Category Archives: Principles

Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

Line ’em up

Honey sold via a third party needs to carry a label with all sorts of information on it 1. A well-labelled jar of honey looks good on the shelves and undoubtedly helps sales.

However, an attractive label does not need to be fancy, printed in colour or expensive to produce. I firmly believe that the contrast between a simple black and white label and the rich golden colour of the honey enhances the appearance of the end product. This helps sales.

Honey

Honey

If you are selling via a shop they are often have more than one type of honey on display. Your honey might well be next to a row of brightly labelled, mass produced (Product of EU and non-EU countries … and we all know what that means), factory packed jars … all looking uniformly – though perhaps blandly – identical.

In contrast you’re selling a top-quality, artisan product that is probably being sold at a premium price.

And if it’s not, it should be.

Artisans and amateurs

Remember that artisan does not mean amateur. It means traditionally produced, high quality and handmade by a skilled tradesman.

Therefore, your honey should not look amateur. If the jar contents look attractive, with no antennae or obvious wax crumbs, and the label is good then the individual jar should be very appealing.

But how do they look half a dozen at a time? All lined up in a row?

If the labels are all higgledy piggledy 2, neither being level on the individual jar or level with its neighbours, then you might not be conveying the impression you want.

Or if you are, you might be able to convey a better impression 😉

Line ’em up

With a steady hand, good lighting and a convenient ‘guide’ it is easy to reproducibly label jar after jar after jar after jar after jar 3 of honey.

I use offcuts of wood laminate flooring as the guide 4. These are available in a range of thicknesses from about 8 to 15mm. For the sizes of jars I use these represent a suitable distance to place place the label from the bottom of the jar.

I ‘offer up’ the label just touching the wood ‘guide’, check that it’s level and centred on the jar, then press it into place with my thumbs.

Labelling honey jars

Labelling honey jars

Four things that help in getting a reproducible finished effect:

  1. Easy peel labels that can be removed and reattached if you get it wrong
  2. Working at a reasonably high table to help with the lateral alignment
  3. Using square rather than round jars
  4. Practice

The square jars really help. More specifically it’s the guide butting up against the side of the jar that helps. If I routinely used round jars I’d cut a semi-circular hole in the edge of the guide – in a choice of sizes reflecting the diameter of the jar – to help align the label.

Once the front label is in place it’s a simple (but repetitive) task to turn the jar around and add the anti-tamper label, unless you’re the type who prefers to ‘trap’ it under the front label … in which case it obviously has to go on first.

Alternative approaches

There was a prize awarded recently at one of the large conventions (perhaps the National Honey Show?) for a lovely handcrafted wooden ‘cradle’ that held the jar and aligned the label. The principle was identical to that described above … just implemented much more elegantly. I thought this was made by Thomas Bickerdike who also produces lovely handcrafted wooden spoons. However, my Google-foo has failed to find it, so if you remember seeing it please post a link below.

Or, for a few hundred pounds, you could buy a labelling machine …


Colophon

Nice to see you ...

Nice to see you …

Line ’em up was a game from US version of the eternally popular game show The Price is Right. Amazingly (have you ever seen it?) this was recently voted the fifth best gameshow of all time.

Extraordinary … but not in a good way.

Botulism

Do not feed to infants

Do not feed to infants

I was recently asked, Why can’t you give young babies honey?

You can.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And on this point the NHS guidelines are very clear. You should not give honey to babies under 12 months of age because there is a risk that they might get botulism.

Bacteria, toxins and Botox

Botulism is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. As it grows, C. botulinum produces neurotoxins which cause a flaccid (floppy) paralysis and can result in respiratory failure. About 5-10% of cases are fatal, but infections thankfully very are rare.

Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, blurred vision and difficulty speaking and swallowing. The paralysis is ‘descending’, generally starting in the head and neck, then moving to the shoulders, arms, chest and lower limbs.

Botulinum toxin

Botulinum toxin

Unusually for a bacterial infection there is no fever. This reflects the fact that there’s probably only limited bacterial growth (which typically induces fever) and the potent neurotoxicity of the botulinum toxin. This toxin stops the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the nerve endings, thereby causing paralysis.

Botulinum toxin is one of the most acutely lethal toxins known. The lethal dose depends upon the route of administration, but is between 1.3 and 13 ng/kg 1.

Remember, botulinum toxin is the active ingredient in Botox.

No thanks. I’ll stick with the wrinkles 😉

Botulism cases in the UK/Europe

Botulism is a notifiable disease. Consequently, we have good data on the incidence of botulism in the UK and Europe. In 2014 there were 91 confirmed cases in the EU, with 14 cases reported in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Other than injecting drug users, a significant proportion of the cases are in infants – see below.

C. botulinum is widespread in the environment and infection usually occurs by ingestion of improperly prepared food e.g. undercooked or improperly canned foods, in which the bacteria survives.

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium botulinum

The bacteria grows in the absence of oxygen and produces the toxin during growth. Although the toxin is heat-inactivated if properly cooked (over 85°C), the bacterium also produces heat-resistant spores during growth. These spores can withstand temperatures over 100°C for long periods and usually require both high temperatures and pressures to inactivate them.

As a consequence of this the spores are also very widespread in the environment … cue the Jaws soundtrack … just waiting to encounter the correct conditions to germinate and initiate a new round of bacterial growth (and toxin production).

Botulism cases in children

About a third of all cases of botulism are in the 0-4 age group. I’ve been unable to find a more detailed breakdown by age, but there have been 19 cases of infant (children less than 12 months old) botulism in the UK since 1978.

In many cases of infant botulism the source of the spores is unknown. However, other than well-documented cases of contaminated milk powder, honey is the only food regarded as a significant risk factor. About 60% of cases of infant botulism are in babies with a history of honey consumption 2 and, in several cases, epidemiological follow-up has confirmed that honey was the source of the infection.

Treatment is not with antibiotics as it’s the toxin that causes the symptoms, not the bacteria. Instead patients are treated with immunoglobulin (antibodies) specific for the toxin. These inactivate toxicity fast and recovery is usually complete, but can be protracted.

C. botulinum spores in honey

Oxygen inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. So do acidic conditions. Honey is acidic, with a pH of about 3.9, which is too low for the bacterium to grow. However, the spores remain viable at low  pH. It is this contamination of honey with C. botulinum spores that poses a risk for infants.

It is possible to microbiologically examine honey for contamination with C. botulinum spores. When this has been done, 6-10% of honey samples tested were contaminated, with contamination levels estimated at 5 to 80 spores per gram of honey. The infectious dose for a human is estimated at 10-100 spores 3.

So … much less than one teaspoon of contaminated honey.

Despite this, there is no requirement for honey to carry a label warning that it should not be fed to infants. Instead, the Food Standards Agency recommend honey carries a warning that it is unsuitable for children under one year of age.

Why is infant botulism so rare?

If up to 10% of honey is contaminated with C. botulinum spores, why are there not many more cases of botulism in infants? After all, European paediatricians have even been known  to recommend honey – a long-standing traditional solution – as a means of soothing crying babies4.

The intestine of the developing baby is full of bacteria – the so-called commensal microbiota – all competing to get established and to lead a long, happy and healthy association with their human host. The spores of C. botulinum have to germinate and establish an infection in the face of this competition and, usually, they fail. A likely possibility is that infant botulism only occurs in babies in which the commensal microbiota have not properly developed … either because they are so young, because broad-spectrum antibiotic use has prevented the development of the microbiota or for a pre-existing genetic condition.


 

Survival of the fattest

Winter bees have high levels of vitellogenin, a glycolipoprotein 1, deposited in their fat bodies which act as a food reservoir for the long winter.

These fat winter bees are essential for the successful overwintering of the colony.

Last week I discussed the major points that need attention for overwintering i.e. strong, healthy colonies with ample food in a weathertight hive.

This week I want to explore the relationship between colony strength, health – specifically with regard to Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV) – and isolation starvation.

Isolation starvation describes the phenomenon where a small colony of tightly clustered honey bees gets isolated from the honey stores laid down in autumn, resulting – typically during protracted cold periods – in the colony starving to death.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

It’s both a pathetic and distressing sight. Bees, with their heads crammed into the bottom of cells searching for food, dying from starvation when literally inches away from capped stores.

Deaths and births

In temperate climates the winter is characterised by low temperatures and little or no forage for the bees. The queen usually stops laying sometime in autumn and starts again around the turn of the year. During the intervening period she may lay intermittently, but generally in limited amounts.

The fat bodied winter bees that are reared in late summer and early autumn are long-lived (about 6 months) and are responsible for getting the colony through the winter. They protect the queen, thermoregulate the hive and they help rear the brood raised in the autumn and through the winter.

In their absence – or if there are just too few of them – the colony will perish.

Winter bees do not all live for 6 months. The usual figure quoted is ~175 days 2. Some live shorter lives, some longer … up to 9 months under certain conditions.

Importantly, in studies I’ve discussed at length previously, high levels of DWV reduces the lifespan of winter bees. We know this because, in Varroa-infested colonies, researchers 3 have shown that the winter bees die off faster 4.

Live fast, die young

Winter bees with high levels of DWV don’t really live fast … but they do die young. In the studies above the average lifespan of winter bees was reduced by 20% in the colonies that died overwinter.

There are a couple of important things to note here. Dainat and colleagues were not looking at bees in the presence or absence of Varroa, or in the presence or absence of high or low levels of DWV. They simply looked at hives that succumbed in the winter or that survived, then measured DWV and Varroa levels. It’s a subtle but important difference. Their surviving colonies still had Varroa and DWV.

From analysis of hives that died or survived, and having marked known numbers of bees in late summer, they could determine the life expectancy of workers – in their surviving colonies it was ~88 days, in those that died it was ~71 days.

Healthy colonies

The gradual death of bees through the winter coupled with the reduced lifespan of winter bees with high levels of DWV explains why colonies need to be strong and healthy.

The following graphs are based upon modelled data 5, but show the influence of colony size and winter bee lifespan.

The first graph – the least important – simply shows the lifespan of bees. The graph plots the number of bees (on the vertical axis) in a population that die at a particular time (on the horizontal axis) after the start of the experiment. The blue bees have a longer average lifespan than the red bees 6.

Lifespan of winter bees

Lifespan of winter bees

In the following graphs remember that the blue bees are healthy, with low levels of Varroa and – consequently – low levels of DWV. The red bees are unhealthy and have high levels of Varroa and DWV.

Using this lifespan data we can look at the influence on the total number of winter bees in a colony (on the vertical axis) over time (horizontal). Imagine that the horizontal axis is the long, dark, wet and cold months of winter. Starting in early September and running through until late March.

Brrrr 🙁

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

It is clear, and of course entirely predictable, that the numbers of bees in the healthy (blue) colony are higher than those in the unhealthy colony at each time point. If the average lifespan is reduced (by disease) more bees will have died by a particular time point when compared with a healthy colony at the same timepoint.

Finally, consider that the shaded section of the graph represents the lower limit of bee numbers for viability. If the number of bees in the colony drops into this region the colony will perish.

Simplistically – and in reality – starting with similar numbers of bees a healthy colony will survive longer than an unhealthy colony.

Strong colonies

Using a similar approach we can also look at the influence of the average lifespan of winter bees on the survival of strong or weak colonies.

The following graph shows the numbers of bees in the colony over time for a strong colony (solid line) and a weak colony (dashed line) where worker bee lifespan is identical 7.

Winter bee numbers in strong and weak colonies.

Winter bee numbers in large (strong) and small (weak) colonies with the same average lifespan.

The shaded section of the graph again represents colony oblivion.

Large (strong) colonies take longer to drop below the threshold for viability and so – all other things being equal – will survive longer 8.

Mix’n’match

A strong colony with high levels of Varroa and DWV might actually survive less well than a weak but healthy colony.

Strong unhealthy colonies might survive less well than weak healthy colonies.

Large unhealthy colonies might survive less well than small healthy colonies.

In this graph the weak but healthy colony drops below the ‘viability threshold’ after the strong but unhealthy colony 9.

Winter bees and brood rearing

This is modelled data, but it makes the point clearly. Large and/or healthy colonies retain more of the all-important winter bees and so survive longer.

Simples.

The differences might not appear marked. However, for convenience 10 I’ve omitted the influence of winter bee numbers on the ability of the colony to rear brood.

If there are more winter bees, the colony is able to thermoregulate the hive better. It’s therefore able to keep any brood present warm. It’s therefore able to rear more brood.

As a consequence, the differences in bee numbers between the large or small, or the healthy and unhealthy, colonies will be much more striking.

Critically 11 the strength of the colony coming out of the winter is often the rate-limiting determinant for spring build-up to exploit early season nectar flows. Weak colonies develop less well.

Isolation starvation

Finally, returning to that pathetic little cluster of starving bees in the image at the top of the page. What is the relationship between colony health, strength and isolation starvation?

It’s now time to dust off my weak-to-non-existent Powerpoint skills …

Isolation starvation schematic

Isolation starvation schematic

Again, it’s straightforward. A large (strong) overwintering colony (A above) only has to move a short distance to access stores in midwinter. In contrast, a small (weak) overwintering colony has to move much further.

Consequently, small colonies become isolated from their stores during long, cold periods when the colony is clustered.

Prediction

Many beekeepers will be familiar with isolation starvation of overwintering colonies.

Most would explain this in terms of “very cold weather and the cluster was unable to reach its stores”.

Some would explain this in terms of “the colony was far too small to reach the stores when clustered”.

Very few would explain this in terms of “the Varroa and DWV levels were too high because of poor disease management last autumn. Inevitably most of my winter bees died off early in the winter, leaving a very small cluster of bees that were unable to reach the stores..

I suspect the real cause of isolation starvation is probably disease … specifically poor management of Varroa levels and consequently high levels of DWV in the colony.


Colophon

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Another post, another poor pun in the title. Survival of the fittest encapsulates the Darwinian evolutionary principle that the form of an organism that survives is the one able to leave the most copies of itself in future generations. Darwin didn’t actually use the term until the 5th edition (1869) of his book On the origin of the species. Instead, the phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer in 1864 after reading Darwin’s book. Whilst ‘survival of the fittest’ suggests natural selection, Spencer was also a proponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Lamarckism.

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.”

Robbery

Robber

Robber

Another apiculture-flavoured tale of daylight robbery, literally, to follow the post on hive and bee thefts last week.

However, this time it’s not dodgy bee-suited perps with badly inked prison tats offering cheap nucs down the Dog and Duck.

Like other offenders, the robbers this week wear striped apparel, but this time it’s dark brown and tan, or brown and yellow or black and yellow.

I am of course referring to honey bees and wasps (Vespa vulgaris and V. germanica), both of which can cause major problems at this time of year by robbing weak colonies.

Carb loading

The season here – other than for those who have taken colonies to the heather – is drawing to a close. The main nectar sources have more or less dried up in the last fortnight. There’s a bit of rosebay willow herb and bramble in the hedgerows and some himalayan balsam in the river valleys, but that’s about it.

Colonies are strong, or should be. With the dearth of nectar in the fields, the foragers turn their attention to other colonies as a potential source of carbohydrates. Colonies need large amounts of stores to get through the winter and evolution has selected a behavioural strategy – robbing of weaker colonies – to get as much carbohydrate from the easiest possible sources.

Like the nucs you carefully prepared for overwintering 🙁

At the same time, wasps are also wanting to pile in the carbs before winter 1. In the last fortnight the wasp numbers in my apiaries and equipment stores have increased significantly.

Jekyll and Hyde

Within a few days in late summer/early autumn the mood and attitude of colonies in the apiary changes completely.

During a strong nectar flow the bees single-mindedly pile in the stores. They alight, tail-heavy, on the landing board, enter the hive, unload and set out again. There’s a glut and they ignore almost anything other than bingeing on it. Inspections are easy. Most bees are out foraging and they are – or should be – well-tempered and forgiving. 

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

But then the nectar flow, almost overnight, stops.

Colonies become markedly more defensive. They are packed with bees and they’re tetchy. There’s nothing to distract them, they resent the intrusion and they want to protect their hard-won stores 2.

At the same time, they quickly become more inquisitive, investigating any potential new source of sugar. If you shake the bees off a frame and leave it standing against the leg of the hive stand there will be dozens of foragers – many from nearby colonies – gorging themselves on the nectar.

If you spill unripened nectar from a frame they’re all over it, quickly forming a frenzied mass – probably from several different hives – scrabbling to ‘fill their boots’.

They also closely investigate anything that smells of nectar or honey. Stacks of equipment, empty supers, hive tools, the smoker bellows … anything.

Robbing

And it’s this behaviour that can quickly turn into robbing.

The foragers investigate a small, dark entrance that smells of honey … like a nuc in the corner of the apiary. They enter unchallenged or after a little argy-bargy 3, find the stores, stuff themselves, go back to their colony and then return mob-handed.

Before long, the nuc entrance had a writhing mass of bees trying to get in, any guards present are soon overwhelmed and, in just a few hours, it’s robbed out and probably doomed.

This is the most obvious – and rather distressing – form of robbing. Wasps can do almost exactly the same thing, with similarly devastating consequences.

Prevention is better than cure

Once started (and obvious), robbing is difficult to stop. About the only option is to seal the target hive and remove it to another apiary a good distance away.

Far better to prevent it happening in the first place.

The best way of preventing robbing is to maintain large, strong and healthy colonies. With ample bees there are ample guards and the colony will be able to defend itself from both bees and wasps. Strong colonies are much more likely to be the robbers than the robbed.

For smaller colonies in a full-sized hive, or nucleus colonies or – and these are the most difficult of all to defend – mini-nucs used for queen mating, it’s imperative to make the hive easy to defend and minimise attracting robbers to the apiary in the first place.

The underfloor entrances on kewl floors are much easier to defend than a standard entrance and small entrances are easier to defend than large ones. ‘Small’ might mean as little as one bee-width … i.e. only traversable by a single bee at a time.

Smaller is better ...

Smaller is better …

You can even combine the two; insert a 9mm thick piece of stripwood into the Kewl floor entrance to reduce the space to be defended to a centimetre or two. If – as happened tonight when returning wet supers to the hives – I don’t have a suitable piece of stripwood in the apiary I use a strip of gaffer tape to reduce the entrance 4.

Gaffer tape is also essential to maintain the integrity of the hive if some of the supers are a bit warped. Wasps can squeeze through smaller holes than bees and the quick application of a half metre along the junction between boxes can save the day 5.

The poly nucs I favour have a ridiculously large entrance which I reduce by 90% using foam blocks, dried grass, gaffer tape, wire mesh or Correx.

Correx, the beekeepers friend ...

Correx, the beekeepers friend …

Don’t tempt them

Finally, reduce the inducement robbers – whether bees or wasps – have to investigate everything in the apiary by not leaving open sources of nectar, not spilling honey or syrup, clearing up brace comb and ensuring any stored equipment is ‘bee proof’.

You don’t need to inspect as frequently at this time of the season. The queen will have reduced her laying rate and colonies are no longer expanding. With no nectar coming in they should have sufficient space in the brood nest. There’s little chance they will swarm.

If you don’t need to inspect, then don’t. The ability to judge this comes with experience.

If you do have to inspect (to find, mark and clip a late-season mated queen for example 6 do not leave the colony open for longer than necessary. Any supers that are temporarily removed should be secured so bees and wasps cannot access them.

Wet supers

If you’re returning wet supers after extraction, do it with the minimum disruption late in the evening. These supers absolutely reek of honey and attract robbers from far and wide. Keep the supers covered – top and bottom – gently lift the crownboard, give them a tiny puff of smoke, place the supers on top, replace the roof and leave them be.

Returning wet supers

Returning wet supers …

In my experience wet supers are the most likely thing to trigger a robbing frenzy. I usually reduce the entrance at the same time I put the wet supers back and try to add wet supers to all the colonies in the apiary on the same evening 7.

I generally don’t inspect colonies until the supers are cleaned out and ready for storage.


 

Thieving b(ee)’stards

HMP Bee Shed

HMP Bee Shed

There’s something both vaguely amusing and deeply repellent about hive and bee thefts.

Vaguely amusing in terms of the way the press cover it and possibly in the way it’s perceived by the general public. The latter have visions of beesuited ‘rustlers’ rounding up ‘herds’ of bees and making off with them in the dead of night. The press do little to alter this perception, generally stressing the large number of individual bees stolen in articles littered with beekeeping gaffes.

The deeply repellent aspect of honey bee thefts is that most must be carried out by beekeepers.

Handling bees in large numbers is a daunting prospect for most of the general public. Even the most light-fingered ne’er-do-well is likely to think twice about making off with a 40 litre box packed with stinging insects.

It requires specialist knowledge and equipment … or, in their absence, tener cojones as the Spanish say.

Bee and hive theft is not like a ned1 stealing a smartphone and flogging it at a car boot sale … it’s more like a surgeon being involved in organ trafficking.

Whether to make up for their own beekeeping inadequacies or simply to make a quick profit, this type of ‘inside job’ is an unsavoury reminder that some – hopefully a very few – ‘beekeepers’ have criminal tendencies and cannot be trusted.

Prepare to be amused

“Rustler steals 40,000 bees in Britain’s biggest hive heist in years” is a recent headline in The Guardian. The article describes the theft of a single hive (presumably gold-plated as it’s valued at £400, though perhaps this price reflects the fact that it’s the ‘biggest’ hive) from a ‘ditch’ in Anglesey, blaming the recent increase in bee thefts on the spiralling cost of ‘nukes’ (sic).

The Daily Mail announces that bee hives are stolen and sold for up to £8,000 a time, and helpfully illustrate the article with a picture of a bumble bee (almost certainly a male) and the caption “Some queen bees are worth £180 …”.

Actually ... some breeder queens cost €450

Actually … some breeder queens cost €450

I can’t help but think that the emphasis on the ‘value’ encourages some of the thefts. After all, what else valued at £400 (or £8000 for that matter) do you know about that’s left unattended and unlocked for days at a time in a remote corner of a farmer’s field.

As an aside, The Daily Mail obviously don’t realise that some breeder queens sell for a lot more than £180 …  😯

Scaling up

It’s not really clear from the Daily Mail article (above) whether it was one or many hives that were stolen. However, since many apiaries will contain multiple hives, it’s not unusual to have the entire lot vanish.

Another poorly punned headline from The Telegraph announces “Britain’s biggest bee sting: One million insects stolen from Oxfordshire hives”, choosing to emphasise the total number of insects, rather than the 40 hives that went missing.

Pedantically, the hives and  the bees were stolen … they didn’t just take the bees, though that happens as well as will soon become clear.

But, as with so many other things, you need to go across the Atlantic to experience the biggest bee and hive thefts. The scale of commercial beekeeping operations in the USA means that there’s added incentive and opportunity. Two ‘beekeepers’ were charged in 2017 with the theft of 2,500 hives (no need to count the bees this time, hive numbers alone were sufficiently impressive) worth almost $1M.

Hives were stolen from apiaries at night, spirited away on a flatbed trailer and moved to an isolated location where they were repainted. “It looked like a chop shop for bee hives,” Fresno detectives said.

Not hiding hives

The Oxfordshire bee heist was of overwintering hives in a field that “couldn’t be seen from the road”. As I’ve previously discussed, obscurity does not guarantee security.

High resolution satellite imagery is increasingly available and it’s easy to find apiaries. While preparing this post I looked at Google and Bing maps of an apiary I know well. It is effectively invisible from public roads or the adjacent football pitch.

The satellite images are taken at different times 2, so aren’t identical. The first two images are at about the same scale. The three white rectangles in the Bing maps image are poly tunnels, each about 5-6 metres long. The regularly-spaced hives are pretty obvious.

The image on the right is the current enhanced Google maps view, in this individual hives can clearly be counted. You can even discriminate between paving slabs with hives on stands and those that are unoccupied.

A beekeeper thief could spend a few winter evening scanning these sorts of satellite images and easily identify likely apiaries, whether they can be seen from the road or not.

Security

I’m going to write more extensively in the future about deterring thieves as there’s a more important topic to cover here.

You can place hidden cameras near the apiary (to catch a thief … or obvious ones to deter). There are now ways of installing GPS-trackers in hives. These trigger a remote alarm if moved. You can ‘label’ equipment and make it uniquely traceable using SmartWater-like solutions.

Alternatively you can consider physical deterrents, like simply screwing the hive floor to the stand (from inside the hive). It’s unlikely the thief will have spare floors. I’ve heard of people plugging a hole through the hive floor with a bung, the latter firmly attached to the hive stand. The thief places the hive in the back of the estate car and … you can imagine the rest 🙂

Apiary gate

Apiary gate

Or just use an enormous fence and a big padlock.

Gamekeeper turned poacher

For reasons outlined in the opening paragraph I suspect the majority of these thefts are by beekeepers or – as Martin Smith of the BBKA puts it – “beekeepers or at least those with a rudimentary knowledge of the craft”.3

A recent theft announced on the Sottish Beekeepers Association interactive forum (SBAi) clearly emphasises the involvement of beekeepers. Here are the relevant bits of the post:

… Came across a set of plainly disturbed hives near Dundee today whilst doing heather prep[arations]. These were double deep hives with brood in 12 to 15 bars, plenty food and pollen, but were being robbed. Almost no bees, no queen, no q.cells, brood in all stages inc eggs, combs not back in correct order …

Large hives, full of brood but empty of bees. Odd. The poster (a hugely experienced commercial beekeeper) concludes:

Shook swarms plainly been removed from them.

Conducting shook swarms on large double brood colonies is unlikely to be the work of someone with just a rudimentary knowledge of the art. Done properly, it involves first finding and caging the queen, then shaking all the bees off all the frames. It’s hard work and to someone unused to working with lots of bees it would be a daunting undertaking.

Pssst … wanna buy a nuc?

The SBAi post author suggests that the likely fate for those bees is to be split into nucs and sold on to unsuspecting beekeepers. It’s really a bit late in the season … remember that you should ideally only buy nucs with at least 2-3 frames of brood in all stages from the queen in the box 4.

However, beginners desperate for bees who don’t purchase from a known and trusted source are unlikely to be worrying about the quality of the bees they buy.

I never knew there was so much in it …

But those beginners purchasing nucs are possibly getting more than they bargained for, as is clear from the rest of the post on the SBAi:

The bad news for the thief is that this apiary has had EFB [European foulbrood] earlier in the summer and is still under a standstill order, and one of the hives shaken was the one next to the (removed and destroyed earlier) EFB case. This must be considered a super high risk bit of theft ………… so if you are offered bees by an unknown source in the area be very very careful.

It’s not really bad news for the thief … but it is for the purchaser, or potentially for anyone in the area (or outside the area) who keeps bees and may now get a potentially EFB-infected colony5 in the garden next door 🙁

Ironically, great advances have been made recently in molecular fingerprinting of foulbroods to determine transmission pathways. This is similar to the DNA fingerprinting that can unambiguously link a person to the scene of a crime. It should soon be possible to definitively demonstrate the EFB in that dodgy nuc you bought from the bloke in The Crooks Arms public house was from bees stolen from an apiary ‘near Dundee’.

Nuc behind bars

Nuc behind bars

Caveat emptor

That’s a doubly sour note to end on. One or more beekeepers must have been involved and it could result in the further spread of EFB.

It’s been a great summer for bees. Many experienced beekeepers will likely have an excess of bees at this time of the season. The usual high demand for nucs in early Spring has probably all been met. However, there will still be people wanting to start beekeeping.

It is this group of novices that might end up buying a poorly balanced nuc of stolen bees with a side order of EFB.

What Not a bargain.

If you do want to buy bees6 then:

  • Buy local bees.
  • Buy from a known or trusted source. Ask around. The beekeeping community is pretty small. Most beekeepers and beekeeping associations are very approachable.
  • Inspect the nuc before purchase. If there’s little or no brood, frames with undrawn foundation or an obvious mix of bees then do not buy it.

Finally, if you don’t know whether the bees are local, whether the source is trusted or whether the nuc is high quality … stop.

Get some training, get a mentor and get some help with the purchase.


Colophon

The title of this post is an obvious bee-flavoured concatenation of a well known insult that strikes hard at one’s personal integrity and social standing, both, in an economy of words”.

The simpler concatenation to B’Stard was used by the late Rik Mayall as the surname of his character (Sir Alan Beresford B’Stard) in The New Statesman, a late-80’s sitcom satirising the then Conservative Party government. B’Stard would stop at nothing to fulfil his megalomaniac ambition. He was “selfish, greedy, dishonest, devious, lecherous, sadistic, self-serving”. 

It strikes me that most of these terms could also be applied to bee rustlers.

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Sphere of influence

How far do honey bees fly? An easy enough question, but one that is not straightforward to answer.

The flight range of the honeybee ...

The flight range of the honeybee …

Does the question mean any honey bee i.e. workers, drones or the queen? As individuals, or as a swarm?

Is the question how far can they fly? Or how far do they usually fly?

Why does any of this matter anyway?

Ladies first …

Workers

The first definitive experiments were done by John Eckert in the 1930’s. He located apiaries in the Wyoming badlands at increasing distances from natural or artificial forage 1. Essentially the bees were forced to fly over a moonscape of rocks, sand, sagebrush and cacti to reach an irrigated area with good forage. He then recorded weight gain or loss of the hives located at various distances from the forage.

Wyoming badlands

Wyoming badlands …

The original paper can be found online here (PDF). The experiments are thorough, explained well and make entertaining reading. They involved multiple colonies and were conducted in three successive years.

Surprisingly, Eckert showed that bees would forage up to 8.5 miles from the colony. This means they’d be making a round trip of at least 17 miles – and probably significantly more – to collect pollen and nectar.

However, although colonies situated within 2 miles of the nectar source gained weight, those situated more than 5 miles away lost weight during the experiments.

Gain or loss in hive weight ...

Gain or loss in hive weight …

Therefore, bees can forage over surprisingly long distances, but in doing so they use more resources than they gain.

John Eckert was the co-author (with Harry Laidlaw) of one of the classic books on queen rearing 2. His studies were probably the first thorough analysis of the abilities of worker bees to forage over long distances. Much more recently, Beekman and Ratnieks interpreted the waggle dance (PDF) of bees to calculate foraging distances to heather. In these studies, only 10% of the bees foraged ~6 miles from the hive, although over 50% travelled over 3.5 miles.

Queens

Queens don’t get to do a lot of flying. They go on one or two matings flights, perhaps preceded by shorter orientation flights, and they might swarm.

Heading for a DCA near you ...

Heading for a DCA near you …

I’ll deal with swarms separately. I’ll also assume that the orientation flights are no greater than those of workers (I don’t think there’s any data on queen orientation flight distance or duration) at no more than ~300 metres 3.

On mating flights the queen flies to a drone congregation area (DCA), mates with multiple drones and returns to the colony. DCA’s justify a complete post of their own, but are geographically-defined features, often used year after year.

There are a number of studies on queen mating range using genetically-distinguishable virgin queens and drones in isolated or semi-isolated locations. They ‘do what they say on the tin’, drone congregate there and wait for a virgin queen

In the 1930’s Klatt conducted studies using colonies on an isolated peninsula and observed successful mating at distances up to 6.3 miles

Studies in the 1950’s by Peer demonstrated that matings could occur between queens and drones originally separated by 10.1 miles 4. These studies showed an inverse relationship between distance and successful mating.

More recently, Jensen et al., produced data that was in agreement with this, with drone and queen colonies separated by 9.3 miles still successfully mating 5.

However, this more recent study also demonstrated that more than 50% of matings occurred within 1.5 miles and 90% occurring within 4.6 miles.

Just because they can, doesn’t mean they do 🙂

Drones … it takes 17 to tango …

Seventeen of course, because that’s one queen and an average of 16 drones 😉

There’s a problem with the queen mating flight distances listed above. Did the queen fly 9 miles and the drone fly just a short distance to the DCA?

Or vice versa?

10 miles ... you must be joking!

10 miles … you must be joking!

Or do they meet in the middle?

Do queens choose 6 to fly shorter distances because it minimises the risk of predation and because they are less muscle-bound and presumably less strong flyers than drones?

Alternatively, perhaps drones have evolved to visit local DCAs to maximise the time they have aloft without exhausting themselves flying miles first?

Or getting eaten.

It turns out that – at least in these long-distance liaisons – it’s the queen that probably flies further. Drones do prefer local DCAs 7 and most DCAs are located less than 3 miles from the ‘drone’ apiary 8.

Swarms

I’ve discussed the relocation of swarms recently. Perhaps surprisingly (at least in terms of forage competition), swarms prefer to relocate relatively near the originating hive. Metres rather than miles.

The sphere of influence

Effective foraging – in terms of honey production (or, for that matter, brood rearing) – occurs within 2-3 miles of the hive. This distance is also the furthest that drones usually fly to occupy DCAs for mating.

Queens can fly further, but it’s the law of diminishing returns. Literally. The vast majority of matings occur within 5 miles of the hive.

In fact, other than under exceptional circumstances, a radius of 5 miles from a colony probably represents its ‘sphere of influence’ … either things that can influence the colony, or that the colony can influence.

Why does this matter?

Worker flight distances are relevant if you want to know the nectar sources your bees are able to exploit, or the pollination services they can provide. In both cases, closer is better. It used to also be relevant in trying to track down the source of pesticide kills, though fortunately these are very much rarer these days.

Closer is better ...

Closer is better …

Workers not only fly to forage on plants and trees. They also fly to rob other colonies. I don’t think there are any studies on the distances over which robbing can occur, but I’ve followed bees the best part of a mile across fields from my apiary to find the source of the robbing 9.

All of these movements can also transport diseases about, either in the form of phoretic Varroa mites piggybacking and carrying a toxic viral payload, or as spores from the foulbroods.

Drone and queen flight distances are important if you’re interested in establishing isolated mating sites to maintain particular strains of bees. My friends in the Scottish Native Honey Bee Society have recently described their efforts to establish an isolated queen mating site in the Ochil Hills.

And I’m interested as I now have access to a site over 6 miles from the nearest honey bees in an area largely free of Varroa.

It’s not the Wyoming badlands, but it’s very remote 🙂


 

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 🙂