Category Archives: Seasonal

Winter chores

After two weeks of mites, their diets and pedantry we’ll take a break this week for some practical beekeeping.

Or at least as close as you can get to practical beekeeping when it’s been as cold as -8°C.

Midwinter is a time to prepare for the season ahead, to stock up on new equipment during the winter sales, build more frames, plan the strategy for swarm control and think about stock improvement.

And – if you’re anything like as disorganised as me – it’s also the time to tidy up after the season just finished.

Which is what we’ll deal with today.

Tidy the shed

The original research apiary and bee shed is now under an access road for a new school. Fortunately, we managed to rescue the shed which has now been re-assembled in the new apiary.

In the longer term these sheds could together accommodate at least a dozen full colonies. However, in the shorter term it has allowed me to rationalise the storage, giving much more space to work with the colonies in the larger shed.

Supers and brood in the storage shed have all been tidied (see below) and are in labelled stacks ready to use. The other side of the store contains stacks of floors, split boards, clearers and roofs.

It’ll get messier as the season progresses, but it’s a good start.

I also spent a couple of weekends making some minor improvements to the bee shed following the experience last season.

The lighting has been increased and repositioned so it is ‘over the shoulder’ when doing inspections. On a dull winter day it is dazzlingly bright 1 but I fear it will still not be enough. I’m looking at creating some reflectors to direct the light better.

I’ve also used a few tubes of exterior sealant to block up all the holes and cracks around the edge of the shed roof. Last season was a bad one for wasps and we were plagued with the little stripy blighters.

Tidy the frames

Two of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has are drawn super frames and capped stores in brood frames.

Look after them!

I often end up uniting colonies late in the season, but then overwinter the bees in a single brood box. This means I can end up with spare frames of sealed stores. These should be protected from wax moth and mice (or anything else) as they are really useful the following year for boosting colonies that are light on stores or making up nucs.

Drawn supers can be used time and time again, year after year. They also need to be protected but – if your extraction is as chaotic as mine – they also usually need to be tidied up so they are ready for the following season.

I load my extractor to balance it properly, rather than just super by super. Inevitably this means the extracted frames are all mixed up. Since frames are also often drawn out unevenly this leaves me with a 250 piece jigsaw with billions of possible permutations, but only a few correct solutions.

Little and large - untidy frames and a breadknife

Little and large – untidy frames and a breadknife

And that’s ignoring all the frames with brace comb that accumulate during a good flow.

So, in midwinter I tidy up all the cleared super frames, levelling off the worst of the waviness with a sharp breadknife, removing the brace comb, scraping down the top bar and arranging them – 9 to 11 at a time 2 – in supers stored neatly in covered stacks.

And, if you’ve got a lot, label them so you know what’s where.

An hour or two of work on a dingy midwinter day can help avoid those irritating moments when – in the middle of a strong flow – you grab a super to find it contains just five ill-fitting frames, one of which has a broken lug.

The wax removed during this tidying up is usually lovely and white. Save it for making soaps, cosmetics or top-quality candles.

Wax extraction

Brood comb has a finite life. After about three years of repeated brood rearing cycles it should be replaced. Old comb contains relatively little wax but what’s there can be recovered using a solar or steam wax extractor. This also allows the cleaned frames to be re-used.

Processing a few dozen brood frames with a solar wax extractor during a Scottish winter is an exercise in futility. For years I’ve used a DIY steam wax extractor which worked pretty well but was starting to fall apart. I therefore recently took advantage of the winter sales and purchased a Thorne’s Easi-steam 3.

The Easi-steam works well and with a little further processing generates a few kilograms of wax for making firelighters or trading in … and a large stack of frames for re-use.

Remember to keep a few old dark brood frames aside for using in bait hives

Keep an eye on your bees

In between all these winter chores don’t forget to check on your bees.

There’s not a lot to do, but these checks are important.

Make sure the entrances are clear, that the mouse guards 4 are in place and that the roofs are secure.

Storm Eric brought us 50-60 mph winds and a couple of my hives lost their roofs. These had survived a couple of previous storms, but the wind was from a different direction and lifted the roofs and the bricks stacked on top. I got to them the following day but we’ll have to wait until the season warms up to determine if there’s any harm done.

Fondant top up

Fondant top up

Finally, as the days lengthen and it gets marginally warmer colonies should have started rearing brood again. Make sure they have sufficient stores by regularly ‘hefting‘ the hive. If stores are low, top them up with a block or two of fondant. This should be placed directly over the cluster, either over a hole in the crownboard or on the top bars of the frames.


 

Mites equal viruses

Healthy bees are happy bees 🙂

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Actually, there’s no evidence that bees display or perceive most of the emotions often attributed to them 1.

Happy? Who knows? But certainly not healthy ...

Happy? Who knows? But certainly not healthy …

A more accurate statement might be “Healthy bees are more productive, they are less likely to die overwinter, less likely to be robbed out by wasps or neighbouring strong colonies and their parasites and pathogens cannot threaten the health of other honey bee colonies or, through so-called-pathogen overspill, the health of other pollinators.”

More accurate?

Yes … but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue 😉

Whether it makes the bees happy or not, beekeepers have a responsibility to look after the health of their livestock. This includes controlling Varroa numbers to reduce the levels of pathogenic viruses in the hive.

How well are virus levels controlled if mite levels are reduced?

I’ll get to that in due course …

Midwinter mite massacre

The 2018 autumn was relatively mild through until mid/late November. In the absence of very early frosts colonies continued rearing brood.

We opened colonies in mid-November (for work) and found sealed brood, though it was clear that the laying rate of the queen was much-reduced.

These are ideal conditions for residual mite replication. Any mites that escaped the late summer/early autumn treatment (the ideal time to treat to protect the overwintering bees) continue to replicate, resulting in the colony starting the following season with a disappointingly high level of mites.

I’ve noted before that midwinter mite levels are paradoxically higher if you treat early enough in the autumn to protect the all-important winter bees.

Consequently, to start the year with minimal mite levels, I treat in midwinter with a trickled or vaporised oxalic acid-containing (OA) treatment.

A combination of colder weather (hard frosts in late November) and brood temperature measurements 2 indicated mid-December was a good time to treat.

Midwinter mite massacre

Midwinter mite massacre

18th December

In one of my apiaries ten colonies were treated. Some were definitely broodless (based upon Arnia hive monitoring). Others may have had brood, but colonies were not routinely checked.

Over the four day period after vaporising these ten colonies dropped a total of 92 mites. More than 50% of these were from just one double-brooded colony. Overwintering nucs 3 dropped no mites at all in the 12 days following treatment.

This was very encouraging. These are lower midwinter mite levels than I’ve seen since returning to Scotland in 2015.

The one colony with ‘high’ mite levels received two further treatments (on the 22nd and 27th) in an attempt to minimise the mite levels for the start of the season. Going by the strength of the colony and the debris on the Varroa tray it was presumed that this colony was still rearing brood.

Mite drop following the third treatment was negligible 4.

Why are mite levels so low?

I think it’s a combination of:

  • Luck
  • Use of natural, organic, bee-centric and biodynamic beekeeping methods
  • Varroa-resistant bees
  • Very tight control of mite numbers in the 2017/18 season, primarily by correctly timing the winter and the late-season autumn treatments. This is simply good colony management. Anyone can achieve this.
  • A brood break midseason and/or a broodless period when splitting colonies (both give opportunities for more phoretic mites to be lost through grooming). Undoubtedly beneficial but season-dependent. I’ll be discussing ways to exploit these events in posts next year.
  • A low density of beekeepers in Fife, so relatively little drifting or robbing of poorly managed colonies from neighbouring apiaries. Geography-dependent. Much easier in Fife than Warwickshire … and easier still in Lochaber.

And what do less mites mean?

Varroa is a threat to bee health because it transmits pathogenic viruses when feeding on developing pupae.

The most important of these viruses is deformed wing virus (DWV).

Generally, the higher the level of infestation with mites, the higher the viral load 5. This has been repeatedly demonstrated by studies from researchers working in the UK, Europe and the USA.

It is well-established that colonies with high viral loads have an increased chance of dying overwinter, due to the decreased longevity of bees infected with high levels of virus.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

In our work apiaries we regularly measure DWV levels. For routine screening our limit of detection is around 1,000 viruses per bee.

We don’t actually count the viruses. They’re too small to see without an electron microscope 6.

Instead, we quantify the amount of the virus genetic material present 7, compare it to a set of standards and express it as ‘genome equivalents (GE)’.

Many of the bees tested this year contained ~103 (i.e. 1000) GE, which is extremely low. Bees from Varroa-free regions (e.g. Colonsay) carry similar levels of DWV.

Most of our colonies were at or close to this level of virus much of the 2018 season. This is 100-1,000 times lower than we often see even in apparently perfectly healthy colonies in other years or other apiaries.

For comparison, using the same assay we usually detect about 1010 (ten billion) DWV GE per bee in symptomatic adult bees from heavily mite-infested colonies.

So, less mites means less viruses which means healthier bees 🙂

And they might even be happier bees 😉

And your point is?

It’s worth remembering that the purpose of treating a colony with miticides is to reduce the transmission of viruses between bees. This transmission results in the amplification of DWV. This is why the timing of treatments is so important.

Yes, it’s always good to slaughter a few (or a few thousand 🙂 ) mites. However, far better massacre them when you need to protect particular populations of bees.

This includes the overwintering bees, raised in September, that get the colony through to the Spring.

Remember also that it ‘takes bees to make bees’ i.e. the rearing of new brood requires bees. Therefore strong colony build-up in Spring requires healthy workers rearing healthy brood.

This is why it’s important to minimise mite levels in midwinter when colonies are broodless.

What do most beekeepers do?

Fifteen months ago I published a post on the preparation of oxalic acid solutions for trickling colonies in midwinter.

Whatever the vapoholics on the online forums claim, trickling remains the easiest, quickest and least expensive way to treat colonies in midwinter 8.

The best time to treat in the winter is when the colony is broodless. Here in Fife, and often elsewhere, I believe that this usually occurs earlier in the winter than many beekeepers treat (if it happens at all … or if they treat at all).

I usually treat between the end of the third week in November and mid-December, at the end of the first extended cold period.

Oxalic acid preparation recipe page views

Oxalic acid preparation recipe page views

Looking at the page views for these oxalic acid recipes it looks as though many beekeepers treat after Christmas 9 … which may be suboptimal if colonies had a broodless period and now started rearing brood again.

Mine have.

This winter has been quite mild (at least at the time of writing) so there may yet be opportunities to treat really effectively during a broodless period.

Or the chance may have gone …


 

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 🙂 ), more sheds, more wasps, more swarms and more dead Varroa.

Actually, the ‘more dead mites’ isn’t quite correct 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. Every time I drive past the line from The Last Resort by The Eagles, Some rich men come and raped the land”, comes to mind.

That’s progress 🙁

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. 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 honey rather bland or 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 low 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. 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-taking (uniting colonies, cleaning cleared supers, making up a few additional nucs) and ‘final’ inspections it was time to start 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 🙁

Mite news

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

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 Varroa 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 be something written next year.

Until then … Happy New Year 


 

Know your enemy

What less appropriate time is there, as we enter the festive season of goodwill, to provide a brief account of the incestuous and disease-riddled life cycle of the Varroa mite?

Happy Christmas 🙂

Scanning electron micrograph of Varroa destructor

Scanning electron micrograph of Varroa destructor

Varroa is the biggest enemy of bees, beekeepers and beekeeping. During the replication cycle the mite transfers a smorgasbord of viruses to developing pupae. One of these viruses, deformed wing virus (DWV), although well-tolerated in the absence of Varroa 1replicates to devastatingly high levels and is pathogenic when transferred by the mite.

Without colony management methods to control Varroa, mite and virus replication will eventually kill the colony.

I’ve written extensively on ways to control Varroa. Most of these have focused on early autumn and midwinter treatment regimes. However, next season I’m hoping to discuss some alternative strategies and will need to reference aspects of the life cycle of Varroa … hence this post.

What is Varroa?

Varroa destructor is a distant relative of spiders, both being members of the class Arachnida … the joint-legged invertebrates (arthropods). It was originally (and remains) an external parasite (ectoparasite) of Apis cerana (the Eastern honey bee) and – following cross-species transfer a century or so ago – Apis mellifera, ‘our’ Western honey bee.

Apis cerana, having co-evolved with Varroa, has a number of strategies to minimise the detrimental consequences of being parasitised by the mite.

Apis mellifera doesn’t. Simple as that 2.

One hundred years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and, whilst there are bees that have partial solutions – largely behavioural (small colonies and very swarmy) – they’re probably unable to collect meaningful amounts of honey 3.

Varroa-resistant honey bees will probably evolve (as much as anything is predictable in evolution) but not in my time as a beekeeper … or possibly not until Voyager 2 leaves the Oort Cloud 4.

And there’s no guarantee they’ll be any use whatsoever for beekeeping …

The replication cycle of Varroa

Varroa has no free-living stage during the life-cycle. The adult mated female mite exhibits two distinct phases during the life-cycle. It has a phoretic phase on adult bees and a reproductive phase within sealed (‘capped’) worker and drone brood cells. Male mites only ever exist within sealed brood cells.

I’m going to discuss phoretic mites in a separate post. I’ll concentrate here on the replication cycle.

The mated female mite enters a cell 15-50 hours before brood capping. Drone brood is chosen preferentially (at ~10-fold greater rates than worker brood) and entered earlier. Depending upon the time of the season and the levels of mites and brood, up to 70-90% of mites in the colony occupy capped cells.

The first egg is laid ~70 hours after cell capping. This egg is unfertilized and develops into a haploid male mite. Subsequent eggs are fertilised, diploid, and so develop into female mites. These are laid at ~30 hour intervals.

The replication cycle of Varroa

The replication cycle of Varroa

Worker and drone brood take different times to develop. Therefore a typical reproductive cycle involves five eggs being laid in worker brood and six in drone brood. Not all of these eggs mature, their development being curtailed by the bee emerging as an adult.

There are all sorts of developmental stages involved in getting from an egg to a mature unfertilised mite, but these are not important in terms of the overall outcome. Mite-geeks love this sort of detail 5, but we need to cut to the chase …

Keeping it in the family

The foundress ‘mother’ mite and her progeny all share a single feeding hole through the cuticle of the developing pupa.

What a lovely scene of family ‘togetherness’. 

Male and female mites take 6.6 and 5.8 days respectively to develop to sexual maturity. Therefore the male mite reaches sexual maturity before the first of his sisters.

He then lurks around the attractive-sounding “faecal accumulation site” and mates with each of the (sister) females in turn.

What a little charmer 😉

Male mites are short lived and the eclosion of the adult worker or drone curtails further mating activity, releasing the foundress mite and the mated mature daughters 6.

Reproductive rate (mites per cell)

The three day difference in the duration of worker and drone development means that more mites are produced from drone cells than worker cells. Depending on conditions the reproductive rate is 1.3 – 1.45 in worker brood and 2.2 – 2.6 in drone brood.

Remember that the foundress is also released from the cell. She can go on to initiate one or two further reproductive cycles (or up to 7 in vitro). Consequently, the average yield of mature, mated female mites from worker and drone cells is a fraction over 2 and 3 respectively.

Before entering a fresh cell containing a late stage (5th instar) larva the newly-mated mites need to mature. They do this during the phoretic phase which lasts 5-11 days. Therefore the full replication cycle of the mite probably takes a minimum of about 17 days.

Exponential growth

Two to three mites per infested cell doesn’t sound very much. However, under ideal conditions this leads to exponential growth of the mite population in the colony. Assuming 10 reproductive cycles in 6 months, a single mite would generate a population of >1,000 in worker brood and >59,000 in drone brood 7.

Fortunately (for our bees, not for the mites), ideal conditions don’t actually occur in reality.

Lots of things contribute to the reduction in reproductive potential. For example, only 60% of male mites achieve sexual maturity due to developmental mortality, drone brood is only available at certain times in the season, brood breaks interrupt the availability of any suitable brood and grooming helps rid adult bees of phoretic mites.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

However, these reductions aren’t enough. Without proper management mite levels still reach dangerously high levels, threatening the long-term viability of the colony.

In the next few months I will discuss some additional opportunities for reducing the mite population.

In the meantime, as we reach the winter solstice, colonies in temperate regions may well be broodless and – as emphasised last week – this is an ideal time to apply a midwinter oxalic acid-containing treatment. This will effectively reduce mite levels for the start of the coming season.

Happy Christmas … unless you’re a mite 😉


Colophon

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. This is actually the precise time when the Earth’s Northern pole has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. However, the term is usually used for the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest period of night. In Fife, sunrise is at 08.44 and sunset at 15.37, meaning the day length is 6 hours and 53 minutes long.

With increasing day length queens will start laying again … but there’s a long way to go until winter is over.

 

Convenience or laziness?

It’s cold and dark and all is quiet in the apiary. Hives appear somnolent. Colonies are clustered 1 and, other than the odd corpse or two on the landing board, I’ve not seen a bee for at least a fortnight.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

Based upon previous experience I suspect colonies are – or very soon will be – broodless. I usually reckon that the first extended (2-3 weeks) period of cold weather 2 in the winter is the most likely time for the colony to be broodless.

In 2016/17 this was the first week in December.

In 2017/18 it was just a day or two later.

In both instances, when the hives were checked, they had no brood.

What’s all this about being broodless?

If a colony is broodless there are no capped cells in which the Varroa mite can ‘hide’. As a consequence it’s an ideal time to apply a miticide like a trickled solution of Api-Bioxal 3.

There are very good reasons why a midwinter OA treatment is necessary, particularly if you treated early enough in the autumn to protect the overwintering workers from the ravages of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). High DWV levels reduce the lifespan of bees and contribute to many (possibly most) winter colony losses. I’ve even suggested here that “isolation starvation” might actually be due to Varroa-transmitted viral disease.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Early autumn treatment protects the winter bees but also leaves the long autumn for the residual mites to continue replicating.

And there will be residual mites. No treatment is 100% effective.

So, paradoxically, if you treated early enough in the autumn to really help protect the winter bees, your mite levels will be higher at the end of the year.

Which also means they’ll be higher at the beginning of next year.

Not a good start to the 2019 season 🙁

Convenience or laziness?

Many beekeepers, for convenience, laziness or historical precedent, choose to apply the winter OA treatment between Christmas and New Year. I suspect that this is often too late. If the queen starts laying again around the winter solstice there will be sealed brood – and therefore unreachable Varroa – by the end of the month.

I’d prefer to have a cold and damp afternoon in the apiary slaughtering Varroa now than the convenience of treating them less effectively during the Christmas holiday period.

The latter might be more convenient … the office will be closed, I’ll be replete with turkey and sprouts and it will be a good excuse to ‘escape’ visiting relatives and yet more mince pies 4.

But is it the best time for your bees?

We have the technology

We have a couple of hives with Arnia hive monitors fitted 5. These have a temperature probe inserted into the brood nest. Brood rearing temperature is around 34°C. Here is a trace of one colony over the last month.

Arnia hive monitor temperature

Arnia hive monitor temperature

The colony temperature was pretty stable (around 33-35°C) until about the 19th of November and has dropped about 10°C since then. Although I’ve not opened the colony I think that this is additional evidence that the colony is broodless 6.

Beekeeping by numbers

Keeping bees properly involves being aware of the seasons, the available forage and the state of the colony. This varies from month to month and year to year 7.

You can’t mechanically (‘by the numbers’) add supers on the 5th of May and harvest honey on the 15th of June. Sure, it might work some years, but is it the best time to do it?

Similarly, you can’t optimally treat a colony for Varroa on the 30th of December unless the climatic conditions and state of the colony coincide to make that the best time to treat.

It might be, but I suspect that generally it’s a bit late if there is a brood break.

If you’re going to the trouble of preparing the OA treatment, donning the beesuit and disturbing the colony you might as well do it at the right time for the bees.

I’ll be treating in between the predicted sleet showers and sunny periods this weekend.

Time to treat

Time to treat

Isn’t evolution a wonderful thing? This post started with a working title of Know your enemy” and was on a different topic altogether. I’ll save that for next week.


STOP PRESS

The above was written at the beginning of the week. Now the weekend is closer it’s clear the weather is going to be cold with heavy snow predicted. Unless the forecast is wrong (and how often does that happen?!) I’ll hold off treating until a) it’s over 5°C, and b) the roads are safe.

They think it’s all over!

We’re gently but inexorably segueing into early autumn after an excellent beekeeping season. The rosebay willow herb is almost over, the farmers are busy taking in the harvest and colonies are – or should be – crowded with under-occupied workers.

Rosebay willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Drones are being ejected, wasps are persistently looking for access and there’s a long winter – or at least non-beekeeping period – ahead.

There’s a poignancy now in being in the apiary conducting the last few inspections of the season. Only a few short weeks ago, during late May and early June, the apiary was a scene of frenetic productivity … or complete turmoil, depending upon your level of organisation or competence.

Now there’s little activity as there’s not much forage available.

Colonies are busy doing nothing.

The most important time of the season

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do.

Rather, I’d argue that late August and early September is probably the most important period during the beekeeping year.

However well or badly the season progressed, this is the time that colonies have to be prepared for the coming winter. With good preparation, colonies will come through the winter well. They’ll build up strongly in spring and be ready to exploit the early season nectar flows.

In Fife, this is about 8 months away 🙁

This explains the poignancy.

There are some colonies inspected last weekend that probably won’t get properly opened again until mid/late April 2019. Queens I saw for the first time in August won’t get marked or clipped until next spring 1.

Au revoir!

Spot the queen ...

Spot the queen …

To survive the winter and build up well in the spring the colony has few requirements. But they are important. A lack of attention now can result in the loss of the colony later.

To appreciate their needs it’s important to understand what the colony does during the winter.

Suspended animation

Honey bees don’t hibernate in winter. In cold weather (under ~7°C) they cluster tightly to conserve energy and protect the queen and any brood in the colony.

At higher temperatures the cluster breaks but they largely remain within the hive. After all, there’s little or no forage available, so they use their honey and pollen stores.

The fat-bodied overwintering bees that are reared in autumn have a very different physiology to the ephemeral summer workers. The latter have a life-expectancy of 5-6 weeks whereas overwintering bees can live for many months 2.

But they’re not immortal.

Throughout the winter there’s a slow and steady attrition of these workers. As they die off the clustered colony gradually reduces in volume, shrinking from the size of a medicine ball, to a football, to a grapefruit … you get the picture.

Some brood rearing does occur. The queen often stops laying after the summer nectar flows stop 3 and laying might be sporadic through the autumn, dependent upon weather and forage availability.

Late summer brood frame from a nuc ...

Late summer brood frame from a nuc …

However, by the turn of the year she starts laying again. At a much reduced level to her maximum rate, but laying nevertheless and, with sufficient workers in the colony and as forage become available, this rate will increase.

The amount of brood reared during the winter period (late autumn to early spring) isn’t enough to make up for the losses that occur through attrition. This explains why colonies are much smaller in the spring than the early autumn.

Strong, healthy, well-provisioned and weathertight

Knowing what’s happening in the colony during the winter makes the requirements that must be met understandable.

  • Strong colonies start the winter with ample bees. Assuming the same attrition rate, a larger colony will get through the winter stronger than a smaller one. There will be more workers available to ‘reach’ stores (I’ll deal with this in the next week or two) and keep the queen and brood warm. Hence there will be more foragers to exploit the early crocus, snowdrop and willow.
  • Healthy colonies will have a lower attrition rate. The overwintering workers will live longer. High levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) are known to shorten the life of winter bees. To minimise the levels of DWV you must reduce the levels of Varroa in the colony. Critically, you must protect the overwintering bees from Varroa exposure. Treat too late in the season and they will already be heavily infected …
  • Well-provisioned colonies have more than enough stores to survive the winter. The clustered colony will have to move relatively short distances to access the stores. As a beekeeper, you won’t have to constantly meddle with the colony, lifting the lid and crownboard to add additional stores in midwinter.
  • Weathertight colonies will be protected from draughts and damp 4.The hive must be weathertight and, preferably, not situated in a frost pocket or damp location 5.

Winter preparation

Once the honey supers are off all activities in the apiary are focused on ensuring that these four requirements for successful overwintering are achieved in a timely manner.

Clearing bees from wet supers ...

Clearing bees from wet supers …

Weak colonies are united with strong colonies. At this stage in the season – other than disease – the main reason a colony is likely to be weak is because the queen isn’t up to the job. If she’s not now, what chance has the colony got over the winter or early spring? 6

Varroa treatment is started as early as reasonably possible with the intention of protecting the overwintering bees from the ravages of DWV. This means now, not early October. Use an appropriate treatment and use it correctly. Apiguard, oxalic acid (Api-Bioxal), Apivar etc. … all have been discussed extensively here previously. All are equivalently effective if used correctly.

All colonies get at least one block (12.5kg) of bakers fondant, opened like a book and slapped (gently!) on the tops of the frames. An eke or an empty super provides the ‘headspace’ for the fondant block. All of the Varroa treatments listed above are compatible with this type of feeding simultaneously 7.

Hopefully, hives are already weathertight and secure. Other than strapping them to the hive stands to survive winter gales there’s little to do.

They think it’s all over!?

It is … almost 🙂


Colophon

They think it’s all over! is a quote by Kenneth Wolstenholme made in the closing stages of the 1966 World Cup final. Some fans had spilled onto the pitch just before Geoff Hurst scored the the last goal of the match (England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time), which Wolstenholme announced with “It is now, it’s four!”. This was the only World Cup final England have reached, whereas Germany have won four.

As Gary Lineker says “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6


 

 

Keeping your cool

Beekeepers sweat, men perspire and women glow, or something pretty close to that, was an adage that originated in a Victorian etiquette guide 1.

And, in the weather we’ve been enjoying recently, it’s not far from the truth.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen ... and beekeepers

Only mad dogs and Englishmen … and beekeepers

Beekeeping in hot weather

Even here on the East coast of Scotland we’ve had some long, hot and sunny days 2. It’s been perfect picnic weather, it’s made for a great Spring honey crop and it’s been purgatory doing colony inspections.

The first one or two are fine, but I soon warm up. After half a dozen hives, particularly when shifting nectar-laden supers off and on, or setting up double-boxed splits, it starts to get uncomfortable. An hour or so later and it’s really grim 3.

And it’s worse in the bee shed. The shelter and warmth that are so valuable on days with rubbish weather or at the extremes of the season, work against you in the heat of the summer. The temperature inside the shed regularly exceeds 30°C and, with no air movement, it can be stifling.

What’s the best way to cope with the heat?

Beesuits

BBwear Ultra suit

BBwear Ultra suit

Most of the major manufacturers make lightweight beesuits. I’ve got one from BBwear made from some sort of Teflon coated material. It’s certainly lightweight – about half the weight of my standard poly/cotton suit – but is saved for use when working in Varroa and disease-free areas. The relatively rare hot days we have don’t really justifying buying (yet) another full suit.

BBwear have recently introduced their Ultra suit made from a high tec fully ventilated 3D fabric’. At £359 (eke! 4) I’m unlikely to ever get to wear one 5, but I’d be very interested to hear of anyone who has experience of it.

For quick inspections a jacket is cooler than a full suit … but during quick inspections you’re unlikely to work up much of a lather.

The clothing you wear under the beesuit also has a big influence – shorts and a T-shirt are much better than jeans and a fleece.

And if you need to wear a fleece under your beesuit to provide protection against stings it’s time to requeen the colony.

Timing is everything

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

Inspecting colonies under the heat of the midday sun can be hard work. If time permits you could always inspect earlier or later in the day, or time your visit to the apiary so that the hives are in dappled shade rather than full sun.

Work commitments mean I often have to conduct inspections late in the afternoon. On hot days it is usually cooler by 5pm, but by the time I’ve got round most of the colonies it can be getting quite late 6.

Of course, as the day cools the hive fills with bees, making the important observation of the comb more difficult. This is compounded by fading light levels.

Given the choice – and I’m usually not – I’d probably prefer to inspect in mid-morning, once the bees are up and out, but without having to worry about running out of daylight or time.

The “You cannot be serious” 7 option

John McEnroe c.1979

John McEnroe c.1979

A headband is a very effective way to stop the sweat getting in your eyes, dripping off the end of your nose and splashing onto the inside of the veil. You might associate headbands (sweatbands) with tennis players or Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, but they are just as much use to overheating beekeepers. Just remember to retrieve it from the pocket of your beesuit at the end of the afternoon, rather than leave it festering in there until the inspections the following week … a damp and slightly fetid headband not only doesn’t look good, it also doesn’t smell good.

But it’s still very effective.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat 8

The near-ubiquitous baseball cap provides almost as much perspiration-protection as the headband and probably has a little more sartorial elegance (not difficult). They have the added advantage that, on windy days, the peak prevents the veil blowing against your face at precisely the same time the one aggressive bee in the colony decides to make a kamikaze attack.

Baseball caps work well under the ‘fencing veil’ hoods, but I cannot comment on their suitability for the wire-framed ‘retro’ hoods as these fit more closely to the crown (and I’ve never used one).

G’day, cobber 9

G'day Cobber

G’day Cobber

Cobber Enterprises make a neck scarf filled with water-absorbing gel granules. You soak it in water for ~15-25 minutes and wear it loosely tied around your neck (no surprises there). It works by evaporative cooling of the carotid arteries. I’ve had a couple of these for years 10 and have used them when walking in Southern Spain or Mallorca … and beekeeping. They need to be next to your skin and should be rotated periodically to find another cool patch.

They are extremely effective.

When writing this post I looked up the current pricing and availability of a Cobber. I was horrified to see they’re now over £20. However, you can dry them out and reuse them time and again. Mine appear to work as well now as they did when I got them about 15 years ago 11.

In Australia they’re about £7 🙁 12

Drinking on the job

The beekeeping veil provides protection to keep any bad tempered bees from your sensitive lips, tongue and eyes. However, it doesn’t prevent you rehydrating as required … you can simply guzzle water from a bottle directly through the veil. This works very well and is very refreshing on a long hot afternoon in the apiary.

However, stick to water only and avoid sticky, sugary drinks for obvious reasons. Drinking hot tea through the veil is possible, but not really recommended … not least because its ability to cool you be inducing sweating is probably negated by the fact you’re at least ‘glowing’ already.

And finally, once the inspections are all finished and the beesuit is hanging up (or destined for the washing machine), it’s time for a cuppa … or a ‘purely medicinal’ ice-cold beer 😉


Colophon

Of course, writing an article on good weather and beekeeping will more or less guarantee the rest of the summer is a wash-out. Sorry.

I should add that “other beesuit suppliers are available”. I list BBwear as they’re the only suits I’m familiar with … I’ve bought about a dozen over the last decade for home or work and never seen the need to change.

Anticipation

Finally, the winter appears to be receding and there’s pretty good evidence that the beekeeping season will shortly be starting. The early season pollen sources for the bees – snowdrops and crocus – are almost completely finished, but the willow is looking pretty good and the gorse is flowering well.

Actually, gorse flowers quite well year-round, but it’s only now warm enough for the bees to access it.

Difurzeion

From an evolutionary point of view I’ve wondered why gorse ‘bothers’ to flower in mid-winter when there must be almost no pollinating insects about. Of course, as Dobzhansky said in the 1970’s “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” … gorse flowers all year because there must be a selective advantage for it to do so.

Late December gorse ...

Late December gorse …

It turns out that it’s a little more complicated than me just being unable to observe winter-flying pollinating insects. Gorse probably flowers in midwinter for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there are winter-flying pollinators, at least on warmer days. Secondly, the flowers are a cunning design 1 that allows self-pollination, even when tightly closed on a cold, midwinter day when covered in snow. This probably explains the clonal expansion and invasiveness of the plant. Finally 2 weevils of the Exapion genus eat the seeds … by flowering, and subsequently setting seed in midwinter, the gorse can avoid the attention of the weevils, which need warmer weather 3.

Winter-flowering in gorse is genetically-determined. A winter-flowering plant probably gives rise to progeny plants that also flower in winter.

An apology

That was all a bit off-topic. However, it does explain the shocking pun used to head the previous section. Furze is another name for gorse, Ulex europaeus.

Now back to the bees …

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Inevitably we’ve had some April showers and the final bee moves over the last fortnight involved dodging the rain and wading through some minor flooding. Almost everything is now where it should be and – although perhaps a little later than usual – I can make some of the last-minute preparations for the season ahead.

Frames and supers

The beekeeping season in Scotland – or at least my beekeeping season – involves long periods of near-total inactivity interrupted by May and June, which are usually totally manic. This ~9 week period covers the major swarming season and the best time of the year to rear queens. Both can happen at other – generally later – times of the year, but the weather becomes a major influence on their success. The last two seasons have been characterised by rubbish weather in July and August, resulting in poorly mated late season queens.

A consequence of the expected frenetic activity in May and June is that there’s no time to leisurely make up a few frames, or assemble a few supers. If they’re not ready now, they probably won’t ever be.

I’ve therefore already built a couple of hundred frames and just have to fit the foundation into some of them. Many of the frames I use are foundationless, but a proportion still have foundation. The latter are useful to intersperse with foundationless to encourage the bees to draw parallel comb.

Supers and frames with drawn comb are all safely stacked up from last season. Sometime over the next fortnight I’ll finish checking the last of these boxes over. Do they have a full set of frames? Are all the frames drawn? It’s irritating grabbing a box or two in the middle of a good nectar flow to find they only contain three frames, or it’s unwired thin foundation and unsuitable for the OSR.

The other thing I do is tidy up wavy or bulging sections of drawn comb. These are the frames that the bees have drawn out, maintaining bee space with the adjacent frame, but that leave gaping holes when put next to a different drawn comb 4. Life is too short to try and pair up the frames correctly 5. Instead I just use a sharp breadknife to make the comb reasonably parallel with the frame top bar. The bees tidy it up quickly and it certainly makes mixing and matching frames from different supers much easier.

Fermenting honey

The other frame-related task is to go through the stacked up boxes of brood frames saved from last year. These, and the drawn super frames, are some of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has. Assuming the frames are in good condition and there haven’t been too many rounds of brood reared in the frames they are invaluable when making up nucs during the season.

Some of these brood frames will have inevitably contained nectar or uncapped honey at the end of the previous season. Over the winter this tends to ferment and make a bit of a mess. The nectar drips out unless the frames are held vertically. It can look bubbly or frothy and it pongs a bit (usually, and unsurprisingly, of yeast).

Washing frames ...

Washing frames …

I don’t like using these without cleaning them up a bit first. The bees usually clean up small amounts of fermented honey, but often ignore frames packed with the stuff. I shake out the fermented honey and soak the frames in a tub of water for a few minutes. I then shake out the water and leave them to air dry before storing them for the season ahead.

This is the sort of job that needs to be done on a cool, dry day. If it’s warm you’ll likely be plagued with bees investigating the smell.

Drying brood frames ...

Drying brood frames …

Brood frames just containing capped honey can be used ‘as is’. The bees don’t cap it until the water content is low enough to stop fermentation.

In contrast, the really old, black frames are either discarded outright or used for making up bait hives. There’s no point in trying to extract wax from them as there’s almost none left.

Be(e) prepared

Finally, the bee bag gets a spring clean. I empty everything out and chuck away all the rubbish that seems to accumulate during the season … the squeezed-together bits of brace comb, the torn nitrile gloves, the sheets of newspaper for uniting etc. Everything goes back together in labelled ice-cream cartons (‘daily’, ‘queen rearing’), having checked they contain the essentials – sharp scissors, Posca marking pens and a queen marking cage, additional cages for queen introduction, grafting glasses and a sable paintbrush etc.

I re-stock the honey bucket full of smoker fuel. This contains a mix of wood chip animal bedding, the lids of egg boxes not used to make firelighters and some lovely dried rotten wood. The smoker also gets its annual de-coke. Over the season you can get quite a build up of tarry, sooty deposits in the smoker, particularly on the inside of the lid. Using a blowtorch and a little encouragement from the pointed end of a hive tool it’s easy enough to clean all these out. As a result, the smoker will stay lit longer and generally work better.

Smoker de-coke ...

Smoker de-coke …

OK … bring it on 🙂


Colophon

This post was supposed to have been last week. However, a delayed flight meant I was stranded on the tarmac in ‘airplane’ mode when I should have been changing the scheduled posting date. D’oh! Instead Let there be light, which I’d written a couple of weeks ago and was already scheduled as a backup, snuck out. By the time it appears – the 20th of April – I expect to have conducted the first full set of inspections and I’ll be playing catch-up with the next couple of posts as the season kicks off.

Fife weather mid-April 2018

Fife weather mid-April 2018

Stop press … with great weather over the latter part of the week I’ve got round my apiaries and inspected all colonies. With the exception of the two known duds, all are queenright and building up to varying extents … from OK to very well. The strongest will need supering this weekend. Considering how long and cold the winter has been – average temperatures November to March have been 3-4°C – this was encouraging and 3 weeks earlier than I got into some colonies in 2017.

It was great to be beekeeping again 🙂

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

Despite the best efforts of the Beast from the East 1 Spring is definitely on the way.

The snowdrops and crocus have been out for some time, willow is looking good, large queen bumble bees are searching for nest sites and the temperature here in Fife has consistently reached double figures during the warmest part of the day for the last week.

Consistently … but only just and only briefly.

Pollen boost

Pollen boost …

Consequently it’s too cold for full inspections and the only colonies I’ve been ‘in’ are the two described below. However, I’ve not ignored the others. I’ve lifted the crownboard on most colonies to determine their approximate strength (or just peeked through those with perspex crownboards which is even less intrusive) and have continued to heft colonies to see if they have enough stores. Those that were feeling a bit light have had a fondant top up. I’ve also given several colonies a pollen boost to help them rear early season brood.

Other than that – and moving colonies to the new bee shed – I’ve left them well alone.

Early season checkups

On the warmest part of the warmest day of the week I visited the apiary to check the colony strength. With the exception of two, all were flying well with foragers returning laden with pale yellow pollen.

However, two were suspiciously quiet, with only a handful of bees going in and out 2.

A pretty small handful.

Almost none of the bees returning to these two colonies carried pollen.

One was a five frame poly nuc in the bee shed. This had been made up in mid/late summer while the parental colony was requeened. The old queen, a frame of emerging brood with the adhering bees and a frame of stores had gone into the nuc box. The little colony had built up reasonably well going by my infrequent peeks through the transparent crownboard, but not well enough to move them to a full hive for the winter.

The other suspiciously quiet colony was a full (or full-sized 🙁 ) hive headed by one of the older queens in my apiary. Most colonies are requeened annually or every other year, but this one was reared in my first year in Scotland (2015) 3.

I popped the lid off both colonies and examined them in greater detail. It wasn’t the recommended ‘shirtsleeve weather‘ by a long-shot, but I feared the worst and didn’t think a bit of cold would do these two any further damage.

Unfulfilled promise

The nuc contained about a cup full of bees and a small, unclipped pale queen.

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

This definitely wasn’t the queen I’d put in the box last August. For whatever reason, the colony had clearly replaced the queen late in the year. It hadn’t swarmed, so it looks like they’d tried to supercede the old queen. Going by the total absence of worker brood I presume the new queen hadn’t mated successfully, or at all, and that she was a virgin.

She wasn’t running about skittishly like new virgin queens do, but she wasn’t doing anything very useful either.

There were a few drones in the colony and one or two sealed drone cells. Whether these were from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, or laying workers, is largely irrelevant 4. The colony was doomed …

Worn out

The full sized colony was only full sized in terms of the hive it occupied. Inside there was another rather pathetic cupful of bees together with a very tatty, marked and clipped queen 5. There was more paint on her head than her thorax and I remember marking her with a very ‘blobby’ Posca pen. This was the queen I’d expected to find in the box.

Old and tired ...

Old and tired …

There were no drones in this colony, but no eggs either. There was also no sign of a second queen or evidence of attempted supercedure. I suspect the ageing queen simply ran out of sperm, stopped laying and never got started again.

Sometimes old queens turn into drone layers and sometimes they just stop. I’m not sure why they exhibit this different behaviour. It might actually reflect when they’re detected. I think I usually find drone laying queens a bit later in the Spring. Perhaps a failed queen starts laying (unfertilised) eggs only once the ambient temperature has risen sufficiently to help the much-reduced numbers of workers keep the brood nest warm enough?

That’s guesswork. It’s still cold here, with frost most nights. The small number of bees in the colony would have been unable to maintain the mid-30’s temperatures required for brood rearing. It’s surprising they’d survived this long.

Health check

Neither colony had any obvious signs of disease. The floor of the full hive was thigh-deep – if you’re a bee – in corpses.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses …

However, a good poke around through the cadavers failed to find any with signs of the deformed wings that are indicative of high viral loads. I hadn’t really expected to … the Varroa loads in this colony in the late-summer and midwinter treatments had been very low.

Corpses ...

Corpses …

Lose them or use them?

Clearly both queens had failed. Both were despatched. To keep them in the vain hope that they’d miraculously start laying again would have been a waste of time and, more importantly, other bees. The virgin would now be too old to get mated and there won’t be drones available here for at least 6 weeks.

This left the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bees. Both colonies were apparently healthy, but too small to survive. In the autumn the obvious thing to do is to unite small healthy colonies with large healthy colonies. This strengthens the latter further and helps them get through the winter.

However, this is the Spring. There were probably no more than 300 bees in either of the failed hives. All of these bees would have been at least 3 months old, and quite probably significantly older. They were unlikely to live much longer.

Furthermore, uniting these small colonies with larger colonies in the apiary would have caused disruption to the latter and increased the volume of the hive to be kept warm. Neither of these are desirable.

I therefore shook both small colonies out allowing the healthy flying bees to redistribute themselves around the half dozen strong hives in the apiary. Before shaking them out I either moved the original hive altogether or – in the case of the nuc from the shed – sealed the entrance, forcing them to look elsewhere for a colony to accept them.


Colophon

The term dud is used these days to mean a “thing that fails to function in the way that it is designed to”, with this usage dating back to the 1914-18 war where it referred to shells that failed to explode. However, the word is much older. Its original meaning was a cloak or mantle, often of coarse cloth, with references to the word dudde dating back to the 14th Century. Over the next few hundred years the meaning, in the plural duds, evolved to mean clothes and – more rarely but more specifically – ragged, shabby clothes or scraps of cloth. This seemed appropriate considering the tatty state of the old marked queen …