Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Feral facts and fallacies

Synopsis : Are feral colonies recently lost swarms or a self-sustaining ‘wild’ honey bee population? The latter must reproduce faster than they perish. Measuring rates of colony loss and nest occupancy provides a good indicator of the likely origin and independence of feral populations.


Most colonies try to swarm every year. Most – not all – but if your colonies are strong and healthy they are likely to swarm. That’s why swarm prevention and subsequent swarm control are such important skills for the tyro beekeeper to master. Without swarm control the majority of the workforce is ‘lost’, the residual colony will be left temporarily queenless and the potential honey crop is probably much reduced.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

It is not difficult to become competent at swarm prevention and control. However, any beekeeper who claims to never lose swarms is probably being ‘economical with the actualité’ as the late Alan Clark once said.

What happens to those ‘lost’ swarms?

Some forward-thinking beekeepers set out bait hives. Any swarms that end up being attracted to these ‘swarm traps’ will eventually find their way back to a managed apiary. Some swarms end up in the church tower where ‘there have always been bees’, according to local parishioners.

Others move into the roof space above the entrance to the local nursery school, causing fascination, irritation and consternation in equal measure. Their fate depends upon whether the head teacher contacts a beekeeper or a pest controller … but their arrival reinforces the importance of swarm control and the use of bait hives.

A bait hive deployed in mid-April in good time for the swarming season ahead

And other swarms disappear over the apiary fence, across the field and into the local woods, eventually establishing a new colony in a suitable hollow tree.

No risk, no reward

Swarming is a risky business. The swarm leaves with the majority of the flying bees and the mated queen. However, it takes more than that to establish a functional colony. They need to draw comb, rear brood and collect sufficient stores to get through the winter.

That’s a tall order and most swarms fail.

Data from Thomas Seeley in The Lives of Bees suggests that only about 23% of swarms survive the winter.

In contrast, the swarmed colony has about an 80% chance of survival. They’ve got drawn comb, stores, eggs and larvae … ‘all’ they need to do is rear a new queen.

And then they’re likely to swarm again the following year 1. In fact, without swarm control, the average number of swarms produced by a colony is two per year – presumably a prime swarm (headed by the old queen) and a cast (headed by a virgin queen).

So, swarming is risky, but those swarms that succeed in establishing a new colony and overwintering can themselves attempt to reproduce again the following year.

That’s the reward.

Where are all these bees?

Even taking account of the exemplary swarm control by the UK’s ~25,000 beekeepers 2 I’m reasonably certain that a lot of swarms are lost every year.

Where do all these bees go?

I’ve been told of lots of churches or schools or trees with resident bees.

Quiet churchyard

A swarm magnet … or just an old church?

However, it’s certainly not every church, or school or hollow tree that’s occupied. Even when there’s a surplus of suitable nest sites, those that are occupied by a colony are the exception, not the rule.

The main reason of course is Varroa.

In the absence of intervention to reduce the mite population, the developing winter bees get parasitised by Varroa, and the resulting high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) reduces the longevity of these necessarily 3 long-lived bees.

Consequently the winter cluster shrinks in size, from that of a football (early October) to a honeydew melon (late December) to a large orange (early February).

And then it freezes to death during a cold snap 🙁 .

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

Numerous studies have shown that untreated colonies, in the absence of any natural resistance or tolerance to Varroa or DWV (though the latter is rarely discussed, and even less frequently tested for), almost always perish within a year or two of Varroa infestation.

Look back at the recent post on Biological control with Varroa for a reminder of the devastation wreaked on an island population of honey bees after the introduction of mites.

Wild? They’re livid feral …

Technically, swarms lost by beekeepers (that become established in the environment) are probably best termed feral colonies.

Originally feral meant simply ‘wild or untamed’, but the more common usage these days means ’animals or plants that have lapsed into a wild form from a domesticated condition’.

Bees aren’t domesticated, but I think feral conveniently encompasses their origin.

However, I’m more than happy to accept that a colony, initially feral, that becomes well-established in the church tower and throws off a swarm or two every year, that requeens every two or three seasons, surviving without intervention or management, must be considered ‘wild’ at some point.

It’s not worth discussing when a colony transitions from feral to wild.

It’s semantics, though I think the distinction between ‘recently arrived from a swarmed managed colony’ and ‘self-sustaining’ is an important one.

Notwithstanding the ravages of Varroa, whether feral or wild, there are colonies in the environment – churches, schools, trees – and probably rather more than many beekeepers are aware of.

The missing bees

Periodically there’s a little flurry of interest in the press about ‘long lost’ or ‘missing’ wild bees discovered in the woods.

Late last summer there were articles in all the newspapers about bees found on Blenheim Estate. The Observer reported this discovery with the headline ”No one knew they existed”: wild heirs of lost British honeybee found at Blenheim.

‘Blenheim bees’ article in the Observer, 7-11-21

As an aside – as this isn’t the real topic for discussion today – there are at least three challenging claims made in that headline; how can you be sure that no-one knew they existed? Is the British honey bee (it is not honeybee) actually lost? How do you know that these bees are their heirs?

Pedantic is my middle name.

But the 2500 hectare Blenheim Estate 4 isn’t the only location with apparently self-sustaining populations of honey bees. There are trees, churches and (I dare say) even nursery schools up and down the country that appear to have a ‘resident’ colony or two of bees.

Periodically they’re observed swarming. Sometimes things seem a bit quiet in the spring, but perhaps it’s too cold for the bees to be flying strongly anyway.

By May there’s a lot of activity so all must be well.


Perhaps 😉

Citizen science

These wild/feral colonies are infrequent but widely distributed. They are therefore difficult for one person to regularly observe. As a consequence there are several ‘citizen science’ projects monitoring some of these sites. Magnus Peterson regularly reports in The Scottish Beekeeper on the one he coordinates for the University of Strathclyde.

The criticism of these types of studies – certainly not Magnus’s specifically – but any study the largely relies upon infrequent observation by volunteers, is that stuff gets missed. A visit doesn’t happen because it’s raining hard. Or it does happen in heavy rain and no activity is observed and the colony is recorded as dead.

Or worse, recorded as alive, but not flying because of the heavy rain.

With more systematic observation, though not necessarily more frequent, you can have increased certainty that the site that was occupied last autumn is still occupied this spring.

The timing of these observations is important. Three per season is probably the minimum, early, mid and late, but they have to be at particular times of the season – see below.


So, let’s assume a colony is found in the autumn and the same hollow tree is occupied in late-April the following year … yippee, the colony is still alive.

Feral – or are they now wild? – bees living successfully with Varroa (at least presumably living with Varroa if they’re almost anywhere in mainland UK).

Perhaps they’ve evolved to have some interesting and useful trait(s) that renders the colony resistant to or tolerant of the dreaded parasitic mites?

These are valuable bees.

They are an important genetic resource.

They must be protected at all costs.

Perhaps it’s time to set up a web colony cam to record their activity? That’s going to cost a pretty penny, so some crowdfunding is needed.

A website is created … a dozen mini-nucs are purchased for the ambitiously planned queen rearing programme and – inevitably – there’s a misquoted article or two in the Guardian.

But hold on …

Are they really the same colony in April that were there the previous autumn?

How can you be sure?

How can you be certain that it’s not an unseasonably early swarm that was missed by the – usually eagle-eyed – local beekeepers? 5

It’s not unusual to find the odd charged queen cell during the first colony inspection of the season. At least, I’ve sometimes found queen cells during that first inspection. I’m sufficiently experienced to not go rummaging about in the boxes too early in the season, and so I am sometimes surprised at how well developed the colony is when I open the box.

Charged queen cell

But what if it had been raining, so I’d postponed the inspection?

On the next warm spring day – well before I was able to return to the apiary – the colony could swarm.

I’ve regularly seen April swarms in Scotland and there are many reports of even earlier swarms on social media every year.

Perhaps the active ‘overwintered’ colony is nothing of the sort.

Maybe it’s just been occupied by a very early swarm?

To be sure it’s the same colony you need to do some genetic testing. If the colony is the same the genetic testing will show identity. If the testing shows significant variation then it’s a different colony.

And, if you combine some genetic testing of overwintered colonies with three carefully-timed visits – late season, very early season and mid-season – to a large number of wild/feral colonies, or likely sites that they would occupy, you can determine their longevity and whether they are a self-sustaining population.

Bee trees

And I wouldn’t have given that long and rambling introduction if there wasn’t a recent scientific paper where they’ve done exactly that (Kohl et al., 2022). I’ll describe it briefly as it’s a nicely written and compelling story. The paper is open access, so you can read it if you want to check my interpretation of the data.

Importantly, I think it provides a very good guide to both the quality and quantity of data that are needed to be sure a population of bees are truly wild and self-sustaining 6 … or just regularly boosted by careless local beekeeping!

Feral colonies are few and far between. It’s hard work walking around the woods looking for hollow trees that may (but probably won’t) contain a colony. You find lots of trees with holes, but they need to lead to a suitably-sized cavity to be of any use to a colony of bees. Binoculars help (the holes are often 15 metres off the ground) … but perhaps there are better ways of doing this?

A bee tree?

Bee-lining – as described by Seeley in Following the Wild Bees – is an effective way of tracking down wild colonies, but needs good weather, good forage and ample time. It works well when locating a few colonies, but probably takes too long if you want 100+ to produce a statistically compelling set of results.

But what if you also wanted to record how many new nest sites are occupied? You would need to know where the empty cavities were before they were occupied. That’s not something you can determine by bee-lining, so you’re back to traipsing around the woods with a pair of binoculars.


But in Germany they have some very large woodpeckers.

The black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is a crow-sized bird that excavates correspondingly large holes for nest sites in old-growth forests. The average volume of a black woodpecker nest is about 10 litres, smaller than optimal for a swarm, but appreciably larger than most ‘natural’ tree cavities.

Black woodpecker

Conveniently, there are high-resolution maps of (historical) woodpecker nesting trees in old-growth forests in Swabian Alb, Weilheim-Schongau and the counties of Coburg and Lichtenfels. 98% of these woodpecker nest sites are in large beech trees, most are 10-12 metres above ground and with an entrance of ~10cm diameter (again, not optimal, but better than no nest site for a swarm).

Kohl and colleagues surveyed about 460 of these ‘cavity’ trees three times per season; in July (after the main May/June swarming season) to determine peak occupancy rates, in mid/late September to determine late summer survival and in early/mid April to determine winter survival.

‘Occupancy’ was determined by visual inspection and regular forager activity and/or pollen loads (i.e. they ignored scout bees checking empty cavities). In addition, for some colonies, a dozen or so workers were collected for genetic analysis.

With these data, the mathematical calculation of annual survival rates could be determined, as could the prediction of the annual numbers of swarms needed per colony for the population to be self-sustaining 7. In addition, it was possible to determine the average lifespan of a colony.

There were a bunch of perfectly reasonable assumptions made, based upon the known biology of honey bees – all are listed in the paper.

Yo-yoing colony numbers

The scientists counted colony numbers, but could also determine colony densities per km2. By making observations over a 3-4 year period it was strikingly obvious that the largest number of ‘cavity’ trees were occupied after swarming in summer, but that numbers dropped dramatically overwinter. This ’recurring temporal pattern of population fluctuations’ is very obvious in the major data figure in the paper.

Temporal population fluctuations of feral honey bee colonies in Germany; A) occupancy rates, B) population density

The average maximum occupancy rate and population density was 11% and 0.23 colonies per km2. This ‘dropped massively’ over the winter to just 1.4% and 0.02 colonies per km2.

The majority of nest sites (n = 112) occupied in late summer were unoccupied the following spring, before swarming started. 90% of colonies survived the summer (from July until late September), but only 16% of colonies survived the following winter.

The spring survival rate was calculated as 74% based upon genetic testing of colonies in early spring and mid-summer

Knowing the summer, winter and spring survival rates enables the annual survival rate to be calculated.

This was a sobering 10.6%.

Therefore, to maintain a stable population, each surviving colony would need to produce an average of 8.4 swarms per season.

That’s an unachievable amount of swarming.

The average lifespan of a feral colony in these three German forest regions was just 0.619 years … a little over 32 weeks.

Clearly, these honey bee populations are not self-sustaining.

Are these German forests typical?

There are two other regions where similar quality data exists for wild/feral honey bee populations. These are the Arnot forest in the USA, studied for decades by Thomas Seeley, and Wyperfield National Park in Australia.

There are striking differences between these two regions and the German forests, both in terms of colony lifespan and swarm numbers needed to be self-sustaining.

For the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park, lifespan was calculated as 1.34 and 1.53 years respectively (cf. 0.62 years for Germany), with annual survival of ~50% (cf. 11% in Germany). Annual swarm numbers per colony for the population to be self-sustaining was 0.94 and 0.85 for the the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park respectively (cf. 8.43 for the German forests).

Other than these obvious differences in the related figures for survival/longevity and ‘swarms needed’ the other significant difference between self-sustaining populations (like the Arnot forest and Wyperfield National Park) is the colony density.

In areas where feral/wild honey bees are self-sustaining the colony density is at least 1 per km2. In contrast, in Germany and a large number of other studied feral populations in other parts of Europe (including Ireland, Spain, Serbia, Poland and other regions of Germany), the colony density is usually much lower, at 0.1-0.2 per km2.

So, these German forests are seemingly typical of honey bee populations that are not self-sustaining. These are regions where the feral population is boosted annually (and is essentially dependent upon) an influx of swarms that become temporarily established in natural nest sites.

Environmental colony density

Where do all these swarms come from?

The average managed honey bee colony density in the areas of Germany studied is 4 per km2, appreciably higher than either the Arnot forest or Wyperfield National Park. Precise figures for these two were not quoted, but in both locations the feral colonies (remember, these were at ~1 per km2) outnumber managed colonies.

It therefore seems very likely that managed colonies from farmland areas surrounding the German forests acts as the source for swarms, and the latter – because of the paucity of suitable nest sites in the arable land (relatively few buildings, few mature trees etc.) – gravitate towards the forests looking for suitable nest sites.

Feral and managed colonies may therefore be spatially separated, though not very widely. In contrast, in urban environments – where nest sites are probably common – it might be expected that feral and managed colonies are intermixed in the environment.

A by-product of the study by Kohl and colleagues is that they could also calculate the difference in the relative attractiveness of woodpecker nests that had previously, or had never, been occupied by bees. When new colonies occupied woodpecker nest sites there was a strong preference of 5 to 15-fold for sites that had previously been occupied by bees.

This, of course, is why it makes sense to include a single old, dark comb in your bait hives.

That seems like a good place to stop …

I think this German study is interesting. It shows the quantity and quality of data needed to make a compelling case that a location has a self-sustaining population of feral/wild honey bees.

Such locations are likely to exhibit colony densities of at least 1 per km2 and to be physically separated from higher density managed colonies. This physical separation could be in the form of simple geographic isolation – just a long way from other apiaries – or something more complex like being surrounded by high hills or water etc.

Self-sustaining wild/feral populations are likely to exhibit >50% annual survival rates, to live for an average of ~1.5 years and to produce about 0.8-0.9 swarms per colony per year 8.

If survival rates are lower, or the life expectancy of a colony is much less, then the number of swarms needed to maintain the population rapidly becomes so high that they are unattainable.

In which case, large numbers of feral/wild colonies cannot be self-sustaining, but instead must be present because the area acts as a ‘sink’ for lost swarms from nearby managed colonies.

This post is already longer than my self-imposed-but-regularly-exceeded 3000 word limit so I’ll save further discussion of the Blenheim bees and other feral colonies for another post.

However, I hope the study shows that a healthy scepticism is perhaps sensible when considering any claims made about self-sustaining feral colonies.

That church tower in which ‘there have always been bees’ may well have had bees in it every year.

But that’s not the same as having the same bees in it.

In fact, with an ~90% attrition rate of feral colonies annually it’s very unlikely to be the same colony in successive years.


In the final stages of completing this post – very, very late at night – I re-discovered an article (Moro et al., 2018) on citizen science and feral colonies that I’ll return to sometime in the future.


Kohl, P.L., Rutschmann, B. and Steffan-Dewenter, I. (2022) ‘Population demography of feral honeybee colonies in central European forests’, Royal Society Open Science, 9(8), p. 220565. Available at:

Moro, A. et al. (2021) ‘Using Citizen Science to Scout Honey Bee Colonies That Naturally Survive Varroa destructor Infestations’, Insects, 12(6), p. 536. Available at:


Winter projects

Synopsis : Now is the time to make plans for the long winter ahead; frame building, winter projects, some light reading or an escape to somewhere warmer and with better wine?


The good late summer September weather 1 has been replaced with the first of the equinoctial gales. Actually, more of a 30-40 mph stiff breeze with an inch or two of rain than a real gale. Nevertheless, wet and windy enough to preclude any outdoor jobs, and instead make my thoughts turn to winter projects.

The more northerly (or southerly) the latitude, the longer the winter is. Here in north west Scotland there’s virtually no practical beekeeping to be done between the start of October and early/mid April i.e. over 6 months of the year.

Some beekeepers fill these empty months by taking a busman’s holiday … disappearing to Chile or New Zealand or somewhere equally warm and pleasant, where they can talk beekeeping – or even do some beekeeping – and, coincidentally 2 enjoy some excellent wines.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

Others ignore bees and beekeeping for the entire winter and think (and do) something completely different. They build model railways, or practise their ju-jitsu or – if really desperate – catch up on all the household chores that were abandoned during the bee season.

They then start the following season relatively unprepared. Almost certainly, next season will be similar to last season. They’ll make similar mistakes, run out of frames mid-season and lose more swarms than they’d like.

Rinse and repeat.

Alternatively, with a little thought, some reading, a bit of effort and some pleasant afternoons in the shed/garage/lounge, they can both plan for the season ahead and prepare some of the kit that they might need.

As Benjamin Franklin said ”By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Looking back to look forward

I’ve discussed beekeeping records previously (and should probably revisit the topic). My records in the early years were terse, patchy, illegible and of little real use, perhaps other than in the few days that separated colony inspections.

Better than nothing

Better than nothing … just.

My records now are equally terse, but up-to-date and reasonably informative. I’ve got a numbering system for my colonies and queens that means they can be tracked through the season. The records are dated (rather than ’last Friday’) so I can calculate when important events – like queen emergence or mating – are due.

They’re also legible, which makes a huge difference. I could just about read my old scrawled pencil notes a few days after an inspection, but would have had no chance 5 months later.

By which time I’d have lost the little notebook anyway.

So, at some point over the next few months – sooner rather than later – I’ll look through my records, update the ‘queen pedigree’ table 3 and summarise things for the season ahead.

In the spring I’ll update a new sheet of records with a short note on overwintering strength/success and then we’ll be ready to go.

But, in reviewing the records I’ll remind myself about the things I ran out of, the timing of swarm control (when there’s the maximum pressure on available kit) and ideas I might have noted down on how things could have been done better 4.

Reading and listening

The winter is a great time to catch up on a bit of theory. Some beekeepers do exam after exam, pouring over Yates’s Study Notes until they can recite chapters verbatim.

I’ve done enough exams in my lifetime for … a lifetime, and have no intention of doing any more.

However, I’m always happy to do a bit of reading. I’ve currently got The Native Irish Honey Bee and Joe Conti’s The Hopkins Method … (which I’ll return to shortly) by my desk. I’m also partially successfully at keeping up with some of the relevant scientific literature 5.

A larger and more enthusiastic audience than usually seen at a beekeeping talk

There are also numerous winter talks available. Some are through local associations, others are available more widely. I ‘virtually’ attended one this evening where there were questions from as far apart as Orkney and Tasmania.

Of particular relevance to Scottish beekeepers, it’s worth noting that our association membership fees are usually significantly less than south of the border (probably because your SBA membership is separate), so you can inexpensively belong to a couple of associations and benefit from their talks programmes and – if you’re lucky – Co-Op purchasing schemes 😉

My attendance at these talks is less good than it should be, largely because I give a lot of talks each winter, but I instead benefit from the Q&A sessions which can be both entertaining and informative.

OK … enough theory

Theory is all well and good, but beekeeping is a practical pastime and just because it’s dark, cold, wet and windy, doesn’t mean there isn’t practical stuff you could be doing.

Competitive beekeepers will use the time to prepare the perfect wax block or bottle of mead for their – local or national – annual honey show.

I’m not competitive, and my wax is pretty shonky but I’ve had fun making (and more fun testing) mead 😉

But there are lots of other things to do …

The known knowns

By reading your comprehensive notes you will know that you ended the season with 5 colonies, that swarming started in mid-May but was over by early July, and that you’ve got one really stellar queen you’d like to raise 2-3 nucs from.

All of which means you are going to need a minimum of 60 new frames next season. These need to be ready before swarming starts.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

How did I get to 60?

About a third of brood frames should be rotated out and replaced each season (~20). The nucleus method of swarm control uses the fewest frames, but you’re likely to have to use swarm control for all your colonies (~25). Then there’s a further 15 frames for the 3 additional nucs you want to prepare. Of course, if you’ve got lots of stored drawn comb 6 or you use double brood boxes, or Pagden’s artificial swarm method these numbers will be different.

The point is, you will need extra frames next season.

I’m ending this season with about 20 colonies and so expect to need over 200 frames next year, possibly more if queen rearing goes well. Some frames will be recycled foundationless frames but others will contain normal wired foundation.

And what about supers? 2022 was a good year for honey. If you had enough supers and super frames you’ll probably be OK in an average year.

Whether it’s average or not, it’s always easier to build the frames – well-fortified with tea and cake – in the winter, rather than in a rush as you prepare to go to the apiary.

Exactly the same type of arguments apply to any other routine piece of kit – broods, supers, crownboards, roofs, clearers. Buy or assemble and prepare them in the winter.

After Tim Toady try something new

A few weeks ago I introduced the Tim Toady concept. For just about any beekeeping activity, there are numerous ways that it can be completed. There must be dozens of different methods for swarm control or queen rearing, perhaps more.

Of course, however many methods there are, all – at least all the effective ones – are based upon the basic timings of brood development and of the viable fractions of the colony. These things don’t change.

The biology of the honey bee is effectively unvarying.

Queens take 16 days to develop, drones take 32 days (from the egg) to reach sexual maturity. A queen and the flying bees are a viable fraction, as are the nurse bees and young brood etc.

Despite being based around these invariant 7 biological facts, not all swarm control or queen rearing methods are equal. Certainly, the end results might be similar, but some methods are easier, use less equipment, need less apiary visits or whatever i.e. some methods probably suit your beekeeping better than others.

My advice about this plethora of different methods to achieve the same ends remains exactly what it was a month ago … learn one method really, really well. Understand it. Become so familiar with it that you don’t need to worry about its success 8.

And then, after a bit of winter theory, plan to try something different.

And the winter is the ideal time to build any new things you might need to try this alternative method next season.

Here are a couple of my past and current winter projects.

Morris boards

Probably 90% of my queens are produced using the Ben Harden approach. It was the method I first learnt, and remains the method I’m most confident with. I’ve found it a reliable small scale method for rearing queens.

But, as they say, ’familiarity breeds attempt’ (at something new) and I’ve always liked the elegance of the Cloake board. This is a split board with an integral queen excluder and a horizontal slide. You place it between the boxes in a strong double-brood colony. By inserting the slide, opening upper front and lower rear entrances and simultaneously closing the front lower hive entrance you render the top box temporarily queenless and enable it to get stuffed with all the returning foragers 9. The queenless upper box is now in an ideal state for starting new queen cells from added grafts.

Morris board

But most of my west coast bees don’t end up as booming double brooders … the standard Cloake board needs too many bees for my location.

Parallel Cloake boards 

Which is where the Morris board comes in. It’s effectively two parallel Cloake boards. Paired with a ‘twinstock-type’ divided upper brood box (or two cedar nuc boxes) it works in the same way as the Cloake board, but only needs sufficient bees to pack a 5-frame nuc so is better suited to my native bees.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

You can buy Morris boards … or you can easily build them. This was one of my winter projects in ’20/’21. I’ve used them for the last two years successfully and have been pleased with the results.

I don’t think I understand their use as well as the Ben Harden system … but I will. In particular, I have yet to crack the sequential use of one side, then the other to rear a succession of queens.

Portable queen cell incubator

This was my one big project last winter. Unfortunately, we had a shocker 10 of a summer on the west coast and it was rarely used. I did put a few queen cells through it successfully, but queen rearing generally was hit and miss (mainly miss) so it’s yet to prove its full worth.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

This is version 2 of the incubator. I’m gradually compiling a list of opponents for version 3 11 that should correct a few things that could be improved – capacity, level of insulation, heat distribution – though the current incarnation is probably more than adequate.

Building – and testing, which actually took a lot more time – the queen cell incubator was a lot of fun. I discovered (and created 🙁 ) a series of problems that needed to be solved and, relatively inexpensively 12, enjoyed sorting them all out. I could work in my warm, well-lit workroom, drink gallons of tea, and dabble with 12V electrickery without endangering my life.

I’ve used it this season powered by a 12V transformer indoors, from an adapter in the car or from a battery with solar backup in the apiary.

However, to use it properly I need to rear more queens … which brings me to … 

Queen rearing without grafting

Both the Ben Harden and Cloake/Morris board methods of rearing queens use a suitably-prepared colony in which young larvae are presented. Typically 13 these larvae are grafted from a suitable donor colony.

Grafting is perceived by some as a ‘dark art’ – though perhaps not exactly malicious – involving a combination of sorcery, spells, fabulous eyesight and rock-steady hands 14.

It isn’t, but this perception certainly dissuades many from attempting queen rearing.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

I find grafting relatively easy and routinely expect 80-90% ‘take’ of the grafted larvae. My sorcery and spells are clearly OK. However, in the future, my eyesight and manual steadiness/dexterity are likely to decline as I get older 15.

I’ve also been reading some papers on how the colony selects larvae to develop into queens. Their strategy isn’t based upon what they can see and pick up with a 000 sable paintbrush … funny that.

I’m therefore going to try one of the graft-free methods of rearing queen cells, and the approach I intend to use is the Hopkins method. Hence the part-read copy of Joe Conti’s book mentioned earlier.

The Hopkins method of queen rearing

This method involves the presentation of a frame of suitably-aged eggs and larvae horizontally over a brood box packed with young bees. Importantly I mentioned both eggs and larvae as, under the emergency response colonies preferentially rear new queens from 3 day old eggs.

The resulting queen cells are cut from the frame and used to prime nucs or mini-nucs.

Even with my presbyopia and ’hands like feet’ I should be able to manage that 😉

The intention is to couple the Hopkins method with a 12-frame double-brood queenless nuc box which is subsequently split into several nucs for mating the new queens. And, if that wasn’t enough, I’m hoping I can integrate this with some swarm prevention for the donor colonies … time will tell.

All of that means I need some new kit 🙂

Before butchery photo … an eke being adapted for the Hopkins method of queen rearing

I purchased some Maisie’s poly nuc boxes, floors, feeders and ekes in the summer sales. In the winter I’ll spend some time butchering them with my (t)rusty Dremel ‘multi-tool’ to accommodate the horizontal brood or super frames (and a cell bar with grafts for good measure) before painting them a snazzy British racing green or Oxford blue 16.

More poly hive butchering

I’ve already done a little poly hive butchering this winter.

I’ve got about 20 Everynucs from Thorne’s. These are a thick-walled, well made nuc with a couple of glaring design flaws. However, I’m prepared to overlook these as, a) they’re relatively easy to fix, and b) they cost me a chunk of money and I’m loathe to spend at least the same amount again to replace them.

In addition, bees overwinter fantastically well in them.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

I’ve also got a few compatible feeders which are really designed for feeding syrup. You can add fondant, but the bees then need to follow a rather convoluted path to access it.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

I decided to modify the feeders to allow both by fitting a syrup-proof dam about half way along the feeder and drilling some 3-4 cm holes through the resulting ‘dry’ side of the feeder 17 .

Wooden syrup-proof dam and holes in an Everynuc feeder

Fondant, ideally in a transparent/translucent plastic food container 18 is inverted over the holes and the bees have direct access to it, even in the very coldest weather.

Munchity crunchity … direct access to the fondant

The Ashforth-type syrup feeder still works if needed and I no longer need 8 gallons just to top up each nuc 19. Typically my nucs won’t need feeding in midwinter, but if they do I should be able to position the fondant directly over the cluster allowing them the best chance of reaching it.

Winter weight

This is a practical project carried over from last year. I’m interested in the changing weight of the hive as the colony segues from ‘maintenance’ mode to early season brood rearing. I’ve drawn some cartoon graphs where there’s a clearly visible inflection point, with the hive weight dropping much faster once brood rearing starts.

Hive scales

I’m keen to have some real data rather than just my crummy cartoons. I already have the tools for the job, my no expense spared made hive scales. Tests last year showed that these were pretty accurate; I was about 8% shy of the actual weight (which doesn’t matter a jot, it’s the percentage change in weight that’s critical) and, more importantly, produced readings that were reproducible within a percent or two.

However, last year I was thwarted by bad weather, a lack of Gore-tex and an unexpected delay in evolving gills. I’ve now bought a sou’wester and, in the name of science, am preparing to brave the elements every week or so to weigh half a dozen hives.

And in between all that lot I’ll be building frames 🙂 20


The other winter project already part-completed is moving this site to a new server. Frankly this has been a bit of a palaver, but I think it’s now sorted.

If you had problems connecting over the last few evenings, apologies. If things still seem odd, slow, broken or unresponsive drop me a note in the comments or by email. Of course, if you can’t connect at all you’ll never read this postscript 🙁 .

The changes I’ve made will enable some new things to be incorporated over the next few months, once I’ve got a bit of spare time and have built all of those frames 😉

Biological control with Varroa

Synopsis : Honey bees were eradicated on Santa Cruz Island following the introduction of Varroa. This provides some useful lessons for beekeepers on the importance of controlling Varroa.


Honey bees are not native to North America. They were first introduced in March 1622 at Jamestown, Virginia. The bees did well and spread west, following the settlers. They finally arrived on the west coast, in Santa Clara, California, 231 years later in 1853. Of a dozen hives ordered by Christopher Shelton, a Santa Clara botanist and rancher, only one survived the journey from New York via Panama.

Shelton barely had a chance to enjoy his bees 1 as he was unfortunately killed when the steamboat Jenny Lind exploded in mid-April 1853.

Explosion on the steamboat Jenny Lind near San Francisco, California

His bees survived 2 and three hives derived from the original stock were auctioned for $110 each. This was over 20 times the price of hives on the east coast at that time and equivalent to over $4200 today 3.

Californian Channel Islands map

Bees were in demand and they continued to spread – both as feral swarms and as farmers established apiaries to help pollination and for honey production. Having reached the California coast they were then spread to the nearby islands. Bees were transported to Santa Cruz, the largest of the eight Channel Islands near Los Angeles, in the 1880’s. They flourished, but did not spread to the other Channel Islands.

Field station, nature reserves, pigs and bees

Santa Cruz Island is 250 square kilometres in area and lies ~35 km south of Santa Barbara. It is one of the four Northern Channel islands. There is a long central valley lying approximately east-west and the rocky mountainous land reaches 740 m. It has a marine temperate climate; the average low and high temperatures are 9°C and 21°C respectively and it receives about 0.5 m of rain a year. It is a good environment for bees.

From the 1880’s to 1960’s Santa Cruz Island was farmed – primarily for wine and wool, and from the 1940’s for cattle – but, after period of university geology field trips and the establishment of a field station on the island, in 1973 it became part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System (UC NRS).

In the late 1970’s the Stanton family sold their ranching business on the island to The Nature Conservancy who subsequently bought additional land on the eastern end of the island.

Santa Cruz Island is now jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy, National Parks Service, UC NRS and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and much of the island is used for scientific research and education.

But what about the bees?

Good question.

As a nature reserve and research station, the presence of non-native species causes a potential problem. Why go to all the expense of managing a remote island research centre if all the same species are present as on the mainland?

The Nature Conservancy therefore initiated a programme of eradicating non-native species. It took 14 months to eliminate the feral pigs, using a combination of trapping, helicopter-based shooting and the release of sterilised radio-tagged pigs to locate the stragglers 4.

But getting rid of the bees took a bit longer …

Save the bees, or not

Why get rid of the bees? Surely they weren’t doing any harm?

The introduction of any non-native species upsets the balance (if there’s ever balance) in the ecosystem. The introduced species competes directly or indirectly with those native to the area and can lead to local extinctions.

Jonathan Rosen has described 5 how honey bee swarms, through occupying tree cavities previously used for nesting, probably played a major role in the extinction of the Carolina parakeet.

Pining for the fjords … a stuffed Carolina parakeet (nailed to its perch)

Competition between honey bees and native pollinators has been well studied. It is not always detrimental, but it certainly can be. Furthermore, it is probably more likely to be detrimental in a small, isolated, island ecosystem. For example, studies showed that the presence of honey bees dramatically reduced visitation of native pollinator to manzanita blossoms on Santa Cruz Island.

As part of the larger programme of non-native plant and animal eradication on Santa Cruz Island plans were drawn up in the late 1980’s to eliminate European honey bees. The expected benefits were to:

  • eliminate competition with native bee species (and presumably other non-bee pollinators, though these rarely get a mention 🙁 )
  • reduce pollination of weed species (some of which were also non-native to Santa Cruz Island)
  • facilitate recovery of native plant species that were reliant on native bee pollination
  • provide a ‘field laboratory’ free from ‘exotic’ honey bees in which comparative studies of native pollinators would be possible

Killer bees

After the plans to eradicate Apis mellifera were approved an additional potential benefit became apparent.

There were increasing concerns about the spread of Africanised honey bees which had recently reached Santa Barbara County. Although there was reasonably compelling evidence that swarms could not cross from the mainland (e.g. none of the other Northern Channel Islands had been colonised by bees) there were concerns that the Santa Ana winds might help blow drones from the mainland.

Had these drones arrived they might mate with the non-native but nevertheless local queens resulting in the spread of the dominant genes for defensiveness and absconding. The resulting swarmy, aggressive Africanised bees would cause problems for visitors and scientists working on the island (as they have for visitors to Joshua Tree National Park).

Aerial view of Santa Cruz Island

Although the introgression of African honey bee genes was used as further justification for the eradication it’s not clear whether drones could actually cross 30-40 km of open sea 6.

As an aside, there’s a current project – the amusingly named Game of Drones – running on the Isles of Scilly investigating whether drones can cross the sea between St Agnes, Tresco, Bryher, St Mary’s and St Martin’s. These are, at most, 11 km apart (northern most tip of St Martin’s to most southerly point of St Agnes) but the individual islands are only separated by 1-2 km. I would be surprised if drones could not cross that distance (at least with a strong following wind).

Killing bees

Adrian Wenner and colleagues set about exterminating the honey bees on Santa Cruz Island (Wenner et al., 2009). The process started in 1988 and ended in 2007, and was divided into four phases:

  1. 1988-1993 – location and elimination of feral colonies
  2. 1994-1997 – biological control and colony demise
  3. 1998-2004 – monitoring residual honey bee activity
  4. 2005-2007 – confirmation of the absence of honey bees

None of this is ’beekeeping’ – actually it’s the exact opposite – so I don’t intend to dwell in much detail on the work that was conducted. However, the ’94-’97 phase includes some sobering lessons for beekeepers which are worth discussing.

By the end of phase 1 the team had identified the existence (if not the location) of at least 200 colonies and eliminated 153 of them.

Remember, none of these were managed colonies in hives. They were all feral colonies occupying natural cavities in trees or rocks etc. Each colony was found using painstaking bee lining techniques similar to those described in Thomas Seeley’s book Following the Wild Bees.

Once located, nests were destroyed with methyl chloroform and the cavity sealed to prevent it being reoccupied.

Some colonies could not be accessed; in these cases acephate-laced sucrose-honey syrup baits were used. This organophosphate has delayed toxicity for bees, allowing foragers to return to the colony which in due course dies. This approach had been partially successful in eliminating Africanised bees on the mainland (Williams et al., 1989), but baits needed to be be monitored to avoid killing the other insects they attracted.

The scientists also deployed swarm traps (aka bait hives) and destroyed any swarms that moved in.

Together these interventions reduced honey bee numbers significantly – as monitored by regular observations at pollen- or nectar-rich plants – but did not eradicate them.

Let there be mite

Heavy rains in January ’93 washed out roads on Santa Cruz Island, thereby severely limiting travel around the island. In addition, the previous removal of cattle had resulted in the near-uncontrolled growth of fennel which now formed dense, impenetrable thickets.

Bee lining became impossible and the scientists had to invent more devious strategies to eliminate the residual feral colonies.

The approach they chose involved the introduction of Varroa.

Varroa was first detected in the USA in 1987 (in Florida) and became widespread over the next 5-8 years. Up until 1994 the honey bees on Santa Cruz Island were free of the ectoparasitic mite.

It was likely that they would have remained that way … there was no beekeeping on Santa Cruz Island and the location was too remote for bees to cross from the mainland (see above).

Varroa was already known to have a devastating impact on the health of honey bee colonies (Kraus and Page, 1995). It was also known that, other than its native host Apis cerana (the Eastern honey bee), Varroa did not parasitise other bee or wasp species (Kevan et al., 1991).

These two facts – host specificity and damage inflicted – suggested that Varroa could be used for biological control (‘biocontrol’) on Santa Cruz Island.

Biological control

Biological control or biocontrol is a method of controlling pests using natural mechanisms such as predation or parasitism.

The pest could be any living thing – from animals to bacterial plant diseases – present where it’s unwanted.

On Santa Cruz Island the pest was the honey bee.

In other studies (covered in a previous post entitled More from the fungi 7 ) biocontrol of Varroa has been investigated.

Control of the pest involves the introduction or application of a biological control agent. The key requirements of the latter have already been highlighted – specificity and damage.

Biological control works well when the specificity is high and the damage is therefore tightly targeted. It can be an abject failure – or worse, it can damage the ecosystem – if the specificity is low and/or the damage is widespread.

The cane toad was introduced to Australia to control infestations of greenback cane beetle (a pest of sugar cane). Cane toads were introduced in 1935 and rapidly spread. Unfortunately, cane toads can’t jump very high and so singularly failed to control the greenback cane beetle which tends to 8 stay high up the cane stems.

Female cane toad (not jumping)

But it gets worse; cane toads have a very catholic diet and so outcompeted other amphibians. They introduced foreign diseases to the native frogs and toads and – because of the poisons secreted from their skin – harmed or killed predators that attempted to eat them.


Vertebrates are usually poor biological control agents as they tend to be generalist feeders i.e. no specificity.

But Varroa is specific and so the damage it causes is focused. The likelihood of ecosystem damage was considered low and so the mite was introduced to the island.

Introduction of Varroa

In late 1993 Adrian Wenner caught 85 foraging bees and, to each one, added a single Varroa mite. The bees were then released and presumably flew back to their colonies … taking the hitchhiking mite with them.

Adult mites – the dark red ones you see littering the Varroa tray after you treat with Apivar – are mated females.

Due to their incestuous lifestyle a single mite is sufficient to initiate a new infestation.

The mated adult female mite parasitises a honey bee pupa and produces a series of young; the first is male, the remainder are female. You’re probably reading this before the 9 pm watershed so I’ll leave it to your lurid imagination to work out what happens next (or you can read all the sordid details in Know your enemy).

The presence of honey bees – determined by successful swarm trapping or field observation at likely sites – was then regularly monitored over the next four years.

Swarm numbers remained largely unchanged until 1996 and then dramatically decreased.

Numbers of new swarms on Santa Cruz Island 1991 – 2005. Varroa introduction indicated.

It’s worth noting that during ’94-’96 over 70 swarms were found in natural sites or bait hives. There must have been a significant number of established colonies in 1993 to produce this number of swarms.

But, from 1997 it all stopped … only a single swarm was subsequently found, in a natural cavity in 2002.

Monitoring and confirmation of eradication

From 1998 to 2004 the scientists continued to actively monitor the island for honey bees, focusing on 19 areas rich in natural forage. Although honey bees were found – in decreasing numbers – there were too few to attempt bee lining to locate their colonies.

At the sites being monitored, bees were detected 9, 7, 4, 2 and 1 times respectively in the 5 years from 2000 to 2004. After that, despite continued monitoring, no more honey bees were detected.

The final phase of the project (’05-’07) confirmed the absence of honey bees on Santa Cruz Island.

Whilst, as a scientist, I’m a firm believer that ’absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence’, as a beekeeper I’m well aware that if there are no scout bees, no swarms and no foragers (when I search in likely places) then there are no honey bee colonies.

Lessons for beekeepers

I wouldn’t have recounted this sorry tale – at least from a beekeeping perspective – unless I thought there were some useful lessons for beekeepers.

There are (at least) three.

The first relates to Varroa resistance, the second to Varroa transmission in the environment and the last to ‘safe’ levels of Varroa. All require some ‘arm waving guesstimates’ 9, but have a good grounding in other scientific studies.

Varroa resistance

There wasn’t any.

At a very conservative estimate there were at least 20 colonies remaining on Santa Cruz Island in 1995. I say ‘conservative’ because that assumes each colony generated two swarms that season (see graph above). In studies of other natural colonies only about 75% swarm annually, meaning the actual number of colonies could have been over 50.

The numbers – 20 or 50 – matter as they’re both much higher than the number of colonies most beekeepers manage (which, based upon BBKA quoted statistics, is about 5).

Whether it was 20 or 50, they were all eliminated following the introduction of 85 mites. Colonies did not become resistant to Varroa.

This all took a few years, but – inferring from the swarm numbers above – the vast majority of colonies were killed in just two years, 1994 and 1995. This timing would fit with numerous other studies of colony demise due to mites.

Wenner estimates that only 3 colonies survived until 2001.

Leaving small numbers of colonies 10 untreated with an expectation that resistance – or even tolerance (which is both more likely and not necessarily beneficial) – will arise is a futile exercise.

I’ve discussed this before … it’s a numbers game, and a handful of colonies isn’t enough.

Varroa spread

Wenner doesn’t elaborate on where the foragers were captured before he added the mites. If I was going to attempt this I’d have chosen several sites around the island to ensure as many feral colonies as possible acquired mites … let us assume that’s what he did.

However, with 85 mites piggybacking on returning workers, and somewhere between (my guesstimated) 20 to 50 colonies, I think it’s highly likely that at least some colonies received none of this ’founding’ mite population.

Yet almost all the colonies died within two years, and those that did not subsequently died with no further intervention from the scientists. We don’t know what killed off the last surviving colonies but — and I know I’m sticking my neck out here – I bet it was the mites.

This is compelling evidence for the spread of Varroa throughout the island environment, a process that occurs due to the activities of drifting and robbing.

If a neighbouring apiary to yours has mites some will end up in your hives … unless you are separated by several kilometres 11.

The transmission of mites in the environment is a very good reason to practice coordinated Varroa control.

One mite is all it takes

But, just as I’ve argued that some colonies may have received none of the founding mites, I’m equally sure that others will have acquired very small numbers of mites, perhaps just one.

And one mite is all it takes.

Without exceptional beekeeping skills, resistance in the bee population or rational Varroa control 12 there is no safe level of mites in a colony.

The more you prevent mites entering the colony in the first place, and the more of those that are present you eradicate, the better it is for your bees.

Here endeth the lesson 😉


It’s worth noting that island populations do offer opportunities for the development of Varroa resistant (or tolerant) traits … if you start with enough colonies. Fries et al., (2006) describes the characteristics of the 13 surviving colonies on Gotland after leaving about 180 colonies untreated for several years. I’ve mentioned this previously and will return to it again to cover some related recent studies.


Fries, I., Imdorf, A. and Rosenkranz, P. (2006) ‘Survival of mite infested (Varroa destructor) honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in a Nordic climate’, Apidologie, 37(5), pp. 564–570. Available at:

Kevan, P.G., Laverty, T.M. and Denmark, H.A. (1990) ‘Association of Varroa Jacobsoni with Organisms other than Honeybees and Implications for its Dispersal’, Bee World, 71(3), pp. 119–121. Available at:

Kraus, B. and Page, R.E. (1995) ‘Effect of Varroa jacobsoni (Mesostigmata: Varroidae) on feral Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in California’, Environmental Entomology, 24(6), pp. 1473–1480. Available at:

Wenner, A.M., Thorp, R.W., and Barthell, J.F. (2009) ‘Biological control and eradication of feral honey bee colonies on Santa Cruz Island, California: A summary’, Proceedings of the 7th California Islands Symposium, pp. 327–335. Available as a PDF.

Williams, J.L., Danka, R.G. and Rinderer, T.E. (1989) ‘Baiting system for selective abatement of undesirable honey bees’, Apidologie, 20(2), pp. 175–179. Available at:


Mellow fruitfulness

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


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

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

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

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

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

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

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

And what’s all this about clammy cells?

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

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

‘Clammy’ honey

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

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

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies

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

Skein of geese over Fife

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

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

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

Morning mist clearing over the loch

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


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

At some point you have to say … enough!

Or, this year, more than enough 🙂 .

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

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

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

Storing supers wet or dry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding fondant

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

Oh well, if you insist 😉 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apivar-contaminated honey and supers

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

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


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

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

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

But, it’s OK for the bees 🙂 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some beekeepers might do this 4.

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

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

I don’t think it is.

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

My justification goes something like this:

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

Final inspections

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

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

Why disturb them?

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

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

If there’s no need then why do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look and ye shall find …

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

An outer frame of capped stores

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

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


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

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

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

Closing up

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

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

Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies

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

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

Goodbye and thanks for the memories

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

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

But it’s all over so soon 🙁 .

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

Good times 🙂 .

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

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

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

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

But that’s all for the future.

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

It’s probably time I started building some frames 🙁


Making a beeline

Synopsis : Honey bees use a range of navigation skills including path integration – to shorten return flights – combined with map-like spatial memories to relocate the hive.


Regular readers will be aware that I’m interested in the origins of words. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a fantastic source of information and produces a free Word of the Day email 1. This includes both the meaning and etymology of one word each day.

Since the complete dictionary includes over 600,000 words it will take a few years to collate the 20 volumes that comprise the entire dictionary 2.

At the beginning of this week the word of the day was beeline.

The word beeline of course means:

A straight line or course, such as a bee follows in returning to its hive after having collected a full load of nectar; (occasionally) the course taken by a bee.

The word originated in the US almost 200 years ago. It was first recorded in the American Quarterly Review in June 1828. Anyone who has read Tom Seeley’s Following the Wild Bees will appreciate the context in which the word beeline was used:

The bee-hunter..encloses them [sc. bees] in a tube, and letting one fly, marks its course, by a pocket compass. Departing to some distance, at right angles to the bee-line just ascertained, he liberates another, observes its course, and thus determines the position of the hive, which lies in the angle made by the intersection of the bee-lines.

Beelining is the art of finding feral or wild colonies by following the returning flight of bees. The book has a companion website with some interesting videos if you’d like to know more.

Find and tell

Beelining ‘works’ because bees fly in a straight line back to the nest 3.

The basics of beelining

Assume the blue flowers above are nectar-rich and favoured by the bees. You capture a couple of bees feeding on the blue flowers and give them some additional syrup so that they are replete and need to return to the colony to unload.

When you release the bees at ‘A’ they fly at a particular bearing back to the colony. However, if you instead release them at ‘B’ they fly at a different compass bearing back to the colony.4  .

How did the bees find the nectar-rich blue flowers in the first place?

Perhaps they observed another worker in the colony performing the waggle dance which informed them of the angle (from the sun) and distance to the blue flowers?

Alternatively, they might have just been searching around and chanced upon the blue flowers … they didn’t know they were there in the first place.

If they found the blue flowers by interpreting the waggle dance then you should be thinking how the waggle dancing bee found the blue flowers.

Alternatively, if they found the blue flowers by chance then you should be wondering how they will communicate their location to other foragers in the colony.

Transient nectar sources

Nectar sources are transient. They yield at particular times of the year … and of the day. The nectar may be dependent on recent rainfall or a variety of other environmental conditions.

All this means is that foragers may have to search widely to find a good source of nectar. If the source is really good – ample sugar-rich nectar and with lots of flowers producing it – then it’s important that the forager that found it tells her half-sisters how to also quickly find the same source.

Foraging and finding

On the left the blue flowers have been yielding for days. The workers fly there in a straight line and return along the same path. Newly orientated workers observe the returning foragers waggle dancing and follow the same route to quickly and efficiently exploit the source.

But all good things come to an end …

On the right is what happens when blue flowers stop yielding. The foragers that arrive at the blue flowers find slim pickings and start casting about looking for a better source of nectar. They first find the marginally better yellow flowers, then the similar (but far from outstanding) purple flowers … so they keep looking.

And eventually, they find the red flowers. Lots of nectar and lots of flowers. They load up and return directly to the colony (black dotted line).

There are two striking things about this return flight. The first is that it does not follow (in reverse) the route by which they reached the red flowers. The second is that when these returning foragers perform the waggle dance they ‘instruct’ the observing bees to fly in the direction of the red dotted line … rather than to the blue, then yellow, then purple and then red flowers.

Path integration

The foragers who find the red flowers perform a process termed path integration to return:

Path integration is the process by which an animal, when moving away from a start point, often its nest, cumulatively sums its path, generating an internal vector that specifies the line from the animal’s current position back to the start point, however circuitous the outward trip (Collet, 2019).

This is a skill I singularly lack when trying to relocate my vehicle in the multi-storey car park.

Path integration is seen in other insects … Drosophila fruit flies can do it (over a range of centimetres), walking ants can do it over a range of hundreds of metres, and honey bees can do it over at least 5 kilometres (and probably more).

Path integration requires two pieces of information – the direction and the distance of travel.

Path integration – individual parts of the flight are in different directions and of different lengths

Clearly, the very existence of the waggle dance provides compelling evidence that bees are aware of both. The dancing forager reports the angle (relative to the sun) of the nectar source and the distance at that angle that must be covered before the nectar source is located.

But for path integration, not only must the angle and distances be determined, they must also be cumulatively summed.

Neurophysiology and evolutionary conservation

Detailed neurophysiological experiments – recording the firing of individual neurones in the bee’s brain – have identified that these events occur in a region called the central complex (CX).

Two types of neurones are involved; the first is a set of polarised-light-based compass neurones and the second are optic-flow-based speed neurones. The former use celestial cues to create a visual compass. The latter provide a visual odometer (Stone et al., 2017).

Together – and there are additional integrator cells that link these functions – this relatively simple 5 neuronal circuitry allows path integration, enabling the bee to return ‘home’ directly after a convoluted outward flight.

Many of these studies were conducted on the nocturnal sweat bee Megalopta genalis. This forages at night when polarised skylight provides the directional cues in its rainforest habitat.

Importantly, similar neuronal organisation is found in the CX’s of locusts, some butterflies and dung beetles. The visual odometer neurones were analysed in Megalopta genalis, but are physically and likely functionally similar to structures found in Bombus terrestris (a bumble bee).

You may have noticed that none of these studies used our favourite, Apis mellifera, the honey bee.

The evolution of termites, ants, wasps and bees

Nevertheless, there’s every reason to think that honey bee path integration involves very similar neuronal activity. Megalopta (belonging to the family Halictidae) and Bombus (a member of the Apidae family) are very distantly related and evolved from a common ancestor over 100 million years ago (Cardinal and Danforth, 2011). It’s therefore likely that all bees derived from this common ancestor – including honey bees – share similar neuronal activity underpinning their path integration ability.

Food vectors

Before considering another point about honey bee flight I wanted to to briefly mention features of the outbound trip back to the high quality food source (the red dotted line in diagram above). This is termed the food vector and is essentially the reverse of the path integrated return flight back to the colony i.e. the same length, but pointing in the opposite direction.

The waggle dance communicates this food vector to nest mates of the successful returning forager.

But what happens if bees are displaced when starting, or while following this food vector?

For example, if a huge gust of wind blew them off course by tens or hundreds of metres, or an evil eager scientist captured them as they left the hive and transported them in a dark box across a couple of fields and then released them?

Where do displaced foragers go?

Do the bees fly a corrected route to the food source (the blue dotted arrow), or do they continue flying the same vector (angle and distance – the green dotted arrow) they would have done when they left the hive?

I’m not sure this exact experiment has been done with bees (but see below), but it has been done with ants (Cataglyphis fortis). In these studies the ’displaced’ ants did alter their direction of travel (Collett et al., 1999). The food vector is more than just an angle and distance, it also points to a position relative to the nest. The redirection exhibited by the ants was not perfect, but it clearly showed they were able to integrate the path to a location other than the nest after displacement.

Gusts of wind are not the same as eager scientists

However, back to the bees.

The gust of wind and eager scientist are not equivalent. Bees cope with gusts of wind every day. It always amazes me how well bees cope on windy days.

When blown off course they will get lots of visual cues – not least changes in optic flow and their angle to the sun – both of which should be readily corrected. If they didn’t then foragers would be lost in droves on windy days … or fail to find the food source.

In contrast, the eager scientist took care to place the bees in a darkened box, thereby immediately removing visual cues such as the angle of the sun and the optic flow.

In the studies conducted with the ants the scientists made sure the ants could see the sky but not the surrounding landscape (they trained them in open topped channels). This is because ants can also use landmarks in the surrounding landscape for orientation 6.

And bees can do the same, which is the final sub-topic for this post on bee flight and orientation.

The map-like spatial memory of bees

Path integration is both useful and necessary. It means that foragers can return – fully laden – with minimum delay to the hive. They can therefore tell other foragers (via waggle dancing) promptly, and – in the case of elite foragers – they can set off again on another trip.

By reducing the distance flown – by integrating the path – they save not only time but ‘fuel’ as well i.e. path integration allows bees to maximise the nectar returned at the end of the foraging trip.

But, if all flights were a combination of random searches and path-integrated returns, why do bees go on orientation flights?

Orientation flights are short range (10’s to 100’s of metres) flights around the hive. These are taken by workers around 3 weeks after emergence as they transition form hive bees to foragers. They are also taken by older foragers if the hive is moved.

The very existence of orientation flights is compelling evidence that honey bees also use learned environmental landmarks for route finding, or at least for mapping the area around the hive to aid efficient return trips.

What evidence is there that these landmarks are used for this purpose?

Harmonic radar tracking of displaced foragers

I’ve previously discussed the use of short range harmonic radar to track bees ‘tagged’ with a small transponder. The key point is that it allows relatively accurate mapping of the entire flight of a bee up to 900 metres away. The resolution is, at best, about 3 metres.

Menzel and colleagues (Menzel et al., 2004) tracked the flights of three types of ‘displaced’ foragers:

  • SF-bees trained to a stationary feeder a few hundred metres from the hive; these have ‘route memory’ and have traversed the route from the hive to the feeder multiple times
  • VF-bees trained to a regularly moved feeder within 10 metres of the hive; these bees have no route memory
  • R-bees which were recruited by a waggle dancing forager and have only secondhand route information of the position of the feeder i.e. they have never made the trip themselves

These are not trivial experiments. To ensure the environment was as uniform as possible they conducted the experiments in a large, flat mown field approximately 800 metres square. There was no forage within the field other than the experimental feeders. The field was surrounded on all sides by uniform coniferous woodland with insufficient variation in elevation (<1.5°) above the horizontal to provide any visual clues to the bees.

The field itself was not uniform. There were differences due to different mowing times and soil conditions. In addition, the scientists erected a number of radar-transparent coloured tents around the hive to provide additional landmarks.

Common features of flight paths determined by harmonic radar studies

Bees were allowed to orientate to the new hive position and then SF- and VF-bees were collected at a feeder and R-bees were captured as they left the observation hive (having ‘watched’ a waggle dance). The bees were fitted with a transponder, released some distance away from the feeder or the hive and then tracked by radar.

SF- and VF-bees were stuffed full of syrup and so – although they could fly for a long time – were motivated to return to the hive to unload their cargo. R-bees, whilst ‘primed’ to seek the feeder, had limited range and so would have to return to the hive to refuel.

Return flights of SF-, VF- and R-bees show some common features.

The SF- and R-bees exhibited three broadly conserved flight patterns during their return trip to the hive:

  1. A fast (20 m/s) straight line flight in the direction they would have taken back to the hive (for the SF-bees) or out to the feeder (for the R-bees). The length of this part of the flight was approximately the distance between the hive and the feeder.
  2. A slow (13 m/s) curved search flight.
  3. A fast homing flight back to the hive.

The VF-bees only exhibited the slow curved search flight and the final fast homing flight. This was unsurprising as they had never learned (or been told) to follow the route between the hive and distant feeder.

Food vectors and von Frisch

We therefore have the answer to the question I posed earlier (in the Food vector section above). A bee displaced when about to embark for the first time on a trip to a distant feeder – learnt from following a waggle dance – initially flies at the angle and to the approximate distance they would have taken from the hive (stage 1 of the flight).

Remember, unlike the ants, these foragers are ‘in the dark’ while being displaced, so have no visual clues about the displacement.

This is a really nice result and supports the contention made by von Frisch that the waggle dance communicates only distance and direction (relative to the sun) information, rather than positional information (von Frisch, 1967) 7.

Homeward bound

After a period of slow curved flights the returning forager switches to a direct, fast homing flight. These started at positions – starred in the figure above – from which the bee could not see the hive (based upon distance and the known resolution of honey bee vision).

Homing flights of displaced SF-, VF- and R-bees (A, B, C respectively). H indicates the position of the hive.

Individual bees were randomly displaced around the study field. The homing flights were in a straight(ish) line and bees approached the hive from a range of different points of the compass. This argues strongly against the bees following a particular feature on the ground that led them back to the hive.

Instead, the authors argue that, since all the bees exhibit these direct homing flights, it must be based upon previous exploratory memory i.e. from orientation flights.

The tents were not critical landmarks. If they were moved some distance away the bees still returned using the same three flight phases (in the case of SF- and R-bees) and with similar navigational performance. Clearly there was sufficient information in the ground structure alone (mowing patterns, soil differences) acquired during the orientation flights.

In support of this, some of the harmonic radar data showed bees flying along boundaries between mown areas (in a similar way to homing pigeons follow rivers or motorways; Guilford and Biro, 2014.).

These experiments indicate that during orientation flights the bee develops a local spatial memory of landmarks that provide a ‘memory map’. This enables the bee to return to the nest once it recognises some of these familiar landmarks.

Repeated displacement flights of the same bee further indicated that the landmarks recognised (whatever they were) could be approached from different angles.

Final inspections

My bees are still out foraging despite the large blocks of fondant most hives are now topped with. I’m not sure what they’re collecting but it’s clearly worth the trip … and going to the initial trouble of finding it and telling other foragers about it.

Returning foragers

We usually take the amazing navigational abilities of our bees for granted. Those returning foragers are using navigational skills that evolved at least 100 million years ago while dinosaurs roamed the earth.

100 million years is a long time to develop a range of skills and subtleties; it’s no wonder we still only partially understand honey bee navigation. Of course, we don’t have to understand it to still marvel at their ability to find the way back.

And it’s worth also remembering that these navigation skills – many of which are based upon the angle of travel relative to the direction of the sun – also operate on dull, overcast days. But that’s a topic for another post …


  • Cardinal, S. and Danforth, B.N. (2011) ‘The Antiquity and Evolutionary History of Social Behavior in Bees’, PLOS ONE, 6(6), p. e21086. Available at:
  • Collett, M., Collett, T.S. and Wehner, R. (1999) ‘Calibration of vector navigation in desert ants’, Current Biology, 9(18), pp. 1031–1034. Available at:
  • Guilford, T. and Biro, D. (2014) ‘Route following and the pigeon’s familiar area map’, Journal of Experimental Biology, 217(2), pp. 169–179. Available at:
  • Menzel, R. et al. (2005) ‘Honey bees navigate according to a map-like spatial memory’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(8), pp. 3040–3045. Available at:
  • Stone, T. et al. (2017) ‘An Anatomically Constrained Model for Path Integration in the Bee Brain’, Current Biology, 27(20), pp. 3069-3085.e11. Available at: