Category Archives: Hive products

Mellow fruitfulness

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

Introduction

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.

Supers

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.

Apivar

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 🙁 .

Queenright?

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.

Stores

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.

Disease

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? 

Introduction

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.

MAMIL 6

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 …

Phenology

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.

Siskin

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’ 😉 .

Gifts

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?

Introduction

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.

Caveats

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 🙂 .


 

More queen rearing musings

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

Introduction

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

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

Capped queen cells

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

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

Or have the resources to produce them.

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

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

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

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

Little and often

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

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

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

Or an apiary-full of laying workers 🙁

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

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

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

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

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

And again 😉

Apiary vicinity mating

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

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

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

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

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

Queenright queen rearing

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

The Morris board

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

Morris board (lower side)

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

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

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

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

The Ben Harden approach

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

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

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

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

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

Supersedure vs. swarming responses and colony swarming

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

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

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

The superseding colony does not swarm.

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

At some point after that the old queen simply disappears.

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

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

Advantages (and disadvantages) of queenright queen rearing methods

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

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

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

But …

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

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

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

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

A swarming Ben Harden cell raiser

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

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

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

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

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

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

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

Chipmunks are Go! 9

Out of sight is out of mind

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

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

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

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

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

But, all was not lost.

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

And they did.

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

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

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

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

A more recent, but less successful, attempt

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

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

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

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

Cell bar frame festooned with bees

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

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

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

D’oh!

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

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

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

A vacated queen cell

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

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

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

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

But why were the cells containing grafted larvae torn down?

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

Learning from my mistakes 12 

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

Guilty, m’lud.

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

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

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

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

What else would you be looking for?

Just one more thing 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unripe nectar is easy to shake out of super frames.

Luring the bees down from the supers

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

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

This worked well.

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

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

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

Biosecurity

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

Eats, sleeps, bees

Synopsis : The beekeeping season is starting to get busy. Swarm control is not only essential to keep your hives productive, but also offers easy opportunities to improve the quality of your bees. Good records and a choice of bees is all you need. This week I discuss stock improvement together with a few semi-random thoughts on honey labelling, colony behaviour and wax foundation. Something for everyone. Perhaps.

Introduction

May is usually a lovely month in Scotland. It is often dry and sunny enough to spend much of the time outdoors, the days are long enough 1 to get a lot done and it’s early enough in the year to avoid the dreaded midges 2.

Usually and often.

Unfortunately, the weather so far this month has been unseasonably cool. It was probably better for much of March than it’s been for the first half of May.

But that good weather in March gave the bees a real boost – particularly in my apiaries on the east coast of Scotland.

Consequently, there’s still a lot of beekeeping to do now – swarm control, preparations for queen rearing, catching up with all the things I didn’t do in the winter ( 🙁 ) – often in between some rather iffy weather 3.

The next couple of months are usually pretty much full on … hence Eats, sleeps, bees 4.

Latitude …

The differences I discussed in Latitude and longitude a month ago are particularly marked now.

Beekeepers in Sussex or Kent have been complaining about running out of supers since mid-April. Other have been proudly displaying their first (or second) round of grafted queen cells.

In contrast, a few of my west coast colonies are still only on 6-7 frames of brood. It will be at least another fortnight until I even think about whether they’ll need swarm control.

Which might be a fortnight before they’ll actually need it.

These are perfectly healthy west coast native bees, adapted to the climate and forage available here.

The wonderful west coast of Scotland

They are classic late developers, evolution having timed colony expansion to fit with the local forage and the availability of weather good enough for queen mating.

There’s insufficient forage to produce oodles of brood in late April and many colonies have yet to produce any mature drones (though they all now have drone brood). Instead, they build up rather slowly, and are probably at the peak in July when the heather starts to yield.

This is all reasonably new to me and I feel I’m still learning how the season develops here on the west coast. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Eventually 😉

Going by the rate colonies are currently building up, and their performance last year, I expect to be rearing queens from these colonies in June and early July 5.

… and longitude

Meanwhile, in Fife things are progressing much faster.

My apiaries there are about 160 miles east and at a similar latitude, but most of the colonies are already overflowing their boxes. Swarm prevention is a distant memory and I’m now busy with swarm control.

The genetics are different. My east coast bees are all local mongrels, again adapted to local conditions.

However, I suspect an even greater difference is the early season forage and – although it’ll be finished in the next week or so – the oil seed rape (OSR).

Oil seed rape … and rain

The OSR gives colonies a massive boost. They gorge on it – both the nectar and pollen – quickly filling supers and a multitude of hungry larval mouths. Reasonably strong nucs made up for swarm control on the 1st of May are now in a full brood box and will be more than ready for the summer nectar flow when it starts.

Queen rearing would have started already if the two boxes I’d earmarked for cell raising hadn’t become a little overcooked and produced queen cells at the beginning of the month 🙁 .

The best laid plans etc. 6.

And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.

D’oh!

Quality control

One of the (nominal) cell raising colonies – we’ll call it colony #6 for convenience 7 was borderline in terms of temperament.

On a balmy afternoon, with a good nectar flow, the bees were calm, unflustered and a pleasure to handle.

However in cool, damp or blustery weather they weren’t so great.

This is one of the reasons that record keeping is so important. Although I’d not inspected them this season in very poor conditions 8, my records from last year also showed they were, shall we say, ’suboptimal’. Not psychotic or even hugely aggressive, but certainly hotter than I’d prefer and nothing like as stable on the comb as I like 9.

Of course, the simple answer is not to go burrowing through the box in cool, damp or blustery weather’ 🙂

However, I don’t always have a choice as these bees are 160 miles away. Met Office forecasts are good for tomorrow, questionable for next week and essentially guesswork for next month (which is when I’m booking the hotels).

So, having realised that both swarm control and quality control were needed, how have I tried to improve the quality of this colony?

Controlling quality

I discovered open, charged queen cells in colony #6 on the 1st of May. Without intervention the colony would have swarmed before the end of the first week of the month 10. The queen was clipped but, as I hope I made clear last week, queen clipping does not stop swarming.

Swarm control

I used my preferred swarm control method by making up a nuc with the old queen and a couple of frames of emerging brood with the adhering bees. I put these, together with a frame of stores and a couple of new frames into a nuc box and moved them to an out apiary several miles away.

By moving the nuc away I don’t have to worry about losing bees back to the original hive. I can therefore make the nuc up a little weaker than I would otherwise need to. An out apiary (or two) isn’t essential, but it makes some tasks a lot easier.

I then went carefully through colony #6, shaking all the bees off each frame and destroying every queen cell. There were still eggs and young larvae present, so they would undoubtedly make more queen cells before my visit a week later. However, by shaking every frame and being rigorous about destroying every queen cell I ensured:

  • there would be a bit less work to do the following week
  • I’d not missed a more mature cell somewhere that could have left a virgin queen running about at my next visit. This was unlikely, based upon the timing of brood development, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Colony #6 is in a double brood box. While ransacking the brood nest for queen cells I also hoiked out a frame of drone brood and cut out yet more drone brood from a foundationless frame or two. Since the genetics of this colony was questionable it made sense to try and stop these undesirable genes being spread far and wide.

At the same time I rearranged the frames, moving all the unsealed brood into the top box.

One week later

Early on the morning of the 8th of May I checked the colony again. As expected there were more queen cells reared from eggs and larvae I’d left the week before.

The vast majority of these queen cells were in the top box, but – since I’m a belt and braces beekeeper – I checked the bottom box as well. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

All of the queen cells were again destroyed.

Tough love … but if you want to improve the quality of your bees you have to exclude those with undesirable characteristics.

Importantly, by now the youngest larvae in the colony would be at least four days old. This is really too old – at least given the choice (and I was going to give them a choice) – to rear a new queen from.

Room for one more …

I rearranged the frames, leaving a gap in the middle of the top box, closed colony #6 up and completed my inspection of the other colonies in the apiary.

The last colony I checked was my chosen ‘donor’ colony with desirable genetics.

More swarm control 🙂 and a few days saved

The donor colony (#7) had started queen cells sometime during the first week of May and so also needed swarm control. However, very conveniently it had produced two nice looking cells on separate frames.

Both these queen cells were 3-4 days old and so would be capped in the next 24-48 hours.

A three and a bit day old queen cell

I could therefore use my standard nucleus swarm control (to ‘save’ the queen ‘just in case’), leaving one queen cell in colony #7 and donating the other queen cell to colony #6.

Which is exactly what I did.

Having gently brushed off the adhering bees from the frame (you should never vigorously shake a frame containing a queen cell you want 11 ) I gently slotted it into the gap I’d left in the upper brood box of colony #6. I also marked the frame to make my subsequent check (on the 15th) easier.

The frame marked QC is the only one that needs to be checked next week

By adding a well developed, but unsealed, queen cell to colony #6 I’ve saved the few days they would have taken to rear a queen from an egg or a day old larva.

Because the cell was open I was certain it was ‘charged’ i.e. it contained a fat larva sitting contentedly in a deep bed of Royal Jelly 12.

Better to be safe than sorry (again)

There were also eggs and a few larvae on the frame containing the queen cell (which was otherwise largely filled with sealed brood). It was likely that some of these would also be selected to rear new queens.

And they were when I checked on the 15th.

There was my chosen – and now nicely sculpted and sealed – cell and a few less well developed cells on the donated frame.

I know the cell I selected was charged and the larva well nourished.

In addition, I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.

Therefore, I didn’t need any backups.

No ’just in case’ cells.

Rather than risking multiple queens emerging and fighting, or the strong colony throwing casts, I (again) destroyed all but the cell I had originally selected.

I’m writing this on the 17th and she should have emerged today … so my records carry a note to check for a laying queen during my first inspection in June.

This shows how simple and easy stock improvement can be.

No grafting, no Nicot cages, no mini-nucs and almost no colony manipulations etc. Instead, just an appreciation of the timings and the availability of a frame from a good colony (and this could be from a friend who has lovely bees … ).

And in between all that

That was about 1400 words on requeening one colony 🙁 . That was not quite what I intended when I sat down to write a post entitled Eats, sleeps, bees.

My east coast beekeeping – including 8-9 hours driving – takes a couple of days a week at this time of the season. On the west coast I have fewer colonies and – as outlined above – they are less well advanced, so there’s a bit less to do 13.

However, there are always additional bee-related activities that appear to fill in the gaps between active colony inspections.

I’ll end this post with a few random and half thought out comments or questions on stuff that’s been entertaining or infuriating me in the last week or so.

In between the writing, inspections, Teams meetings, editing, reviewing and writing … 😉

Honey labelling

I use a simple black and white thermal printer – a Dymo LabelWriter 450 – to produce labels that don’t detract from (or obscure) the jar contents.

Dymo thermal label (and a jar of honey)

I’ve used these for over 6 years and been very happy with the:

  • cost of the labels (a few pence per jar)
  • flexibility of the system. I can change the best before date, the batch number or other details for each print run; whether it’s 1 or 1000.
  • ability to include QR codes containing embedded information, like a website address or details of the particular batch of honey.

However Dymo, in their never ending quest for more profits a ‘better consumer experience’ have recently upgraded their printers and label printing software 14.

The newest incarnation of the printer I use – now the Dymo LabelWriter 550 – only works with authentic Dymo labels.

A more accurate spelling of authentic is  e x p e n s i v e , at least if you only buy labels in small quantities (100’s, not 1000’s).

If you fancied adding a little square label on the cap of 100 jars claiming ”Delicious RAW honey” you’d not only be falling foul of the Honey Labelling Regulation, you’d also have to cough up £18 for a roll of labels.

Dymo labels are great quality. Smudge proof, easy to remove and sharp black on white. In bulk they are reasonably priced (~3p – the same cost as an anti-tamper label – if you buy >3000 at a time).

However, you can get similar labels for a third of the price … but they won’t be usable in the new printer.

The Dymo LabelWriter 450 has no such restrictions and is still available if you look around.

I’m tempted to buy a spare.

Colony to colony variation

I started this post with a discussion of variation due to latitude and longitude. However, individual colonies in a single location can also show variation (in addition to temperament, running, following etc.) that I don’t really understand.

I have three colonies in a row behind the house here on the west coast. I can see whether they are busy or not when I’m making coffee, doing the washing up or pottering in the work room (two of these activities are more common than the other 😉 ).

All in a row (though not the colonies referred to in the text as they’re camera shy)

And they are consistently different, despite being pretty similar in terms of colony strength and development.

One colony typically starts foraging before the others and another, probably the weakest of the three, forages later and in worse weather.

Early in the season these differences were so marked I thought that one of the colonies had died.

I assume – because a) I’ve not got the imagination to think of other reasons, b) it’s the justification I use for anything I don’t properly comprehend, and c) I’ve not done any experiments to actually test what else it could be – that this is due to genetics.

It’s only because I’m fortunate enough to look out on these colonies dozens of times a day that I’ve noticed these consistent behavioural differences. I suspect my other colonies show it, but that I’ve never looked carefully or frequently enough.

Attractive foundation

I’m busy making up nucs for swarm control and sale. Although many of the frames I use are foundationless I also use a lot with standard foundation. The frames are built (or should be built!) in the winter, but I add the foundation once the weather improves and there’s less risk of cracking the brittle sheets due to low temperatures.

I buy foundation once every season or so and carefully store it somewhere cool and flat. Some of these sheets are quite old by the time I get round to using them and they often develop a white powdery ‘bloom’ on their surface.

Before (bottom) and after (top) 30 minutes in the honey warming cabinet

I used to run a hairdryer over the frames containing these bloomed sheets. The warm air brings out the oils in the wax and makes they much more attractive to the bees. They smell great!

Frames in the honey warming cabinet (W = worker foundation, to distinguish them from D = drone)

These days I just stick a ‘box full’ of frames at a time into my honey warming cabinet set at about 40°C for 30 minutes. Not necessarily quicker, but a whole lot easier … so freeing up time to do something else related to bees 🙂


Note

Today is World Bee Day. The 20th of May was Anton Janša’s (1734-1773) birthday. He was a beekeeper – teaching beekeeping in the Hapsburg court in Vienna –  and painter from Carniola (now Slovenia). He promoted migratory beekeeping, painted his hives and invented a stackable hive.