Category Archives: Review

2020 in retrospect

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote my retrospective review of the 2019 season.

At the time I was thinking “What a nightmare! If I never again have a year like that it’ll be too soon.”.

This was due to a major fire in my research institute which terminated a 30 year research programme and drowned me in a tsunami of administration.

The little beekeeping I did in 2019 kept me sane. Insurance issues and a new research facility took every waking hour. There was no ‘active’ queen rearing and my swarm control involved littering half of Fife with bait hives.

I piled on the supers, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

And got away with it šŸ™‚

But by February 2020, the anniversary of the fire, it was looking as though those problems were just the hors d’oeuvres.

Coronavirus (Google Trends search terms, 12 months to mid-December 2020)

‘Coronavirus’ was a word transitioning from white-coated virology nerds with expansive foreheads to everyday, and then every minute, usage.

Covid and stockpiling

The word ‘Covid’ was first used in 1686. For its first 333 years it referred to an Anglo-Indian unit of linear measurement 1. On the 11th of February it appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and today it features a dozen times on the BBC homepage.

By early March it was clear that major societal changes were going to be needed to control virus transmission. A couple of days after spring talks to Oban beekeepers, Edinburgh and District BKA and the SNHBS the country went into lockdown …

The wild west

… by which time I was jealously guarding my panic-bought toilet rolls 2 on the remote west coast of Scotland.

The national beekeeping associations negotiated travel arrangements for animal husbandry purposes and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve already written about the practicalities of the small amount of long distance beekeeping I did in 2020. I won’t rehash the gory details here, but will make a few more general comments.

Highs and lows

It was a pretty good beekeeping start to the year. The spring was significantly drier than the 30 year average. This meant that the bees could get out and exploit the oil seed rape (OSR).

Spring 2020 rainfall anomaly

Consequently the honey yield per colony was the best I’ve had in the five years I’ve been back in Scotland. I think it would have been even better had I been present to add the supers in a more regulated manner … and to remove them before they crystallised.

In contrast, the summer was characterised by a series of lows … low pressure systems, bringing more rain than usual.

This probably reduced the time available for foraging, but perhaps was compensated by better nectar flows. My two main production apiaries performed very differently.

One generated almost no honey per hive, the other again generated record yields of outstandingly flavoured summer honey.

Summer honey

Guess which apiary contained more production hives?

Typical šŸ™

Putting the control into swarm control

Swarm control usually involves careful observation of colony development coupled with a timely intervention to split the colony and prevent swarming.

TheĀ timely intervention is often at different times for different colonies, even in the same apiary.

There was none of that this year.

With only about four inspections all season I implemented swarm controlĀ Ā in the majority of coloniesĀ well before queen cells developed.

The method should be termed something like split and hopeĀ šŸ˜‰

In practical terms it involved preemptive application of the nucleus method of swarm control.

The only decision I made for each colony was whether to apply swarm control or not.

I then made up the queenright nucs all on the same day. The nucs were made significantly weaker than usual to delay the time when I’d have to expand them up to a full colony.

Overall the approach worked very well, at least in terms of swarm control, as none of my colonies swarmed šŸ™‚

The colonies that weren’t split were given lots of room and a combination of inspired judgement a long June gap and some iffy midsummer weather meant they stayed together.

Hieroglyphics

I need to go back through my notes to determine how individual colonies performed in terms of honey production. Other than the absence of any summer honey from one apiary, were there differences in terms of the amount nectar collected between colonies that were split or not?

Unfortunately, the (frankly) manic beekeeping that resulted from compressing everything into a few inspections over the season meant my notes are, in places, rather sparse 3.

Too weak to split

+3 supers Q+ good

WMCLQ WTF?

Grrr 4

Deciphering my hieroglyphics will necessitate a large glass of shiraz and a long winter night – two other things, along with the loo roll, I have an abundance of at the moment.

Varroa management

The other reason I need to review my notes is to look at the relationship (if any) between the in-season colony management 5 and end-of-season mite levels.

I do have some reasonably good counts of the mite drop during late summer and midwinter treatments 6. These are particularly reliable for the colonies in the bee shed because the floors I use have a tightly fitting Varroa tray, meaning that anything that drops, stays dropped 7.

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

In addition, I’m confident that the colonies received their ‘midwinter’ treatment – in mid/late November – when totally broodless.

There were significant differences between the mite drops of colonies in the bee shed. Some dropped 250-500 8 while others dropped less than 75. Those figures are totals over 8-9 weeks with Apivar plus the fortnight or so after oxalic acid treatment.

All other things being equal I’ll use the colonies with lower mite levels for queen rearing next season. For whatever reason, those colonies appear better able to manage their Varroa levels. Perhaps this is due to increased grooming or better defence (e.g. turning away potentially mite-laden drifting workers 9). If their temperament is good and they overwinter well they will be a good choice to rear queens from.

Inevitably all things will not be equal, but at least I’ll have tried.

And I’m hoping to be doing a reasonable amount of queen rearing in 2021 … though after a devastating fire and a global pandemic I wouldn’t be surprised if the Earth was obliterated by an asteroid just as I start grafting šŸ™

Going Varroa free

I’ve spent almost all year on the west coast, and will be spending increasing amounts of time here in the coming years. The area is remote, very sparsely populated andĀ Varroa free.

It also has spectacular sunrises …

Red sky in the morning …

… and scenery …

View from Ben Laga to Mull

Actually, until I imported 10 a couple of colonies, it appeared to be completely honey bee free. I’ve sourced Varroa-free colonies from an island off the west coast of Scotland.

I’ve often written about the importance of being ‘in tune’ with the local beekeeping environment. It’s already clear that the east and west coasts of Scotland 11, despite being separated by only ~120 miles, have distinct climates, nectar and pollen availability.

What? No oil seed rape?

On the west coast there’s no OSR. In fact, there’s almost no arable farming at all. I’ll be interested to see what the bees access for spring and mid-season nectars. With mixed woodland, and more being planted, and lots of native flowers they should have a good selection.

Early season primroses

There are some huge lime trees just down the road. These need rain to generate good levels of nectar, and rain is something else we have in abundance šŸ˜‰

The main source of nectar is the heather. This is something 12 I have almost no experience of. In the Midlands I was always too busy to transport hives to Derbyshire for the heather. Fife, despite being in Scotland, has very little heather moorland and most beekeepers have to take their hives to the Angus Glens. I never bothered.

Now there’s acres of the stuff just up the hill at the back of the house. Not particularly good quality heather moorland, but lots of it.

I’ll return to this when I discuss planning for the season ahead, sometime in the New Year.

The Apiarist – online and offline

This is the 51st post of the year.

Regular as clockwork

With a bit of luck I’ll also scribble something for the 25th, so completing a ‘full house’ for 2020. It’s too soon to look at any year-end statistics, but it’s clear that lots of people had lots more time for lots more reading this year.

I wonder why?

Everything came to a grinding halt in mid-June when a post featured on one of the Google news sites. In one afternoon the server was inundated with people eager to read about the June gap.

Thousands and thousands of them šŸ™

Since most of them didn’t look elsewhere on the site I suspect the topic was a bit too niche for the majority of the internet illiterati.

After a couple of hiccups and a faltering stagger the server collapsed under the onslaught. I spent an afternoon moving it to a host with four times the capacity (at four times the cost) and it’s hung on gamely ever since.

Not only have beekeepers been doing lots more reading, they’ve also doing lots more listening and watching.

Online beekeeping talks

Many beekeeping associations – both local and national – have developed online winter talk programmes.

I’ve attended lively SBA Q&A sessions, BIBBA webinars by Adam Tofilski on preserving native bees, and I spent yesterday evening learning all about distinguishing Apis mellifera mellifera fromĀ ligustica orĀ carnica or Buckfast or mongrels, care of the SNHBS.

And I’ve delivered more talks to bigger audiences this winter than in all of the last few years combined.

These talks – not mine specifically, but all of those available – fill the void between September and April. Although perhaps not the easiest way to establish new friendships 13 they are an excellent way to keep in contact with people from all over the country. In that regards they’re much better than ‘in person’ evening talks, and much more akin to the annual beekeeping conventions.

Though, unlike the conventions, my wallet doesn’t return emaciated from an hour or two going round the trade stalls.

Online talks are also good for keeping in contact with people on the other side of the county, let alone the country. It’s not unusual for my talk to be sandwiched by friendly banter between beekeepers separated by both distance and Covid.

Will this continue? I expect so. I don’t expect in person talks will start until 2022 at the earliest. However, I think – just as remote working will increase – online talks will be a regular feature of the winter beekeeping calendar. The benefits outweigh the slightly impersonal format, and many people appreciate the convenience of not having to travel 14.

Science aside

The enforced downtime, with labs closed and staff furloughed, has enabled me to finally write up a backlog of papers on honey bee virus research. A few of these have featured on this site already, in discussions of whether DWV replicates inĀ Varroa, or in bumble bees, and in the inexorable rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as an emerging pathogen of honey bees.

I’ve yet to find time to write about our green bees because I want to include a really elegant experiment we have yet to complete. These bees are infected with a virus that expresses a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. When visualised under UV illumination the individual cells and tissues in which the virus replicates are easily detected. More about this next year.

Green bees

Several more papers are in the pipeline or in preparation, on rescuing hives with catastrophically high mite loads, on competition between different variants of DWV and on the landscape-scale control of Varroa.

Lessons learned

Considering the paucity of beekeeping this year I’ve still managed to learn a few new tricks and improve a few old ones.

I’ve learned how little intervention is required to manage colonies adequately (defined by good health and no swarms, though undoubtedly at the cost of maximising the honey yield).

‘Adequately’ because I also learned how unrewarding it was keeping bees without beekeeping.

For the first time I used air freshener to unite lots of colonies during a particularly busy long weekend when I requeened the majority of my hives. It’s a new trick to me, though widely used by others. Having used it, I’m now confident it works. I’ll use it again if I’m similarly rushed for time, but expect to usually rely on uniting over newspaper.

I’ve gained more confidence in accurately guesstimating how weak I can make up nucs, without them succumbing to robbing, wasps or starvation. Undoubtedly I was aided with reasonable weather and good nectar and pollen availability, but it will be a skill I’ll be able to use again in future years.

I also learnedĀ  – or at least reinforced my appreciation of (as I’ve done this previously) – how to hold back the nucs, so preventing them swarm, by removing lots of brood 15. The brood was used to boost honey production colonies which were requeening themselves. With some good judgement, and a big slice of luck, this all went very well.

The importance of regularly checking bait hives was also emphasised when I found this …

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bee shed …

This season was unusual as I didn’t attract a single swarm to a bait hive, probably the first time that’s happened for a decade. Partly this was because I set so few out, but presumably it also reflected my dalliance with waspkeeping.

Finally, I’ve learned there are quicker ways to prepare spreadable ‘soft set’ honey that the interminable Dyce method.Ā I’ve recently acquired a new honey creamer and the first fifty jars have been distributed to friends and family for Christmas. I expect very positive feedback 16Ā due to the extensive product testing and quality control applied during its preparation šŸ˜‰


 

The Lives of Bees

The Lives of Bees

The untold story of the honey bee in the wild by Thomas D. Seeley, Professor of Biology at Cornell University.

Well, not quite untold, but this is a highly informative and entertaining book about the biology of honey bees living wild, primarily in the Arnot Forest, near Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Thomas Seeley conducts simple, elegant experiments to address interesting or important questions about bees. He then presents the studies and the conclusions in an easily understandable form, unencumbered by statistical mumbo-jumbo or extensive caveats and qualifications.Ā 

This makes the work very accessible, even for those with no scientific training. You don’t even need extensive knowledge of honey bees; he explains the background to the experiments in sufficient detail that they are comprehensible without lots of prior knowledge.

For this reason, this is an ideal book to introduce a new beekeeper to the biology of bees.

However, for reasons to be covered separately, I think the suggestions it makes on practical beekeeping is very poor adviceĀ for the new beekeeper šŸ™

A three part story

Essentially the book is in three parts, divided into eleven chapters.

After a general introduction there are three chapters that provide a historical perspective to the bees in the Arnot Forest and, more generally, to beekeeping. Not the practical aspects of beekeeping, but the interaction of humans and bees over tens of thousands of years.

The Beekeepers and the Birdnester by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1568)

Chapters 5 to 10 cover key aspects of the biology of the colony. These are:

  • the features that influence selection of a nest site
  • an overview of the annual cycle; spring build up, overwintering etc.
  • colony reproductionĀ i.e. swarming
  • thermoregulation of the colony
  • collection of pollen, nectar and water – the food and stores needed for survival
  • defence of the colony – from microscopic viruses to (distinctly) macroscopic black bears

The final chapter – Darwinian beekeeping – contains Seeley’s suggestions for changes to beekeeping practice, informed by the observations presented in the six preceding chapters.

I’ll discuss Darwinian beekeeping another time as it deserves a post of its own.

Something for everyone

Each chapter is accompanied by a couple of pages of explanatory notes and there is a 19 page bibliography should the reader want to consult the primary sources.

An interested lay person could spend hours enjoyably reading about the biology of wild-living honey bees without ever consulting the notes or references. These don’t litter the text, making the book very much more accessible to those unused to the sort of cite-every-statement-to-avoid-offending-the-peer-reviewers style of writing that plagues most reviews (Bloggs et al., 1929b).

Alternatively, if you really do want to find out the original source you usually can, by consulting the notes and the references. Inevitably some things are missed, but that’s the nature of an eminently readable tome covering about a million years of Apis mellifera biology, 4500 years of beekeeping and at least 300 years of scientific observations about bees.

One of the great aspects of Seeley’s writing is that things are often presented with reference to some long-lost study which would otherwise have been forgotten.

A couple of weeks ago I discussed the importance of checking hive weights at this time of the year. The rate of stores usage increases significantly as more brood is reared. How do we know this increased rate of stores usage is due to increased brood rearing, rather than just correlating with it?

Seeley presents his data on colony weight changes but does so with reference to Clayton Farrar’s study of brood rearing by colonies lacking pollen in the 1930’s. These used only half as much of their stores because brood rearing needs pollen. Farrar’s study was published in the American Bee Journal in 1936.

There are several examples in the book where modern molecular studies are juxtaposed with some of the great observational science of the first part of the 20th Century. As someone involved daily at the gene-jockey end of science, this historical perspective alone makes the book worth purchasing.

Wild vs. domesticated bees

Throughout the book Seeley focuses on bees living in the wildĀ i.e. without help intervention from beekeepers. His contention is that it is only by studying bees in their natural habitat that we’ll be able to properly understand what they need to survive and thrive when managed.

Seeley has studied bees in the Arnot forest for at least 40 years. He can therefore provide a ‘before and after’ view of the impact of the introduction of Varroa which probably occurred in the early 1990’s. Surprisingly, the overall number and density of colonies living in the forest in the 1970’s is about the same as it is now. This is discussed in several places in the book.

How can wild bees cope with the mites that, uncontrolled, generally destroy a hived colony within a year or two? His explanations of this is the underlying thread running through much of the book and the primary topic of the final chapter.

Are bees domesticated? This topic gets an entire chapter of its own. The genetic changes that species undergo during domestication 1 are not seen in honey bees.

Although perhaps not ‘domesticated’, through environmental manipulation we have significantly changed our relationship with bees. We now determine the size of the colony (or at least the space it has). By moving or manipulating the hive we influence what it produces (e.g. propolis, Royal Jelly, heather honey). We also control whether or not it reproduces. Indeed, most beekeepers try to stop their colonies reproducing (swarming) as it results in the loss of bees, and honey.

Throughout the book comparisons are made between the choices ‘wild’ bees make and the choices made for them by beekeepers. For example, the thermal conductivity of the hives used by beekeepers compared with a nest in a tree trunk.

Untold?

Not really.

The strapline on the front of the book indicates that this is theĀ untold story of the honey bee in the wild.

In reality it’s not.

More accurately it’s a very readable compendium of studies published by Seeley and others over the last century or so.

But that’s hardly going to make copies of this Ā£25 book fly off the shelves, so ‘untold’ it is.

In fact, several aspects of the biology of the wild-living honey bee will be familiar to readers of this site. I’ve covered studies by Seeley in discussion of bait hives, drifting, robbing, polyandry and mites in swarms. A quick search turns up ~25 posts in which he gets a mention.

In addition, anyone who is fortunate enough to have already read Honeybee Democracy will be familiar with many bits in the chapter that cover nest site selection. Similarly, the bee lining methods used to locate nests in the Arnot forest have been described in exhaustive detail in his previous book Following the Wild Bees.

Don’t let this put you off.

Honeybee Democracy takes ~250 pages to describe in exhaustive (but still entertaining) detail how swarms choose new nest sites. This topic, together with all sorts of fascinating stuff on comb building and propolis, takes just part of the 40 page ‘Nest’ chapter of The Lives of Bees.

BeeĀ·lining box, in cutaway view to show construction detail.

Similarly, the mechanics of bee lining don’t really get described in the new book, but the wild-living nests discovered using this method feature throughout.

Recommended?

Absolutely. It’s an excellent book.

But be aware that, in addition to a comprehensive account of how bees live in the wild, there’s an agenda here as well.

The sleeve notes (does anyone really read these?) include the wordsĀ ” … and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee population”.

Global beehive numbers 1968 – 2018

What alarming die off?

The graph above is of the global total of beehive numbers over the last 50 years or so. During this period the number hasĀ increased by ~1.7 times.

Of course, there are more beekeepers over the last 50 years (and the global population has more than doubled). This increased number of beekeepers are having to work harder to maintain (and increase) the stocks they manage.

But increasing they are … 2

It is therefore both inaccurate and an oversimplification to claim that there’s an alarming die-off in honey bee colonies.

Perhaps the sleeve notes are just to help boost sales?

Something a bit spicy to entice the browser to think that the book they are holding contains the ‘untold’ secrets to ‘saving the bees’?

Save the bees … save humanity

It’s not the first time ‘Save the bees … save humanity’ has been used as a marketing ploy 3. Here’s a graphic I regularly use to introduce my talks on rational Varroa control.

Save the bees ...

Save the bees …

Pity the image is of a wasp šŸ™‚

Again, don’t let these minor errors in the sleeve blurb put you off.

Whatever the relevance to practical beekeeping (or reversing the “alarming die-off”), the first ten chapters provide the best overview of the lives of wild-living honey bees written by an acknowledged master of science communication.

I read a lot of stuff about honey bees, for work and pleasure.

The Lives of Bees had a wealth of information I was unaware of.

Buy it, or borrow it from your library … you won’t be disappointed.


 

Resolutions

It’s that time of the year again. The winter solstice is long passed. Christmas has been and gone. The New Year is here.

Happy New Year šŸ™‚

And New Year is a time to make resolutions (a firm decision to do or not to do something).

There is a long history of making resolutions at the turn of the year. The Babylonians promised to pay their debts and return borrowed objects at their New Year. Of course, their year was based on a lunar calendar and started with the first crescent moon in March/April, but the principle was the same.

Many New Year’s resolutions have religious origins … though the more recent trend to resolve to “drink less alcohol” orĀ “lose weight are somewhat more secular.

About 50% of people in the western world make New Year’s resolutions. This figure is up from ~25% in the 1930’s. Perhaps success increases uptake?

Popular resolutions include improvement to: health (stop smoking, get fit, lose weight), finance or career (reduce debt, get a better job, more education, save more), helpfulness (volunteer more, give more to charity) or self (be less grumpy, less stressed, more friendly) etc.

But since this is a beekeeping website it is perhaps logical to consider what resolutions would lead to improvements in our beekeeping.

Beekeeping resolutions

The short winter days and long, dark nights are an ideal time to develop all sorts of fanciful plans for the season ahead.

How often are these promptly forgotten in the stifling heat of a long June afternoon as your second colony swarms in front of you?

The beekeeping season starts slowly, but very quickly gathers pace.Ā It doesn’t take long before there’s not enough time for what must be done, let alone what you’dĀ like (or had planned) to do.

And then there are all those pesky ‘real life’ things like family holidays, mowing the lawn or visiting relatives etc.Ā that get in the way of essential beekeeping.

So, if you are going to make beekeeping resolutions, it might be best to choose some that allow you to be more proactive rather thanĀ reactive. To anticipate what’s about to happen so you’re either ready for it, or can prevent it 1.

Keep better records

I’ve seen all sorts of very complex record keeping – spreadsheets, databases, “inspection to a page” notepads, audio and even video recordings.

Complex isn’t necessarily the same as ‘better’, though I’ve no doubt that proponents of each use them because they suit their particular type of beekeeping.

Objective and subjective notes

My notes are very straightforward. I want them to:

  • Be available. They are in the bee bag and so with me (back of the car, at home or in the apiary) all the time. If I need to refer to them I can 2. They are just printed sheets of A4 paper, stuffed into a plastic envelope. I usually write them up there and then unless I forget a pen, it’s raining and/or very windy or I’m doing detailed inspections of every colony in the apiary. In these cases I use a small dictation machine and transcribe them later that evening.
  • Keep track of colonies and queens. I record the key qualitative features that are important to me – health, temper, steadiness on the combĀ etc. – using a simple numerical scoring system. Added supers are recorded (+1, +1, -2Ā etc) and there’s a freeform section for an additional line or two of notes. Colonies and queens are uniquely numbered, so I know what I’m referring to even if I move them between apiaries, unite them or switch from a nuc box to a full hive.
  • Allow season-long comparisons ‘at a glance’. With just a line or two per inspection I can view a complete season on one page. Colonies consistently underperforming towards the bottom of the page usually end up being united in late August/early September.
  • Include seasonal or environmental jottings.Ā May 4th – first swift of the year”, “June 7th – OSR finished”, “no rain for a fortnight”. These are the notes that, over time, will help relate the status of the colony to the local environment and climate. If the house martins, swallows and swifts are late and it’s rained for a month then swarming will likely be delayed. Gradually I’m learning what to expect and when, so I’m better prepared.

Monitor mites

Varroa remains the near-certain threat that beekeepers have to deal with every season. But you can only deal with them properly if you have an idea of the level of infestation.

Varroa levels in the colony depend upon a number of factors including the rate of brood rearing, the proportion of drone to worker brood and the acquisition of exogenous mites (those acquired through the processes of drifting and robbing).

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

In turn, these factors vary from colony to colony and from season to season. As I discussed recently, adjacent colonies in the same apiary can have very different levels of mite infestation.

Additional variation can be introduced depending upon the genetically-determined grooming or hygienic activity of the colony, both of which rid the hive of mites.

Since the combined influence of these factors cannot be (easily or accurately) predicted it makes sense to monitor mite levels. If they are too high you can then intervene in a timely and appropriate manner.

Quick and effective ways to monitor mite levels

Any monitoring is better than none.

Easy counting ...

Easy counting …

There are a variety of ways of doing this, some more accurate than others:

  1. Place a Correx tray under the open mesh floor (OMF) and count the natural mite drop over a week or so. Stick the counts into the National Bee Unit’s (appropriately named)Ā Varroa calculator and see what they advise. There are quite a few variables – drone brood amounts, length of seasonĀ etc – that need to be taken into account and their recommendation comes with some caveats 3. But it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
  2. Uncap drone brood and count the percentage of pupae parasitised by mites. The NBU’s Varroa calculator can use these figures to determine the overall infestation level. The same caveats apply.
  3. Determine phoretic mite levels by performing a sugar roll or alcohol wash. A known number of workers (often ~300) are placed in a jar and the phoretic mites displaced using icing sugar or alcohol (car screenwash is often used). After filtering the sugar or alcohol the mites can be counted. Sugar-treated bees can be returned to the colony 4. Infestation levels of 2-3% (depending upon the time of season) indicate that intervention is required 5.

Does what it says on the tin.

Overwinter nucs

If you keep livestock you can expectĀ dead stock.

Unfortunately colony losses are an inevitability of beekeeping.

They occur through disease, queen failure and simple accidents.

Most losses are avoidable:

  • Monitor mites and intervene before virus levels threaten survival of the colony.
  • Check regularly for poorly mated or failing queens (drone layers) and unite the colony before it dwindles or is targeted by wasps or other robbers.
  • Make sure you close the apiary gate to prevent stock getting in and tipping over hives … or any number of other (D’oh!Ā Slaps forehead šŸ™„ ) beekeeper-mediated accidents).

But they will occur.

Corpses

Corpses …

And most will occur overwinter. This means that as the new season starts you might be missing one or two hives.

Which could beĀ all of your colonies if you only have a two 6.

Replacing these in April/May is both expensive and too late to ensure a spring honey crop.

Winter colony losses are the gift that keeps on giving taking.

However, if you overwinter an additional 10-25% of your colonies as 5 frame nucs (with a minimum of one), you can easily avoid disaster.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

If you lose a colony you can quickly expand the nuc to a full hive (usually well before a commercially-purchased colony would be ready … or perhaps even available).

And if you don’t lose a colony you can sell the nuc or expand your colony numbers.

Sustainable beekeeping

If you’ve not watched Michael Palmer’sĀ The Sustainable Apiary at the National Honey Show I can recommend it as an entertaining and informative hour for a winter evening.

Michael keeps bees in Vermont … a different country and climate to those of us in the UK. However, his principles of sustainable beekeeping without reliance on bought-in colonies is equally valid.

Overwintering nucs requires a small investment of time and money. The former in providing a little more care and attention in preparation for winter, and the latter in good quality nucleus hives.

I reviewed a range of nuc boxes six years ago. Several of these models have been discontinued or revised, but the general design features to look for remain unchanged.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

Buy dense poly nucs for insulation, make sure the roof isn’t too thin and flimsy and choose one with an entrance that can be readily reduced to a “bee width” 7. Choice (and quality) has improved over the last 5-6 years but I still almost exclusively use Thorne’s Everynuc. I bought 20 a few seasons ago and remain pleased with them, despite a few design weaknesses.

Beekeeping benefits

I do all of the above.

Having learned (often the hard way) that my beekeeping benefits, these habits are now ingrained.

I had about 20 colonies going into the 2019/20 winter, including ~20% nucs. All continue to look good, but it won’t be until late April that I’ll know what my winter losses are.

In the meantime I can review the hive notes from last season and plan for 2020. Some colonies are overwintering with very substandard queens (generally poor temper) because they’re research colonies being monitored for changes in the virus population 8. They will all be requeened or united by mid/late May.

My notes mean I can plan my queen rearing and identify the colonies for requeening. I know which colonies can be used to source larvae from and which will likely be the cell raisers. The timing of all this will be influenced by the state of the colonies and the environmental ‘clues’ I’ve noted in previous years.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Of course, things might go awry before then, but at least I have a plan to revise rather than making it up on the spur of the moment.

I learned the importance of mite monitoring the hard way. Colonies unexpectedly crashing in early autumn, captured swarms riddled with mites that were then generously distributed to others in the same apiary. Monitoring involves little effort, 2-3 times a season.

So these three things don’t need to be on my New Year’s resolution list.

Be resolute

More people make New Year’s resolutions now than 90 years ago.

However,Ā increasing participation unfortunately does not mean that they are a successful way to achieve your goals.

Richard Wiseman showed that only 12% of those surveyed achieved their goal(s) despite over 50% being confident of doing so at the beginning of the year.

Interestingly, success in males and females was influenced by different things. For men, incremental goal-setting increased the success rate 9 (I will write hive notes on everyĀ apiary visit, rather thanĀ Keep better notes). For women, the peer pressure resulting from telling friends and family increased success by 10%.

More generally, increased success in achieving the goals resulted from:

  • Making only one New Year’s resolution – so perhaps the three things above is overly ambitious?
  • Setting specific goals and avoiding resolutions you’re previously failed at.

My New Year’s (beekeeping) resolutions?

Since I’m a man, the chance of achieving my goals is not influenced by peer pressure so I’m not publishing them. We’ll have to see in 12 months whether I’m in the 12% that succeed … or the 88% that fail šŸ˜‰


 

Questions & Answers

One of the challenging things about beekeeping is that the seasonĀ can be both confusing and entertaining in equal measure.

It’s entertaining because it’s always a little bit different from the seasons that have preceded it. The environment changes. There’s an early spring, or late frosts, a drought, a monsoon or the local farmer changes from one strain of OSR to another.

Sometimes you get all of those in a single season … or month.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But not only does the environment change, so do your bees. Inevitably your queens will be replaced over the years. In turn, they influence the performance of the colony. Your virgins fly off to the drone congregation areas where they mate with the ‘bad boys’ from colonies run by a nearby beekeeper with much thicker gloves and a fleece under his beesuit šŸ™

Mayhem ensues. Inspections get a whole lot less fun. Quickly.

Or you collect a swarm headed by a fecund queen who busies herself producing calm, prolific, frugal and productive workers.

The colony gets bigger. And bigger. It shows no signs of swarming.

As you add the fourth super you feel like you’ve really cracked this beekeeping lark.

Sorted šŸ™‚

But these things also make beekeeping incredibly confusing to the newcomer.

If you take a calendar-centric view there is no right answer toĀ ‘When will the colony swarm?’ orĀ ‘Is this the right time to treat for mites?’ orĀ ‘Should I remove the supers now?’.

And many beginners do have a calendar-based viewpoint. It’s so much easier to prepare if you’re told that swarming starts in the third week of May and the supers should be removed at the end of August.

Not only is that easier to understand, but the telltale signs that the bees produce aren’t – for a beginner – very good at telling tales.

The first half-hidden charged queen cell, a reduced laying rate, the reduction in loaded returning foragersĀ etc.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

But, for me, at least half of the enjoyment is deciphering these signs and working out what the colony is doing, or going to do.

And therefore, what I should be doing.

Questions and answers

Most of this is observation, interspersed with a bit of record keeping and sprinkled with some ‘best guesses’.

If you keep asking the (right) questions you will slowly but surely start finding the answers.

Are they running out of space, making more play cups, and slimming the queen down for the great escape?

But many of these things are too subtle for beginners overwhelmed by the difficulty in justĀ finding the queen amongst 38,789 of her daughters.

Inevitably this means that beginners – quite rightly – ask other beekeepers lots of questions.

I did.

I still do.

And in this increasingly connected world, some of those questions take the form of internet searches.

And some of these questions pop up as search terms on this site.

Mites

Willie Wonka meme

Many of these queries are about mite management:

  • best time to treat for varroa in honey bees?
  • should bees be treated for mites in spring?
  • use apiguard in june?
  • oxalic acid to treat varroa can i do it this week?
  • when to treat bees with oxalic acid in arkansas?

Very specific questions, very calendar-centric. There are hundreds more queries like these 1.

A correct answer requires an understanding of the biology of the mite and an appreciation of the state of the hive.

Neither necessarily involves the calendar. Both can be acquired with a little homework and good observation. However, the very fact that ~25% of queries are about mite management emphasises that many struggle with this aspect of beekeeping.

I remain convinced that the biggest challenge new beekeepers face is how to effectively manage mites. Without proper mite management your colonies will perish.

If you lose your colonies every winter you soon get disheartened.

The easiest way to properly control mite numbers is with chemicals.

It’s what I do.

Returning a marked and clipped queen

However, it’s not the only way.

Excellent beekeeping, selective rearing of mite-tolerant colonies (or of attenuated viruses!) and yet more excellent beekeepingĀ – coupled with a favourable environment – may mean you can keep colonies without chemical intervention, and without excessive losses 2.

All beginners lack the necessary experience to achieve this. Most lack the ability to learn the skills quickly enough to save their colonies and the majority probably live in areas that are unsuitable.

Most importantly, many beginners aren’t resilient enough to ‘learn the hard way’. They believe the (largely incorrect) statements about the evils of treatment, they want their bees to be ‘healthy and happy’ 3, they like the sound of the term biodynamic 4 … but they cannot cope with losing their stocks every single winter through disease and starvation.

So they give up.

Learn to keep bees … then learn (again, using the years of knowledge already accumulated) to keep them without chemical intervention if you want. Not the other way round.

Read all you can – here and elsewhere – but remember that nothing is as valuable as time spent observing your bees.

Technical queries

These are the sorts of questions that probably can be easily answered 5.

Remembering of course that there are usually at least two correct answers for every question, and any number of incorrect ones.

  1. honey warming cabinet plans
  2. how long does it take bees to chew through newspaper?
  3. what is the chance of a queen being left in my hive when i have just lost a huge swarm?
  4. alighting board angle
  5. where and how to set up bait hives?

My honey warming cabinet is one of the most useful things I’ve built for my beekeeping and the pages that first describe it, the plans and its use, remain some of the most popular on this site.

The answer to Q2 obviously depends upon how many sheets of newspaper are involved.

I think we all know the answer to Q3 and it’s not going to make the questioner happy šŸ˜‰

It’s very rare that you can provide an absolute definitive answer in beekeeping. However, after many years of exhaustive, well-controlled and independently verified trials I have unequivocally shown that the answer to Q4 is 47.7Ā°.

47.7Ā° precisely

Not more, not less.

Remembering of course that a landing (alighting) board isn’t actually needed at all šŸ˜‰

Tom Seeley has done the definitive studies on bait hives (Q5). He clearly describes the ‘where’. My recommendations are rather more pragmatic. It’s easier to monitor and move bait hives if they’re not 5 metres above the ground.

Miscellaneous or just weird

And then there are lots of queries that are simply amusing typos, nonsensical or just odd. My favourites this year are:

  1. maxant crank mechanism
  2. langtorthe eke
  3. how to wear rigger boots?

I’ve no idea how the first of these landed up onĀ the apiarist.org as it’s a term I’ve never used. The middle query (Q2) is a typical typo. It’s an obvious one, but it constantly amazes me how good fuzzy matching algorithms are these days.

Q3 is about beekeeping footwear. My last pair of rigger boots were abandoned years ago when the lining fell apart and they eventually turned my feet to a bloody pulp.

How to wear them?

I wore mine while hobbling. It’s not something I’d recommend.

I now wear Muck boots – specifically the now discontinued Edgewater II short boots – which are lightweight, very comfortable and fully waterproof. No steel toe cap, but I never drop full supers.

Oops ...

Oops …

Well, almost never.

Questions and comments

Not all questions originate in internet searches. Many come via the comments sections at the end of most posts. Most of these are both welcomed and useful; they allow me to clarify things that I’d presented confusingly, or they provide an opportunity to expand on parts of the post.

The numbers of comments have increased significantly this year.

More words and more comments

This increase probably reflects the increased readership (and page accesses) of the site.

Alternatively it might mean the writing is getting worse as the comment numbers correlate with the increased length of posts šŸ™

I try and answer as many comments/questions as I can. Many make very salient points and I’m very grateful for those who take the time to comment, either to correct me, to seek clarification or to provide their own insight on the topic.

I ignore those that are dogmatically stupid or just plain wrong. My prerogative. There’s enough bad advice on the internet without propagating more.

I apologise to those who comment via Facebook or Twitter. I almost exclusively use both for promoting posts made here 6. Both generate a lot of traffic to this site but I simply don’t have time (or interest) to use them interactively.

If you want to contact me do so via the comments section or the, aptly named, contact form.

More Readers’ Questions

Which, in a rather circuitous way, brings me to theĀ Readers’ Questions AnsweredĀ column in the BBKA News. I was asked to tackle these a few months ago and January and February are already written 7.

BBKA News Readers’ Questions Answered proofs

The BBKA News is the monthly newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association. It has a circulation of ~25,000. Each year a different victim expertĀ mugĀ contributor prepares the answers. I’m taking over from Bob Smith, NDB from Medway BKA who did an excellent job and will be a hard act to follow. Some of the previous contributors have been anonymous which might have been a sensible option, but it’s too late for me now.

My family joke that I’m now an agony aunt for beekeepers.

I discussed this with Calum, a regular contributor to the comments section of these pages, who provided (as usual) some very sage advice, including “Bees put up with a lot of sh1t from beekeepers”.Ā I don’t think the BBKA will want to use that as my straplineĀ but it certainlyĀ sums things up pretty accurately.

Happy New Year … may your queens be well mated, your mite numbers low, your supers heavy and may your prime swarms be in my bait hives Ā šŸ™‚


 

2018 in retrospect

How was 2018 for you?

It was a good year here in Fife, with more of everything; more snow, more colonies, more honey (much more honey šŸ™‚ ), more sheds, more wasps, more swarms and moreĀ deadĀ Varroa.

Actually, the ‘more dead mites’Ā isn’t quite correctĀ but I’ll return to that later.

The Beast from the East

There’s not much to say about the winter, but as we moved from February into March Storm Emma (also called the Beast from the East) arrived. The wind whipped the snow across the Howe of Fife (the largely flat centre of the county), dumping large drifts whenever it eddied over hedges or buildings. I had to dig us out of the house and the road from the village was impassable for 2-3 days.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

The colonies were all snug, if not warm, and weathered the storm without mishap. The reality is that if colonies are properly prepared for winter there’s almost nothing to do – or nothing you can do – until the weather picks up again in the Spring.

During the early part of the year I finished preparing our new bee shed. The bees were installed at the very end of March, soon followed by installation of a solar lighting system.

As I write this (early December 2018) the old apiary site has recently been bulldozed flat to make way for a new road. The contractors felled most of the beautiful trees in the well-established arboretum that surrounded the apiary.

All that’s left now is a muddy, ugly scar across the landscape waiting to be tarmac’d.Ā Every time I drive past the line fromĀ The Last Resort by The Eagles, Some rich menĀ come and raped the land”, comes to mind.

That’s progress šŸ™

On a slightly brighter note, we did save the original shed and it’s recently been reassembled on the new apiary site. This will provide some much needed storage space. The new shed is bigger, but still a bit cramped when used for storage, work and bees.

In like a lion, out like a lamb

Well, almost. March continued cold but the weather had picked up by mid-April. I’d lost just two colonies in the winter, both due to failed queens. By the third week of April I’d started inspections 1 and colonies were all looking pretty good.

The weather got better and better, the oil seed rape (OSR) flowered and the bees started hammering it. Only one of my apiaries had OSR in range and they did really well.

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

By the middle of June the OSR was over and the honey was all extracted.Ā The high glucose content of OSR nectar means it crystallises fast and very hard. It needs to be extracted before this happens in the frames. Some find OSR honeyĀ rather blandĀ orĀ an acquired taste. However, I’ve just processed the first couple of buckets into soft set honey and it’s excellent on toast.

The June gap

In terms of beekeeping it was non-stop. June was frantically busy. Even before the the Spring honey was off the crowded colonies had started to make preparations for swarming.

Just as the bees were preparing to move house I was also busy moving into a new house. It was manic. As fast as I put split boards into colonies more queen cells would appear. I started to run out of frames and brood boxes. I managed to hold some colonies back by slicing out great slabs of drone comb. This takes just a few seconds using foundationless frames and gives the bees something to do rather than make swarm preparations.

And in between all this I was interminably packing, driving and unpacking rental vans doing my own move.

I know I lost a couple of swarms – from about 20 colonies in total 2 – which left me feeling a bit guilty. At least they left with very lowĀ Varroa levels so, for a time at least, they would not contribute to the mite levels in the local environment. To ‘compensate’ for colonies that might establish themselves somewhere unwanted I donned my beesuit and destroyed a huge wasps nest in a neighbours roof space.

I also gratefully received a good-sized swarm in a bait hive.

The ‘June gap’ refers to the dearth of nectar that often occurs at this time of year. This year – despite excellent weather – was no exception. I didn’t feed colonies but many around me did. A few were a bit light but were OK until the summer flow started … which it did in late June or early July.

The flow must go on

Lime, blackberry, clover, rosebay willow herb and goodness knows what else. It was excellent. Coupled with continued good weather, hives got taller and taller as more supers were added. I ran out of supers altogether.

With lots of nectar and great weather for inspections it was my best beekeeping year since I moved back to Scotland.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

The good weather also aided queen mating which helped with requeening and preparing nucs for overwintering.Ā About 75% of my colonies were requeened this year, almost all through splits of one type of another.

And then it was all over

The flow eventually stopped and the extraction was interminable. Not that I’m complaining. Super after super after super looked like this:

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Wasps were a big problem in late summer. I lost a queenless colony and a nuc to the stripey blighters. Amazingly I managed to save the queen from the nuc 3 and she’s now heading a strong colony through the winter.

After a fortnight or so tidying, stock-takingĀ (uniting colonies, cleaning cleared supers, making up a few additional nucs) and ‘final’ inspections it was time to startĀ Varroa treatment and feeding colonies up for winter.

I’ve deliberately finished the season with fewer colonies than I started, but with more overwintering nucleus colonies for sale or making up losses. The absence of a work/life balance means I want to reduce my personal colony numbers by about a third for the next couple of years (to ~10), with another 6-8 overwintering for work. I’ll still be busy šŸ™

Mite news

Mite levels have been extraordinarily low this season. For work we uncapped many hundreds to low thousands of individual pupae 4Ā and found no more than half a dozen mites all season. We’ve seen no evidence of DWV symptoms and irregular mite counts on theĀ Varroa trays have yielded very low numbers.

All colonies were treated by sublimation with an oxalic acid-containing treatment in early September, with three applications at five day intervals. The mite drop was so low (<200 from eight colonies in total in one apiary) that I was concerned that the treatment had failed. I therefore followed it up with Apivar strips in half the colonies. One or two additional dead mites appeared, but that was all.

So, not moreĀ deadĀ Varroa, but probably a much greater proportion of the mite population were killed.

The Apiarist in 2018

This is the 300th post over the last five years. Yes, I’m surprised as well. I missed only one Friday when my hosting service was either not hosting or not providing a service šŸ™

A few weeks ago I moved the site to a cloud-based virtual server (Amazon LightSail) which, to me at least 5 appears faster and more stable. Processor load is 10% what it was and page response times seem much better. Tell me if it isn’t.

Unique visitor numbers and page reads continue to increase year on year with both up ~33% on last year. What is particularly reassuring is that articles I’ve written on disease management now feature as the most read over the course of the year (though several were written in previous years). The ‘top five’ are:

  1. When to treat? – the importance of correctly timing the early autumn VarroaĀ treatment.
  2. Feeding fondant – quicker, easier and possibly better for the bees.
  3. Oxalic acid preparation – making Api-Bioxal solution properly for trickle treating.
  4. Vertical splits and making increase – manipulations for swarm control and expansion.
  5. Making soft set honey – making all that OSR honey look good and sell well.
"When to treat" monthly page views

“When to treat” monthly page views (5/2/16 to 13/12/18)

The composite page on ‘Equipment‘ also featured amongst this top five, but takes visitors off to all sorts of articles on bee sheds, DIY and hive reviews.

And the future …

This post is already too long. I’ve just checked and see I have 55 posts with working titles and scrawled notes in my drafts folder 6. That suggests there’s likely to beĀ something written next year.

Until then …Ā Happy New YearĀ