Category Archives: Principles

A tale of two swarms

Or … why it’s good practice to clip the wing of the queen.

After a cool start to May it’s now (s)warmed up nicely. Colonies are piling in nectar, mainly from the OSR, and building up really strongly.

It’s at times like these that vigilance is needed. A skipped inspection, a missed queen cell, and the season can go from boom to bust as 75% of your workforce departs in a swarm.

Not the entire season … but certainly the first half of it.

All beekeepers lose swarms … but should try not to

Natural comb

Natural comb …

All beekeepers lose swarms.

At least, all honest ones do 😉

However, I can think of at least four reasons why it’s pretty shoddy beekeeping practice to repeatedly lose swarms 1.

  1. Beekeepers like bees, but some of the general public do not. Some are frightened of bees and a few risk a severe (or even fatal) anaphylactic reaction if stung. Beekeepers have a responsibility not to frighten or possibly endanger non-beekeepers.
  2. Most swarms do not survive. Studies of ‘wild’ bees have shown that swarming is an inherently risky business 2. The swarm needs to find a suitable new home and then collect sufficient nectar to draw enough comb to build up the colony and store food for the  winter. The vagaries of the weather, forage availability and disease ensure that most swarms do not overwinter successfully.
  3. Swarms have a high Varroa load. The mites transfer a heady mix of unpleasant viruses within the colony, shortening the lives of the overwintering bees. With high virus and mite loads the swarm colony is likely to be robbed by nearby strong colonies. This effectively transfers the mites and viruses to nearby managed colonies, so risking their survival.
  4. The swarmed colony is left with a new virgin queen. She has to mate successfully to ensure the continued survival of the colony. Again, the vagaries of the weather mean that this isn’t certain.

And you get less honey 🙁

Regular inspections help prevent the loss of swarms. But it’s good to get all the help you can.

Here’s a brief account of two recent events that illustrate the differences between swarms from colonies with clipped queens or unclipped queens.

Swarm in an out apiary

I have an out apiary in a reasonably remote spot containing half a dozen colonies. I keep my poorly behaved bees there 🙂 There are other apiaries in the area as the forage is good.

I went to inspect the hives at the end of April. This was only the second inspection of the year. On arriving I found most colonies were very active, but one was suspiciously quiet.

Thirty metres away there was a swirling mass of bees settling in the low branches of a conifer.

My three initial thoughts were “Aren’t swarms a great sight?”“Dammit, they shouldn’t have swarmed!” and “Perfect timing, where’s the skep?”.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

The skep was in the car. It usually lives there during the swarming season. The bees were spread over two or three branches, all drooping under the weight. After a bit of gardening I managed to drop the majority of the bees into the upturned skep 3.

I inverted the skep over a white sheet laid out on the grass and propped one side up using a bit of wood.

The air was full of bees. While I busied myself inspecting the lively (in more ways than one 😉 ) colonies, the swarm gradually started to settle into the skep.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

There were lots of bees exposing the Nasonov’s gland at the end of the abdomen, fanning frantically at the entrance to the upturned skep. This is a pretty certain indication that I’d managed to get the queen into the skep.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

An hour later I’d finished all but one inspection – the quiet colony – it was beginning to get cool and the light was fading.

I could no longer see eggs, not because there weren’t any but because I’m not an owl.

The swarm still needed to be hived so I left the quiet colony until the following day, wrapped the skep in the sheet and took it to another apiary.

Brrrr!

And then the temperature plummeted. For the following week the daytime highs barely reached double figures. Nighttime temperatures were low single digit Centigrade.

The swarm would likely have perished and had a virgin queen emerged in the ‘quiet hive’ she’d have not got out to mate.

I didn’t look in another hive until the 7th, but when I did I got a surprise.

The ‘quiet hive’ contained a marked laying queen. I’d requeened this colony late in 2018 and my notes were a little, er, shambolic 🙁

I’d not recorded whether the queen was clipped and marked (the usual situation), marked only (not entirely unusual) or clipped only (not unknown!).

Whatever, they hadn’t swarmed after all 🙂

They were quiet because they had a high Varroa load with overt signs of DWV infection. Mite and virus levels in late September had been checked and confirmed to be very low. Presumably the mites had been acquired by drifting or robbing late in the season 4.

The hived swarm contained an unmarked laying queen and are lovely calm bees 🙂

A swarm in my home apiary

Fewer photos for this one as I didn’t have a camera with me …

I arrange my hives with the frames oriented ‘warm way’ 5 and inspect them standing behind the hive to avoid returning foragers.

Number 29, your time is up.

Number 29, your time is up.

Earlier this week I noticed a few bees flying under the DIY open mesh floor (OMF) from behind one hive. It’s not unusual to have bees at knee height during inspections but since all I was doing was dropping a nuc off in the apiary I didn’t give it much more thought.

Later in the week I returned to do the weekly inspection.

There were more bees going underneath the hive.

With a bit of effort I peered under the floor to find a 5cm deep slab of bees almost entirely filling the space under the OMF.

Better notes means you know what to expect

My notes were much more comprehensive this time 😉

I knew that the colony had a 2018 white marked and clipped queen.

I removed the supers (which were reassuringly heavy) and quickly inspected the brood box.

Lots of bees, lots of sealed brood, some late-stage larvae but no eggs.

In addition I could see two queen cells … one sealed and one about 3-4 days old, unsealed and with a fat larva sitting in a thick bed of Royal Jelly.

Don’t panic

It was pretty obvious what had happened.

The colony had swarmed 6 but the clipped queen, being unable to fly, had crashed to the ground in a very unregal manner, climbed back up the hive stand and sheltered under the OMF. The swarm had then clustered around her.

They had probably been there for a few days.

Another swarm hived

I placed a new floor and brood box next to the swarmed colony, with the entrance facing the ‘back’. I removed the swarmed brood box and, with a sharp shake, dumped the entire slab of swarmed bees from underneath the OMF into the new hive.

Before adding back all the brood frames I peered into the box as a tsunami of bees started moving from the floor up the side walls.

There! A white marked clipped queen 🙂

White clipped and marked queen returning to the colony

You’ll now have a better chance of finding and keeping her if they swarm.

It’s always reassuring to know where the queen is … and to have good enough notes to know what to look for 😉

I assembled and closed up the new hive and put the swarmed hive back in its place. I then carefully went through every frame checking for queen cells again.

There were only two. I destroyed the sealed cell. I didn’t know how old it was and couldn’t be certain it contained a developing queen.

In contrast, I could ‘age’ the unsealed cell (3-4 days) and knew it contained a larva and copious amounts of food.

I prefer to know when a queen emerges rather than save a few days by leaving the sealed cell. I only generally leave one cell to prevent casts being lost.

There were very young larvae in the colony. It is therefore possible the bees could generate more queen cells in the next day or so. Since I know when the queen will emerge I can check the colony before then and destroy any further cells they generate.

Two swarms, the same outcome … lessons learned

As far as this beekeeper (and I hope the bees 7) is concerned both swarms had a satisfactory outcome.

A number of lessons can be learned from events like these:

  • All beekeepers ‘lose’ swarms. Weather, work, emergencies and life generally can conspire to interrupt the 7 day inspection cycle. Sod’s Law dictates that when it does, the colony will swarm. I’m reasonably conscientious about inspections but I completely missed the signs the home apiary colony was about to swarm.
  • The weather can change suddenly. The swarm in the conifer would have probably perished from the cold in early May. If the weather had stayed warm the scout bees would have found a welcoming church tower or roof space to occupy in a day or so. In both cases the swarm would have been truly lost.
  • It’s always good to carry equipment to capture a swarm. A sheet and a skep, or a large nuc box. Secateurs make ‘gardening’ easier (mine are no longer AWOL). Spare equipment (hives) is essential during the swarm season.
  • An obviously smaller-than-expected colony and a nearby swarm may well be completely unrelated. Check why the colony is weak and take remedial action if needed (mine has Apivar strips in now).
  • Colonies near my out apiary appear to have high mite levels. Since that’s where the conifer swarm came from this also now has Apivar strips in.
  • When is a lost swarm not lost? When the queen is clipped. The queen cannot go far so neither can the swarm. If she returns to the hive stand or the underside of the floor, so will the swarm. If she perishes for some reason the swarm usually returns to the original hive.
  • You can keep bees without knowing where the queen is, but it’s easier if you do. Marking her helps find her, clipping her wing helps keep her there 8.
  • Similarly, knowing when the queen will emerge allows you to predict when she will be mated and start laying. You can avoid interrupting her returning from her mating flight and – before then – you can remove other queen cells to prevent the loss of a cast from a strong colony.
  • Good notes help. Keep them 😉

It’s relatively easy to find unmarked queens in smallish colonies early in the season. It’s a lot harder to find them in a strong colony in mid-May.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But it’s worth finding her, marking her and clipping one wing.

If you don’t the swarm you lose might really be lost 😉


 

 

Queen marking

You don’t need to see the queen during your weekly inspection of the colony. There are clues that are usually enough to tell you the colony is queenright. These include the general temper and demeanour of the colony, the presence of ‘polished’ cells ready for the queen to lay eggs in and, of course, the presence of eggs.

Of these, temper can be influenced by weather or forage availability 1 so might be less trustworthy.

Queenright?

Queenright?

And, of course, eggs only tell you the queen was present when they were laid … so sometime in the last three days.

Seeing is believing

If you really want to be certain there is a queen present – for example, because you need to put her in a specific place for swarm control using a Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method – then you need to find the queen.

I’ve discussed this before so won’t cover the subject again.

Having found her, how can you make it easier to find her again?

The obvious (pun intended) thing to do it to mark her in a way that makes her distinctive. She will therefore be easy to see amongst the thousands of her daughters running around the hive.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

There are additional advantages to marking the queen.

The presence of a blob of paint also provides some temporal information.

If you find an unmarked queen in a hive that you know was previously occupied by a marked queen then:

  • the colony has swarmed and requeened itself … and your inspections are too infrequent!
  • the marked queen has been superceded 2. It’s not unusual to find an unmarked queen in a hive at the first inspection of the season, suggesting that the colony superceded the queen late in the previous year, or …
  • the paint has worn away 😉

If you use different coloured markings for different years you can even determine the age of the queen.

Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca

You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax.

Tipp-Ex (typing correction fluid) works perfectly well though the usual applicator brush is a bit too broad. It dries rapidly and the aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents it contains do not appear to adversely affect the odour of the queen.

Tipp-Ex is only available in white. Contrasting certainly, but this gives no opportunity to indicate the year the queen was reared.

As an alternative you can use one of the ~180 Humbrol Enamel paints. These are used by model makers to paint their locomotives, toy soldiers or Airfix kits and so are available in a wide range of not very useful shades like Dark Camouflage Grey or RAF Blue.

Fortunately they are also sold in some rather strident yellows, reds and greens that should be visible in the hive.

Humbrol Enamel paints are sold in small, rather fiddly little tins. Not ideal when you’re wearing gloves and a beesuit. They need shaking/mixing before use, open easily with the thin blade of a hive tool and can be applied with the end of a matchstick.

Despite the solvent base of Humbrol Enamel paint, it doesn’t dry particularly fast. I’ve only used it a few times and abandoned it in favour of …

Posca are water-based art pens. Their model PC-5M has a bullet tip ~2.5mm in diameter and so combines paint and applicator in one easy-to-use package. These pens also come in a wide range of colours.

Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.

Beekeepers use different colours to indicate the year a particular queen was reared. Since queens rarely live more than 3 years a total of 5 different colours are sufficient to age-mark queens without confusion.

Amazingly 3, as far as I’m aware all beekeepers use the same queen marking colour scheme.

Colour Use in Year ending
White 1 or 6
Yellow 2 or 7
Red 3 or 8
Green 4 or 9
Blue 5 or 0

Queens reared this year (2019) should therefore be marked green.

Any colour as long as it’s white

Or blue.

I’m red-green colourblind. This means I struggle to discriminate between some reds and greens. It also means that I ‘trust’ colours (or my ability to distinguish between them) less. Subtle differences are often ignored 4.

A bright yellow dot on the thorax of a queen is easy to see … except in a colony that is piling in lots of OSR pollen, when every fifth worker is loaded down with bright yellow corbiculae.

I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.

These are both colours that I find easy to see, that are rarely present in pollen baskets or elsewhere in the hive, and so are very distinctive.

I used to alternate odd and even years until my blue Posca pen stopped working 🙁

Failing Posca queen marking pen

My white Posca pen has just starting playing up. If you search you can find them for about £5 for three and they last for years.

Easier said than done

I started an earlier section with the words “You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax”.

Beginners can find this a daunting task.

After all, isn’t the queen the most important and precious member of the hive?

What if you squash her by accident? Or the other bees don’t like the smell of the paint and attack her? What if she flies away?

OK, the first of these is a disaster 5, but is relatively easily avoided using one of the methods described below. The second is unlikely if you let the paint dry properly and very unlikely if you use a water-based Posca pen.

The third is also unlikely … (mated) queens are generally reluctant to fly and, if they do, they fly poorly. You can generally pick her up from the grass near your feet 6. If you lose sight of her, close up the hive and carefully leave the area (watch where you step). She will usually return to the hive.

So, although it is easier said than done, marking queens is not that difficult and is a very useful skill to become competent and confident at 7.

To mark the queen she must be immobilised. There are essentially three ways to do this:

  1. On the frame, using a press in cage. Also called a crown of thorns (or crown of thorne’s, depending where you purchased it 😉 ) cage.
  2. Off the frame in a handheld queen marking cage.
  3. Off the frame simply holding her between your thumb and forefinger.

Crown of thorns or press in cage

Press in cage

Press in cage

The press in cage is a wood, plastic or metal ring with spikes protruding from one side. Over the top is a thread (or plastic in cheaper versions) mesh. You find the queen on the frame, place the press in cage over her without spearing her, or her retinue, push down gently to immobilise her and then apply a dab of paint to her thorax.

This is easier said than done.

Firstly, there are usually lots of bees on the frame the queen is on. Isolating her from her daughters can be tricky. The more you chase her around the frame the faster she runs … and then she disappears around the side bar and you have to start all over again.

You need three hands. You cannot hold the frame, the cage and the pen. The cage needs to be held when you use the pen. You therefore must place the frame down horizontally (usually on the top bars of the other frames) and the bees on the underside may not appreciate this.

As soon as you’ve isolated her the workers clamber on top of the press in cage, obscuring your view of the queen.

Your view isn’t good anyhow as you are hunched over the frame, almost certainly blocking the light and making everything more difficult to see.

Is it obvious I’m not a big fan of the press in cage?

I know I still carry one as I periodically stick the spikes through my fingers when rummaging around in my bee bag. However, I’ve not used it for years and far prefer to use a handheld queen marking cage.

Handheld queen marking cage

The simplest of these consist of a cylinder with one end covered in a thin open mesh made of thread and a foam-topped plunger.

Alternatively, and my favourite, the thread mesh is replaced with a series of horizontal plastic bars that are too narrow for the queen to crawl between.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

You pick the queen off the frame, drop her into the cylinder, insert the plunger, immobilise her gently against the mesh/bars and apply the paint to her thorax.

Hold on.

Wait a minute.

You pick the queen off the frame?

That’s the easy part. Queen bees are naturally equipped with two convenient handles.

The wings.

The thumb and forefinger of an ungloved or thinly gloved hand are fabulously dextrous. It is easy to pick up the queen by one or both wings, move her away from the frame, put the frame down, pick up the queen marking cage and drop her in.

From frame to cage in a few seconds

I’m right-handed and this description is for right-handers.

Hold the frame (usually by the lug) with the queen on it in your left hand. Gently rotate the frame so the face is well-lit 8. Wait for the queen to be away from the edge of the frame. Wait until she’s walking towards you. Gently clench your third, fourth and fifth fingers, extending you ‘pincer-like’ thumb and forefinger. Slowly approach the queen from behind with this hand as she calmly walks across the frame 9.

Without grabbing or snatching calmly grasp her by the wing (or wings) and lift her from the frame. If you miss and just nudge her or she turns away at the last moment don’t harry her across the frame trying repeatedly.

Let her calm down.

Get your breath back.

Try again.

Gently put the frame down. Ideally, place it protruding at an angle in between the frames of the brood box. Take your time. Don’t drop the frame or allow it to tip over. If you balance it nicely with the lug wedged inside the box edge and the bottom bar balanced on the runner you’ll easily be able to reintroduce the queen after marking her.

Once your left hand is free pick up the cylinder of the queen marking cage. Drop the queen in. Cover it with two fingers (holding it between your thumb and fourth and fifth fingers). Pick up the plunger with your right hand and, after gently shaking the queen to the bottom of the cage, insert the plunger. Invert the cage, gently push the plunger up to trap the queen – thorax uppermost – and hold the plunger in place between your fourth and fifth fingers and palm, while holding the cage cylinder between thumb and forefinger (see the image further up the page).

There she goes ...

There she goes …

You can then use your right hand to apply the paint.

Handheld

Once you have learnt to pick the queen off the frame it’s an easy transition to do away with the queen marking cage and simply hold her on the back of your left forefinger, trapping her legs – so immobilising her – with your thumb and third finger. Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey has a good description of this 10.

This is easier without gloves. Even very thin nitrile gloves makes holding the queen immobile more difficult 11. Since I always wear gloves to reduce propolis staining and potential pathogen transmission I use a handheld queen marking cage.

Final comments on handling the queen

Picking the queen up with gloves on is straightforward if the gloves are thin enough. It’s easy with nitrile gloves and possible with Marigold-type washing up gloves.

Don’t try it with the large leather ‘beekeeping gauntlets’ as they give you hands like feet as a PhD student once said of the dexterity of my laboratory skills 🙁

If you hold the queen by both wings she will wave her legs in the air and curl her abdomen, but be unable to do much else.

If you pick her up by one wing she usually manages to swivel round and grab your thumb with her feet. Don’t worry, you won’t pull her wing off.

But thinking that will might make you lessen your grip … at which point she will calmly (or not so calmly) walk up your thumb. Don’t panic. She won’t sting and is very unlikely to take flight.

Queen marking

However you immobilise her the actual marking is straightforward. The goal is to place a small dab of paint on the top of her thorax.

Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.

Small means 2-3 mm across. Don’t overload whatever you are using to apply the paint.

If it’s a matchstick just touch the surface of the paint (or Tipp-Ex).

If it’s a Posca pen, press the nib a couple of times against a firm surface (hive lid, thumb etc) to load the pen, check that it delivers the right amount with a light touch and then mark the queen.

I like to step away from the hive to mark the queen, perhaps to a corner of the apiary in light shade. This separates me from the flying bees and so I can focus on the job, literally, in hand 12.

Releasing the queen

Allow the paint to dry for a few minutes before releasing the queen.

If you’re holding the queen you’ll have to stay holding her while this happens (or put her in a matchbox). Enjoy your time with her … she’s going to be working hard for you 🙂

With a handheld queen marking cage I move the plunger down an inch or so and place her in the shade while I get on with something else for a couple of minutes.

With a press in cage just leave it a couple of minutes before gently lifting it off. This is the easiest and least traumatic way to release the queen (and one of the only advantages of this marking method). The queen is already on the frame and surrounded by bees, so there are no shocks or surprises.

The important thing to avoid when releasing the queen is to suddenly drop her onto the top bars or into the hive. There’s a possibility the the workers will ball and kill her.

Gently offer her to a gap between the top bars, or to the face of the frame you left protruding from the top of the hive. With the handheld cage it’s easy to just rest it on the top bars and watch.

She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.

Calmly walks in …

Job done.


 

 

Equipment for beginners

As a new beekeeping season gears up we’re approaching the time of year when beginners will start acquiring nucs or swarms to start their own colonies.

Beekeeping is an excellent hobby. It involves physical work outdoors. It is cerebral, requiring good observation, thought and interpretation. You produce delicious honey for your breakfast, your family and friends.

Honey

Honey

You can even recoup your – not inconsiderable – costs by selling products from the hive.

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby and it’s not one you can dependably make money from. Dependably is the important word here. You can certainly make money, by selling honey, bees, wax or propolis, but doing so needs a combination of a good season and the beekeeping expertise to exploit it.

The former is out of your control whereas the latter takes a combination of luck and practise.

You also need the time to develop the customers to sell your products (and not give everything away to friends and family 😉 ).

Hobbies and investments

If you’re interested in starting beekeeping to make money, think again. Instead, buy a 50:50 combination of index-linked gilts and global equity tracker funds. Leave this invested for 20 to 30 years and you’ll make money.

But if you’re starting beekeeping as a hobby (which might make you money in the dim and distant future) then it is worth investing in a minimum amount of good quality equipment.

If beekeeping is for you then you’ll continue using it.

If beekeeping isn’t for you 1 then you’ll be able to sell the equipment without too great a loss.

Buy cheap, buy twice … but this doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive either.

Hives

There are two main decisions to be made here. The material the hive is made from and the type of hive.

The material is immaterial 😉  The main choice is between polystyrene or cedar. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The bees will do fine in either if prepared properly for the winter.

In my view cedar is nicer to handle and a bit more robust. It looks and ‘feels’ more traditional. Poly might be better if you have very harsh winters. I use both more or less interchangeably.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

There are some really lovely cedar hives made, but for starters you cannot go far wrong with the Thorne’s ‘Bees on a Budget‘ hive. I bought my first one (second hand from a beginner who was giving up) and it’s still going strong. I have had hundreds of pounds of honey from that hive over the years.

The best of the poly hives that I’ve used is from Abelo. However, it’s an evolving market and there are lots of poly hives I’ve neither used or even seen.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives

The type of hive – National, Langstroth, Smiths etc. – is one of the most important beekeeping decisions you will make … and one of the first. It doesn’t really matter what type of hive you use 2, but the investment involved commits you to either continuing with that hive type, buying everything again or a lifetime of compatibility problems and frustration 😉

Use what the beekeepers around you use. You should be getting your bees locally and compatibility with them makes buying (and selling in due course) bees easier. It also makes cadging a frame of eggs to ‘rescue’ a queenless hive – or improve your stock – straightforward as the frame will fit into your hive.

Finally, it makes borrowing equipment e.g. spare supers to cope with a phenomenal nectar flow, possible … which brings me on to the an important point …

More hives

You will need some or all of an additional hive the first time you do swarm control. Vertical splits only need an additional brood body, but the classic Pagden artificial swarm requires an additional hive (floor, brood body, crownboard and roof).

In a good year you will also need more than the standard two supers that most ‘complete’ hives are sold with.

Two are better than one …

So … right at the outset it probably makes sense to purchase two complete hives.

Kerching!

Frames

You will need frames of the right size for all boxes you’ve bought. Super frames can be used year after year. Brood frames need replacing about every three years (or the comb does, the frame can be re-used).

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

Helpfully frames are sold in tens, whereas many boxes require eleven frames. D’oh! At least you’ll have some spares.

You will also need foundation for the frames. Buy the best quality you can get. The bees are going to ‘live’ in it and store your honey in it. There have been problems with poor quality foundation which may contain lots of impurities or chemicals.

In due course, but not right from the start 3, consider using foundationless frames. You will save money and have confidence that the wax is the best possible quality as the bees made it all themselves.

I emboldened all in the opening paragraph of this section deliberately.

There are few things more frustrating than grabbing an empty brood box (expecting a full one) when you’re in the middle of the swarming season.

Another one of those Don’t do as I do, do as I say statements 😉

Miscellaneous hive parts and other equipment

Some ‘complete’ hives (like the Abelo) are sold without a queen excluder.

So, not complete then 😉

The cheapo plastic queen excluders are OK, but a wood-framed metal excluder is easier to use, squashes far fewer bees and is much easier to clean.

You will also need a way to clear the supers of bees before the honey harvest. The Thorne’s Bees on a Budget hive comes with a couple of porter bee escapes and a suitable crownboard, but you’ll need to beg, steal or build something suitable if you buy the Abelo.

Hive tools are a very personal item. There are dozens of different designs and it will take some time to decide which best suits your beekeeping and your hands. Some are big and heavy, some are small and light. Choose a simple medium sized inexpensive one for starters.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And then buy another as you’ll probably lose it in the long grass 😉

Buy a honey bucket and keep your hive tools, together with a small serrated knife and a pair of scissors, in strong washing soda. You can leave this in the apiary. The tools will stay pathogen-free and be nice and clean when you next use them.

I’ve owned three smokers since starting. The first was small, a nightmare to start and worse to keep alight. The other two are the little and large Dadant smokers. These aren’t inexpensive, but they are easy to use and last forever.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Unless you reverse your car over it 🙁

Get another honey bucket to keep your smoker fuel in – once you’ve spent months deciding what works best.

That’s it … no bee brush, frame stand, powdered sugar shaker, queen clip or the 1001 ‘essentials‘ you find listed in the catalogues.

The sting and confidence

Bees sting and you will get stung. When you do  get stung it generally means you’ve done something wrong or you have temperamental bees. The latter can be due to the weather, the forage (or lack of it) or bad genes.

Working confidently with bees comes with practice and with the knowledge that you are wearing sufficient protection to keep the bees away from the most sensitive spots.

A good bee suit costs about as much as a complete hive and should last as long. BBwear and BJ Sherriff bee suits are high quality, well made, repairable and come in a myriad of colours. I’d recommend their basic models in a full suit style … as you gain experience you might progress to a jacket or even just a veil.

I still use the first BBwear suit I bought. It’s been washed hundreds of times and is a bit tatty but it has at least another decade of use in it.

Paradoxically, the gloves that give me the most confidence when working with bees are the thinnest I own. These are long-cuff blue nitrile gloves. They are thin enough to feel a bee if you’ve trapped it, rather than just squishing it as you would wearing thick gauntlets.

BBwear used to offer ‘free’ gauntlets with their suits. They were like welders mittens! Ask for a discount instead and use standard Marigold-type washing up gloves to start with. Stings can just about penetrate, but are attenuated. You’ll be reminded when you’re doing something wrong, but they enable far more dexterity than the sting-pheremone-accumulating leather gauntlets.

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t, whatever you do, buy heavy duty, black, long cuff household gloves.

Why not?

Remember that most bears don’t look (or behave) like Winnie the Pooh … 😉

Is that it?

More or less. I reckon everything above is essential for beginners (including a duplicate hive). I’ve only included the specialist beekeeping equipment and have excluded items you should borrow from your local association (or mentor … you do have a mentor?) such as an extractor. I’ve also excluded Varroa treatments, sugar/fondant for winter stores and the non-specialist stuff like a notepad, wellington boots or a bag to carry everything to the apiary.

There won’t be much change out of £500, but there should be some.

And you still have to get some bees 🙁

As I said, not inexpensive. I’ve got a half-written post on the economics of hobby beekeeping, including indications of where you can save money (and where you can make money).

Remember also that keeping two colonies is highly recommended, so doubling the equipment needed. Perhaps not in your first year, but – perhaps after a successful artificial swarm – something to plan for your second full season.

Luxury item

If this was Desert Island Discs you’d be allowed one luxury item. Although not a luxury as such, the one nearly invaluable additional item I’d add to the list above is a poly nucleus box.

Nuc boxes are probably the most useful pieces of equipment in beekeeping. You can overwinter colonies in them, catch swarms, keep the queen safe and use them for a very effective form of swarm control.

Again, like the poly hives there are lots of makes, all with their own particular quirks. You need one that takes the same frame size as the hives. However, unlike full size hives I’d only recommend polystyrene, not cedar. They are lighter and much better insulated.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

They are also more reasonably priced, so drop some hints before Christmas after your first full season of beekeeping.


 

 

 

 

Bait hive guide

Spring this year is developing well. Even here on the chilly east coast of Scotland colonies are looking good and flying strongly when the sun is out. Large amounts of pollen are being taken in and there’s every sign that the hives are queenright and rearing lots of brood 1.

It’s too soon 2 to open the colonies but it’s not too soon to be thinking about the consequences of the inevitable continued expansion over the next few weeks.

Most healthy colonies will make preparations to swarm, often between late April and mid-June. The timing varies depending upon a host of factors including colony strength, climate, weather, forage, build up and beekeeper interventions.

Swarm prevention and control

You, like all responsible beekeepers, will use appropriate swarm prevention methods. Supers added early, ensure the brood box has space for laying etc.

In due course, once the colony gets bigger and stronger, you’ll notice queen cells and immediately deploy your chosen swarm control method e.g. the classic Pagden artificial swarm, the nucleus method I described last week, Demaree, vertical splits or – if you’re feeling ambitious – a Taranov board 3.

Which will of course be totally successful 😉

But just in case it isn’t …

… and just in case the beekeeper a couple of fields away is forgetful, unobservant, clumsy, on holiday, in prison or has some other half-baked excuse, be prepared for swarms.

As an aside, other than just walking around the fields, you can easily find hives near you by searching on Google maps and you can get an idea of the local beekeeper density 4 using the National Bee Unit’s Beebase.

You might think you know all the local beekeepers through your association, but it’s surprising the number who just ‘do their own thing’.

Swarms

This isn’t the place to discuss swarms in much detail. Here’s a quick reminder:

  1. The colony ‘decides’ to swarm and starts to make queen cells.
  2. Almost certainly, scout bees start to check out likely sites the swarm could occupy in the future 5.
  3. The swarm leaves the hive on the first calm, warm, sunny day, usually early in the afternoon, once the queen cells are capped. The prime swarm contains the mated, laying queen and about 75% of the worker bees 6.
  4. The swarm gathers around the queen and sets up a bivouac hanging from a convenient spot (tree, gatepost, bush, fence etc.) near to the hive. They rarely move more than 50 metres. It’s worth emphasising here that the spot they choose is convenient to the bees, but may be at the top of a 60 foot cypress. It may not be particularly convenient for the beekeeper 😉
  5. Scout bees continue to check out likely final sites to establish the new colony, returning to the swarm and ‘persuading’ other scouts (by doing a version of the waggle dance) so that, finally, a consensus is reached. This consensus is essentially based upon the suitability of the sites being surveyed.
  6. The scout bees lead the swarm to the new location, they move in and establish a new colony.

If you’re lucky you will be able to recapture the swarm if the spot they choose for their bivouac is within reach, not above a stream, in a huge thorny bush or on an electricity pylon.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

I say ‘recapture’ because, since the bivouac is usually near the issuing hive, it’s probably come from one of your own hives (unless you are snooping around your neighbouring apiaries 7).

But what if you miss the bivouacked swarm? Or if your neighbour misses it?

Those bees are going to look for a suitable location to set up home.

If you provide a suitable location, you can get them to hive themselves without the grief of falling off a ladder, toppling into a stream, getting lacerated with thorns or electrocution

This is where the bait hive comes in. Leave a couple in suitable locations and you can lure your own and other swarms to them.

Freebees 🙂

What do scouts look for?

The scout bees look for the following:

  1. A dark empty void with a volume of about 40 litres.
  2. Ideally located reasonably high up.
  3. A solid floor.
  4. A small entrance of about 10cm2, at the bottom of the void, ideally south facing.
  5. Something that ‘smells’ of bees.

What I’ve just described is … a used beehive 8.

More specifically, it’s a single National brood box (or two stacked supers) with a solid floor and a roof, containing one old dark frame of drawn comb pushed up against the back wall.

No stores, no pollen 9, just a manky old dark comb. The sort of thing you should be turning into firelighters.

That’s all you need.

However, you can improve things by giving the bees somewhere to start drawing comb and siting the hive in a location that makes your beekeeping easier.

Des Res

The first thing swarms do when they move in is start drawing comb. You can populate the bait hive with a few foundationless frames so they’ve got somewhere to start.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

In my view foundationless frames are much better than frames with foundation for bait hives. The scout bees measure the size of the void by flying around randomly inside 10. If you have sheets of foundation they’ll crash into it frequently, effectively giving them the impression that the void is smaller than it really is. And therefore making it less attractive to the scouts.

You can improve the smell of the hive by adding a little lemongrass oil to the top bar of one of the frames. Don’t overdo it. A drop or two every 7-10 days is more than ample.

If you do use foundationless frames make sure the hive is level. If you don’t the comb will be drawn at an angle to the frames which makes everything harder work later in the season. Your smartphone probably contains a spirit level function that makes levelling the bait hive very easy.

Location

But not if it’s above head height, or you’re teetering on top of a ladder …

It was Tom Seeley who worked out most things about scout bees and swarms (see his excellent book Honeybee Democracy). This included the observations that they favoured bait hives situated high up.

Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier if the bait hive is on a standard hive stand. It’s easier to level, it’s easier to check and it’s easier – in due course – to retrieve.

Bait hive

Bait hive

I’ve previously discussed how far swarms prefer to move from their original hive. Contrary to popular opinion (and perhaps illogically) they tend to prefer to move shorter distances i.e. 20m >> 200m >> 400m. However, there are also studies that show swarms moving a kilometre or more.

Don’t get hung up on this detail. Stick out a bait hive or two and, if there are swarming colonies in range, they’ll find it.

I always leave a bait hive in my apiaries and one or two in odd corners of the garden. In the last few years I’ve never failed to attract swarms to the bait hives, and know for certain that some have moved in from over a mile away as the bee flies (thanks Emma 😉 ).

Mites and swarms

Assuming you don’t have the luxury of living in Varroa-free areas of the UK (or anywhere in Australia) then the incoming swarm will contain mites. Studies have shown that ~35% of the mite population of a colony leaves with the swarm.

But, for about the first week after the swarm sets up home in your bait hive, what’s missing from the new arrivals is sealed brood. Therefore the mites are all phoretic.

Do not delay. Treat the swarm with an appropriate miticide to knock back the mite population by ~95%. An oxalic acid-containing treatment is ideal. Single dose, relatively inexpensive, easy to administer (trickled or vaporised) and well tolerated by the bees.

Varroa treatment ...

Varroa treatment …

You have eight days from the swarm arriving to there being sealed brood in the colony

Far better to slaughter the mites now. In a few months their numbers will have increased exponentially and the majority will be in capped cells and more difficult to treat.


 

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.

 

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.”