Synopsis : How can you provide information about the origin and authenticity of your local honey? Labelling, logic and some geekery.
This is a follow-on from the post last week about the adulteration of honey. For those of you who gave up reading midway through those 3800+ words the abridged version goes something like this.
80-90% of the honey consumed in the UK is imported. A very significant proportion of this imported honey originates, directly or indirectly, from China. When tested, about 75% of Chinese honey contains markers of adulteration i.e. it’s not honey. All tested honey exported from the UK was considered adulterated.
Most Honey is ‘pHoney’.
This ‘pHoney’ is largely what consumers are purchasing. Their experience influences their expectations of what honey is.
If they are used to a sickly sweet, golden coloured syrup in a squeezy bear, they are unlikely to be tempted by your delicate pale, soft-set mix containing 20% heather, or your zesty lime honey.
Where did this honey originate?
Of course, if they are used to the squeezy bear contents they might not like your honey.
But what about someone wanting to try something new, or to purchase honey as a gift?
Or who wants to purchase truly ‘local’ honey?
Someone who might not normally spend £9 on a jar of honey?
Or who just wants to find out more about the honey they have just purchased?
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.
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
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 …
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.
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
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.
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.
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 😉 .
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.
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, bees4.
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.
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 🙁 .
And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.
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?
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.
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.
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 … 😉
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.
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 🙂
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.
The autumn solstice is long gone and we’re fast approaching the end of British Summer Time 1. For most northern hemisphere beekeepers this means that there may be five months of ‘not beekeeping’ before we start all over again.
Of course, there are things we have to do with the bees in the intervening period.
The hive entrances must be kept clear so they can get out on the inoffensively named ‘cleansing flights’ when needed. There will be a winter miticide treatment to apply … probably long before midwinter. It is also important to keep an eye on the weight of the hive – particularly as brood rearing starts in earnest in late January and February – to ensure the bees do not starve.
But those three things aren’t going to fill anything like five months, so there is bound to be some time ‘spare’ over the coming months.
The elasticity of time
Although the year contains twelve about equal length months, those of us who keep bees in temperate northern countries experience a strangely warped calendar.
This is what it feels like … the beekeepers year
Apparently the months only vary in length by ±3 days. May and December contain the same number of days, but May disappears in the blink of an eye, whereas December can drag on interminably.
Weirdly there appears to be an inverse relationship between the available daylight to work in, and the amount of time it feels as though you have available to actually get the various beekeeping tasks completed.
This surely defies the laws of physics?
All of which means that beekeepers often have little free time in the summer and ample free time in the winter.
Some wise beekeepers have a busman’s holiday and go to New Zealand to tour apiaries (and – more to the point – vineyards).
Others catch up with all of the non-beekeeping activities that apparently ‘normal’ people do … like the decorating, or building model railways, or flamenco dancing 2.
But if you still want to dabble with a bit of beekeeping – in the broadest sense of the word – through the cold, dark days of December and January 3 there are all sorts of things you can do.
Many years ago I wrote an irregular column for my then beekeeping association on do-it-yourself (DIY) for beekeepers.
It was irregular because my use of punctuation has always, been suspect, and because it didn’t appear each month.
That column eventually morphed into this website 4.
In fact, some of the very earliest articles were almost lifted verbatim from the beekeeping monthly newsletter.
I wrote about DIY because it was something that:
brought me a lot of satisfaction
saved me a few quid
improved my beekeeping
Now, a decade or more later, I still use the winter months to do the majority of my beekeeping-related DIY 5.
It’s only in the winter that I have the time to think things through properly before rummaging through the wood offcuts box and actually building something.
Measure twice, cut once
Which brings me back to the start of this post.
The motto for beekeeping DIY could be something like:
However, having identified a problem, there’s almost as much enjoyment to be gained from thinking it through to a workable solution than there is from the actual woodwork.
But Think lots, measure twice, cut once etc. doesn’t have quite the same flow.
And, as we’ll see below, it doesn’t have to be woodwork.
So I can happily fill a few hours on a dark November evening thinking about improvements to a hive stand that could cope with 1500 mm of rain a year and very uneven ground 7, or how to best construct the removable slides for a Morris board.
And by best here, I mean for a lot less than the £30 charged for the commercial ones 8.
Morris board … that’s £8.25 please
Part of the thinking involves how to tackle the project with the limited range of tools I have. I don’t have the space or the skill 9 to own a bandsaw, or a thicknesser 10, or a router.
Almost everything I build uses a combination of Gorilla glue, Correx, hand tools, blood 11, wood offcuts and some really rich Anglo-Saxon phrases.
My DIY skills are legendary, and not in a good way, but the great thing is that the bees could not care less.
Most of the various things I build develop from ideas that occur during the ‘active’ beekeeping season.
If it’s needed urgently I’ll cobble something crudely together and use it there and then. However, it’s unlikely to have received much thought (or care in construction) and so I’m more than likely to ponder how it could be improved once I have a bit more time.
I learnt the basics of queen rearing from the late Terry Clare at a BBKA Annual Convention and couldn’t wait to have a go myself.
Fat dummies – mark 1
I used the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing approach. This needs an upper brood box with most of the space ‘dummied down’ to concentrate the bees on the grafted larvae. For this you need a couple of ‘fat dummies’ 12. I built my first fat dummies one afternoon using gaffer tape and Correx (see above) and later that April reared my first queens.
But that winter I had time to do a bit more research. Dave Cushman’s website described fat dummies with integral feeders.
These would clearly be an improvement – unless there’s a strong nectar flow you often have to feed the colony – so I built some.
Fat dummy mark 2 … with integral feeder and insulation
Mine are still in use … and not just for queen rearing. They are packed with polystyrene insulation … an embellishment I thought up 13. I can use them to reduce ’empty’ space in a brood box occupied by an undersized colony. In fact, with two of them, I can overwinter a four-frame nuc over a strong colony to provide warmth from below.
As I said earlier, the problem solving is part of the fun.
I use a lot of Correx. That’s the fluted polypropylene board that is used for political posters and For Sale signs.
Sourcing it is often not a problem if you’re prepared to do some homework.
It’s lightweight, strong, available in a range of cheery colours … but most importantly it is used for political posters and For Sale signs.
So, it’s often free.
And that’s a word all beekeepers like 😉
Wait for a general election and seek out a candidate who has suffered an ignominious and humiliating defeat. Ideally one in which they have both lost their deposit and and any remnants of support from the political party they were standing for … and ask politely.
And For Sale signs are even more easily obtained. Always ask … and remember that it’s bad form to remove them if the house has yet to be sold.
But there’s a problem with Correx. You cannot glue it with any normal glues. It’s got some sort of surface coating that prevents glue from adhering properly.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
There are special glues, but at special prices 🙁
I wanted to build some hive roofs from Correx but had to solve how to fold it ‘across’ the longitudinal flutes, and then how to stick it together in a way that would be weatherproof.
Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx
The folding bit was easy … it turns out that people who keep guinea pigs use this stuff to make the cages and runs for their cavies. And after an hour or two reading about someone else’s (weird) obsession I discovered that a pizza cutter was ideal for scoring Correx prior to folding it.
The glue I worked out for myself. I built a couple of dummy roofs and held the folded corners together with zip ties or regular gaffer tape, zip ties and regular gaffer tape, or some (claimed) waterproof tape.
Of these, the waterproof tape – specifically Unibond Extra Strong Power tape – worked really well.
Sticky stuff …
And remains the only one I’ve found to work.
You need to lightly sand the surface of the Correx and ideally degrease it with some solvent. I still have roofs built 8 years ago with the original tape holding them together. They cost me £1.50 each to build as I had to buy 14 the Correx as the only For Sale signs I had were too small.
Here’s one I made earlier
Most of the things I’ve made have been through one or two iterations of ‘improvement’ before I’ve ended up with something I’m satisfied with.
My honey warming cabinet – one of the first things I ever built – was modified after a few years by the addition of a fan to better circulate the warmed air. This significantly improved it.
The things I’ve discussed above are all good examples of why it’s worth spending some time in the winter doing some creative thinking and DIY 15 :
commercial Morris boards are expensive and (I think) have entrances that are too large
I’m not aware of any commercially available fat dummies … please correct me if I’m wrong
no one sells hive roofs (or super carrying trays) for £1.50
my floors are ideal for the beekeeping I do and significantly less expensive than anything similar available commercially
my honey warming cabinet is used to warm supers before extraction, to melt set honey and – because the temperature control and heat distribution is good enough – has even been used as a queen cell incubator
This winter I have three projects to entertain me.
The first project is the second iteration of my DIY portable queen cell incubator. The first of these was cobbled together earlier this year. Although it worked – more or less – it was far from satisfactory.
Mark 2 is currently being stress tested.
It is being tested.
I am getting stressed.
Queen cell incubator – mark 2 … a work in progress
I’ve managed to achieve really good temperature control. However, I’m currently struggling with uneven temperatures at different areas within the box. They barely fluctuate, but they’re not the same.
Great temperature control at a range of (different) temperatures
I’m pretty sure this is solvable 16 and that it will be possible to build something better than is available commercially for about 10-15% of the price 17.
But, almost more important than that, it will be a problem I’ve solved 18 that suits me, my bees and my beekeeping … which will be very satisfying.
The second project is a set of hive scales. Lots of others have tackled this problem and there are some really clever and complicated solutions out there.
The plan is for mine to be the exact opposite.
Simple, and not very clever at all.
Testing is ongoing 😉
Software, not hardware
And the final project is software, not hardware.
All my honey jars have unique batch numbers. These allow the individual apiary (and bucket) to be identified. The batch number is generated by some PHP or perl scripts and used to print a QR code onto a Dymo label affixed to the back of the jar.
QR code containing a batch number
But that monochrome pointillist pattern contains a hidden web address as well. The purchaser will be able to point a mobile phone at the code and get more information about the honey 19.
Having sold honey ‘from the door’ for years I’m unsurprised when buyers want to know more about local bees and the available forage … and with these labels they can (and do).
I’ve written the scripts to handle label creation and logging/redirecting ‘views’. I now have to write the programs that create the customised web pages with the local information lifted from the backend database.
And, with only ~165 days until I next expect to open a hive, I think I’m going to have my work cut out to complete any of these projects.
Here in Scotland the season is rapidly drawing to a close. All of the summer nectar sources – the lime, blackberry and heather – have stopped yielding and the bees are noticeably less busy, other than in the warmest parts of the day.
Inside the hive the colony is segueing from summer to winter bee production. Brood rearing is still ongoing and there’s lots of pollen still going in, but the rate at which the queen is laying is very much reduced.
And, as the bees transition from summer to autumn behaviour, my own beekeeping activities are also changing. No more queen rearing, uniting or even colony inspections. The risk of swarming ended months ago.
Instead, with the winter ahead, the number of evening talks is increasing and several winter beekeeping projects are starting to occupy my mind.
But the season’s not over yet and there are still a few last minute tasks before active beekeeping stops. Here is what has been keeping me busy over the last week or two …
Beekeepers are a sociable bunch and the pandemic has had a significant impact on the amount of digestive biscuits consumed and tea slurped in church halls across the country.
However, in addition to being sociable 1 they are also adaptable and inventive. Zoom and GoToMeeting talks, attended from the comfort of the sofa with a glass of red wine, have become the new normal.
Early forays into the world of ‘virtual’ beekeeping were plagued with dodgy connections or noisy feedback.
Q&A sessions were stilted due to the lack of familiarity with the need to unmute the microphone before talking.
Some were more like a Marcel Marceau tribute act than Beekeeper’s Question Time.
But all that has changed.
I’ve experienced some excellent hosting, lively and interactive Q&A sessions and entertaining pre- or post-talk chat with beekeepers across the country.
‘Virtual’ beekeeping talks
Increasingly this format appears to have been widely accepted. There may not be face-to-face meetings with tea and biscuits, but there’s also no need to drive half way across the county on a filthy, wet winter night.
Long distance talks – imagine the travel expenses being saved
I live in one of the most westerly locations in the UK (I’m about 15 km west of Land’s End) and have used the title ‘Go West young man’ a couple of times in previous posts. Later this winter I’ll be ‘virtually’ going west a further 7000 km and talking to beekeepers in British Columbia, Canada. They may be half way across the world, but their climate (reasonably mild and wet) is not dissimilar to the west of Scotland, and bees are bees 🙂
It should be interesting.
Zoom and GoToMeeting
About 95% of the talks I give (or attend) use Zoom. It works well. The interface is logical and I can see some/all of the audience. Questions are often handled through the ‘Chat’ function. At least a couple of associations have invested in an add-on 2 that allows questions to be upvoted, so moving the most popular or relevant topic 3 to the top of the pile.
‘Seeing’ the audience in the talk isn’t really necessary, and can be a bit distracting 4. But I find it really helps during the Q&A session, and certainly makes the ‘virtual’ interaction just that little bit more realistic.
At the very least I can guesstimate the age and experience of the beekeeper asking the question, so allowing me to tailor my answer if appropriate. Of course, this sometimes goes wrong, but people are usually too polite to point out my error.
GoToMeeting is less intuitive (possibly because I’ve used it less) and I don’t think offers me a view of the audience 5. However, I think it’s more suited to larger audiences and coped admirably with ~250 who attended a recent talk to the Welsh BKA.
OK, enough virtual beekeeping … what about the real thing?
In the six years I lived in Fife (on the east coast of Scotland) I never moved my bees outside a 20 mile corridor in the centre of the county. The arable farmland, mixed woodland and low, rough grazing contained no (worthwhile) heather.
Therefore, despite living in Scotland, I’ve no previous experience with heather, considered by many to be the ultimate honey. However, on the west coast we have patchy heather on the hill behind the house, so the bees have almost no choice but to forage there.
After a record-breaking honey yield in Fife, anything extra in the west was a bonus.
I was singularly ill-equipped to extract it. A few of the frames I put through the extractor collapsed spectacularly, so I was reduced to scraping the frames back to the midrib and crushing and straining the honey out.
As I’ve said before, there’s always something new to learn.
Crushed and strained … I was, but I got there eventually
And I learnt that this can be a messy and exhausting process 🙁
One of many few … my first jars of Ardnamurchan honey
But, by golly, it was worthwhile 🙂
I now have to buy a larger shed to store a compressed air-driven fruit press as extracting anything more than half a dozen supers of heather honey will probably drive me round the bend.
Based on the price of these fruit presses and the likely honey yield per year I reckon I’ll break even in about 29 years 🙁 6
The heather here on the west coast goes on yielding long after the bees in Fife have packed up and gone home.
At least, usually.
Feeding and forage
The summer honey came off the hives in Fife in mid-August. All the colonies were treated with Apivar strips and received a full block of fondant on the same couple of days I removed the supers.
It was hard work, not least because there was a lot of honey. All the supers were brought back home for extracting, and subsequently returned for storage.
As described a couple of weeks ago, I only feed fondant in the autumn. Having checked the colony is queenright I simply plonk a block of fondant on the hive and leave them to get on with it 7.
When I checked the colonies earlier this week all had completely finished their 12.5 kg fondant block.
Although I didn’t do a full colony inspection, I did have a peek in a couple of hives to check the level of stores and brood. They were wall-to-wall with capped stores except for 2-3 frames in the centre of the brood box which contained about a hands-breadth of brood. Much of this brood was capped and there was still a little bit of space for the queen to lay … but not much.
However, several boxes also had brace comb in the super above the empty bag of fondant. None of this contained brood as I always support the block of fondant on a queen excluder.
Bees don’t draw comb on fondant … or do they?
I suspect this comb building was triggered by the availability of ivy nectar. In previous years I’ve not seen comb drawn when feeding fondant. However, it’s been quite mild and the bees have probably been taking advantage of the warm weather to supplement the fondant.
Avoiding another sticky mess
I don’t want to leave the bees with a third of a super of ivy honey, particularly when the rest of the super is a big empty space they would have to heat. However, I also don’t want to mess about cutting it all away or – worse – wasting all their efforts.
A small hole
Therefore, having removed the queen excluder and the empty fondant wrapper I placed a new crownboard and empty super back on the hives with brace comb. I modified the crownboard to reduce the hole to about a single bee width.
Regular readers will know that modified almost always means either gaffer tape or Correx.
I’ve branched out this time and instead used the side of a cardboard box of fondant for one hive. If this works I’ll claim it was a well thought out experiment. If it doesn’t I’ll claim I was pushed for time and had no Correx or gaffer tape with me 8.
Having done all this I added back the original crownboard with the attached brace comb and closed the hive up securely.
The intention here was to make the stores in the brace comb appear as though it was outside the hive. I expect the bees to relocate the nectar from the brace comb – none of it was capped yet – to the brood box, as and when space become available.
I’ve got the message loud and clear. No matchsticks needed here.
Scratch and sniff reposition
Apivar strips need to be placed in the edges of the brood nest, at least two frames apart and in diametrically opposing corners of the hive.
But in mid-August the brood nest is a lot larger than it is a month later. As the brood nest shrinks, the strips get further and further away from the main concentration of the bees in the hive.
In an active hive stuffed with bees this probably isn’t a major issue. However, to achieve maximum exposure of the bees – particularly the young bees that Varroa like to hang out with and that are concentrated around the brood nest – it makes sense to reposition the strips midway through the treatment period.
Apivar strip placement as the brood nest shrinks
Apivar treatment takes 6-10 weeks. The actual wording is something like “The larger the brood is, the longer the strips should be left in the limit of 10 weeks”. I usually treat for 9-10 weeks; my colonies are all pretty strong at the end of the summer.
But strips left for that long in the hive often get gummed up with propolis and wax.
Apivar strip efficacy is probably impaired by all that propolis and wax
I therefore spend a few minutes scraping the strips clean of gunk9 and then reposition them in the hive, adjacent to the – now shrunken – brood nest.
There are studies showing that this scratching and repositioning of the Apivar strips marginally increases the devastation wreaked on the mite population.
Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies
And that can only be a good thing™.
More heavy lifting
I returned to the west coast after two long days of driving, beekeeping and meetings 10 having collected a further 125 kg of fondant en route.
The following day a pallet of jars were delivered from C Wynne Jones. I get the square jars I like – and, more importantly, my customers like – from there. Because of my remote location the ‘free delivery’ comes with a hefty surcharge, so it makes sense to buy a reasonable number at once.
Unfortunately the courier transported them on a 36 ton artic, and there was slightly less than no chance whatsoever that it would be able to negotiate our ~300 metre, 1 in 5 driveway.
I’d had a barely decipherable call (wrong mobile network) from the driver in the morning as he arrived on the peninsula but heard nothing more. I presumed he was still negotiating the ~18 miles of single track road to get here.
Either that or he’d got no phone reception.
I was right on both counts.
He knocked at the door having been unable to call me, but had abandoned the lorry in the road and walked up the hill to the house.
What a star.
With thanks to Palletline
In exchange for a jar of honey – to restore his flagging blood sugar levels – he unloaded the pallet in the road and I made four trips by car to collect the boxes.
Beekeeping is a high-volume pastime 11 … everything takes up a lot of space.
I think I need to find another location for the canoe that occupies one side of the shed.
In between all the heavy lifting …
And canoeing with the dolphins in the loch is the other thing I’ve been enjoying now the majority of the beekeeping is winding down for the year.