Category Archives: Efficiency

Unknown knowns

If there’s one thing that can be almost guaranteed about the beekeeping season ahead it’s that it will be unpredictably predictable. I can be pretty sure what is going to happen, but not precisely when it’s going to happen.

These are the unknown knowns.

The one thing I can be sure about is that once things get started it will go faster than I’d like … both in terms of things needing attention now (or yesterday 🙁 ) and in the overall duration of the season.

So, if you know what is coming – spring build up, early nectar flow, swarming, queen rearing, splits, summer nectar flow, robbing, uniting, wasps, Varroa control and feeding colonies up for winter – you can be prepared.

As Benjamin Franklin said …

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

Preparation involves planning for the range of events that the season will (or could) produce.

It also involves ensuring you have additional equipment to cope with the events you’ve planned for.

Ideally, you’ll also have sufficient for the events you failed to include in your plans but that happened anyway 😉

Finally, it involves purchasing the food and treatments you need to manage the health and winter feeding of the colony 1 .

So what do you need to plan for?

Death and taxes 2

The two utterly dependable events in the beekeeping season are – and this is likely to be a big disappointment for new 3 beekeepers – Varroa control and feeding.

Not an outrageous early spring honey crop, not ten weeks of uninterrupted balmy days for queen rearing, not even lots of swarms in your bait hives (freebees) … and certainly not supers-full of fabulous lime or heather honey.

Sorry 😉

So … plan now how you are going to feed the colony and how you are going to monitor and manage mites during the season.

Feeding usually involves a choice between purchased syrup, homemade syrup or fondant. I almost exclusively use fondant and so always have fondant in stock. I also keep a few kilograms of sugar to make syrup if needed.

Buy it in advance because you might need it in advance. If it rains for a month in May there’s a real chance that colonies will starve and you’ll need to feed them.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

I’ve discussed mites a lot on this site. Plan in advance how you will treat after the summer honey comes off and again in midwinter. Buy an appropriate 4 treatment in advance 5. That way, should your regular mite-monitoring indicate that levels are alarmingly high, you can intervene immediately.

Having planned for the nailed-on certainties you can now turn your attention to the more enjoyable events in the beekeeping year … honey production and reproduction.

Honey production

Preparing for the season primarily means ensuring you have sufficient equipment, spares and space for whatever the year produces.

In a good season – long sunny days and seemingly endless nectar flows – this means having more than enough supers, each with a full complement of frames.

How many is more than enough?

More supers

More supers

Here on the east coast of Scotland I’ve not needed more than three and a bit per hive i.e. a few hives might need four in an exceptional summer (like 2018). When I lived in the Midlands it was more.

Running out of supers in the middle of the nectar-flow-to-end-all-nectar-flows is a frustrating experience. Boxes get overcrowded, the bees pack the brood box with nectar, the queen runs out of laying space and the honey takes longer to ripen 6.

Without sufficient supers 7 you’ll have to beg, borrow or steal some mid-season.

Which is necessary because … it’s exactly the time the equipment suppliers have run out of the supers, frames and foundation you desperately need.

And so will all of your beekeeping friends …

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Not that you’ve necessarily got the time to assemble the things anyway 😉

Don’t forget the brood frames

You’ll need more brood frames every season. A good rule of thumb is to replace a third of these every year.

There are a variety of ways of achieving this. They can be rotated out (moving the oldest, blackest frames to the edge of the box) during regular inspections, or you can remove frames following splits/uniting or through Bailey comb changes.

Irrespective of how it’s achieved, you will need more brood frames and – if you use foundation – you’ll need more of that as well.

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames …

And the suppliers will sell out of these as well 🙁

But that’s not all …

You will also need sufficient additional brood frames for use during swarm prevention and control and – if that didn’t work – subsequent rescue of the swarm from the hedge.

Swarmtastic

In a typical year the colony will reproduce. Reproduction involves swarming. If the colony swarms you may lose the bees that would have produced your honey.

You can make bees or you can make honey, but it takes real skill and a good year to make both.

And to make both you’ll need spare equipment.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Knowing that the colony is likely to swarm in late spring, you need to plan in advance how you will manage the hive to control or prevent swarming. This generally means providing them with ample space (a second brood box … so yet more brood frames) and, if that doesn’t work 8, manipulating the colony so that it doesn’t swarm.

Which means an additional complete hive (floor, brood box, yet more brood frames, crownboard, roof) if you plan to use Pagdens’ artificial swarm.

Alternatively, with slightly less equipment, you can conduct a vertical split which is essentially a vertically orientated artificial swarm.

Or you can use a nucleus (nuc) box to house the old queen … a very straightforward method I’ll discuss in more detail later this season.

Bait hives and skeps

I don’t like losing swarms. I’ve previously discussed the responsibilities of beekeepers, which includes not subjecting the general public to swarms that might harm or frighten them, or establish a colony in their roof space.

But I do like both attracting swarms and re-hiving swarms of mine that ‘escaped’ (temporarily 😉 ). I always set out bait hives near my apiaries. If properly set up these efficiently attract swarms (your own or from other beekeepers) and save you the trouble of teetering at the top of a ladder to recover the swarm from an apple tree.

But if you end up doing the latter you’ll need a skep 9 or a nice, light, large poly nuc box to carefully drop the swarm into.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Don’t forget the additional brood frames you will need in your bait hive or in the hive you eventually place the colony in the skep into 😉

Planned reproduction

You’re probably getting the idea by now … beekeeping involves a bit more than one hive tucked away in the corner of the garden.

Not least because you really need a minimum of two colonies.

A quick peek inside the shed of any beekeeper with more than 3 years experience will give you an idea of what might be needed. Probably together with a lot of stuff that isn’t needed 😉

Storage shed

Storage shed

By planned reproduction I mean ‘making increase’ i.e. deliberately increasing your colony numbers, or rearing queens for improving your own stocks (or those of others).

This can be as simple as a vertical split or as complicated as cell raising colonies, grafting and mini mating nucs.

By the time most beekeepers get involved in this aspect of the hobby 10 they will have a good idea of the additional specialised equipment needed. This need not be complicated and it certainly is not expensive.

I’ve covered some aspects of queen rearing previously and will write more about it this season.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Of course, once you start increasing your colony numbers you will need additional brood boxes, supers, nuc boxes, floors, roofs, stands, crownboards, queen excluders and – of course – frames.

And a bigger shed 😉


Colophon

The title of this post is an inelegant butchering of part of a famous statement from Donald Rumsfeld, erstwhile US Secretary of Defense. While discussing evidence for Iraqi provision of weapons of mass destruction Rumsfeld made the following convoluted pronouncement:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The unknown known

The unknown known

If you can be bothered to read through that lot you’ll realise the one thing Rumsfeld didn’t mention are the unknown knowns.

However, as shown in the image, this was the title of the 2013 Errol Morris documentary on Rumsfeld’s political career. In this, Rumsfeld defined the “unknown knowns” [as] “things that you know, that you don’t know you know.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, claimed that Rumsfeld doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” ... though she wasn’t referring to the unknown knowns.

 

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.

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 🙂

The Goldilocks principle

The Goldilocks principle refers to the concept of “just the right amount” of whatever is being considered.

In this case, honey bee colonies.

Beekeeping is a fascinating pastime. During the season – say April to September – there’s lots to keep you occupied and lots to keep your interest.

These are not always the same thing.

Weekly inspections for a start. Swarm prevention as the season properly gears up. Queen rearing. Swarms. Harvesting the early season honey. Possibly more swarms. The summer honey harvest. Autumn Varroa management. Uniting colonies and preparing colonies for winter.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in the apiary …

It’s quieter in the winter, but there’s still lots to do. Preparation for the coming season. Bottling and selling honey. Making equipment. Scouting new out apiaries. Buying more equipment. Midwinter Varroa treatment 1. Fondant top-ups for underweight colonies. Cleansing and sterilising equipment.

And all of the above needs to be done for every colony you have.

One is not enough

I’ve previously written of the importance of managing more than one colony.

The comparison is invaluable. Is the colony you’re worrying about really doing badly, or is it just that there’s a dearth of nectar and all colonies are struggling at the moment?

In addition, if there really are problems with one colony – queenlessness or bad temper for example – you can ‘rescue’ them by taking appropriate action and a frame of eggs from your other colony. Or you can unite the colonies if it’s too late in the season to rear another queen. Frankly, it’s a no brainer …

Two National hives and Himalayan balsam

Two will do …

Logically, the amount of work involved in managing two colonies is double that of one colony.

Except, it isn’t.

Quite a bit of beekeeping is preparation and clearing up afterwards. For example, travelling to and from the apiary, preparing syrup, lighting the smoker, cleaning the extractor and so on. Most of these tasks take little or no more time if you’re dealing with two colonies rather than one.

The actual inspections may take twice the time, but that’s about it.

Even then, you’ll be getting twice the practice when you do inspect, so you’ll probably get more efficient, faster, with two colonies rather than one. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s a no brainer.

From too few to more than enough

Beginners often struggle in their early years of beekeeping 2. Sometimes they have too few bees in the hive. The colonies are weaker than they should be to exploit the forage or to overwinter successfully. Or they lose queens during the season, suffer an extended broodless period, and need to beg or borrow a queen from elsewhere to keep the colony together. It all looked so easy in the books or in that midwinter theory course.

Except, it isn’t.

But, assuming they don’t give up, all this time they’re gaining valuable experience – week by week, month by month and year by year.

And then they pass some sort of invisible inflexion point in their beekeeping ‘career’. This is the point after which they will always have enough bees. Their colony management skills are now good enough to keep large, prolific hives. These crowded colonies necessitate careful swarm prevention and control. Colony numbers can be increased easily.

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

From having too few bees they can now rapidly reach the point of having too many. They learn how easy it is to make increase 3 using a well-timed vertical split of a vigorous, healthy colony, or by not reuniting after using the Pagden method for swarm control.

And then they learn to graft, to use mini-nucs, to overwinter 5 frame nucs and – before you know it – they’ve bought a truck 🙂

But is (many) more than two, too many?

And then, at some point, sooner or later, it can become a bit of a chore.

In my experience the swarm season and extremes of weather are the two most testing periods.

During the peak swarming period – mid/late May to mid-June here, but earlier further South – beekeeping can be a ‘full-on’ experience. Timing is critical. Miss a late open queen cell and they’ll swarm on the next available good day. You’ll run out of equipment. You’ll get phone calls in the office asking you to retrieve a swarm from a tree/swing/classroom 4.

And, at the same time you’re coping with all this, it’s also the best time of the year to rear queens.

Your agenda and that of your bees is partially overlapping, but almost certainly not in sync.

And then there’s the weather  … we live in a country where the weather report regularly uses the phrase ‘mainly dry’. Without specifically saying it, this means it will be wet. Almost certainly on the day you need to do your inspections, move the grafted larvae, collect a swarm and feed the mini-nucs. Too many bees and bad weather are a testing combination.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But so are too many bees and spectacularly good weather.

Beekeeping is considered a gentle and relaxing pastime. The reality, on a bright sunny day with the temperature reaching 29°C, with full honey supers to remove is rather different. It is physically demanding and exhausting work. In a beesuit and veil you will sweat buckets. Literally. I’ve had to work so hard I could pour out the sweat that had pooled in my boots.

The pain will soon be forgotten, but there will be pain.

The Goldilocks zone

But somewhere between the too few and the too many (colonies) is the sweet spot. Enough that you can experience the wonderful and fascinating variation possible in bees and beekeeping. Sufficient to engage you and allow you to experiment and try new strategies out. Enough to cope with poor seasons and still to produce some lovely honey to give to the family at Christmas and to friends at dinner parties.

The sweet spot ...

The sweet spot …

This is the Goldilocks zone.

Quite where that sweet spot is will depend upon a whole host of different factors. Your interest in bees vs. other competing hobbies and pastimes 5, how full-time the full-time job is, your abilities as a beekeeper and the pressure others 6 put on you to take holidays mid-season 😉

It might be two colonies. Not ‘just’ two, with the sort of dismissive implication that that’s not what being a real beekeeper is. There are some outstanding beekeepers I know who have a couple of colonies in a good area for forage and who consistently produce spectacular honey yields per colony. They are excellent observers, skilled practitioners and really understand what’s happening in their colonies at all times of the season.

Or it might be 200 … in which case you’ve got a stronger back and a bigger truck than me 🙂

For me it’s about a dozen. I can produce enough honey to sell or give away and still have sufficient colonies to dabble or experiment with. Not ‘experiment’ as in my day job (I have more hives for that), but to investigate different ways of improving my stock, alternative approaches to queen rearing and introduction, other types of mite control etc.

Cell bar frame with three day old queen cells, The Apiarist.

3 day old queen cells …

Not all these experiments work. Some are an unmitigated disaster, others are no better than the way I previously did whatever ‘it’ was.

Have you used a Taranov board? Me neither. But I’d like to this season.

Space and spares

The Goldilocks principle can also be applied to having ‘just the right amount’ of equipment and space to manage your chosen number of colonies. This includes, but isn’t restricted to, apiaries, brood boxes, supers, split boards, crownboards, stands, clearers, hive tools, more supers, dummy boards, roofs, frames, more frames, yet more frames etc.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who has managed to achieve this 😉


Colophon

Goldilocks and the three bears fairy tale book cover

Look who is sleeping in my bed!

The Goldilocks principle is named after the well-known 19th Century fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which Goldilocks, a little girl, always chooses the ‘just right’ option – of bed, porridge, chair etc. when lost in the forest and finding a house owned by three bears. In each case the ‘just right’ option is the one in the middle e.g. the bowl of porridge that was not too hot, or too cold, but was just right. Goldilocks, the little girl, was introduced in a variant of the original tale “The Story of the Three Bears” in place of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed old woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was preferred by the target audience 😉

The Goldilocks zone has a  specific meaning in astronomy where it indicates the habitable zone around a star. This is defined as the range of orbits within which liquid water could occur if there is sufficient atmospheric pressure.

 

Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

Some would argue that it’s the time of the year when you prepare colonies for the winter. After all, without good winter preparation there’s unlikely to be a beekeeping season. Others might consider it’s the beginning of the calendar year, just after the longest nights of the year when beekeeping is but a distant memory and all you can do is plan (and build frames).

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

However, perhaps a more logical start of the beekeeping season is the first full hive inspection. This varies from year to year, depending upon the weather. Many consider the full flowering of Ribes sanguineum, the ornamental flowering current, to be a good indicator that the season is underway and that colonies can be inspected. However, the time this plant flowers appears to vary depending upon how sheltered its location is (and possibly the particular cultivar). There’s some in a very sheltered spot approaching the bus station in St. Andrews that was flowering in mid-February this year. Too early by far.

Macho beekeeping

It’s worth stressing here that not only is there season to season variation, there’s also geographic variation. It gets warmer in the South before the North (at least for the ~95% of the readers of this site who live in the Northern hemisphere). If you’re fortunate enough to live in the uncluttered, quiet, pollution-free, traffic-free and scenic (clearly I’m biased 😉 ) North, don’t be misled by the discussions on the online forums of 8 frames bursting with sealed brood in late March.

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

Firstly, the poster might actually live in Northern Spain. You can be anything you want on the internet … and anywhere you want. Secondly, some contributors exaggerate when describing their activities and successes (or failures for that matter). Some who, while stressing the fantastic build-up of their Carniolan colonies, conveniently omit to mention they are an overseas breeder and exporter of – you guessed it – Carniolan queens. An omission, but also as the late Alan Clark said, somewhat economical with the actualité. Finally, there’s also a sort of chest-beating macho amongst some where the poster describes pulling colonies apart very early in the season – essentially bragging about the strength of the colonies and their beekeeping prowess.

Use your own judgement about when to open a colony in the early part of the year. Don’t blindly follow the recommendations of others (or me for that matter). The ‘when’ really needs to be informed by the ‘why’.

Not when, but why?

Opening colonies is disruptive. The propolis-sealed crownboard is removed and the colony – even with the gentlest manipulation – is disturbed. There needs to be a good reason to go rummaging through a brood box. That isn’t a justification to not inspect colonies. Just make sure there’s a good reason to compensate for the disruption.

The first inspection should be a quick progress check. Is everything OK? It shouldn’t be a full-blown inspection in which every frame is carefully scrutinised for signs of brood diseases. You’re simply trying to determine whether the queen is laying well, that she’s laying worker brood rather than drone brood and that the colony have sufficient stores and space to expand

All that can be determined in a couple of minutes. You don’t need to see the queen, though it’s not unusual to spot her as the colony is probably relatively sparsely populated. If the box is stuffed with stores consider replacing a frame on the side of the brood nest with a frame of drawn comb. It’s almost certainly too early to only provide foundation.

Outside and inside

Spring is appreciably later in Fife, Scotland than in the South of England. At the time of writing (~8/9th of April) it’s rarely been much above the low teens Centigrade. Colonies are working well during the warmest part of the day, but there’s still a chill in the wind and little point in opening the majority of hives.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The exception are the hives in the bee shed. Based on my experience last year these colonies are 2-3 weeks more advanced than those outside. On a warm day – yesterday just reached 15°C – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20°C. Three of the colonies were giving me cause for concern. One was a poly nuc that seemed very active. The other two were hives headed by purchased queens from last season – these had gone into the winter well and had been flying on borderline days in midwinter. However, having been away for most of March, I’d noticed they were much quieter than other hives when I checked the entrances in early April.

The strong nuc was doing reassuringly well. It had nearly four frames of brood and last years’ marked and clipped queen laying well. The brood pattern was a bit patchy, but I’ll reserve judgement until later in the season when there’s ample pollen and nectar coming into the hive, together with a full complement of workers to support the queen.

In contrast, the two hives were almost devoid of bees. Both queens had clearly failed in the winter as there was no brood. There was no sign of overt disease (in the few remaining bees) and mite drop had been low in autumn and during the midwinter treatment. I suspect that the queens were poorly mated. Disappointing, but these things happen.

Looking back

I have yet to look in any other colonies. It needs to warm up significantly before I do. It’s interesting to compare the development of this season with previous years – and to have some notes I can refer back to in the future. As I write this (remember, it’s the 8/9th of April):

  • Fieldfares are still present, although clearly in reduced numbers and drifitng North.
  • I have yet to see any house martins or swallows (update – saw both mid-morning on Friday 14th, but still only 9°C).
  • Only about 5% of the oil seed rape is flowering (not necessarily a good comparison as different strains can flower at different times).
  • Primroses are at their peak but neither bluebells or wild garlic are flowering yet.
Primroses ...

Primroses …

Regional climatic differences are a significant influence on colony development. Remember this as you plan your early season inspections and – particularly if you are a relatively new beekeeper – when you compare how your colonies are doing with those reported by others elsewhere.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering the importance of relative colony development between colonies in the same apiary. A single colony that is developing slowly might be being held back because of poor weather. However, if you have two colonies to compare, one that is obviously retarded might be cause for concern … and should be checked for disease or a failing queen.

This is a good example of when it is beneficial to have two colonies to compare.


Too much, too soon

Too much, too soon was a 1958 biographical film about the actress Diana Barrymore starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn. The film, based on a best selling book of the same name, describes the life of the alcoholic movie star and was pretty-much panned by the critics.

Not one to set the recorder for …

Finding the queen

One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.

A local queen

A local queen

An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.

The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.

And they usually do.

Magic?

No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.

In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.

The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.

In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.

Focus where needed, skip the rest

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.

There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.

The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.

Reassuring but unnecessary

The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.

The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.

The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.

Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.

Stop looking

If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.

By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.

Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.

When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.

If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Compatibility

There’s a saying that goes something like “Ask three beekeepers an opinion on … and you’ll get five answers”. And if it isn’t a saying, then it should be. Have a look at the online forums and you’ll see numerous threads with multiple – often wildly contradictory – answers. This can be a problem for experienced beekeepers and is a total nightmare for new beekeepers.

Inevitably, beekeeping is an inexact science. There are too many variables to be dogmatic about things – the weather, colony strength, available forage, parasite levels, time, beekeeping ability etc. 

Compatibility, standardisation and efficiency 

However, one thing that most beekeepers should agree on is that compatibility of equipment is important. For efficiency, your equipment needs to be compatible e.g. using a roof that fits any of your hives. Without compatibility you will inevitably experience the frustration of trying to make incompatible equipment ‘fit’ together, or have to make repeated trips to the apiary with the correct kit.

Been there, done that 🙁

Compatibility is best achieved by standardisation i.e. all hives are of the same size and design, built to an agreed specification or standard, ideally by a single manufacturer. I suggest ‘single manufacturer’ as some don’t adhere to the standards as closely as others. Unless you are, and intend to stay, a single hive owner (and there are very good reasons why you shouldn’t) this is an ideal that is rarely achieved.

If you have more than one apiary you’re likely to be moving hives between them. Again, compatibility is important. Finally, if you are being mentored, acting as a mentor to others or intending to sell nucleus colonies, it helps if your hive equipment is compatible with others.

This compatibility starts with the frame size – and therefore defines the brood/super dimensions – and the frame spacing (e.g. Hoffman/Manley), but extends to whether the hives are bottom or top bee space, the types of floors, entrance blocks, clearer boards, split or division boards, feeders etc. 

Which hive?

We’re spoilt for choice in the UK … literally.

Compare the hive types sold by some of the largest suppliers of beekeeping equipment in the UK and USA e.g. Thorne’s and Dadant. Thorne’s list about eight removable-frame hives (National, WBC, Langstroth, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Rose and Dartington). Dadant list just one (Langstroth, albeit in 8 or 10 frame widths). I know that some hives use the same frame sizes, but have also simplified things by ignoring the range of frame depths offered – 14×12’s, shallows, mediums, deeps etc. In this post I’m only really concerned with box compatibility.

No wonder many starting beekeeping ask “Which hive should I buy?”. They’re probably advised to get whatever is in use locally, often Nationals, but increasingly Langstroths in some places or Smiths in parts of Scotland. The recommendation to start with whatever is used locally is both logical and pragmatic. The beginner is likely to have to source a nucleus colony to start with and (hopefully) this will have been purchased locally, from a more experienced beekeeper (their mentor?) with gentle bees of known provenance, adapted to the local climate and inspected before purchase.

In the overall scheme of things I don’t think the choice of hive type is particularly important. None are inherently better than others, though a few are perhaps worse. The bees, Apis mellifera, are the same and certainly don’t care. Far more important is that the equipment acquired is compatible – with what is already owned, with what might be purchased, built or inherited in the future, and with what others use.

Running out of kit

A universal truth about beekeeping is that, sooner or later, you’ll run out of equipment. For beginners it’s during their first swarm season when they suddenly find they need a complete additional hive to undertake the classic Pagden ‘artificial swarm’ method. Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, they capture a swarm and have to house that. It’s not unusual for all this to happen in the same week of the same month of the first year of beekeeping.

It can be a little chaotic 🙂

Gaffer tape apiary

Gaffer tape apiary …

There are two or three obvious ways to reduce the equipment crisis. Firstly, use a version of the vertical split rather than a Pagden artificial swarm, thereby reducing the need for an additional floor and roof for starters. Secondly, bodge a solution … use stacked supers as a makeshift broodbox, build roofs out of Correx (abandoned For Sale signs should always be repurposed) or use an upturned plant tray or piece of polythene-covered plywood. Finally, borrow suitable kit from a friendly local beekeeper … which brings us back to compatibility again.

Don’t for a moment think that a dozen colonies and a decade’s experience stops a beekeeper running out of equipment. A couple of years ago we had a bumper summer and I ran out of supers. Most colonies had 2-3 supers on already and there seemed to be no end in sight to the nectar flow. It was fantastic. A generous friend loaned me a dozen supers to buy me enough time to remove the first fully capped supers, extract the honey and recycle the boxes. Without this act of generosity – only possible as my friend was downsizing – my hives would have become packed with nectar and the colonies might have swarmed.

Mix’n’match

It’s at these times that equipment compatibility becomes paramount. I could borrow and use those supers as my friend also ran Nationals. The beginner can of course borrow any type of kit, but if the artificially swarmed colony needs to subsequently be united with the original box then it’s much easier if the equipment is compatible (note the thin shim in use in the picture below, between the incompatible poly boxes on top and standard cedars). As it turned out, the supers I borrowed weren’t 100% compatible as my friend used top bee space whereas mine were bottom bee space … the bees and I coped.

This need to mix’n’match equipment happens every season. You might want to move frames about to boost particular colonies, to mix frames removed from several strong colonies to make up nucs for overwintering, to unite nucleus colonies after using the newly mated queen from one of them, or merge two very uneven strength colonies for overwintering. It even happens when trying to efficiently ‘use up’ two- or three-frame nucs used for queen mating at the end of the season – it’s far easier to simply drop these into full-size hives than do the same thing with brood and bees from mini-nucs.

Uniting with newspaper ...

Uniting with newspaper …

Not only the big box items

Equipment standardisation and compatibility also extends to things other than frames and boxes. There’s a host of other items where it’s beneficial to have one type only, and for that type to be compatible with your other equipment. Floors are a good example; if they’re all made to the same design and dimensions then the removable Correx Varroa trays, the entrance reducers and the travel screens/entrance blocks are perfectly interchangeable. Both crownboards and roofs should also be broadly standardised and compatible. For example, all my colonies have year-round insulation in the crownboard and all the roofs are uninsulated. I previously had some insulated roofs and some uninsulated crownboards. Inevitably, moving or uniting hives resulted in the odd colony lacking insulation altogether. D’oh!

Pragmatic rationalisation

I’ve slowly achieved a reasonable level of standardisation and compatibility across my apiaries. I’m hoping that this will be improved further in 2017. After using a range of hives – purchased, borrowed and homemade, I’m settling on:

  • Standard depth, bottom bee space, Nationals in cedar or poly but – critically – these boxes must be interchangeable. To this end I’m using standard cedar broods and supers, or Swienty poly equivalents. These have the same external dimensions (18″/46cm), so can be stacked as required, and the interface between boxes is completely flat.
  • Just two floor designs. One has a fully sealed Varroa tray – built by Pete Little – and is used exclusively in the bee shed. The entrance reducer is fitted permanently to these floors. The second type are the so-called ‘kewl’ floors with a Dartington-inspired underfloor entrance. All my kewl floors are homemade. Despite this (and my amateur DIY skills), they take the same size Correx Varroa tray, all have holes drilled in the correct places to a) attach luggage scales for winter ‘hefting’, and b) deliver vaporised miticides. In addition, all take the same size and design entrance block for transport or other operations when the entrance needs to be sealed (vaporisation, vertical splits or Bailey comb changes).
  • Roofs are all uninsulated, interchangeable and either standard wood/metal or simple sheets of folded Correx. They serve no other purpose than weatherporoofing. I gave away all my insulated roofs when I moved North.
  • All crownboards are insulated, either with inbuilt Kingspan blocks or by the addition of an 18″ square block on top. None have feeder holes. Almost all are reversible and I’ve got ekes to achieve the same separation when I need space to feed fondant.
  • All nucleus hives are Thorne’s Everynucs. This design has a removable floor, so two bodies can be stacked for uniting.

But … if I were to start again from scratch I’d probably use Langstroths. I use Nationals because I’ve invested in Nationals, not because I think they’re inherently better.

Exceptions to the rule

Or compromises …

  • All of my bait hives are MB/Paradise poly Nationals (or stacked supers from the same manufacturer). All have simple Correx floors and roofs, or those supplied at purchase. Almost none of these items – floors, boxes or roofs – are readily compatible with production hives. This poly hive design has an infuriating lip/overhang that makes them incompatible with standard National equipment (see images above). Bait hives tend to get lugged about a bit more than production hives so their low weight is a bonus. My continued use of these hives is a perfect example of meanness and generosity … I’m too mean to get rid of them and I’m too generous to palm them off on an unsuspecting beginner.
  • My Everynucs are not directly (i.e. box to box) compatible with National hives though of course the frames are. I therefore can’t stack nucs onto standard brood boxes – for uniting, for overwintering or for certain types of queen rearing operations. This is a compromise I have to make due to a) the finances and time I have invested in these poly nucs, and b) their overall benefits and quality, both of which I remain convinced about. I have a few lovely cedar nuc boxes built by Pete Little that can be used for the queenright queen rearing method developed by Steve Rose if needed.
  • I have a few Paynes 8-frame nuc boxes used solely to capture swarms (or for dire emergencies). These are lightweight boxes with flimsy lids and no removable floor … ideal for use in one hand at the top of a ladder.
Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Outstanding improvements to compatibility

Outstanding as in ‘not yet achieved’ that is. Sorry if you were expecting some brilliant insights here 😉 Regular readers are unlikely to have been mislead.

The entrance holes through the bee shed wall are of two sizes and the larger ones will be replaced (reduced) at some point. When I first built them I overestimated the size needed. The oversized entrances are too big for a weak colony to defend and the different sizes means I need two types of foam entrance blocks when vaporising.

Secondly, I have to decide on a standard way to block/reduce the entrance of the poly Everynucs. I’ve previously used a hotchpotch collection of wire mesh, foam or wooden blocks. The entrance on these nucs is ridiculously large and I’ve been dabbling with a few simple designs over the winter. I need a simple and inexpensive ‘fix’ as I have a lot of these boxes … as usual, Correx is my friend!

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

Finally, I’ve recently purchased a stack of Abelo poly hives for work and will be interested to see how these perform this season. These boxes are ‘Nationals’, but ever so slightly different from the Swienty and cedar boxes. However, the dimensions and interfaces of broods and supers are definitely compatible, so they should mix’n’match OK. This purchase was a perfect example of how beekeepers end up with a wide range of different gear … they are supplied ready-painted, so save time, and they were cheap as chips in the Abelo sale 😉


Of course, the widely divergent views expressed on some of the discussions forums simply reflects a bad case of midwinter cabin fever and the contrariness of some contributors.

And irritatingly, some take the same frame sizes, but with either short or long lugs. Grrr.

And if you are a beginner reading this I would encourage you to read a couple of previous posts on mentoring and the benefits of buying local bees.