Category Archives: Seasonal

Mellow fruitfulness

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

Introduction

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

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

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

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

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

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

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

And what’s all this about clammy cells?

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

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

‘Clammy’ honey

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

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

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies

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

Skein of geese over Fife

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

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

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

Morning mist clearing over the loch

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

Supers

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

At some point you have to say … enough!

Or, this year, more than enough 🙂 .

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

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

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

Storing supers wet or dry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding fondant

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

Oh well, if you insist 😉 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apivar-contaminated honey and supers

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

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

Apivar

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

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

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

But, it’s OK for the bees 🙂 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some beekeepers might do this 4.

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

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

I don’t think it is.

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

My justification goes something like this:

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

Final inspections

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

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

Why disturb them?

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

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

If there’s no need then why do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenright?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look and ye shall find …

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

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

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

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

Stores

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

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

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

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

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

An outer frame of capped stores

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

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

Disease

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

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

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

Closing up

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

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

Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies

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

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

Goodbye and thanks for the memories

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

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

But it’s all over so soon 🙁 .

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

Good times 🙂 .

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

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

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

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

But that’s all for the future.

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

It’s probably time I started building some frames 🙁


 

Intangible benefits

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Of course, I ran out of clearers … 🙁 .

Where do they go?

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

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

Somewhere in here are some spare clearers …

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

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

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

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

It continued raining for several hours.

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

And how slowly a sodden beesuit dries?

Real and intangible benefits

It was a really tough day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12ox hex jar …

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

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

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

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

What else have I gained from this engrossing pastime?

Other than the honey and smelling a bit foisty?

Does my bum look big in this?

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

Would I really have fitted in better wearing these?

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

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

Saggy and baggy

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

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

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

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

But I simply don’t care.

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

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

The physique of a Greek God

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

Beekeeping is hard physical work.

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

Full super ready for extraction

Heavy, heavy, heavy

That’s a lot of lifting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAMIL 6

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

I prefer to do my weightlifting in the apiary

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

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

‘Mainly dry’ 7

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

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

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

Climate varies with latitude and longitude.

Weather can be a lot more localised.

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

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

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

19-26 August 2022 temperatures in my west coast apiary

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

Getting out and about

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

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

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

Sanna beach

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

Clouds, Glen Tarbert … mammatus?

At least, that’s what it looked like.

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

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

Phenology

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

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

But the intangible benefits outweigh these.

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

Siskin

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

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

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

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

Organisation and patience

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos? What chaos?

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

Everyone is interested in bees 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much easier sold by the bucket

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

Hay fever

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

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

Just sayin’ 😉 .

Gifts

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

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

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

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

A winning combination

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

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

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

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

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


 

Mini-nucs: tips and tricks

Synopsis : More discussion of modifying and maintaining mini-nucs for queen mating; judging queen quality, repeat queen mating, season’s end and overwintering mini-nucs.

Introduction

A couple of weeks ago I described some of the basics of using mini-nucs for queen mating. I’ll try and avoid overlaps with that post in the following discussion of ‘tips and tricks’, effectively a rag-bag collection of stuff I failed to cover last time, interspersed with some typical problems that might be encountered.

Inevitably some of the discussion will be about specific modifications to the particular mini-nucs I use (Kieler or Warnholz polystyrene mating nucs). I settled on these because I needed a dozen one season, I had zero experience in using any so had nothing to compare and I couldn’t afford Apidea’s.

Kieler mini-nucs: four topbar frames and an integral feeder

Overall I’ve been reasonably satisfied with the choice my younger, poorer 1 and (even more) ill-informed self made. Over a decade later I’m using the same mini-nucs and I’ve not been tempted to try anything else 2.

Nevertheless, despite a Kieler-centric flavour to some of the comments below, most still apply directly (or with a little finagling) to other makes of mini-nuc.

Finally, I’ll repeat the point I made last time … mini-nucs are ’high maintenance’. They are not ’fit and forget’ beekeeping. Unless placed in the shade they may well abscond on a lovely day 3. Late in the season, without care and attention, they can get robbed out by wasps in hours. If there’s no nectar flow they will need feeding.

But, looked after carefully, they can be an efficient way to get queens mated .

Painting and decorating

Any poly hive needs painting to protect it from UV degradation. Most of my mini-nucs were first painted with el cheapo masonry paint. This has a matt finish and has been reasonably hard wearing.

More recently, I’ve started painting – or overpainting – them with Hammerite garage door paint. This is an oil or solvent based gloss paint. It causes the surface of the polystyrene to melt (very slightly) and therefore bonds extremely well. The Swienty brood boxes I painted several years ago look as good now as they did then. The Hammerite paint comes in a range of colours, including a rather nice green or blue.

Hammerite Oxford blue, since you asked

Successful queen mating needs reasonable weather (and patience). However, it also needs the returning mated queen to successfully find the mini-nuc she set out from. It therefore makes sense to either place the mini-nucs in separate and distinctive locations, or (perhaps that should be and/or) to paint them in distinctive colours.

Red ‘Wilko’ masonry paint and ‘bin end’ yellow gloss

I tend to place mine in pairs and so often have a plain and coloured one on the same stand, facing in opposite directions to further help the queen discriminate between entrances.

Entrances and exits

Kieler-type mini-nucs have a rotatable entrance with three or four options – blanked off, ventilation, a queen excluder or fully open. I shouldn’t need to mention that, if there’s a virgin queen in the hive (that you want mated), the entrance must be fully open.

But I will 😉

Entrance discs for mini-nucs

You can purchase replacement entrance disks like those in the photo above from a range of suppliers (or eBay, which is significantly less expensive). Using these may help queens return to the correct mini-nuc after orientation or mating flights.

Oops, almost forgot … bees have a tendency to nibble away at the polystyrene around the entrance of these Kieler nucs (or at the ‘under entrance’ which I’ve never used) while confined. It’s therefore worth painting the entrance tunnel as well as the outside.

Crownboards

Apidea’s and several other mini-nucs I’ve looked at are sold with clear semi-rigid plastic crownboards. Some have integral flaps for adding the queen cell or feeding the mini-nuc without letting clouds of bees escape (admittedly small clouds, as they’re only primed with a few hundred millilitres of bees).

Kieler’s are sold without a crownboard. Don’t let that put you off. A thick piece of clear plastic works just fine as a crownboard and you can easily engineer (i.e. cut) a small flap to add the queen cell between the topbar frames. I use a small piece of tape to hold in down.

Plastic crownboard. Note flaps for adding the queen cell and (above the feeder) adding syrup

You can put an additional small flap above the feeder that allows you to add syrup without any bees escaping. This only needs to be a few millimetres square and doesn’t need taping down. Even if you don’t think you’ll be feeding syrup – which you do using a small funnel – this modification takes seconds and won’t be in the way (but you’ll be glad it is there if you need it).

Hold the crownboard in place with drawing pins. That way there’s less chance it will blow away should you open the box on a windy day. It also means the crownboard stays stuck to the brood body, rather than being removed with the tightly-fitting roof.

Feeder mods

The Kieler integral feeder has some good and bad points.

It’s a good size, so reducing the chance of the mini-nuc starving if left for an extended period. However, this inevitably cuts into the space available for bees and brood, meaning that retention of the feeder can lead to rapid overcrowding.

You win some, you lose some!

The feeder is easy to remove and only fits in one orientation. Irritatingly it is too deep to fit into the ‘second storey’ extension (see below). It also has no cover or queen excluder and the queen can sometimes end up in the feeder, particularly if the bees build comb there.

Feeder with queen excluder

I therefore usually fit a small rectangle of plastic queen excluder, balanced on map pins stuck into the inner walls of the feeder. This stops the queen entering the feeder, but doesn’t necessarily stop the bees building comb there.

Be thankful for small victories … 😉

If you need more brood space you can easily replace the integral feeder with a homemade frame feeder designed to feed fondant. I build these shorter than the integral feeder so that they can be used interchangeably in the ‘second storey’ extension.

Kieler frame feeders

These work well, cost pennies to make and can be quickly exchanged when needed. When I’ve overwintered queens in these mini-nucs I’ve always used these fondant frame feeders in the upper storey, with frames filling the entire lower level. This reduces disturbance when you need to feed them.

Frames

The Kieler is a mini-topbar hive. Each topbar has a longitudinal slot cut into its underside designed to take a strip of foundation. They also have a ‘pinched’ central area, so that a queen cell can be easily inserted between two adjacent bars.

The bars themselves are just 15 x 8 mm softwood. Purchased separately they cost 36 p each (Yikes! … and those don’t even appear to have the central pinched indent).

If you need more (and you will … to replace losses and for the the upper storey should you buy one) just make your own with some wood from the store, a metal ruler, a Stanley knife and some antiseptic cream and Elastoplast.

And, while you’re at it, don’t go fiddling about with little strips of foundation held in place with melted wax. I did this for years. They work perfectly well, but they are fragile. The foundation in unused topbar frames will get bent or broken, and then you’ll have to start all over again.

Instead, eat as many Fruit Splits, Rocket lollies or Twister’s as you can stomach 4 and keep the sticks. Split these lengthwise and glue them into the longitudinal slot in the Kieler topbar using normal wood glue and 5 never re-wax them again.

Kieler mini-nuc topbar frames – no need for foundation or waxing

And, no, you don’t need to cover them in melted wax or anything else. All the bees need is a guide to help them draw the comb in the right place.

I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve forgotten about, but that lot will do for the moment. Let’s move on to four specific practical aspects of using mini-nucs.

Judging queen quality

You can’t … or at least I can’t.

I don’t think you can meaningfully determine the quality of the queen in a mini-nuc. The time between when she starts laying and when she runs out of comb is sometimes too short to even check whether she’s producing worker brood.

I usually leave her in the box until there’s some capped worker brood present and then – ideally – move her to a 2-5 frame nucleus colony. At the same time I clip and mark her. As long as she’s laying one egg per cell (and she sometimes starts laying more than this, but should slow down after a day or so) and the brood develops into worker brood then things should be OK.

However, it’s not until she’s laid a full frame or three of brood that you can judge the laying pattern (remembering that the laying pattern may also depend upon the bees in the box with her).

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

Furthermore, to properly judge her you need to observe the behaviour of the bees that develop from the eggs she lays.

Are they well tempered? Are they steady on the comb? Do they have the other traits you are keen to promote? Frugality? Good pollinators? Preferential collection of avocado nectar (Afik et al., 2010).

OK, perhaps not the last of those, but you’d be surprised about the traits some beekeepers favour.

Queen introduction

I remove the mated queen from the mini-nuc, place her in a JzBz cage without attendants and introduce her in the usual way to a queenless full-frame nucleus colony; I leave the sealed cage hanging between frames overnight and – assuming there are no signs of aggression to the caged queen – I remove the plastic cap and leave the workers to eat their way in through the fondant-plugged entrance/exit tube.

If there are signs of aggression, leave it another 24 hours.

Checking for aggression

A well designed introduction cage has some protection for the queen so she can avoid aggressive workers that can otherwise damage her feet. I’ve had considerable success with the JzBz cages (and happen to have inherited a bucket full and so don’t use anything else 😉 ).

I’ve inadvertently left a queen trapped in one of these cages for 6 days with no ill effects. Don’t rush things.

Rear some spares

What do you think happens with commercially reared queens, many or most of which are mated from mini-nucs?

Exactly … nothing, other than being popped into a shipping cage and having a £40 price tag attached.

In contrast, you have the opportunity to check your queens more thoroughly.

Rear a few more than you need, check out their performance, keep the best and donate the unwanted to one of the many, many beekeepers clamouring for queens – particularly late in the season. Even the also-rans are likely to be OK 6. Not necessarily great, but more than good enough to get the colony through to the next season 7.

Queen rearing diary; automagically populates days and events

And finally, make sure you keep good records. The first couple of times you do this you’ll think you will be able to remember the key points the following year; the dates of emergence, the time it took to have mated queens, the origin of the queen cell used to prime the mini-nuc etc.

But you probably won’t. The notes will be very useful for planning your queen rearing the following season.

Keeping things going

Populating mini-nucs early in the season is often a thankless and unpleasant task. The weather is cool, the bees are tetchy and – as described a fortnight ago – you may have had to shake through the colony twice to get the young workers.

That’s not the sort of task I like to repeat if I can possibly avoid it.

If you’re rearing queens all through the summer you can simply remove one mated queen and, shortly afterwards (within a few hours), add a new mature queen cell. This is the ideal situation and, with good organisation, good weather and good mating success, you can get three or four queens out of a single mini-nuc in one season.

Mainly good organisation.

You need to ensure you have a succession of mature queen cells ready at the about right time, remembering that queen mating often takes longer than expected (or wanted).

Scrub ‘caretaker’ queens

If that’s not possible, or if you want (or have) to interrupt queen cell production (e.g. your queenright cell starter swarms or a round of grafting fails) you can remove the mated queen from the mini-nuc and allow the bees to rear a ‘scrub’ queen.

A well populated mini-nuc will readily do this. The resulting queen is usually a bit on the small side, but she will keep the worker population ticking over and ready to accept a new mature queen cell in due course. In addition, the enforced brood break while they rear the scrub queen helps prevent the mini-nuc from getting too overcrowded.

These ‘caretaker’ queens are reared under the emergency response and – assuming there are suitable eggs in the little colony – emerge about 15 days after you remove the mated queen (remember, the bees preferentially choose 3 day old eggs to rear queens under the emergency response). A fortnight or so later the queen should be mated and laying. This approach therefore means you can take 4-6 weeks off if needed.

The end of the queen rearing season

What do you do with the contents of the mini-nuc after you’ve taken the last of the mated queens out? The little hive may well be bursting with bees, with all 4-6 combs containing brood.

Many beekeepers shake the bees out in front of a strong hive. The majority of the workers will be accepted, but the brood is wasted.

To avoid this I’ve used ‘zip’ ties to secure two Kieler topbar frames into a standard brood frame. At the very least these can be placed into a full sized hive for the brood to emerge. Usually, by the time of year I get round to this the bees have stopped drawing comb. Once the brood has emerged I move the frame to the side of the brood box and remove it.

Dave Cushman has details of some clever frame modifications that allow Kieler-type (he calls them Kirchhain mating hives) frames to be drawn at the beginning of the season and used to accommodate brood-filled frames at the end.

Unsurprisingly, when I’ve done this it’s been a lot more ’Heath Robinson’. The Kieler topbar frames are a little too long to fit end-to-end in a National frame. I therefore built some with a scrap 8 mm thick spacer (shown in black below) tacked under one side of the frame. I then use zip ties to hold everything more or less in place.

Using mini-nuc brood frames

Despite being a total bodge this has generally worked well. I’m pleased not to waste the brood.

Now I know the air freshener trick (described in this 2020 post) I’d probably just add the frames as shown in the diagram above together with the adhering bees, and give them and the recipient colony a quick blast of ’Sea breeze’ before uniting them.

Overwintering mini-nucs

Alternatively, with a little care you can overwinter queens in mini-nucs. This saves you the faff of emptying them at the end of the season, and means they are ready for queen cells the following year (after removing the queen of course) 8.

I’ve overwintered queens successfully quite a few times but certainly don’t consider myself an expert at it. There’s quite a high attrition rate. Remember how small these colonies are, how limited the space is for stores and the relatively small population of bees present to stop the colony freezing in the winter.

I think every mini-nuc I’ve overwintered successfully has been a double-decker, with the standard Kieler brood box underneath an additional extension brood body. These almost double the volume of the mini-nuc.

The mini-nuc needs to be strong in mid/late autumn, almost certainly boosted by combining the contents of two separate mini-nucs. You can unite them over paper in the same way you’d treat a full sized hive.

Unfortunately, the upper and lower brood boxes have different depths, so comb drawn in the bottom box needs to be trimmed to fit in the upper box. A messy and irritating task.

I replace the lower integral feeder with additional brood frames and place one or two fondant frame feeders in the upper chamber – usually one at either end to ensure the mini-cluster is near to one of them.

Place the box somewhere sheltered, leave the entrance open to allow the bees to fly for cleansing flights and cross your fingers …

Gimme shelter

I’ve not overwintered mini-nucs since returning to Scotland, though I know several beekeepers here who do this successfully. In the Midlands we often had quite harsh winter weather – certainly much colder than we usually get here on the north-west coast of Scotland.

Two double decker mini-nucs overwintered successfully in an unheated greenhouse

A decade ago, well before my bee shed experiments, I was successfully overwintering mini-nucs in an unheated greenhouse with entrance tunnels from the hive to the outside. These worked surprisingly well and got queens through some really hard weather (note the snow in the picture above – late March 2013).

Tunnel entrances to overwintered mini-nucs

If the winter was particularly severe I would cover the mini-nucs with a thick layer of bubble wrap to try and retain as much warmth as possible. The levels of stores needs to be checked regularly, particularly once brood rearing starts in earnest. These little colonies can starve surprisingly quickly 🙁 . It takes seconds and causes minimal disruption to swap out those fondant frame feeders.

With a little luck and the normal amount of good judgement it was sometimes possible to remove the overwintered queen to make up a nuc in mid/late April, replacing her with a queen cell from the first round of grafting.

Of course, it rarely worked quite as smoothly as that … 😉 9

Finally

The one thing I would not recommend you try is allow the mini-nuc to build up to a full-sized nuc without supplementing it with additional brood and bees. A mini-nuc is too small and it will take too long rearing a few hundred bees at a time to make even a five frame nuc. I’ve tried and it’s a waste of effort.


References

Afik, O. et al. (2010) ‘Selection and breeding of honey bees for higher or lower collection of avocado nectar’, Journal of Economic Entomology, 103(2), pp. 228–233. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1603/ec09235.

Latitude and longitude

Synopsis : Bees don’t use a diary. Colony development is influenced by local environmental conditions. These are largely determined by latitude and longitude but also vary from year to year. Understanding these influences, and learning how to read the year to year differences, should help you judge colony development. You’ll be better prepared for swarm prevention and control, and might be able to to identify minor problems before they become major problems.

Introduction

Writing a weekly post on beekeeping inevitably generates comments and questions. Over the last 5 years I’ve received about 2500 responses to posts and at least double that in email correspondence. That works out at ~30 comments or questions a week 1.

Every one of them – other than the hate mail and adverts 2 – has received a reply, either online or by email.

Some are easy to deal with.

It takes just seconds to thank someone for a ”Great post, now I understand” comment, or to answer the ”Where do I send the cheque? question.

Others are more difficult … and the most difficult of all are those which ask me to diagnose something about their hive.

I almost always prefix my response by pointing out that this sort of online diagnosis is – at best – an inexact art 3.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Think about it … is your definition of any of the following the same as mine?

  • a strong colony 4
  • an aggressive colony
  • a dodgy-looking brood pattern 5
  • a ‘large’ queen cell

Probably not.

Engaging in to and fro correspondence to define all these things isn’t really practical in a week containing a measly seven 24 hour days.

Geography

However, having stated those caveats, there’s still the tricky issue of geography.

Many correspondents don’t mention where the hive is – north, south, east, west (or in a couple of instances that they are in the southern hemisphere 6).

Location has a fundamental impact on your bees. The temperature, rainfall, forage availability etc. all interact and influence colony development. They therefore determine the timing of what happens when in the colony.

And so this week I decided to write a little bit about the timings of, and variation in, environmental events that influence what’s going on inside the hive.

I’ll focus here on latitude and temperature as it probably has the greatest influence. My comments and examples will all be UK based as it’s where a fraction over 50% of the readers are, but the points are relevant in all temperate areas.

Latitude

Temperate climates – essentially 40°-60° north or south of the equator – experience greater temperature ranges through the year and have distinct seasons (at least when compared with tropical areas). Whilst latitude alone plays a significant role in the temperature range – smaller nearer the equator – the prevailing wind, altitude, sea currents and continentality 7 also have an important influence.

For starters let’s consider the duration of the year during which foraging might be possible. I’ll ignore whether there’s any forage actually available, but just look at the temperature over the season at the northern and southern ends of mainland Great Britain.

I arbitrarily chose Thurso (58.596°N 3.521°W) and Penzance (50.119°N 5.537°W) for these comparisons. Both are lovely coastal towns and both are home to native black bees, Apis mellifera mellifera 8.

The lowest temperature I have observed my native black bees flying on the west coast of Scotland was about 8°C 9. So, let’s assume that the ‘potential foraging’ season is defined by an average maximum daily temperature above 8°C.

How do Penzance and Thurso compare?

Thurso – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In Thurso there are eight months (November just squeezed in by 0.1°C) where the average maximum daily temperature exceeds 8°C.

Penzance – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In contrast, every month of the year in Penzance has an average maximum daily temperature exceeding 8°C.

Thurso and Penzance are just 950 km apart as the bee flies.

Forage availability

I don’t have information on the forage available to bees in Penzance or Thurso, but I’m sure that gorse is present in both locations. The great thing about gorse is that it flowers all year, or – more accurately – individual, genetically distinct, plants can be found every month of the year in flower.

Based upon the temperature it’s possible that Penzance bees could forage on gorse in midwinter and so be bringing fresh pollen into the hive for brood rearing.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

However, further north, gorse might be flowering but conditions may well not be conducive for foraging.

Inevitably, warmer temperatures will extend the range of forage types available, so increasing the time during the year in which brood rearing can occur 10.

In reality, at temperatures below 12-14°C bees start to cluster 11 and bees chilled to 10°C cannot fly. It’s unlikely much foraging could be achieved at the 8°C used in the examples above 12.

The point is that different latitudes differ greatly in their temperature, and hence the forage that grows, the time it yields nectar and pollen, and the ability of the bees to access it.

Brood rearing

The availability of forage has a fundamental impact on the ability of the colony to rear large amounts of new brood.

It’s not until foraging starts in earnest that brood rearing can really ramp up.

Similarly, low temperatures in autumn, reduce the availability of nectars and ability of bees to forage, so curtailing brood rearing 13.

And the ability to effectively treat mites in the winter is largely determined by the presence or absence of sealed brood. If there is sealed brood in the colony there will also be mites gorging themselves on the capped pupae. These mites are untouched by the ‘usual’ winter miticide, oxalic acid.

Therefore, effective midwinter mite management should be much easier in Thurso than Penzance.

I’ve not kept bees in either of those locations, but I know my bees in Fife (56°N) are reliably broodless at some point between late October and mid-December. Varroa management is therefore relatively straightforward, and Varroa levels are under control throughout the season.

In contrast, when I kept bees in Warwickshire (52°N) there were some winters when brood was always present, and Varroa control was consequently more difficult. Ineffective control in the winter results in higher levels of mites earlier in the season.

Brood rearing models

To emphasise the differences here are two images generated from Randy Oliver’s online Varroa Model, just showing the amounts of brood in all stages and adult bees 14. The overall colony sizes and amount of brood reared are about the same, but the ‘hard winter’ colony (no foraging for five months) is broodless for a much greater period.

The brood and bee population in hives that experience ‘default’ and ‘hard’ winters

Without knowing something about the latitude and/or the likelihood of there being capped brood present in the hive, it’s impossible to give really meaningful answers to questions about winter mite treatment.

This also has a bearing on when you conduct your first inspections of the season.

It is also relevant when comparing what other beekeepers are discussing on social media – e.g. those ’8 frames of brood’ I mentioned last week. If it’s early April and they’re in Penzance (or Perigord) then it might be understandable, but if you’re in Thurso don’t feel pressurised into checking your own colonies as it may well be too early to determine anything meaningful.

Year on year variation

But it’s now approaching late April and most beekeepers will be starting to think/worry about swarm control.

When should you start swarm prevention and, once that fails, when must you apply swarm control?

Or, if you’d prefer to take a more upbeat view of things, when might you expect your bait hives to be successful and when should you start queen rearing?

Again, like almost everything to do with beekeeping, dates are pretty meaningless as your colonies are not basing their expansion and swarm preparations on the calendar.

They are responding to the environmental conditions in your particular locality and in that particular year.

Which brings me to year on year variation.

Not every year is the same.

Some seasons are warmer than others – the spring might be ‘early’ or there might be an ‘Indian summer’. In these instances foraging and brood rearing are likely to start earlier or finish later.

One way to view these differences is to look at the Met Office climate anomaly maps. These show how different the climate – temperature, rainfall, sunshine etc. – can be from year to year when compared to a 30 year average.

Met Office anomaly charts – spring temperatures 2020 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

Here are the anomaly maps for the last two springs. For almost all of the country 2020 was unusually warm. Penzance was 1.5°C warmer than the 30 year average. In contrast, over much of the country, 2021 was cooler than the 1990-2010 average.

So when considering how the colony is developing it’s important to consider the local conditions.

Those Met Office charts are retrospective … for example, you cannot see how this spring compares with previous years (at least, not yet 15.).

Rainfall

And, while we’re on the subject of anomalies … here are the rainfall charts for the summers of 2012 and 2021.

Met Office anomaly charts – summer rainfall 2012 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

I suspect that both were rather poor years for honey. 2012 was – with the exception of Thurso! – exceedingly wet. My records for that year don’t include honey yield 16.

Last year was generally dry, and very dry in the north and west 17. Since a good nectar flow often needs moisture in the soil it may have been poor for many beekeepers.

It was my first full season on the west coast and the heather honey yield was disappointing (but it’s not a great heather area and I’ve nothing to compare it with … perhaps I’ll be disappointed every year?). However, I managed a record summer honey crop in Fife from a reduced number of hives. Quite a bit of this was from lime which I always think of as needing rain to get a good flow from, so perhaps the little rain we did have was at the right time.

Local weather and longitude

If you really want to know what the weather has been doing in your area you probably need something more fine-grained and detailed than a Met Office chart. There are very large numbers of ‘personal weather stations’, many of which share the data they generate with websites such as windy.com or wunderground.com.

Find one by searching these sites and you’ll be able to access recent and historical weather data to help you determine whether colony build up is slow because it’s been colder and wetter than usual. Or – if the conditions have been ideal (or at least normal) but the colony is struggling – whether the queen is failing, if there’s too much competition for forage in the neighbourhood, or if there might be disease issues.

Of course, judgements like these mean you need to have good records year on year, so you know what to expect.

My main apiary on the west coast has it’s own weather station.

Weather station and a typical west coast sky

To emphasise the local influence of prevailing winds and warm sea currents it’s interesting to note that my west and east coast apiaries – which are at almost the same latitude 18 – experience significantly different amounts of rainfall.

We had >270 mm of rain in November 2021 on the west coast, compared to ~55 mm on the east. In July 2021 the figures were 43 mm and 7 mm respectively.

All of which I think makes a good argument for rearing local bees that are better adapted to the local conditions 19. That’s something I’ve discussed previously and will expand upon further another time.

Phenology

Rainfall charts and meteorological tables are all a bit dull.

An additional way a beekeeper can observe the progression of the season, and judge whether the colony is likely to be developing as expected, or a bit ahead or a bit behind, is to keep a record of other environmental events.

This is phenology, meaning ‘the timing of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions’.

  • Are frogs spawning earlier than normal?
  • When did the first snowdrops/crocus/willow flower?
  • Are the arrival dates of migrant birds earlier or later than normal?

I’m poor at identifying plants 20 so tend to focus on the animals. The locals – frogs, slow worms, toads, bats, butterflies, dragonflies – are all influenced by local conditions. Many don’t make an appearance until well into the beekeeping season.

Frogspawn

Or perhaps I just don’t notice them?

In contrast, the avian spring migrants appear in March and April. These provide a good indication of whether the spring is ‘early’ or ‘late’.

For example, cuckoo arrived here in 2020 (a warm spring) on the 18th of April. In 2021, a cold spring, they didn’t make an appearance until the 24th.

This year, despite January to March being warmer than average, they have yet to arrive. The majority of GPS-tagged birds are still en route, having been held up by a cold start to April 21, though some have just 22 arrived in southern Scotland.

Wheatear are also several days later this year than the last couple of seasons, again suggesting that the recent cold snap has held things back.

You can read more about arrival dates of spring migrants on the BTO website.

Beekeeping is not just bees

Much of the above might not appear to be much to do with beekeeping.

But, at least indirectly, it is.

Your bees live and work in a small patch of the environment no more than 6 miles in diameter. That’s a very small area (less than 30 square miles). The local climate they experience will determine when they can forage, and what they can forage on. In turn, this influences the timing of the onset of brood rearing in the spring (or late winter), the speed with which the colony builds up, the time at which winter bees start to be reared and the duration of the winter when it’s either too cold to forage or there’s nothing to forage on (or both).

As a beekeeper you need to understand these events when you inspect (and judge the development of) your colonies. Over time, with either a good memory or reasonable hive records, you can make meaningful comparisons with previous seasons.

If your colony had ’8 frames of brood’ in mid-April 2020 (a warm year) and your records showed they swarmed on the 27th, then you are forewarned if things look similar this season.

Conversely, if spring 2020 and this year are broadly similar (and supported by your comprehensive phenological records 23 ) but your bees have just two frames of brood then something is amiss.

Of course, the very best way to determine the state of the colony is to inspect it carefully. Understanding the environmental conditions helps you know what to expect when you inspect.


 

Early season inspections

Synopsis : The first inspection of the season needs to be late enough that the colony is expanding well, early enough that it isn’t making swarm preparations and timed to coincide with reasonable weather. Tricky. When you do open the hive you have to deal with whatever you find and leave the colony in a suitable state for the upcoming season.

Introduction

It is often tricky to decide when to do the first inspection of the season.

Too early and the bees will appear disappointingly understrength. If the weather is borderline you risk chilling the brood or the bees may get very defensive.

Or typically, both 🙁 .

Too late and the colonies may have backfilled the comb with early nectar and already started to make swarm preparations.

Early season – pollen pattie and brace comb

Twitter has been busy with beekeepers proudly announcing “8 frames of brood” or “Supers on this weekend”, without reference to local conditions or sometimes even their location.

Remember, some of these regular ‘tweeters’ are in France 😉 .

It must be particularly confusing for beekeepers starting their first spring with bees. They are desperate to start ‘real beekeeping’ again, which means opening colonies and looking for queens and brood, just like they were doing at the end of last season 1. However, they get dispirited if the colony is defensive or appears weak (less than 8 frames of brood!), and they kick themselves for not starting sooner if there are queen cells already present.

So what’s the best thing to do?

You have to use your experience and your judgement … or failing those, use some common sense.

I have reasonable amounts of experience and (sometimes) have good judgement, but I mainly rely upon a combination of common sense and local observation 2.

Together with a soupçon of opportunism.

Sometimes my timing is spot on, and sometimes I’m early or a bit late.

In these circumstances you have to deal with whatever you find in the colony and make the best of it.

A false start

Despite the incessant storms and getting trapped in a December blizzard (!) it has been a mild winter. We’ve had an unusually low number of frosts – none in January, one in February and two in March.

I was beginning to think that the season proper was going to start unusually early.

That was reinforced by the weather in the the last fortnight of March, which was fantastic.

Late afternoon sun on Beinn Resipol, Ardnamurchan, March 2022

Fantastic for March that is 3. Warm days, bees busy with the early season flowering gorse (it flowers all season), even a little nectar being collected.

About half my colonies had received an extra kilo or two of fondant in February or early March, and all received at least one pollen substitute pattie to help get them off to a good start. By late March the colonies were looking good 4.

I’m still a long distance beekeeper, with my colonies about equally split between the east and west coasts of Scotland. I therefore book hotels weeks or months in advance for some of my beekeeping. Predicting the weather that far ahead is impossible, so it involves some guesstimates and, inevitably, some beekeeping in unsuitable weather.

Early season is usually particularly difficult, but by late March this year I was feeling quietly confident 5.

And then April started with several hard frosts and the temperature dropped to single digits (°C) for days at a time.

Still, I was committed to make the trip to Fife … and I’m pleased I went.

And they’re off!

I have a couple of apiaries in Fife. I usually visit both on each of successive days on a trip. That allows me to store all the equipment in one apiary, without having to transport it back and forth across Scotland. This works well and means I can cope with most eventualities.

It was 9°C with a chilly easterly when I got to the first apiary. On removing the lid on the first hive it was very clear that I was (fashionably, of course 😉 ) late to the party … the bees were already building brace comb in the headspace between the top bars of the frame and the underside of the inverted crownboard.

That’s what you’ve been getting up to …

I had no spare equipment with me 6, but it was obvious that the colony needed a queen excluder and a super … as well as quite a bit of tidying up.

Which was going to be the story of the trip.

With infrequent apiary visits – either enforced by distance (in my case) or imposed by bad weather (not unusual in spring) – you have to deal with whatever situations you find when you have the opportunity to open hives.

It was clear from the state of this colony, which was on a single brood box, that the bees had expanded well during the warm weather and were going to rapidly run out of space.

Other colonies in the same apiary were on double brood boxes and were heavy with remaining winter stores – and, no doubt, some early season nectar – and reassuringly packed with bees.

It looked like a very promising start to the season.

More of the same

I travelled on to my main apiary to review the situation there. This is the apiary with my bee shed and all of my stored equipment. It is closer to the coast and the wind blows in directly from the North Sea.

It was colder and even less welcoming.

However, the bees were all in a very good state and clearly needed more space and a little post-winter TLC to get them ready for the season.

However, the temperature precluded any meaningful colony inspections. I could check for laying queens, get an approximation of colony strength (frames of brood) and give them space for further expansion. Anything more than this and there would be a risk of chilling the bees. Because of the low temperature I took relatively few photos.

Interestingly, colonies outside the bee shed were significantly better advanced than those inside. This is the first time I’ve seen this, and I’ve previously commented that the bees in the shed are often a week or two ahead of those outside.

However, in looking back through my notes I think it’s a reflection of the quality and early winter state of the colonies that currently reside in the shed. These are the ones mainly used for research and which regularly have brood ‘stolen’ for experiments (even late into the autumn). Consequently they were probably weaker going into the winter. At least one of the colonies had been united late in 2021 to ensure they would make it through the winter … and they had 🙂 .

What follows is a discussion of a few of the problems (and some potential solutions) that you can encounter at this time of the season.

‘Dead outs’ and ‘basket cases’

I’m not going to dwell on these as there’s not a lot to say and often little that can be salvaged.

Some colonies die overwinter.

I’ve discussed the numbers (and their questionable reliability) before. Most annual surveys show that about 10-35% of colonies die overwinter. The precise percentage depends upon the size and rigour of the survey 7, the severity of the winter 8 and the honesty of the beekeepers who respond 9.

Let’s just accept that quite a few colonies are lost overwinter.

I strongly suspect the majority of these losses are due to poor Varroa management. I’ve previously discussed the reasons uncontrolled mite levels are deleterious, and the – relatively straightforward – solutions that can be applied to prevent these losses 10.

It’s always worth conducting a post-mortem on ‘dead outs’ to try and work out what went amiss.

Queen failure

Some queens fail overwinter. This is probably unrelated to poor Varroa control and is ’just another thing that can go wrong’.

They either die, stop laying fertilised eggs or stop laying altogether.

They may or not be present when you check the colony in spring.

Whatever the failure, the overall result is much the same, although the appearance of the colony might differ (in terms of numbers of bees and the proportion of drones present). The colony will be significantly understrength, with little or no worker brood … and may have lots of drones.

I consider colonies with failed queens are a lost cause in March or (at least here in Scotland) much of April.

The bees that remain are likely very old. There’s no use providing them with a frame of eggs in the hope they’ll rear a new queen as it’s unlikely that there are sufficient drones about. If there aren’t flying drones I certainly wouldn’t bother.

You could provide them with a new queen if you can find one, but is it worth it?

The colony will be ‘well behind the curve’ in terms of strength for a month or two. You may have to boost them with additional brood. Unless you have ample spare brood in other colonies (as well as a spare queen and a willingness to commit these resources) I really wouldn’t bother.

Fortunately, at least so far (and I won’t be certain until later this month), all my colonies have survived and are flourishing … so let’s move on to a couple of solvable problems instead.

Brace yourself

When I add a fondant ‘top up’ to a colony I remove the crownboard and place the container of fondant directly over the cluster. This ensures that the bees can immediately access the fondant, rather than negotiating their way through a hole in the crownboard to the cold chilly space under the roof. To provide space for the fondant container I either use an eke or one of my deep-rimmed perspex crownboards.

A consequence of this is that, as the colony expands, they may build brace comb in the headspace over the top bars.

What a mess … some tidying required before the super can be added

Sometimes they fill the space entirely, though you might be lucky and find they’ve only built inside the fondant container.

Brace comb hidden inside the empty fondant container

Irrespective of the extent of comb building I usually take this to indicate that the colony needs additional space and that they should be supered.

Pronto.

Removing and reusing brace comb

I smoke the bees down – as gently as practical – and cut off the brace comb using a sharp hive tool. In the photos above the comb was filled with early season nectar.

When cutting off the comb I try and prevent too much of the nectar from oozing out and down between the frames. A sharp hive tool held almost parallel to the top bars is often the best solution. Working fast but carefully, I dumped the nectar-filled brace comb into the empty fondant container and then quickly checked the colony. The latter consisted of little more than gently splitting the brood nest and checking the approximate number of frames of brood in all stages.

I added a queen excluder, a super and a crownboard with a small hole in it, above which I placed the salvaged brace comb, surrounded by an empty super.

Crownboard and nectar-filled brace comb – stored overwinter and (hopefully) used in the spring

Finally, I added a second crownboard with some additional honey-filled brace comb they’d built last September. I wrote about this in Winding down last year. The intention is that the bees will take down the nectar/honey above the lower crownboard and either use it for brood rearing (if it’s too cold to forage) or store it properly.

If all this works as hoped the empty comb can be melted down and turned into beeswax wraps.

Waste not, want not 😉 .

The accidental ‘brood and a half’

My colony #7 has a stellar queen who produces prolific, gentle bees and who lays gorgeous slabs of brood with barely a cell missed. I used her as a source of larvae for queen rearing last season and will do so again this year.

“Gorgeous slabs of brood”

The colony entered the winter with a ‘nadired super’. I’ve discussed these somewhere before 11. Essentially this means a stores-filled super underneath the (single in this case) brood box.

Often the bees will empty the super before the winter and it can be safely removed.

Or, as in this instance, completely forgotten 🙁 .

When the bees had emptied it or not is a moot point … by last weekend they’d part filled it again.

With brood.

The queen had moved down into the super and laid up half the frames, at least two of which were drone comb 12.

I consider ‘brood and half’ an abomination. I prefer the flexibility offered by just one size of brood frame and also prefer using a single brood box if possible.

Despite perhaps swearing quietly when I realised the super was half-filled with brood (the drone brood was almost all capped) it’s only really a minor inconvenience.

Furthermore, this is a good queen and is likely to produce drones with good genes. How could I get rid of the ‘brood and a half’ setup as soon as possible and save all those lovely drones with the hope that they could spread their genes far and wide?

Upper entrances

The obvious answer was to add a queen excluder and a super, but to move the nadired super containing brood above the queen excluder.

If there had been no drone brood in this ‘super’ that would have been sufficient. However, drones cannot get through a queen excluder and distressingly 13 die trying.

Rearrangement to provide an upper entrance – before (left) and after (right)

I therefore added an upper entrance to the colony, immediately above the queen excluder. The easiest way to do this is to use a very shallow eke. I build them just 18 mm deep from softwood, with a suitably placed slot only half that depth.

The brood is directly above the brood box and so will be kept warm. The drones can emerge in due course, and fly from the upper entrance. Some will return there but – ‘boys will be boys’ – many will distribute themselves around the apiary waiting for better weather and potential queen mating.

Standard and upper entrance

If there is a strong nectar flow the bees can fill the new empty super and they will backfill the no-longer-nadired super once the brood emerges.

And finally … what did I fail to mention in this colony rearrangement ?

That’s right, the thing I failed to mention because I failed to check 🙁 ?

Where was the queen ?

It is important that the queen is in the brood box, rather than the no-longer-nadired super, when you reassemble the hive. If she isn’t, you’ll return to find two supers full of brood and an empty brood box.

A very quick check confirmed that the queen was in the brood box so I left them to get on with things.

Stores

I didn’t do a full inspection on any of the colonies I checked.

It was far too cold to spend much time rummaging around in the boxes. However, I did confirm that all were queenright and had brood in all stages.

I also ‘eyeballed’ the approximate strength of the colonies in terms of frames of brood. Typically this just involves separating the frames and looking down the seams of bees, perhaps partly removing the outer frames only to confirm things. Even just doing this I still saw a few queens which was doubly reassuring 🙂 .

The weakest colonies – those in the shed – had 3-4 frames of brood. The strongest were booming … perhaps even the 8 cadres de couvée 14 you read about on Twitter 😉 .

All of the colonies had ample stores, and several had too much.

The capped frames of stores were occupying valuable space in the brood box that the colony will need to expand into over the next 2-3 weeks. I therefore used my judgement to replace one or two frames 15 of capped stores with drawn comb or new frames. I save the frames of stores carefully and will use them to make up nucs next month.

Here are some I saved for later

I’ve heard mixed reports of winter survival and spring build up this year. I’m aware that some beekeepers in the south of England are reporting higher than usual colony losses. Others were reporting very strong expansion in the early spring and even a few early swarms.

It will be interesting to see how the season develops. As always it will be ’the same, but different’ which is one of the things that makes beekeeping so challenging and enjoyable.