Category Archives: Principles

Women without men

The title of the post last week was The end is nigh which, looking at the fate of drones this week, was prophetic.

Shallow depth of field

Watch your back mate … !

After the ‘June gap’ ended queens started laying again with gusto. However, there are differences in the pattern of egg laying when compared to the late spring and early summer.

Inspections in mid/late August 1 show clear signs of colonies making preparations for the winter ahead.

For at least a month the amount of drone brood in colonies has been reducing (though the proportions do not change dramatically). As drones emerge the cells are being back-filled with nectar.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The data in the graph above was collected over 50 years ago 2. It remains equally valid today with the usual caveats about year-to-year variation, the influence of latitude and local climate.

Drones are valuable …

Drones are vital to the health of the colony.

Honey bees are polyandrous, meaning the queen mates with multiple males so increasing the genetic diversity of the resulting workers.

There are well documented associations between colony fitness and polyandry, including improvements in population growth, weight gain (foraging efficiency) and disease resistance.

The average number of drones mating with a queen is probably somewhere between 12 and 15 under real world conditions. However studies have shown that hyperpolyandry further enhances the benefits of polyandry. Instrumentally inseminated queens “mated” with 30 or 60 drones show greater numbers of brood per bee and reduced levels of Varroa infestation.

Why don’t queens always mate with 30-60 drones then?

Presumably this is a balance between access, predation and availability of drones. For example, more mating would likely necessitate a longer visit to a drone congregation area so increasing the chance of predation.

In addition, increasing the numbers of matings might necessitate increasing the number of drones available for mating 3.

… and expensive

But there’s a cost to increasing the numbers of drones.

Colonies already invest a huge amount in drone rearing. If you consider that this investment is for colony reproduction it is possible to make comparisons with the investment made in workers for reproduction i.e. the swarm that represents the reproductive unit of the colony.

Comparison of the numbers of workers or drones alone is insufficient. As the graph above shows, workers clearly outnumber drones. Remember that drones are significantly bigger than workers. In addition, some workers are not part of the ‘reproductive unit’ (the swarm).

A better comparison is between the dry weight of workers in a swarm and the drones produced by a colony during the season.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons must be made on colonies that make as many drones as they want. Many beekeepers artificially reduce the drone population by only providing worker foundation or culling drone brood (which I will return to later).

In natural colonies the dry weight of workers and drones involved in colony reproduction is just about 1:1 4.

Smaller numbers of drones are produced, but they are individually larger, live a bit longer and need to be fed through this entire period. That is a big investment.

Your days are numbered

And it’s an investment that is no longer needed once the swarming season is over. All those extra mouths that need feeding are a drain on the colony.

Even though the majority of beekeepers see the occasional drone in an overwintering colony, the vast majority of drones are ejected from the hive in late summer or early autumn.

About now in Fife.

In the video above you can see two drones being harassed and evicted. One flies off, the second drops to the ground.

As do many others.

There’s a small, sad pile of dead and dying drones outside the hive entrance at this time of the season. All perfectly normal and not something to worry about 5.

Drones are big, strong bees. These evictions are only possible because the workers have stopped feeding them and they are starved and consequently weakened.

A drone’s life … going out with a bang … or a whimper.

An expense that should be afforded

Some of the original data on colony sex ratios (and absolute numbers) comes from work conducted by Delia Allen in the early 1960’s.

Other colonies in these studies were treated to minimise the numbers of drones reared. Perhaps unexpectedly these colonies did not use the resources (pollen, nectar, bee bread, nurse bee time etc) to rear more worker bees.

In fact, drone-free or low-drone colonies produced more bees overall, a greater weight of bees overall and collected a bit more honey. This strongly suggests that colonies prevented from rearing drones are not able to operate at their maximum potential.

This has interesting implications for our understanding of how resources are divided between drone and worker brood production. It’s obviously not a single ‘pot’ divided according to the numbers of mouths to feed. Rather it suggests that there are independent ‘pots’ dedicated to drone or worker production.

Late season mating and preparations for winter

The summer honey is off and safely in buckets. Colonies are light and a bit lethargic. With little forage about (a bit of balsam and some fireweed perhaps) colonies now need some TLC to prepare them for the winter.

If there’s any reason to delay feeding it’s important that colonies are not allowed to starve. We had a week of bad weather in mid-August. One or two colonies became dangerously light and were given a kilogram of fondant to tide them over until the supers were off all colonies and feeding and treating could begin. I’ll deal with these important activities next week.

In the meantime there are still sufficient drones about to mate with late season queens. The artificial swarm from strong colony in the bee shed was left with a charged, sealed queen cell.

Going by the amount of pollen going in and the fanning workers at the entrance – see the slo-mo movie above – the queen is now mated and the colony will build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully.


Colophon

Men without Women

Men without women was the title of Ernest Hemingway’s second published collection of short stories. They are written in the characteristically pared back, slightly macho and bleak style that Hemingway was famous for.

Many of these stories have a rather unsatisfactory ending.

Not unlike the fate of many of the drones in our colonies.

Women without men is obviously a reworking of the Hemingway title which seemed appropriate considering the gender-balance of colonies going into the winter.

If I’d been restricted to writing using the title Men without Women I’d probably have discussed the wasps that plague our picnics and hives at this time of the year. These are largely males, indulging in an orgy of late-season carbohydrate bingeing.

It doesn’t do them any good … they perish and the hibernating overwintering mated queens single-handedly start a new colony the following spring.

The end is nigh

A brief triptych of items this week as I’m struggling with an intermittent broadband connection on the remote west coast 1.

Great view but no signal

There are worse places to be cutoff …

Summer honey

There are no significant amounts of heather in central Fife and there’s none within range of my colonies. Work and other commitments mean it’s not practical to take my colonies to the Angus glens, so when the summer nectar flow finishes so does my beekeeping season.

The summer honey I produce is clear, runny honey. It is best described as mixed floral or blossom honey. In some years it has a significant amount of lime in it.

Lime honey has a greenish tinge and a wonderful zesty flavour. In other years it lacks the lime but is no less delicious.

Honey

Honey

Last year it was “Heinz” honey i.e. 57 varieties. I looked at the pollen content during the excellent Scottish Beekeepers Microscopy course and there was a very wide range of tree and flower pollens, most of which remained unidentified.

What was striking was the relative abundance of pollen in contrast to the ‘control’ samples of supermarket honey. Most of these had probably been subjected to significant filtration during processing.

I’ll return to pollen in honey, and more specifically pollen in local honey shortly.

Following a judicious amount of ‘on the spot’ testing (i.e. dipping my finger into broken honey comb and tasting 😉 ) some of the honey this year has the ‘lime zest’ and, with the flow over, it’s now time to collect it for extraction.

Clearing supers

Towards the end of the summer colonies should be strong. A double brood National hive with three or four supers contains a lot of bees.

To remove the supers it’s first necessary to remove the bees.

Porter bee escape

Some beekeepers use smelly pads to achieve this, some use modified leaf blowers and many use a crownboard with a Porter bee escape (a sort of one-way valve for bees).

I’ve never liked the idea of putting a non-toxic blend of natural oils and herb extracts (the description of Bee Quick) anywhere near my delicately flavoured honey. I know most is capped. However, I want to avoid any risk of tainting the final product.

A leaf blower seems pretty barbaric to me. Shaking bees off the super frames leaves a lot of disorientated bees flying around the apiary. Blasting them halfway to the other side of the field is a poor way to thank them for all their hard work over the last few weeks.

I described the Porter bee escape as a ‘sort of’ one way valve. That’s because they don’t always work dependably. Big fat drones (why were they in the supers anyway?) get stuck, they get jammed with propolis and they’re very inefficient.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I use a simple clearer board with no moving parts, two large ‘entrances’ and two very small ‘exits’. These clear a stack of supers overnight.

I don’t have enough for all my hives 2 so clear a few at a time.

I stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet set at 34°C. This delays crystallisation 3 and significantly improves the efficiency of extraction as the honey flows much more easily.

Honey filled supers

Honey filled supers …

Before leaving the subject of clearing supers it’s worth remembering that colonies can get a bit tetchy once the flow is over. Don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for pinching all their hard earned stores.

In addition, it is very important to avoid spilling honey from broken comb or exposing colonies – particularly weak ones – which may induce robbing.

I prefer to  add the clearers in good weather and then remove the supers in poor weather the following day, or early or late the next day. Both ensure that there are fewer bees about.

Local honey

I get a lot of requests for ‘local honey’. Many of these are to alleviate or prevent hay fever. This is based on the belief that the pollen in honey primes the immune system and prevents the adverse responses seen in hay fever.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting any beneficial effect, the repeated anecdotal evidence is reassuring … and certainly helps honey sales 😉

Le client n’a jamais tort4

And, whether it helps hay fever or not, it certainly tastes good 🙂

I only produce local honey, but am regularly asked for more details.

Where do the bees forage? How far do they fly?

What is local anyway?

British?

Scottish?

Fife?

Certainly not the first two, even if we do all now live in the global village 5Local means ‘the neighbourhood’ or a particular area.

Area, of course, isn’t defined.

It might not even mean Fife. The honey produced from the town gardens in St Andrews or Dunfermline will be different from the honey produced from the small villages in the flat agricultural land of the Howe of Fife.

Fife and Kinross Shires Civil Parish map

And the honey produced in the spring is very different from summer honey, or in different years.

There’s a lot of interest in eating locally produced food. Just consider the millions of posts using the hashtags #eatlocal on Twitter or Instagram.

Artisan shops that sell local produce tend to sell it at a significant premium. That’s something worth remembering 😉 Customers are prepared to pay more because they know something about the provenance of the produce, or they want to be reassured it has not been transported half way across the globe.

For those who want more information about ‘local’ honey, it would be good to be able to provide it – even if they purchase it in a shop 6. For those who don’t, who aren’t interested, or who just want to spread it thickly on toast 7 then the information is superfluous and should not spoil the appearance of the jar or label.

I’ve been toying with solutions to this over the last couple of years. It provides a bee-related diversion during the long winter evenings.

Some of the commercial Manuka honey producers already have a labelling system that incorporates links to this sort of additional information. With a bit of interweb geekery, a suitable server and a functioning broadband connection it should be relatively straightforward to engineer.

Watch this space …

But for the moment this will have to wait … I have honey supers to collect and no functioning broadband 🙁


 

Queen includer

By definition the queen excluder should be an impassable barrier for the queen.

“Why not put one under the brood box 1 to prevent the loss of a swarm?”, asks the beginner beekeeper.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

A perfectly logical question, and one to which you will hear 2 a variety of answers. These include the adverse effect on pollen collection, the possibility of an undersize virgin getting through anyway (with the loss of a swarm) and the distressing consequences it has for drones in the hive.

The late David Cushman covers these and other reasons.

Just because you probably shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you can’t … and this is what happens when you do.

Hot and bothered

I recently discussed my current thoughts on using a bee shed for teaching purposes. In it I made the point that it can get unbearably hot in a beesuit on a warm day.

Phew!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a sweltering hour or so inspecting the seven colonies in our larger shed.

It’s midsummer. It was a hot sunny day and the shed thermometer was reading over 32°C.

Some of the colonies were on double brood and had at least three supers on. Those that didn’t were recently installed and were a bit “temperamental”. These are research colonies and they came from a collaborator 3.

One colony should have recently requeened and I wanted to find, mark and clip her before the colony built up again.

I worked my way through the single boxes first. I found the queen in each of them except the one that had requeened.

Typical 🙁

My excuse was that I was half-blind with sweat. However, it’s not unusual to not find the queen when you actually need to 4.

I didn’t dally, I still had the 5-6 box towers to get through.

The tower of power

In my dreams

Finally I was left with colony #6. This had been strong from the start of the season and was now probably the strongest hive in the apiary. The double brood box was bulging with bees with at least 18 frames of brood in all stages.

The supers were very heavy.

At the beginning of the afternoon I’d intended to find the queen and prepare the box to be split once the flow was over (any day now). However, after more than an hour in stifling conditions I was struggling and starting to hallucinate about ice cold beer.

Inevitably I couldn’t find the queen 🙁

With sweat stinging my eyes and dripping off my nose onto the inside of the veil I could barely see the comb, let alone the queen. I did find eggs, so I knew she was present (or had been 2-3 days ago) and there were no obvious signs of swarm preparation. The colony was very busy, but the queen definitely still had space to lay.

I decided to pop a queen includer excluder between the brood boxes with the intention of returning 3-4 days later to look for eggs as an indicator of where the queen was.

I packed up, returned home and slaked my thirst.

Oh no they’re not … Oh yes they are …

Two days later my PhD student calls me from the apiary to tell me that colony #6 is swarming.

“Oh no they’re not … I checked them a couple of days ago and all was well”, I replied smugly.

But of course I visited the apiary to check anyway.

They were swarming 🙁

Oh yes they are!

Unlike a ‘typical’ swarm this appeared to have no centre or focus (where I’d usually expect to find the queen). The bees were spread over a wide area, hanging in a large clump under the landing board and on the edges and corners of the shed.

They weren’t clustering in any real sense of the word, but they also weren’t re-entering the hive.

I had a prod about around the entrance looking for the queen, gently removing handfuls of bees. The bees were very calm as you usually expect of swarms 5 and I could move them aside in my search.

But there was no sign of her.

Bees fanning at the hive entrance .. obviously a different hive as I had my hands full with the swarm.

However, there were a number of bees fanning busily at the hive entrance. Each was facing the entrance with the abdomen pointing up and away from the hive and the Nasanov gland exposed at the tip of the abdomen.

The Nasonov pheromone is a mix of terpenoids that attracts workers. It is left as an attractant by honey bees on nectar-rich flowers and – when produced by fanning bees at the hive entrance – it is usually a good indication that the queen is inside. An artificial version forms the commercial ‘swarm lure’ you can buy. 

What’s (probably) in the box?

By now I could make a fair guess at what had happened.

I assumed the queen was somewhere in the double brood box, either because she was clipped and had returned there or because she was trapped above the queen excluder.

Or, of course, both 6.

They’d presumably swarmed because I’d missed a queen cell. D’oh!

I therefore expected to find both a queen and one or more queen cells in the box … and I needed to quickly make a decision about how to resolve the situation.

Swarm control rescue

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Swarm control usually refers to a hive manipulation that prevents the colony from swarming. For example, the classic Pagden artificial swarm.

Despite the fact that this colony had swarmed 7, if I could find the queen I could divide the colony like a Pagden artificial swarm and (hopefully) rescue the situation.

I removed the supers and put them to the side. I assembled a new floor and brood box with 10 mixed frames 8 and substituted this for the original floor and double brood box.

I took the double brood box outside 9, separated the two boxes and went through them carefully.

The upper box contained the queen … above the queen excluder. I put her on the frame she occupied back into the new empty brood box in the shed.

The lower box had a handful of queen cells along the edge of a partially drawn foundationless frame. I’d missed these in the previous inspection. I’ll blame it on the heat, but I may need to visit Specsavers

I added a queen excluder to the new brood box and carefully placed the supers back on top. All the flying bees, which includes the foragers, would return to the original location within a day or two so the supers were there if the flow continued.

All’s well that ends well

I inspected the colonies a few days later. The queenright colony in the original location in the shed was busy, the queen was laying the well 10 and there was still nectar coming in.

I carefully went though the queenless colony to see if there were any additional queen cells and knocked all back except one which I know was charged (i.e. contained a developing larvae).

With a bit of good weather there should be a new mated queen in the box by mid/late August. If there isn’t I’ll unite the colony back with the one containing the original queen.

Lessons learned

As always there are lessons to be learned. The lessons this time are reasonably obvious:

  • Expiring from heat exhaustion is no reason to cut corners when inspecting a colony. I wasn’t aware that I’d cut corners, but the queen cells were reasonably obvious and would have been more than play cups at inspection 11. Perhaps I should have left it for a cooler day? But perhaps they would have then swarmed anyway … ? Beekeeping might appear like a gentle pastime (and it can be), but it can also be very hard work.
  • Moving a strong colony away from its original location usually helps reduce the bee numbers, so making inspections easier. This was undoubtedly helped by the absentee swarming bees as well 12.
  • Be prepared. Keep spares in the apiary so you can deal with the unexpected without making a return trip. I always try and keep a bait hive in the apiary and happily steal any or all of it to deal with these sorts of situations. You can always replace the bait hive at your leisure. Inevitably a busy swarm season can deplete your spares and it’s always worth remembering that the bees will cope with all sorts of sub-standard accommodation for a short period. A piece of ply as a roof, a crownboard as a floor (assuming it has a hole in it!), two stacked supers rather than a brood box, no crownboard (perhaps because it’s being used as a floor), an incomplete box of frames etc. Improvise if you need to … the bees will not mind.

Queen includers

Instead of a queen excluder, Thorne’s sell a “swarm trap” that consists of a box to fit over the hive entrance which has both a queen excluder and an exit for drones. They market it as being developed with the hobby beekeeper in mind who finds weekly inspections to remove queen cells almost impossible.

Swarm trap

I’ve not seen one in use so cannot comment on it. However, in my opinion there’s “no gain without pain” … if you are going to keep bees you need to appreciate that the principles of the hobby involve the need for regular inspections. It would probably be better to just purchase local honey rather than relying on this type of swarm trap for missed inspections.

Some beekeepers place a queen excluder under a brood box after hiving a captured swarm onto undrawn foundation. This helps prevent the colony from absconding while the bees draw some comb. After that the queen will start laying and the risk of the swarm disappearing is much reduced.

I’ve never used a queen excluder like this as I don’t routinely collect swarms. Those I acquire generally arrive under their own steam in a bait hive. Since these already have one drawn comb a mated queen can start laying without delay.

I don’t ever remember having a swarm from a bait hive abscond. Casts (a swarm with an unmated queen) also seem to stay if they have chosen their destination and moved there voluntarily.

The alternative way to encourage a hived swarm to stay put is to give them a frame of open brood. I have done this but prefer not to 13 as I treat all swarms with a miticide soon after they are hived to reduce Varroa levels. To ensure this treatment is really effective I want to be certain there is no sealed brood in the hive.


 

Teaching in the bee shed

An observant beekeeper never stops learning. How the colony responds to changes in forage and weather, how swarm preparations are made, how the colony regulates the local environment of the hive etc.

Sometimes the learning is simple reinforcement of things you should know anyway.

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

If you forget the dummy board they will build brace comb in the gap 🙁

There’s nothing wrong with learning by reinforcement though some beekeepers never seem to get the message that knocking back swarm cells is not an effective method of swarm control 😉

Learning from bees and beekeeping

More generally, bees (and their management) make a very good subject for education purposes. Depending upon the level taught they provide practical examples for:

  • Biology – (almost too numerous to mention) pollination, caste structure, the superorganism, disease and disease management, behaviour
  • Chemistry – pheromones, sugars, fermentation, forensic analysis
  • Geography and communication – the waggle dance, land use, agriculture
  • Economics – division of labour (so much more interesting than Adam Smith and pin making), international trade
  • Engineering and/or woodwork – bee space, hive construction, comb building, the catenary arch

There are of course numerous other examples, not forgetting actual vocational training in beekeeping.

This is offered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in a level 5 National Progression Award in Beekeeping and I’ve received some enquiries recently about using a bee shed for teaching beekeeping.

Shed life

For our research we’ve built and used two large sheds to accommodate 5 to 7 colonies. The primary reason for housing colonies in a shed is to provide some protection to the bees and the beekeeper/scientist when harvesting brood for experiments.

On a balmy summer day there’s no need for this protection … the colonies are foraging strongly, well behaved and good tempered.

But in mid-March or mid-November, on a cool, breezy day with continuous light rain it’s pretty grim working with colonies outdoors. Similarly – like yesterday – intermittent thunderstorms and heavy rain are not good conditions to be hunched over a strong colony searching for a suitable patch containing 200 two day old larvae.

Despite the soaking you get the colonies are still very exposed and you risk chilling brood … to say nothing of the effect it has on their temper.

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

Here’s a photo from late yesterday afternoon while I worked with three colonies in the bee shed. The Met Office had issued “yellow warnings” of thunderstorms and slow moving heavy rain showers that were predicted to drift in from the coast all afternoon.

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

For a research facility this is a great setup. The adverse weather doesn’t seem to affect the colonies to anything like the same degree as those exposed to the elements. Here’s a queenless colony opened minutes before the photo above was taken …

Open colony in the bee shed

Inside the shed the bees were calmly going about their business. I could spend time on each frame and wasn’t bombarded with angry bees irritated that the rain was pouring in through their roof.

Even an inexperienced or nervous beekeeper would have felt unthreatened, despite the poor conditions outside.

So surely this would be an ideal environment to teach some of the practical skills of beekeeping?

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

Is the queen present? Is there brood in all stages? Are there signs of disease?

All of these things need both good eyesight and good illumination. The former is generally an attribute of the young but can be corrected or augmented in the old.

But even 20:20 vision is of little use if there is not enough light to see by.

The current bee shed is 16′ x 8′. It is illuminated by the equivalent of seven 120W bulbs, one situated ‘over the shoulder’ of a beekeeper inspecting each of the seven hives.

On a bright day the contrast with the light coming in through the windows makes it difficult to see eggs. On a dull day the bulbs only provide sufficient light to see eggs in freshly drawn comb. In older or used frames – at least with my not-so-young eyesight – it usually involves a trip to the door of the shed (unless it is raining).

It may be possible to increase the artificial lighting using LED panels but whether this would be sufficient (or affordable) is unclear.

Access

Observation also requires access. The layout of my bee shed has the hives in a row along one wall. The frames are all arranged ‘warm way’ and the hives are easily worked from behind.

Hives in the bee shed

Inevitably this means that the best view is from directly behind the hive. If the shed was used as a training/teaching environment there’s no opportunity to stand beside the hive (as you would around a colony in a field), so necessitating the circulation of students within a rather limited space to get a better view.

A wider shed would improve things, but it’s still far from ideal and I think it would be impractical for groups of any size.

And remember, you’re periodically walking to and from the door with frames …

Kippered

If you refer back to the first photograph in this post you can see a smoker standing right outside the door of the shed.

If you use or need a smoker to inspect the colonies (and I appreciate this isn’t always necessary, or that there are alternative solutions) then it doesn’t take long to realise that the smoker must be kept outside the shed.

Even with the door open air circulation is limited and the shed quickly fills with smoke.

If you’ve mastered the art of lighting a properly fuelled efficient smoker the wisp of smoke curling gently up from the nozzle soon reduces visibility and nearly asphyxiates those in the shed.

Which brings us back to access again.

Inspections involve shuttling to and from the door with frames or the smoker, all of which is more difficult if the shed is full of students.

Or bees … which is why the queen excluder is standing outside the shed as well. I usually remove this, check it for the queen and then stand it outside out of the way.

Broiled

In mid-March or November the shed is a great place to work. The sheltered environment consistently keeps the temperature a little above ambient.

Colonies seem to develop sooner and rear brood later into the autumn 1.

But in direct sunlight the shed can rapidly become unbearably warm.

Phew!

All the hives have open mesh floors and I’ve not had any problems with colonies being unable to properly regulate their temperature.

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

Working for any period at temperatures in the low thirties (Centigrade) is unpleasant. Under these conditions the shed singularly fails to keep the beekeeper dry … though it’s sweat not rain that accumulates in my boots on days like this.

Bee shelters

For one or two users a bee shed makes a lot of sense if you:

  • live in an area with high rainfall (or that is very windy and exposed) and/or conditions where hives would benefit from protection in winter
  • need to inspect or work with colonies at fixed times and days
  • want the convenience of equipment storage, space for grafting and somewhere quiet to sit listening to the combined hum of the bees in the hives and Test Match Special 😉

But for teaching groups of students there may be better solutions.

In continental Europe 2 bee houses and bee shelters are far more common than they are in the UK.

I’ve previously posted a couple of articles on German bee houses – both basic and deluxe. The former include a range of simple shelters, open on one or more sides.

A bee shelter

Something more like this, with fewer hives allowing access on three sides and a roof – perhaps glazed or corrugated clear sheeting to maximise the light – to keep the rain off, might provide many of the benefits of a bee shed with few of the drawbacks.


 

Leave and let die

If you follow some of the online discussions on Varroa you’ll see numerous examples of amateur beekeepers choosing not to treat so as to ‘select for mite-resistant bees’.

For starters it’s worth looking at the ‘treatment-free’ forums on Beesource.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The principle is straightforward. It goes something like this:

  • Varroa is a relatively new 1 pathogen of honey bees who therefore naturally have no resistance to it (or the viruses it transmits).
  • Miticide treatment kills mites, so favouring the survival of bees.
  • Consequently, traits that confer partial or complete resistance to Varroa are not actively selected for (which would otherwise happen if an untreated colony died out).
  • Treatment is therefore detrimental, at the population level if not the individual level, to the development of Varroa-resistant bees.
  • Therefore, don’t treat and – with a bit of luck – a resistant strain of bees will appear.

A crude oversimplification?

Yes, I don’t deny it.

There are all sorts of subtleties here. These range from the open mating of queens, isolation of apiaries, desirable traits (with regards to both disease resistance and honey production 2), livestock management ethics, our responsibilities to other beekeepers and other pollinators. I could go on.

But won’t.

Instead I’ll discuss a short paper published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. It’s not particularly novel and the results are very much in the “No sh*t Sherlock” category. However, it neatly emphasises the futility of the ‘do nothing and expect evolution to find a solution’ approach.

But I’ll start with a simple question …

How many colonies have you got?

One? (in which case, get another)

Two?

Ten?

One hundred?

Eight-two thousand? 3

Numbers matters because evolution is a numbers game. The evolutionary processes that result in alteration of genes (the genotype of an organism) that confer different traits or characteristics (the phenotype of an organism) are rare.

For example, viruses are some of the fastest evolving organisms and, during their replication, mutations (errors) occur at a rate of about 1 in 104 at the genetic level 4.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

But so-called higher organisms (like humans or bees) have much more efficient replication machinery and make very many fewer errors. A conservative figure for bees might be about 10,000 times less than in these viruses (i.e. 1 in 108), though it could be as much as a million times less error-prone 5

There are lots of other evolutionary mechanisms in addition to mutation but the principle remains broadly the same. The chance changes that are acquired by copying or mixing up genetic material are very, very infrequent.

If they weren’t, most replication would result – literally – in a dead end.

OK, OK, enough numbers … what about my two colonies?

So, since the evolutionary mechanisms make small, infrequent changes, the chance of a beneficial change occurring is very small. If you start with small numbers of colonies and expect success you’re likely to be disappointed.

Where ‘likely to be’ means will be.

The chances of picking the Lotto jackpot is about 1 in 45 million for each ticket purchased. If you expect to win you will be disappointed.

It could be you … but it’s unlikely

If you buy two tickets (with different numbers!) your chances are doubled. But realistically, they’re still not great 6.

And so on.

Likewise, the more colonies you have, the more likely you’ll get one that might – by chance – acquire a beneficial mutation that confers some level of resistance to Varroa.

Of course, we don’t really know much about the genetic basis for resistance (or tolerance?) to Varroa in honey bees. We know that there are behavioural changes that increase survival. We also know that Apis cerana can cope with Varroa because it has a shorter duration replication cycle and exhibits social apoptosis.

There are certainly ‘hygienic’ and other traits in bees that may be beneficial, but at a genetic level I don’t think we know the number of genes that are altered to confer these, or how much each might contribute.

So we don’t know how many mutations will be needed … One? One hundred? One thousand?

If the benefit of an individual mutation is very subtle it might offer relatively little selective advantage, which brings us back to the numbers again.

Apologies. Let’s not go there.

Let’s cut to the chase …

Comparison of treated vs untreated colonies over 3 years

Miticides – whether hard chemicals like Amitraz or Apistan or organic acids like formic or oxalic acid – work by exhibiting differential toxicity to mites than to their host, the bee. They are not so specific that they only kill mites. They can harm other things as well … e.g. if you ingest enough oxalic acid (5 – 15g) it can kill you.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues published their study 7 comparing colonies treated or untreated over a three year period. The underlying question addressed in the paper is “What’s more damaging, treating with potentially toxic miticides or not treating at all?”

The study was straightforward. They started with 100 colonies, requeened them and divided them randomly into 4 groups of 25 colonies each. Three received treatment and one was a control.

The ‘condition’ of the colonies was measured in a variety of ways, including:

  • Colony size in Spring (number of combs occupied)
  • Nosema levels (quantified by numbers of spores)
  • Mite drop over the winter (dead mites per 100g of ‘hive debris’)
  • Colony size in autumn (post-treatment) and egg laying rate by the queen
  • Winter losses

The last one needs some explanation because in one group (guess which?) there were more winter losses than they started the experiment with.

Overwintering colony losses were made up from splits of colonies in the same group the following year, so that each year 25 colonies went into the winter i.e. surviving colonies were used to generate additional colonies for the same treatment group.

Treatment and seasonal variation

To add a little complexity to the study the authors compared three treatment regimes:

  1. Hard chemicals only – active ingredients amitraz or the pyrethroid flumethrin (the research group are Polish, so the particular formulations are those licensed in Poland – Apiwarol, Bayvarol and Biowar).
  2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a range of treatments including Api Life Var (primarily a thymol-based treatment) in spring, drone brood removal early/mid season, hard chemical or formic acid in late summer/autumn and oxalic acid in midwinter.
  3. Organic (natural) treatments only – Api Life Var in spring, the same or formic acid in late summer and a midwinter oxalic acid treatment.

The fourth group were the untreated controls.

To avoid season-specific variation they conducted the experiment over three complete seasons (2010-2012).

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The results of the study are shown in a series of rather dense tables with standard deviation and statistic significance … so I’ll give a narrative account of the important ones.

Results …

The strength of surviving colonies in Spring was unaffected by prior treatment (or absence of treatment) but varied significantly between seasons. In contrast, late summer colony strength was significantly worse in the untreated control colonies. In addition, the number of post-treatment eggs laid by the queen was significantly lower (by ~30%) in untreated control colonies 8.

Remember that early autumn treatment is needed to reduce Varroa infestation and so protect the winter bees that are being reared at this time from the mite-transmitted viruses.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The most dramatic effects were seen in winter losses and (unsurprisingly) mite counts.

Mites were counted in the hive debris falling through the open mesh floor during the winter. In the first year the treated and untreated controls had similar numbers of mites per 100g of debris (~12). In all treated colonies this remained about the same in each subsequent season. Conversely, untreated controls showed mite drop increasing to ~43 in the second year and ~114 in the final year of the study.

During the three years of the study 30 untreated colonies died. In contrast, a total of 37 colonies from the three treatment groups died.

The summary sentence of the abstract to the paper neatly sums up these results: 

Failing to apply varroa treatment results in the gradual and systematic decrease in the number of combs inhabited by bees and condition of bee colonies and consequently, in their death.

… and some additional observations

Other than oxalic acid, none of the treatments used significantly affected the late season egg laying by the queen. Api Life Var contains thymol and many beekeepers are aware that the thymol in Apiguard quite often stops the queen from laying. Interesting …

I commented last week on queen losses with MAQS. In this Polish study, 8 of 50 colonies treated with formic acid suffered queen losses.

In the third season (2012) 45% of the 100 colonies died. More than half of these lost colonies were in the untreated controls. In contrast, overall colony losses in the first two years were only 9% and 13%. Survival of untreated colonies for a year or two is expected, but once the Varroa levels increase significantly the colony is doomed.

Overall, colonies receiving integrated pest management or hard chemical treatment survived best.

Evolution …

March of Progress

Evolution …

Remind yourself where the colonies came from that were used to make up the losses in the treatment (or control) groups … they were splits from colonies within the same group. So, colonies that survived without treatment were used to produce more colonies to not be treated the following season.

Does this start to sound familiar?

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues started with 25 colonies in the untreated group. They lost 30 colonies over a 3 year period and ended up with just two colonies. Had they wanted to continue the study they would have been unable to recover their losses from these two remaining colonies.

If you don’t treat you must expect to lose colonies.

Lots of colonies.

Actually, almost all of them.

… takes time

This study lasted only three years. That’s not very long in evolutionary terms (unless you are a bacterium with a 20 minute replication cycle). 

It would be unrealistic to expect Varroa resistance to almost spontaneously appear. After all, there are about 91 million colonies worldwide, the majority of which are in countries with Varroa. Lots of these colonies will not be treated. If it was that easy it would have happened many times already.

What happens when you start with more colonies and allow more time to elapse?

Well, this ‘experiment’ has been done. There are a number of regions that have well-documented populations of feral honey bees that are living with, if not actually resistant to, Varroa.

One well known population are the bees in the Arnot Forest studied by Thomas Seeley. These bees have behavioural adaptations – small, swarmy colonies – that lessen the impact of Varroa on the colony 9.

Finally, returning to the title of this post, there is the so-called “Bond experiment” conducted on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Scientists established 150 colonies of mite-infested bees and let them get on with it with no intervention at all. Over the subsequent six years they followed the co-evolution of the mite and the bee 10.

It’s called the “Bond experiment” or the Live and Let Die study for very obvious reasons.

Almost all the colonies died.

Which is why the title of this post is more appropriate for those of us with only small numbers of colonies.


 

The hairdryer treatment

I must be missing a couple of fingers. When I wrote the last post on hive and queen numbering I counted off the days to the end of this week, scheduled the post and was then quite surprised when it appeared on Wednesday.

D’oh!

That Friday feeling

That’s spoilt the pattern a bit.

To get back on schedule here’s a note about the well-known trick to revitalise foundation 1.

Frames and foundation

It’s the time of the season when many beekeepers will be running out of frames as they try and keep up with splits and swarming.

It’s sometimes difficult to get new foundation precisely when you need it. The suppliers sell out or delivery takes a week and you need it that afternoon 2. I therefore usually buy in bulk and store it somewhere cool and flat.

If you look after it properly foundation lasts for ages. Don’t go piling things on top of the stack and try not to damage the fragile edges. However, over time it becomes brittle and develops a pale waxy bloom on the surface. It also loses that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell.

The bees draw out this old rather tired foundation appreciably less well than they do new fragrant sheets. In my experience this is particularly noticeable in supers.

However, a few seconds with a hairdryer on a medium setting quickly restores the foundation to its original state.

Revitalising foundation

Don’t overheat it. The sheet will bow slightly as it is warmed. Treat both sides to try and keep it as flat as possible. The foundation will become slightly translucent and regains that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell as oils are released from the warmed wax.

It’s easier to do this once the foundation is fitted in the frame. However, old, brittle foundation is less easy to work with when you’re making up frames in the first place.

Or you could use foundationless frames 😉

Your call.


Colophon

The phrase ‘hairdryer treatment’ is most often associated with the last but one, two, three, four 3 managers of Manchester United FC, Sir Alex Ferguson. The BBC’s Learning English website describes it very well … When Sir Alex Ferguson was angry with his players, he shouted at them with such force, it was like having a hairdryer switched on in their faces.

Since I’m interested in etymology 4 and not football I’ve no idea what prompted the rise in use of the term in May 2013, visualised below on Google Trends.

Hairdryer treatment – Google Trends

Perhaps the May 2013 peak wasn’t Fergie or football at all … perhaps it was a flurry of articles on restoring old wax foundation 😉

Keeping track

It’s mid-May and the beekeeping season in Fife has segued from the early spring ‘phoney war’, where there’s not enough to do, to an earlier-than-normal swarming season where there’s not enough time to do everything needed.

I’ve got more colonies than ever, spread across three apiaries. Work, home and the Naughty Corner 1.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

I’ve previously written about that stage in a beekeepers ‘career’ when he or she makes the transition from struggling to keep one colony to struggling to keep up with all the bees they have.

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

Others are ‘naturals’ – what’s the equivalent of green-fingered for beekeeping? Sticky fingered (er, probably not) or perhaps propolis-fingered? Whatever, these new beginners smoothly progress to a level of competency well above the norm.

Struggling to keep

Beekeeping is easy in principle, but subtly nuanced in practice. The enthusiastic beginner can struggle. They lose their first colony in the first winter. They buy another, it swarms and throws off several casts and they end up queenless in mid-season. A new queen is purchased, but too late for the main nectar flow.

No honey again 🙁

And, it turns out, too late to build up the colony to get through the winter 🙁

Thoroughly demoralised now, they are resigned to more of the same or giving up altogether.

The overwintered nuc of fashionably dark native bees they ordered from Bob’s Craptastic Bees 2 fails to materialise 3.

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

The empty hive sits forlornly in a patch of weeds at the end of the garden, smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises.

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

And, in mid-May, a huge prime swarm moves in 🙂

The beekeeper has never seen so many bees in their life 4. How on earth do all those bees manage to squeeze into that little box?

Following advice from their new mentor, the beekeeper gently slides 11 frames into the box and is encouraged to treat for Varroa before there is any sealed brood. Considering their previous experience things go surprisingly well, not least because the bees have a lovely temperament.

The bees ignore, or at least gracefully tolerate, the beekeeper’s novice fumblings. Instead they single-mindedly focus on drawing comb, rearing brood and collecting nectar.

Struggling to keep up with

The summer is long and warm, with just enough rain to keep the nectar flowing. The hive gets taller as supers are added. By autumn there’s enough honey for friends and family and a partially capped super to leave for the bees.

The bees are lovely to work with and the confidence and competence of the beekeeper improves further.

After overwintering well, the colony builds up strongly again and by mid-May of the following year the beekeeper has used the nucleus method for swarm control and now has two hives. The bees remain calm, steady on the comb, well tempered and prolific.

Very prolific.

By the end of this second ‘proper’ year the beekeeper has two full colonies and a nuc to overwinter.

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

With good bees, good weather, a determination to succeed and supportive training and mentoring the problem should be keeping up with the bees, not keeping them at all.

Stock improvement

Some bees are better than others. Once you have more than one colony – and you should always have at least two – you start to see differences in behaviour and performance.

Frugal colonies overwinter on minimum levels of stores and, if fed properly, don’t need a fondant topup in Spring.

Well behaved colonies are steady on the comb, only get protective when mishandled and don’t follow you around for 200 yards pinging off your veil.

Some bees are great at making more bees but promptly eat all their stores as soon as the weather takes a downturn. Others regularly need three supers per brood box 5.

These traits become apparent over the course of a season and, of course, are diligently recorded in your hive notes 😉

Primarily these characteristics are determined by the genetics of the bees.

Which means you can improve your stock by culling poor queens and uniting colonies and expanding – by splitting or queen rearing – your better bees.

Keeping track

And in between the swarming, splitting, uniting, moving and re-queening the overworked (but now hugely more experienced) beekeeper needs to keep track of everything.

Or, if not everything, then the things that matter.

Which bees are in which box, where that old but good queen was placed for safety while the hive requeened, which box did the overwintered nuc get moved to?

I’ve discussed the importance of record keeping a few years ago 6. I still score colonies by objective (e.g. levels of stores, frames of brood, number of supers added) and subjective (e.g. temper/defensiveness, steadiness on the frame, following) criteria.

This takes just a minute or so. I don’t write an essay, just a simple series of numbers or ticks, followed if necessary by a short statement “Skinny queen, laying rate ⇓, demaree’d” or “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

Objective and subjective notes

I still use pretty much the same hive record sheet for these notes (available here as a PDF) as it has served me well.

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

What hasn’t served me so well are the numbers painted on the side of some of my hives.

These were supposed to help me identify which colony was which when I’m reading my notes or in the apiary.

Trivial in the overall scheme of things I know, but as colony numbers have increase and my memory goes in the opposite direction I’ve realised that numbers painted on boxes can be limiting.

For example:

  • The colony expands from single to double brood. There are now two numbers on the hive. Which do you use?
  • You do a Bailey comb change, consequently changing one brood box for another. Do you record the changed number or continue to refer to it by the old number?
  • You use the nucleus method of swarm control. The nuc is numbered. All good. The nuc expands and has to be moved into a hive. It’s the same colony 7, does the number change? It has to if the numbers are painted on the boxes.
  • Some hives seem to have never been numbered (or the number has worn off) in the first place. These end up being named ‘The pale cedar box’ or ‘Glued Denrosa’. Distinctive, but not necessarily memorable.

And that’s before we’ve even considered keeping track of queens. For work (and for some aspects of practical beekeeping) queens are sometimes moved.

“Easy” some would say. The characteristics of the colony are primarily due to their genetics. These are determined by the queen. The hive number moves with the queen.

It’s easy to move a queen. It’s a bit more work to move the 60,000 bees she’s left behind to free up the numbered box to accompany her.

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

OK, what about a colony that goes queenless and then rears a new queen? If the logic of hive/colony=queen prevails then logically the requeened colony should be renumbered.

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

I purchased some waterproof plastic numbered cards and some small red engraved disks 9. Both are designed for identifying tables in pubs or restaurants.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I use the plastic card numbers to identify colonies. These accompany the bees and brood if they move from one apiary to another, or as colonies are split and/or united. It’s the colony I inspect, so this provides the relevant geographic reference and is the thing I’m writing about to when my notes state “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

I use the red numbers to identify the queen. A queenless colony will therefore have no red disk on it.

When a nuc is promoted to a full hive the number moves with it. If the colony swarms and  requeens, one red number is ‘retired’ and a new one is applied.

My notes carry both the colony number and the queen number. I have a separate record of queens, with some more generic comments about the performance of the colonies they head.

Colony and queen numbering

The numbers are sold in 50’s … I use them at random 10. About half of them are in use at the moment.

If queen rearing goes well, swarming goes badly or things get out of hand, numbers 51-100 and engraved black disks are also available 😉

Finally, to make life a little simpler I bought a box of stainless steel 11 map pins. These are easy to grip with a gloved hand and don’t need to be prised out with a hive tool. They have the additional advantage of being short enough to not project beyond the handhold recess on the sides of most hive boxes so they can be pushed together if they’re being moved.

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

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.