on ‘honey flow’ precludes this, but you can certainly add supers before a honey flow and I’d argue that the wording isn’t completely clear cut.


I know almost nothing about the licensing of veterinary medicines. My understanding is that a license is applied for, supported by evidence of efficacy, toxicity etc. and that it is restricted in terms of the range of methods used to apply the miticide.

Therefore, if the manufacturer only applies for a license for trickling or vaporisation, then that’s what they get (if approved). Varromed (an OA solution) can be administered by trickling and spraying. When made up for spraying the OA solution has a long shelf life as there is no sugar present.

But that’s not an option for Api-Bioxal 🙁 .

Beekeepers are restricted in what they can (legally) do by what the manufacturer sought a licence for, even if there are better ways of administering the active compound, or even if the scientific evidence (sometimes preceding licensing, and certainly preceding updates of the documentation) indicates that – for example – repeat administration is both safe and effective.

Trying to make sense of it all

In Scotland a Working Group has been established to try and resolve some of these discrepancies and provide better advice to beekeepers on the use of the currently licensed miticides.

The Working Group involves representatives from a variety of interested parties including an acronym salad comprising SASA, VMD, BFA, FSS, SBA, SRUC, SEPA, APHA, DEFRA, DAERA, NBU and some academics and ex-academics with a particular interest in honey bee health.

I have written a lot about Varroa control on this site. In my view it is relatively straightforward to control mite numbers using the currently licensed miticides appropriately. In my experience it is easier to do this in Scotland, where we have lower winter temperatures and a greater chance of an extended broodless period.

However, Scotland – unlike the Midlands where I have also kept bees – offers some additional complications where Varroa control is concerned. Our most important (by £££) nectar source is heather which yields late in the year, too late in some years to subsequently protect the winter bees from mites and viruses.

Balancing the needs of the bees (low mites and viruses to overwinter successfully) with those of the beekeeper (hundreds of kilograms of heather honey) requires a careful balancing act and a good understanding of the benefits and limitations of the miticides available.

In turn, this needs good documentation and better advice that is both easily accessible and understandable by beekeepers.

And … to my surprise – and I look forward to it being confirmed or refuted – I’m told that the SPC is the legally binding document with regard to the use or misuse of licensed miticides.

I’ve (had to) read them all now … have you?


Al Toufailia, H., Scandian, L., and Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2015) Towards integrated control of varroa: 2) comparing application methods and doses of oxalic acid on the mortality of phoretic Varroa destructor mites and their honey bee hosts. Journal of Apicultural Research 54: 108–120

Mellow fruitfulness

Synopsis : Final colony inspections and some thoughts on Apivar-contaminated supers, clearing dried supers, feeding fondant and John Keats’ beekeeping.


The title of today’s post comes from the first line of the poem ’To Autumn’ by John Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The poem was written just over 200 years ago and was the last major work by Keats (1795-1821) before he died of tuberculosis. Although it wasn’t received enthusiastically at the time, To Autumn is now one of the most highly regarded English poems.

The poem praises autumn, using the typically sensuous imagery of the Romantic poets, and describes the abundance of the season and the harvest as it transitions to winter.

That’s as maybe … the last few lines of the first verse raises some doubts about Keats’ beekeeping skills:

And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
 For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

It’s certainly true that there are late summer flowers that the bees can forage on 1. However, he’s probably mistaken in suggesting that the bees think in any sense that involves an appreciation of the future.

And what’s all this about clammy cells?

If there’s damp in the hive in late summer then it certainly doesn’t bode well for the winter ahead.

Clammy is now used mean damp; like vapour, perspiration or mist. The word was first used in this context in the mid-17th Century.

‘Clammy’ honey

But Keats is using an earlier meaning of ’clammy’ … in this case ’soft, moist and sticky; viscous, tenacious, adhesive’, which dates back to the late 14th-Century.

And anyone who has recently completed the honey harvest will be well aware of how apt that definition is 😉 … so maybe Keats was a beekeeper (with a broad vocabulary).

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies

That’s the last line of ’To Autumn’ (don’t worry … you’ve not inadvertently accessed the Poetry Please website). The swallows are gathering and, like most summer migrants, already moving south. Skeins of pink-footed geese have started arriving from Iceland and Greenland.

Skein of geese over Fife

My beekeeping over the last fortnight has been accompanied by the incessant, plaintive mewing of buzzards. These nest near my apiaries and the calling birds are almost certainly the young from this season.

A few nights ago, while hosing the extractor out in the bee-free-but-midge-filled late evening, I was serenaded by tawny owls as the adults evicted their young from the breeding territory in preparation for next season.

These are all signs, together with the early morning mists, that summer is slipping away and the autumn is gently arriving.

Morning mist clearing over the loch

The beekeeping season is effectively over and all that remains is preparing the colonies for winter.


All the supers were off by the 22nd of August. There was still a little bit of nectar being taken in but the majority was ripe and ready. As it turns out there was fresh nectar in all the colonies when I checked on the 10th of September, but in such small amounts – no more than half a frame – that it wouldn’t have been worth waiting for.

At some point you have to say … enough!

Or, this year, more than enough 🙂 .

Most of the honey was extracted by the end of August. It was a bonanza season with a very good spring, and an outstanding summer, crop. By some distance the best year I’ve had since returning to Scotland in 2015.

Of course, that also meant that there were more supers to extract and return and store for the winter ahead.

Lots of lifting, lots of extracting and lots of buckets … and in due course, lots of jarring.

Storing supers wet or dry?

In response to some recent questions on storing supers wet or dry I tested ‘drying’ some.

I’ve stored supers wet for several seasons. I think the bees ‘like’ the heady smell of honey when they are added back to the hives for the spring nectar flow. The supers store well and I’ve not had any problems with wax moth.

However, this year I have over two full carloads of supers, so – not having a trailer or a Toyota Hilux 2 – I have to make multiple trips back to put them in storage 3. These trips were a few days apart.

I added a stack of wet supers to a few hives on the 1st of September and cleared them on the 9th. All these supers were added over an empty super (being used as an eke to accommodate a half block of fondant – see below) topped with a crownboard with a small hole in it (no more than 2.5 cm in diameter, usually less).

Converting wet supers to dry supers – note the crownboard with a small central hole

When I removed the supers on the 10th they had been pretty well cleaned out by the bees. In one case the bottom super had a very small amount of fresh nectar in it.

So, 7-8 days should be sufficient for a strong colony to clean out 3-4 supers and it appears as though you can do it at the same time as feeding fondant … result 🙂 .

Feeding fondant

I only feed my colonies Baker’s fondant. I add this on the same day I remove the honey-laden supers. I’ve discussed fondant extensively here before and don’t intend to rehash the case for its use again.

Oh well, if you insist 😉 .

I can feed a colony in less than two minutes; unpacking the block, slicing it in half and placing it face down over a queen excluder (with an empty super as an eke) takes almost as much time to write as it does to do.

Take care with sharp knives … much easier with a slightly warm block of fondant

But speed isn’t the only advantage; I don’t need to purchase or store any special feeders (an Ashforth feeder costs £66 and will sit unused for 49 weeks of the year). I’ve also not risked slopping syrup about and so have avoided encouraging robbing bees or wasps.

I buy the fondant through my association. We paid £13 a block this year (up from about £11 last year). That’s more expensive than making or buying syrup (though not by much) and I don’t need to have buckets or whatever people use to store, transport and distribute syrup. Fondant has a long shelf life so I buy a quarter of a ton at a time and store what I don’t use.

All gone! 12.5 kg of fondant added on 22/8/22 and photographed on 9/9/22

And, contrary to what the naysayers claim, the bees take it down and store it very well.

What’s the biggest problem I’ve had using fondant?

The grief I get when I forget to return the breadknife I stole from the kitchen … 😉 .

Apivar-contaminated honey and supers

Last season I had to treat a colony with Apivar before the supers came off. This was one of our research colonies and we had to minimise mite levels before harvesting brood.

I’ve had a couple of questions recently on what to do with supers exposed to Apivar … this is what I’ve done/will do.


The Apivar instructions state something like ’do not use when supers are present’ … I don’t have a set of instructions to check the precise wording (and can’t be bothered to search the labyrinthine VMD database).

Of course, you’re free to use Apivar whenever you want.

What those instructions mean is that honey collected if Apivar is in the hive will be ’tainted’ and must not be used for human consumption.

But, it’s OK for the bees 🙂 .

So, I didn’t extract my Apivar-exposed supers but instead I stored them – clearly labelled – protected from wasps, bees and mice.

This August, after removing the honey supers I added fondant to the colonies. In addition, I added an Apivar-exposed super underneath the very strongest colonies – between the floor and the lower brood box.

I’ll leave this super throughout the winter. The bees will either use the honey in situ or will move it up adjacent to the cluster.

In spring – if I get there early enough – the super will be empty.

If I’m late they may already be rearing brood in it 🙁 … not in itself a problem, other than it means I’m flirting with a ridiculous ’double brood and a half’.

Which, of course, is why I added it to the strongest double brood colonies. It’s very unlikely the queen will have laid up two complete boxes (above the nadired super) before I conduct the first inspection.

But what to do with the now-empty-but-Apivar-exposed supers?

It’s not clear from my interpretation of the Apivar instructions (that I currently can’t find) whether empty supers previously exposed to Apivar can be reused.

WARNING … my reading might be wrong. It states Apivar isn’t to be used when honey supers are on but, by inference, you can use and reuse brood frames that have been exposed to Apivar.

Could you extract honey from brood frames that have previously (i.e. distant, not immediate, past) been Apivar-exposed?

Some beekeepers might do this 4.

It’s at this point that some common sense it needed.

Just because re-using the miticide-exposed supers is not specifically outlawed 5 is it a good idea?

I don’t think it is.

Once the bees have emptied those supers I’ll melt the wax out and add fresh foundation before reusing them.

My justification goes something like this:

  • Although amitraz 6 isn’t wax-soluble a formamidine breakdown product of the miticide is. I have assumed that this contaminates the wax in the super.
  • I want to produce the highest quality honey. Of course this means great tasting. It also means things like wings, legs, dog hairs and miticides are excluded. I filter the honey to remove the bee bits, I don’t allow the puppies in the extracting room and I do not reuse supers exposed to miticides.
  • During a strong nectar flow bees draw fresh comb ‘for fun’. They’re desperate to have somewhere to store the stuff, so they’ll draw out comb in a new super very quickly. Yes, drawn comb is precious, but it’s also easy to replace.

Final inspections

I conducted final inspections of all my colonies in Fife last weekend 7.

For many of these colonies this was the first time they’d been opened since late July. By then most had had swarm control, many had been requeened and all were busy piling in the summer nectar.

Why disturb them?

The queen had space to lay, they weren’t likely to think about swarming again 8 and they were strong and healthy.

Midsummer inspections are hard work … lots of supers to lift.

If there’s no need then why do it?

Of course, some colonies were still busy requeening, or were being united or had some other reason that did necessitate a proper inspection … I don’t just abandon them 😉 .

I don’t just abandon them … introducing a queen to a nucleus colony

But now the supers were off it was important to check that the colonies were in a suitable state to go into the winter.

I take a lot of care over these final inspections as I want to be sure that the colony has the very best chance of surviving the winter. 

I check for overt disease, the amount of brood in all stages (BIAS; so determining if they are queenright) and the level of stores.

And, while I’m at it, I also try and avoid crushing the queen 🙁 .


I don’t have to see the queen. In fact, in most hives it’s almost impossible to see the queen because the box is packed with bees. If there are eggs present then the queen is present 9.

But, there might not be a whole lot of eggs to find.

Firstly, the queen is rapidly slowing down her egg laying rate. She’s not producing anything like 1500-2000 eggs per day by early autumn.

A National brood frame has ~3000 cells per side. If you find eggs equivalent in area to one side of a brood frame she’s laying at ~1000/day. By now it’s likely to be much less. At 500 eggs/day you can expect to find no more than half a frame of eggs in the hive.

Remember the steady-state 3:5:13 (or easier 1:2:4) ratio of eggs to larvae to pupae? 10

Several of my colonies had about half a frame of eggs but significantly more than four times that amount of sealed brood … clear evidence that the laying rate is slowing dramatically.

The shrinking brood nest – note the capped stores and a little space to lay in the centre of the frame

Secondly, the colony is rapidly filling the box with stores, so reducing the space she has to lay. They’re busy backfilling brood cells with nectar.

Look and ye shall find …

So I focus carefully on finding eggs. I gently blow onto the centre of the frames to move the bees aside and search for eggs.

In a couple of hives I was so focused on finding eggs that – as I prepared to return the frame to the colony – I only then saw the queen ambling around on the frame. D’oh!

Some colonies had only 3-4 frames of BIAS, others had lots more though guesstimating the precise area of brood is tricky because of the amount of backfilling taking place.

I still need to check my notes to determine whether it’s the younger queens that are still laying most eggs … I’d not be surprised.


Boxes are now heavy but not full. All received (at least) half a block of fondant in late August and more last weekend. There’s also a bit of late nectar. The initial half block was almost finished in a week.

Once the bag is empty I simply peel it away from the queen excluder. If you’re doing this, leave the surrounding super in place. It acts as a ‘funnel’ to keep the thousands of displaced bees in the hive rather than down your boots and all over the floor.

Although the bees were flying well, the bees in and around the super were pretty lethargic. I’ve seen this before and am not concerned. I don’t know whether these are bees gorged with stores, having a kip or perhaps young bees that don’t know their way about yet. However, it does mean that any bees dropped while removing the bag tend to wander aimlessly around on the ground.

I’d prefer they were in the hive, out of the way of my size 10’s.

If you look at many of the frames in the hive they will be partially or completely filled with stores. The outer frames are likely to be capped already. 

An outer frame of capped stores

These frames of stores are heavy. There’s no need to look through the entire box. I simply judge the weight of each frame and inspect any that are lighter than a full frame of stores.

Closer to the brood nest you’ll probably find a frame or two stuffed, wall-to-wall, with pollen. Again, a good sign of a healthy hive with the provisions it needs to rear the winter bees and make it to spring.


The only sign of disease I saw was a small amount of chalkbrood in one or two colonies. This is a perennial situation (it’s not really a problem) with some of my bees. Quite a few of my stocks have some (or a lot of) native Apis mellifera mellifera genes and these often have a bit of chalkbrood.

I also look for signs of overt deformed wing virus (DWV) damage to recently emerged workers. This is the most likely time of the year to see it as mite levels have been building all season and brood levels are decreasing fast. Therefore, developing brood is more likely to become infested and consequently develop symptoms.

Fortunately I didn’t see any signs of DWV damage and the initial impression following the first week or so of miticide treatment is that mite levels are very low this season. I’ll return to this topic once I’ve had a chance to do some proper counts after treating for at least 8-10 weeks (I use Apivar and, since my colonies all have medium to good levels of brood, the strips need to be present for more than the minimum recommended 6 weeks).

Closing up

Although these were the last hive inspections, they weren’t the last time I’ll be rummaging about in the brood box.

At some point during the period of miticide treatment I’ll reposition the strips (adjacent to the ever-shrinking brood nest) having scraped them to maximise their effectiveness.

Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies

However, all that will happen in a month or so when I can be reasonably sure the weather will be a lot less benign. Far better to get the inspections out of the way now, just in case.

So, having added the additional fondant (typically half a block) I closed the hives, strapped them up securely and let them get on with making their preparations for the coming winter.

Goodbye and thanks for the memories

There’s a poignancy about the last hive inspections of the season.

The weather was lovely, the colonies were strong and flying well, and the bees were wonderfully placid. It’s been a great season for honey, disease levels are low to negligible and queen rearing has gone well 11.

But it’s all over so soon 🙁 .

Hive #5 (pictured somewhere above … with the empty bag of fondant) was from a swarm control nuc made up on the last day of May (i.e. a 2021 queen). It was promoted to a full hive in mid-June. At the same time, while the hive they came from (#28) was requeening I’d taken more than 20 kg of spring honey from it. The requeening of #28 took longer than expected as the first was almost immediately superseded. Nevertheless, the two hives also produced almost 4 full supers (conservatively at least 40 kg) of summer honey.

Good times 🙂 .

My notes – for once – are comprehensive. Over the long, dark months ahead I’ll be able to sift through them to try and understand better 12 what went wrong.

That’s because – despite what I said in the opening paragraph of this section – there were inevitably any number of minor calamities and a couple of major snafu’s.

Or ’learning opportunities’ as I prefer to call them.

Last light over Rum and Eigg … not a bad view when visiting an out apiary

But that’s all for the future.

For the moment I have a sore back and aching fingers from extracting for days and the memory of a near-perfect final day of proper beekeeping.

It’s probably time I started building some frames 🙁


Intangible benefits

Synopsis : Some end of season thoughts on the intangible benefits of beekeeping. What does it provide other than honey and wax? 


Central and Eastern Scotland were bathed in warm sunshine as I drove to Fife last Sunday. It was near-perfect weather for adding clearers to the hives in preparation for removing the last of the honey supers for extraction. Warm, but not too hot, breezy enough to keep any midges at bay but not so windy the bees would be flustered.

Lifting the supers was hard work, but it was lovely to be in the apiary, the bees were really mellow, there weren’t many wasps and it was a very enjoyable afternoon.

Doubly so because there were more weighty supers than expected and by the second apiary it was clear 2022 was looking like a bumper season.

Of course, I ran out of clearers … 🙁 .

Where do they go?

I checked the TARDIS-like shed but couldn’t find any spares so had to leave the last couple of hives to be cleared ‘manually’ i.e. shaking the bees off every frame.

Not the end of the world and – in good weather – something that doesn’t agitate the bees too much.

Somewhere in here are some spare clearers …

However, Monday dawned with leaden skies and almost no wind. Whatever weather was here was going to be staying.

By the time I got to the first apiary it was raining gently … but steadily.

By the time I had suited up, lit the smoker and arranged the Correx roofs to stack the supers in and under, it was still raining steadily … but much harder.

And by the time I’d retrieved and stacked the supers from the first few hives I was soaked.

It continued raining for several hours.

Have you noticed how heavy a beesuit gets when it’s all soggy?

And how slowly a sodden beesuit dries?

Real and intangible benefits

It was a really tough day.

I finished in the last apiary at about 4 pm, changed into the only dry things I had and set off on the five hour return journey back home.

As I was eating up the miles (and my belated lunch) on the A9 I got to think about why I keep bees.

It can’t just be because I like honey. There are excellent local honey’s sold in fancy organic cafe’s or up-market farm shops, or kilograms of mass-produced sweet stuff (labelled as honey) available from any supermarket you choose 1.

I estimate it costs well over £500 to start beekeeping. And by the time you’ve bought a few more hives, an extractor, a creamer, and a bottling machine you might have spent 40-times that amount.

You can buy a lot of lovely ‘artisan’ honey for £20,000.

So there has to be something other than just ‘liking honey’.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

There’s the pleasure of producing something high quality and desirable. It gives me a real sense of achievement. There are very few beekeepers who forget their first ever honey crop.

As a biologist, I find bees fascinating. And, as a virologist studying honey bee pathogens, I’m able to mix business and pleasure.

But I was beekeeping long before I started studying their diseases. The honey and the ‘beekeeping at work’ are tangible benefits.

As the miles piled up behind me I began to think instead of the intangible benefits of beekeeping.

What else have I gained from this engrossing pastime?

Other than the honey and smelling a bit foisty?

Does my bum look big in this?

As a callow youth I was probably less fashion-conscious than many of my contemporaries. I didn’t have the platform shoes, flares or a double-breasted frock coat 2. However, I was still acutely aware when I didn’t fit in, when I looked incongruous or when I was wearing something I thought others would ridicule.

Would I really have fitted in better wearing these?

Of course, being (a bit) older and (a little bit) wiser I realise now that it doesn’t really matter what others think. What’s more, other than the callow (or the shallow), most other people rarely notice, and certainly don’t care, what I wear.

Which, when you think about the amount of time I spend in a beesuit, is probably fortunate.

Saggy and baggy

It’s doubly-fortunate when you consider how profoundly unflattering a beesuit is. Shapeless and voluminous. They aren’t form-fitting 3 for obvious reasons … a sting might penetrate the cotton weave when stretched over the underlying soft tissue, but does no harm if there’s a billowing excess of material in the way.

Cold, clammy, heavy and baggy … a wet bee suit

I’ve just had my ‘best’ beesuit repaired. I bought it secondhand and it’s had well over a decade’s hard use. The veil had bee-sized holes in it, two of the pockets were torn, one zip pull was broken and all the cuff and ankle elastics were perished. For about £70 4 it’s now as good as new.

’As good as new’ but still profoundly unflattering 😉 .

But I simply don’t care.

I wear it when driving between apiaries, when I nip into a shop for a takeaway coffee or when I fill the car with petrol.

Unfortunately, on Monday my beesuit was soaked, so I drove home in my pyjamas. Yes, there were some odd looks at the filling station, but I’m a beekeeper … looking odd goes with the territory and I’ve learned not to care.

The physique of a Greek God

As I segue effortlessly from callow youth to early middle age I’m aware that I’m a little bit less like Charles Atlas and a little bit more like Charles Hawtrey.

Beekeeping is hard physical work.

I removed about 30 supers on Monday. If you assume that the average weight of a super is about 18 kg 5 the lifting, sorting, stacking and packing the car probably involved shifting a cumulative two metric tonnes of boxes.

Full super ready for extraction

Heavy, heavy, heavy

That’s a lot of lifting.

Many of the individual frames still contained a few stragglers which had to be shaken off. I simply hold one lug and bash the top bar sharply with the other hand. This requires a reasonable amount of finger strength … and leaves the heel of my hand rather bruised and battered after a long day of clearing supers.

As an aside, it’s always worth waiting for most of the honey to be capped (see the post last week), as frames of capped honey retain far fewer stragglers than frames of uncapped stores. As previously noted, a queenless hive’s supers hadn’t cleared overnight.

Beekeeper’s back is a very real problem and one that is well worth avoiding. I tripped carrying three full supers a couple of seasons ago and was in considerable pain for many weeks.

Good lifting technique, coupled with reasonable upper body strength from regular lifting, helps a lot.

So does not leaving stuff lying around the apiary to trip over 🙁 .

Naturally, my beesuit is so ill-fitting and shapeless that you can’t tell that I have the physique of a Greek God, but I can assure you that this is another of those intangible benefits of being an apiarist.


On a more serious note, the physical nature of beekeeping – in moderation and with appropriate technique – must be good for you. I’d much prefer to maintain or improve my back, arm and hand strength with weekly colony inspections than by going to the gym.

I prefer to do my weightlifting in the apiary

Not least because the Lycra outfits I’d have to wear to “fit in” at the gym would make my ‘Charles Hawtrey not Charles Atlas’ physique all too apparent 😉 .

Though, being a beekeeper, I probably wouldn’t care – see above.

‘Mainly dry’ 7

As a beekeeper living in Scotland I’ve become a little bit obsessive about climate and weather.

The climate has a fundamental impact on beekeeping. It influences the availability of natural forage and the time when it yields nectar. It determines when the season starts, how fast the colonies expand and when – like now – it’s effectively ’all over bar the shouting’.

The day-to-day weather influences when and if my queens get mated, how hot it will get in the bee shed and how wet I’ll get removing supers full of the ‘summer’ honey 🙁 .

Climate varies with latitude and longitude.

Weather can be a lot more localised.

By searching Weather Underground and similar sites for data uploaded from hobbyist weather stations 8 it’s usually possible to find a very local weather report.

19-26 August 2022 temperatures within a mile or so of my Fife apiary

I’m interested in conditions needed for queen mating in the sometimes iffy Scottish summers. By checking the weather records once queens start laying it’s very clear that the – usually quoted – ’sunny, over 20°C and light winds’ is a load of nonsense.

19-26 August 2022 temperatures in my west coast apiary

I currently live so remotely that I installed my own weather station to get a record of the actual local conditions. This close to the Atlantic they can vary wildly in just a few hours – we had heavy rain this morning 9, but lovely ‘softy Southern queen mating’ weather all afternoon 😉 .

Getting out and about

Some of these peripheral interests will have tangible benefits for my beekeeping. However, and of more relevance to this post, I’m consequently a lot more in tune with what the weather is likely to do over the next 12-24 hours.

The BBC might claim it’s going to be ‘wet with strong westerlies all day’ in north west Scotland (a region that stretches at least 200 miles from Durness to Oban), but I now know it will probably blow through by late morning and be fine in the afternoon.

I could open some hives, but I might instead go walking or cycling.

Sanna beach

Inevitably, living somewhere that gets 1-2 metres of rain a year, we see a lot of clouds. My more-than-passing interest in the weather has expanded into an appreciation of clouds and cloud formations. As I drove west along Glen Tarbert at the beginning of the month, in a car laden down with squeaking poly supers 10, the clouds merged and folded into one another above me.

Clouds, Glen Tarbert … mammatus?

At least, that’s what it looked like.

Beekeeping, other than in a bee shed I suppose, is of necessity an outdoor activity. By trying to understand how the climate and weather helps or hinders my bees I’ve learnt how to take advantage of unexpected – or at least not forecasted – good weather for other interests.

Of course, I don’t always get it right … I spent an hour in a remote bus shelter during a violent thunderstorm last week. It would have been spectacular had I not been so concerned that the bus shelter was largely made of metal …


I’ve discussed phenology – ‘the timing of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions’recently. This is much more interesting than the weather per se.

There are tangible benefits for beekeeping. If you realise the migrant birds are late to arrive you shouldn’t be surprised if the colonies are less well developed when you conduct the early spring inspections.

But the intangible benefits outweigh these.

Just having an appreciation of how the year builds, the flowering of the plants and trees, the arrival of animals and the onset of the breeding season, is intensely rewarding. I expect the sand martins by late March, but am disappointed if I’ve not seen a swift by the 8th of May. I look forward to their arrival. The siskins will disappear for a couple of months at the end of the year to feed on pine cones in the forests … but they’ll be back in January.


I spent the best part of three decades sitting in cramped offices, reading or writing papers and grant applications. Long weeks and weekends of work often left me isolated from the natural environment.

Although I was always interested in natural history, beekeeping has raised my awareness of the cyclical annual events in the ’rhythm of the seasons’.

That’s enough cod-philosophy … almost time to move on.

Be observant because it will help your beekeeping, but be observant because it will reward you in many other ways as well.

Organisation and patience

When I first started thinking about the topic of intangible benefits I considered including a commentary on how waiting for queens to get mated has instilled a Zen-like patience to the rest of my life.

Likewise, I planned to discuss how the organisation needed to manage the roofs, boxes, boards, frames, food, miticides etc for 30 colonies – many on the other side of the country – had brought order to my shambolic logistical skills.

However, doing either of these would have made this post a work of fiction 🙁 .

I dare say my organisational skills have improved, but I still ran out of clearers last week. I also used a clearer on a suspected queenless colony. Had I thought about this – and been a little more organised – I’d have not bothered with a clearer on that colony as it wasn’t going to clear anyway.

So, my beekeeping-related organisational skills still need honing, and there’s little-to-no evidence of any improvement in the rest of my life.

Chaos? What chaos?

Although I am a lot better at patiently waiting for queens to mate and start laying, there’s unfortunately been no noticeable improvement (I’m regularly reminded) in anything else.

Everyone is interested in bees 11

If you walk around for long enough wearing a beesuit you’ll get asked about bees and honey.

This can lead to all sorts of interesting or surreal conversations about honey bees vs. bumble bees. There’s a lot of confusion out there. I’ve been asked about waspkeeping, and candle making and lots about tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum – very interesting … these arrived in the UK in 2001 and have now spread as far north as southern Scotland).

Of course, few are interested in the arrival and spread of tree bumblebees, but they do want to know why there is a ‘swarm’ of bees around their bird box (these are males waiting for the virgin queens to emerge).

Although some of the conversations might start from an ill-informed position, there is real interest in bees. It’s a good opportunity to emphasise that, although honey bees aren’t threatened with extinction, some bees are.

Plant native wild flowers, stop using pesticides in the garden, don’t believe all the ’beewash’ you read in the supermarket … and don’t ‘sponsor a hive’.

Of course, some of these conversations lead to honey sales 🙂 .

A fifteen minute conversation might only result in the sale of a single jar of honey. The intangible benefits are the conversation, the people I meet and the new things I learn.

So much easier sold by the bucket

Or you might hit the jackpot and sell a complete bucket. That of course is a real financial benefit … and think of all that jarring and labelling you don’t need to do 😉 .

Hay fever

Probably half the conversations I have about bees and honey involve a discussion of the benefits of local honey for hay fever sufferers. Although I try and correct this pseudo-science I don’t do so with sufficient force to impact honey sales.

And a final hint for the uninitiated about selling honey … carry a jar or two of honey in the car. A casual request for one jar might lead to a regular monthly order for a gross.

Just sayin’ 😉 .


Not everyone likes honey, but everyone knows someone who likes honey.

I think this is the reason why honey makes such a great gift. If you’re saying thank you for the invitation to dinner, or for looking after the dog, or for that large bag of runner beans, there is nothing to beat a jar or two of honey.

It’s a handmade gift, it’s beautifully presented, it is exceptionally high quality and – other than the jars that came from the same bucket – totally unique.

In these regards it is a much better present than a bottle of wine … though wine and honey is also a winning combination.

A winning combination

The gift of a jar of honey is more personal, more thoughtful and much more likely lead to a conversation … ”Wow, thank you, is this honey from your own bees?”.

How many times have you been asked whether the bottle of merlot came from your own vineyard? In fact, how many times is the bottle of wine accepted without comment and then immediately put aside?

It doesn’t have to be honey of course – it could be candles (if they’re better than mine) or beeswax wraps or propolis tincture.

It’s the fact that it’s homemade, unique and high quality that counts.

I think this was the first of the intangible benefits I became aware of when I started beekeeping. Managing the colonies, rearing the queens and harvesting the honey is very rewarding … but it’s great that the honey brings pleasure to nearly everyone.


Is the honey ready?

Synopsis : How and when do you remove the supers to maximise the honey ready for extraction (and minimise the drudgery of extracting 😉 ). What is the ‘shake test’, and what do you do with frames that fail?


Unless your bees are now up on the heather moors, or one or two other specific cases (e.g.ivy), the productive part of the beekeeping season is now more or less over.

Productive in terms of honey, queen and nuc production (or propolis, Royal Jelly etc.).

The days are shortening, it’s cooler in the mornings and – at least here in north-west Scotland – there’s the first hint of leaves changing colour on the trees.

Your hives should be full of bees. The drones – as discussed last week – are counting the days 1 or perhaps hoping 2 for one last chance at mating with a late virgin queen.

It’s not completely finished – and it depends upon where you live – but ’the end is nigh’. Of course, not an actual apocalyptical and eschatological event … just that most of the fun is over until next May 🙁 .

It didn’t last long did it?

Hopefully the hives are heavily laden with bulging supers 🙂 .

Colonies may start to get defensive if they’re being pestered by wasps or subjected to robbing by other colonies.

It’s about now that the beekeeper robs the hives of some or all of the summer honey and starts to make the all-important preparations for winter.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

About six weeks ago I wrote a post about the change in intensity of beekeeping once the swarm season is over. From then (late June or early July) until now I’ve pretty much stopped routine colony inspections. Visits to the apiaries are a lot more relaxed.

Most of the colonies have new queens (or I’m pretty certain that the 2020 or 2021 queens – all of which are clipped anyway – won’t swarm 3 ) and there is little to be gained from rummaging through the brood boxes.

What’s more, those supers are heavy 🙂 .

I’ve no interest in lifting off this lot …

For Scotland that’s a lot of supers (and see text)

… solely to (disruptively) confirm what I’m 98% certain of already i.e. that the queen is laying and has space to lay, that – nevertheless – the brood nest is contracting and they’re starting to backfill cells with nectar, that there’s enough pollen for the brood they are rearing and that there’s increasing (but still well within safe limits.4) numbers of mites in the colony.

Admittedly, I know some of these things because I’m familiar with the ’rhythm of the seasons’ here, having kept bees in eastern Scotland for several years.

That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned beekeeping. Far from it.

Any boxes I’m unsure about have been regularly inspected. These include some with new queens and my hives on the west coast 5.

Just this afternoon I found my last new laying queen of the season 6. It’s been a shocking summer in the north-west, but she got out to mate in two days of half-decent weather last week.

The honey harvest

Most of my beekeeping has been in the Midlands and lowland Scotland. Neither area has heather and the only reliable late nectar sources are ivy and Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera).

I reckon that balsam is just about in range

Reliable in that there should be nectar available, not that the bees would reliably collect it.

In my experience ivy is usually too late for my bees in Scotland. Balsam is earlier, but is localised around rivers or damp ground.

In both cases, if the bees can get it, I let them keep any nectar they collect.

I therefore usually remove the honey supers soon after the main summer flow has finished. Last year that was the first week of August. All the supers were removed by about the 12th. This year – with fewer hives but a lot more supers 🙂 – I started removing full supers on the 1st of August and expect to have them all off by early next week 7.

I know some beekeepers remove supers one at a time or as they’re filled and capped. With sufficient time and easy access to your hives that can work well.

However, most of mine are 140 miles away, I’m reasonably time-poor and – importantly – I consider extracting the third worst task in beekeeping 8.

I therefore prefer to collect as many supers as possible in as short a period as practical. I stack them somewhere warm and then spend a day or two (or in a bad, so therefore antithetically, good year, three days) hunched over the extractor.

The sniff test

The water content of nectar can range between about 50 and 90%. Different nectars have different water content. Much of this water needs to be evaporated off by the bees or the resulting stored honey will ferment.

If you visit the apiary late on a calm summer evening you can hear the entire hive ‘humming’ as the bees fan their wings to create an airflow to evaporate the excess water off.

Late evening in the apiary

Sniff testing hives late in the evening

It often smells fantastic 🙂 .

Once the water content is low enough (less than 20%) the honey will not ferment and the bees usually seal the full cells with a wax cap.

Nicely capped and ready to extract

However, it’s unusual that every frame in every super is capped. Many or most will be, but there are often frames – particularly the outside frames of a super – which are partially (or even completely) filled and not capped.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

The super above is almost completely full, but the vast majority of the cells have not been capped.

Can it be extracted?

Will the honey ferment?

How can you avoid this situation in the first place?

So many questions … let’s go back to the apiary.

Checking the supers

Although I don’t lift off all those supers to inspect the brood boxes, I do periodically look at what’s going on in the supers.

With one or two supers and a clear crownboard you can usually see how the bees are getting on filling the frames without lifting anything but the roof.

If you add new supers to the top of the stack you can be reasonably sure that the lower supers will be more completely filled and better capped than the top one.

And, in case you’re wondering, it apparently doesn’t make any difference whether you add supers to the top or bottom of the stack.

So, if you top-super – and are over eight feet tall – you can check the stack as it grows without any lifting 😉 .

If the central frames are capped and the outer ones only part-filled/uncapped I swap them around (as shown in panel A and B, below, where black bars indicate capped frames and mid-grey bars indicate part-filled or uncapped frames).

Rearranging super frames and checking cleared supers – see text for details

Similarly, if the outside of the outer supers is being ignored I turn them round.

Evenly filled frames are easier to extract because they all weigh about the same so the extractor remains balanced.

My extractor takes 9 frames … and so do my supers 🙂 .

At least, they do once the comb is fully drawn.

I start the supers with 11 frames and foundation, but remove two once they’re drawn. The wider spacing encourages the bees to build deeper cells – more honey, less wax and (more importantly) less frames to extract.

However, don’t just start with 9 undrawn frames or the bees will probably build lots of brace comb in the big gaps between them.

Clearing supers

I’ve discussed clearing supers several times previously 9. In my opinion the three important points are:

  • use a clearer board with no moving parts (and avoid those abominable Porter escapes)
  • make sure there is a gap below the clearer and above the box below the super being cleared
  • that the supers of a queenright colony should be almost completely cleared within 12-16 hours

My clearer boards have a deep lower rim and two wide-spaced escapes. They work very well.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards – note two well-spaced exits and a deep lower rim

In the cartoon diagram above, panel C shows a hive with supers ready for clearing and removal.

The day after adding the clearer I remove the supers, leaving the clearer in place and undisturbed for the moment.

The supers are temporarily stacked in an upturned hive roof and covered with another roof – to keep them wasp and bee free.

If, as I remove the supers, I see bees that haven’t been cleared I drop the entire super 10 on an unoccupied hive stand to shake the stragglers off.

I then check individual supers. Those that are completely capped can be stacked – again with protection from robbing wasps and bees 11 – ready for transport.

Part capped super frames are subjected to …

The shake test

Honey with a water content lower than about 20% cannot be easily i.e. manually, shaken out of the cells. This is convenient because 20% is the upper limit 12 allowed for the sale of ‘honey’. Any higher than that and it’s likely that the honey will ferment (and therefore spoil).

Or it’s not ‘honey’ 13.

Therefore, after removing the cleared supers you should test any frames that are partially or completely uncapped to confirm that the honey is ‘ripe’ and ready for extraction.

The ‘shake test’ takes just seconds to perform.

Hold the super frame horizontally by the side bars and give it a single sharp shake. If nectar flies out of the cells the water content of at least some of the uncapped cells on the frame is over 20%.

If, when you hold the frame horizontal – before shaking the frame – nectar drips or pours out of the cells then don’t even bother doing the shake test … the frame is not ready. Any frames like these, or any that fail the shake test, should be transferred into an empty super which can go back on the hive.

In the cartoon diagram above, the supers removed from the hive (C) included uncapped frames that passed the shake test (mid-grey and stacked with capped frames in D) and those that were insufficiently ripened which ended up in stack E.

Since there are almost no bees on these frames, you can mix’n’match the frames containing unripe honey from several hives.

Tidying up

I usually do the shake test over an inverted Correx roof. The dark colour makes it easy to see the drops of nectar that are shaken out. Doing it this way also means I don’t leave spilt nectar around the apiary that might induce robbing 14.

Unripe nectar is easy to shake out of super frames.

Alternatively, you can shake the frames over the top of an opened hive. Since I try and clear all the supers in an apiary at once I prefer not have a hive open for the time it might take to check all the uncapped frames.

Once the supers are off, sorted, graded and stacked away ready for transport I shake the bees from the underside of the clearer and close the hives up, having placed the super(s) containing the frames of unripe honey on top of the strongest colony 15. This is the most likely to ripen and cap the honey, or to use it for winter stores.

Preparation for winter

On the same day I remove the supers I often start the preparations for winter. I don’t want to write about this here (I’ve written about is previously and I don’t have the space) but it essentially involves:

  • conducting a final inspection of the brood box
  • adding Apivar, the miticide I usually use in late summer
  • adding a 12.5 kg block of fondant

If the colony is healthy but weaker than I’d like, or not queenright, I would unite it with a strong colony. Far better to take your ‘losses’ in the autumn than in the winter.

But, back to those supers …

Having consolidated all of the extractable frames into the smallest possible number of boxes I then try and squeeze all 48 supers into the back of my little car and – yet again – wish I could sell enough honey to purchase a truck and trailer.

Room for another up top … the passenger seat is already full

I must try harder 😉 .

Back at the ranch

Serious beekeepers have ‘warm rooms’ in which they stack the supers prior to extraction. This keeps the honey nicely warmed. It is therefore much easier to spin the honey out of the frames and it retards crystallisation.

I’m not a serious beekeeper 😉 .

But I do have a honey warming cabinet that I can stack a lot of supers on 😉 .

Supers being warmed ready for extraction

If you build your own honey warming cabinet it’s worth making it strong – joints glued and screwed etc.. There’s at least 200 kg of honey in the supers pictured above 16. I would not try this with any of the commercial 17 honey warming cabinets I’ve seen (all of which are too small anyway).

The honey warming cabinet is set to 40°C and the supers are rotated, top to bottom and vice versa every day or two until I’m ready to extract.

It’s a lot of lifting, but the ease with which the honey is spun out makes it worthwhile 18.

Spring honey from oil seed rape

The high glucose content of nectar from oil seed rape (OSR) means that the honey crystallises fast. Keeping it warm helps, but you still need to extract within a few days of getting the supers off the hive. In contrast, summer blossom honey often takes ages to crystallise, so you can deal with things in a more leisurely fashion.

Yikes! … wet frames at home

Sometimes a frame or two – or a super or two – of incompletely ripened honey sneaks through all those careful checks you conducted in the apiary.

You notice nectar dripping from a frame when you lift it out of the super … you give it a quick ‘shake test’ and a lot more nectar is shaken out.

What can you do with these frames or supers?

It rather depends how many of them there are and how much you want the honey.

But first … what you should not do is extract them and mix them with the high quality, low water content honey that forms the bulk of the stuff you are extracting. Doing this risks ruining an entire bucket 19.

I think the choice is probably one of:

  • returning the frames/supers to the apiary for the bees
  • stacking the supers in a small warm room with a dehumidifier. If you do this, place spacers between the supers to encourage good airflow
  • spinning out the ‘wet’ honey at low speed before uncapping the frames and extracting as normal. If you do this, make sure you empty the extractor and use the ‘wet’ honey as winter feed for the bees (or for mead)

I’ve only ever really done the first two of these. A dehumidifier works, but that was long ago when energy was cheap.

These days I’m much more rigorous in screening frames/supers in the apiary and any that slip through are returned to the bees 20.

Points I failed to mention earlier

Inevitably I missed a few things I intended to cover, or remembered them too late to weave into the main part of the post … 21.


Remember … the ‘Can’t shake honey with less than 20% water out of a frame’ rule somewhat dependent upon how strong you are.

The accurate way to test the water content of honey

You should still test your extracted honey with a refractometer.

Brace comb

If you find the bees are building brace comb under the clearer you can be certain that the nectar flow is not finished yet (or another has started).

Brace comb in clearer

Brace comb in clearer

The clearer above was inadvertently left on for a few days, but they can build a surprising amount of new comb within 24 hours in a strong nectar flow. If this is the case you should expect many of the frames will not be ready for extraction.

Failed clearers

If your clearer doesn’t almost completely clear the supers overnight, either:

  • it’s a lousy design and/or blocked with dead drones, or
  • the colony is not queenright (it might be worth checking 😉 )

Returning supers for capping and/or stores

When returning supers with unripe stores for the bees I place them over the brood box (and queen excluder) if I want the bees to ripen and cap the honey. Obviously – at least it should be to anyone who reads the instructions – in this instance I don’t add Apivar, or start feeding for winter.

However, if I’m returning the super for the bees to store the nectar I nadir the super i.e. place it underneath the brood box. Any capped stores in the super are bruised by gently pushing down on the cappings. The damaged cells consequently weep small amounts of honey. Since the colony stores honey above and to the sides of the brood nest they usually empty the nadired super and move the honey up.

If the laying rate of the queen has slowed sufficiently she is unlikely to fill the nadired super with brood. Depending upon the time of the season you need to judge when to remove this nadired ‘super’ 22, or whether to leave it on overwinter.

By the time you get to it in the spring it’s likely to have brood in 🙂 .