Category Archives: Responsibility

Infernal contradictions

Synopsis : The manufacturer’s instructions for miticide use are often poorly worded, confusing or contradictory. Many beekeepers already struggle to control Varroa and this makes things worse.


How many beekeepers read the documentation that accompanies the miticides they use for Varroa control? How many understand what all the terms – including the pharmacological ones – mean?

Posology anyone?

What about the phrase “Withdrawal period”? 

Can all miticides containing the same active ingredient be used in the same way? If not, why not?

What about repeat usage? Can you repeat a treatment (if needed) if the instructions do not explicitly state that repeat treatments are not allowed? 1 Or can you only administer a second application if the instructions explicitly state that it is allowed?

And if a you are allowed to apply a second treatment, can you administer a third? What about treating in November and the following January? Two different calendar years, but well under one year apart.

Don’t expect any answers to these or related questions in this post 😉 .

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The intention here is to highlight the slightly shambolic nature of the documentation that accompanies (and sometimes does not accompany, but which you are probably expected to read!) the miticides approved for use in the UK. I don’t have time to cover all the miticides in a single post so will restrict this post 2 to two containing formic acid and one that contains oxalic acid.

And … while we’re at it … which are the legally binding instructions? Those in teensy-weensy lettering on the purchased product or the ones listed in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) database?

MAQS and FormicPro

MAQS (Mite Away Quick Strips) and FormicPro are very similar products.

Actually, they are so similar that it’s rather difficult to tell them apart.


The packaging is similar – a cardboard box or plastic tub filled with sachets, each containing two strips impregnated with formic acid (and some other stuff – but what isn’t specified). Even the price is similar; two doses (by which they mean sufficient to treat two hives, or one hive twice, cost an eye-watering 3 £16.50. I’ve not checked other suppliers, but Thorne’s list the 2, 10 and 30 dose boxes of MAQS and FormicPro at identical price points 4.


If you bother to read the online documentation (which you should) you will see that both are marketed by NOD Apiary Ireland Limited, and that each strip contains 68.2 g of formic acid. Even the description of the individual gel strips is very similar:

Brown, semi-rigid to soft gel strip covered in a biodegradable laminated paper, which maintains form (FormicPro).

Each strip is an off-white to caramel coloured gel wrapped in white laminated biodegradable paper (MAQS).

So, we have the same active ingredient, formulated in the same way, packaged in a similar manner, with identical diagrams for how to apply two strips to the brood box. The temperature range recommended for use is identical and both have similar warnings about queen damage.

The same but different

But, although MAQS and FormicPro appear to be essentially the same, from a practical beekeeping standpoint they are very different.

MAQS can be used with honey supers on the hive but FormicPro cannot.

Of course, pedantically, that’s not exactly true.

You could use them ’any-damned-way’ you please, but you would probably be breaking the rules.

You are allowed to use MAQS when there are honey supers present, but you are not allowed to use FormicPro – in all other regards an identical product – when there are honey supers on the hive. 

Here are the relevant words from the online SPC’s (Summary of Product Characteristics) 5:

Supers with honey must be removed from the hive prior to product application. See Section 4.5. Honey stored in super(s) put on for the treatment period must be removed and not used for human consumption. Spent strips must be removed before supers intended for harvest are placed on the hive (FormicPro – section 4.11 ‘Withdrawal period’).

The strips may be applied during honey flow; put on honey supers if honey flow is anticipated, to allow adequate space for colony expansion (MAQS – section 4.5 ‘Special precautions for use’).

There is one other difference as well … you can buy FormicPro whereas MAQS appears to be out of stock from all the suppliers I’ve checked.

Perhaps it has been withdrawn already by the manufacturer … ?

This is going to confuse a lot of beekeepers who have come to value MAQS as a short-term and effective treatment for Varroa management during the season.

Many will continue to use FormicPro in the same way that they used MAQS … which could be problematic if they are visited by a Seasonal Bee Inspector.

Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC)

Any miticides you purchase should be accompanied by a set of instructions – on the outside of the box, or the foil packet or wherever. These are often like ’ant tracks’ – illegibly small printing, almost impossible to read without the use of a binocular microscope 6.

Api-Bioxal … where’s my microscope?

Importantly, the packet will also carry a lot number and a use by date – you need to keep records of the former for several years 7 after use. I almost always forget to write this into my notes, but I always photograph the packet so have a dated copy on my ‘phone.

Use the VMD search facility to avoid the budgie treatments

If you want to review the official documentation for the miticide you need to visit the Veterinary Medicines Directorate Product Information Database. With a bit of rummaging around (Hint .. the search facility is your friend 8 ) you can usually find at least two official documents for each authorised product:

A document prefixed SPC (the Summary of Product Characteristics).

A document prefixed QRD (for Quality Review of Documents), which is the Product Literature; essentially the labelling and text that is supplied when you purchase the product.

If you read these you will find a large amount of duplication. These documents are periodically revised – the MAQS and FormicPro paperwork is all dated June 2022, with MAQS being first authorised in 2013 and FormicPro in 2021.

Discrepancies and confusion

Aside from the ‘biggy’ (not being allowed to use FormicPro when there are supers on the hive) there are other discrepancies or confusing text in these documents.

I’ve already listed one example …

The MAQS SPC indicates the ability to use the product when supers are present under section 4.5 ’Special precautions for use’.

In contrast, the FormicPro SPC indicates that the product cannot be used when honey supers are present under section 4.11 ’Withdrawal period’, though they do refer to section 4.5 (where, perplexingly, only empty honey supers are mentioned).

Section 4.5 seems to me to be the logical place to mention the ever-so-slightly-critical matter of not being allowed to use FormicPro when there are honey supers present.

Does anyone proof read or sanity check these documents?

If so, why don’t they ever define the term withdrawal period?

If you do a search online for ’withdrawal period’ there are all sorts of things about hormonal birth control and legal contract cancellations, but you need to scroll down to the penultimate item on the first page to get the relevant meaning:

The time that must elapse between the last administration of a veterinary medicine and the slaughter or production of food from that animal, to ensure that the food does not contain levels of the medicine that exceed the maximum residue limit.

And that’s from the European Medicines Agency; it wasn’t until somewhere on the third page of results I could find anything from the VMD 9.

Helpful? Not 🙁 .

Of course, there’s an argument that if you’re applying the ‘medicine’ then you should understand all the paperwork and seek further advice if needed.

But I suspect many do not.

More vagueness

Whilst very specific in places e.g. duration of treatment, maximum temperature for use 29.5°C (Really? Does that 0.5°C make a difference? How many domestic thermometers are that accurate?), the documentation also carries other contradictory or vague instructions.

Both MAQS and FormicPro contain the following words under Section 4.4 (‘Special warnings for each target species ‘) of the SPC

Use according to local treatment recommendations, if available.

Who makes these local treatment recommendations? Are they legally binding? Can you just invent them? What can they cover or not cover? Could the local treatment recommendations state “Use five strips for a month”?

And what about disposal of the used, unused and waste products? Here you will find instructions in two separate places in the SPC.

When removed, dispose of by composting (FormicPro, Section 4.9 “Administration”).

The strips do not need to be removed from the hive after the application period of 7 days as the honey bees dispose of the spent strips. If they are removed, dispose of by composting (MAQS, Section 4.9 “Administration”).

And, confusingly …

Any unused veterinary medicinal product or waste materials derived from such veterinary medicinal products should be disposed of in accordance with local requirements (MAQS and FormicPro Section 6.6 ‘Special precautions for disposal’)

So can they be composted, or do ‘local requirements’ take precedence?

I can’t even be bothered to comment on section 4.6 ‘Adverse reactions’ which helpfully define very common, common, uncommon, rare etc events, but then only apply them to one adverse reaction, despite listing many others.


I’ve spent a career trying to make sense of badly worded, confusing, verbose, self-contradictory documents (until the arrival of ChatGPT this was the norm for both student essays and University administrative paperwork) but some of these instructions still baffle me.


The active ingredient in Api-Bioxal is oxalic acid (OA). I’ve discussed this extensively in previous posts. There are several other miticides listed on the VMD database that have OA as the active ingredient; Oxuvar, VarroMed (which also contains formic acid), Dany’s BienenWohl powder/solution and Oxybee. Of these, the last two may not be routinely available in the UK.

I’m going to restrict my (brief) discussion to Api-Bioxal as it’s the only one I’m familiar with and because it highlights a different form of internal infernal contradiction in the official instructions and paperwork.

The Api-Bioxal SPC and instructions clearly state (in section 4.5 ’Special precautions for use’ … or ‘the logical place’ as it should be known) that it should be administered when supers are not present on the hive.

In addition, it also clearly states that the withdrawal period is ‘Zero days’ 10.

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser … phoretic mites don’t stand a chance

The duration of application for MAQS and FormicPro is seven days and the formic acid permeates the cappings and kills mites in capped cells. In contrast, Api-Bioxal is a single shot treatment … it may (or may not) remain active in the hive for some time after administration, but you essentially apply it and walk away.

Job done 🙂 .

Oxalic acid does not penetrate capped cells and so is only effective if the colony is broodless. The instructions are clear on this point (to their credit).

A single shot used once … or twice?

The instructions describe two approved methods of administering Api-Bioxal. Trickling a 4.2% (w/v) solution made up in 1:1 (‘thin’) syrup onto the visible seams of bees, or vaporising a hive with up to 2.3 g of Api-Bioxal.

Administration by trickling … Up to two treatments per year (winter and/or spring-summer season in brood-free colonies). The treatment should be made in a single administration.

Administration by vaporisation … Maximal dose 2.3g per hive as a single administration. One treatment per year.

I think the ‘single administration’ means that you cannot split a treatment into two e.g. vaporise 1.15 g twice, or trickle 2.5 ml per seam and then repeat it the following day.

What’s odd is that trickling can be conducted twice per year, whereas vaporisation cannot. What about vaporising in December and January? i.e. once in each of two successive years … which could even be on successive days (31/12 and 1/1).

This is odd for two reasons – firstly it seems strange that the same compound can be administered a different number of times depending upon the route of administration.

Well, OK, perhaps it’s really bad for the colony to be vaporised? In that case it would be understandable, though some explanation of the point would help.

The good old days … trickle treating colonies before Api-Bioxal

Trickling and vaporising do cause differential damage to colonies, but it is trickling that does more damage. Trickled OA damages open brood and studies from the LASI group in Sussex showed that colonies trickle-treated when brood was present were subsequently weaker than those that were vaporised (Al Toufailia et al., 2015).

Conversely, several studies of repeated vaporisation have shown that it is well tolerated by the colony.

So, in this instance the instructions are at odds with my understanding 11 of the current science.

Zero days

If the withdrawal period for Api-Bioxal is zero days (it is), can you add a stack of supers to the colony the day after vaporising or trickle treating a colony?

I think you can 12.

Which is a little odd as the oxalic acid remains active in the colony for several days after it is added. If you apply Api-Bioxal and then monitor mite drop on a daily basis over about a week it often peaks a day or two after it is administered, but goes on at a reducing rate for ~5-6 days. Whilst it could just be taking its time killing the mites 13, I think it is more likely that residual activity remains for several days.

Perhaps the wording in the instructions on ‘honey flow’ precludes this, but you can certainly add supers before a honey flow and I’d argue that the wording isn’t completely clear cut.


I know almost nothing about the licensing of veterinary medicines. My understanding is that a license is applied for, supported by evidence of efficacy, toxicity etc. and that it is restricted in terms of the range of methods used to apply the miticide.

Therefore, if the manufacturer only applies for a license for trickling or vaporisation, then that’s what they get (if approved). Varromed (an OA solution) can be administered by trickling and spraying. When made up for spraying the OA solution has a long shelf life as there is no sugar present.

But that’s not an option for Api-Bioxal 🙁 .

Beekeepers are restricted in what they can (legally) do by what the manufacturer sought a licence for, even if there are better ways of administering the active compound, or even if the scientific evidence (sometimes preceding licensing, and certainly preceding updates of the documentation) indicates that – for example – repeat administration is both safe and effective.

Trying to make sense of it all

In Scotland a Working Group has been established to try and resolve some of these discrepancies and provide better advice to beekeepers on the use of the currently licensed miticides.

The Working Group involves representatives from a variety of interested parties including an acronym salad comprising SASA, VMD, BFA, FSS, SBA, SRUC, SEPA, APHA, DEFRA, DAERA, NBU and some academics and ex-academics with a particular interest in honey bee health.

I have written a lot about Varroa control on this site. In my view it is relatively straightforward to control mite numbers using the currently licensed miticides appropriately. In my experience it is easier to do this in Scotland, where we have lower winter temperatures and a greater chance of an extended broodless period.

However, Scotland – unlike the Midlands where I have also kept bees – offers some additional complications where Varroa control is concerned. Our most important (by £££) nectar source is heather which yields late in the year, too late in some years to subsequently protect the winter bees from mites and viruses.

Balancing the needs of the bees (low mites and viruses to overwinter successfully) with those of the beekeeper (hundreds of kilograms of heather honey) requires a careful balancing act and a good understanding of the benefits and limitations of the miticides available.

In turn, this needs good documentation and better advice that is both easily accessible and understandable by beekeepers.

And … to my surprise – and I look forward to it being confirmed or refuted – I’m told that the SPC is the legally binding document with regard to the use or misuse of licensed miticides.

I’ve (had to) read them all now … have you?


Al Toufailia, H., Scandian, L., and Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2015) Towards integrated control of varroa: 2) comparing application methods and doses of oxalic acid on the mortality of phoretic Varroa destructor mites and their honey bee hosts. Journal of Apicultural Research 54: 108–120

Interpretative dance

Synopsis : Interpreting waggle dance distances as indicators of seasonal foraging challenges, environmental change and pollinator competition. 


The days are getting longer, though not enough to really notice. At almost 57° N we’ve apparently gained ~26 minutes since the winter solstice … but I’ve not seen a bee since early December.

Actually, that’s not entirely true because I checked some colonies this afternoon. As well as hefting the hives to ensure they were still reassuringly heavy I also took a couple of photos from underneath the open mesh floors.

Late December and relatively few corpses on this OMF in the bee shed

Some floors were almost clear, others had a few hundred scattered corpses and there was even the odd bee wandering around.

Why do some floors have more corpses than others?

Remember, the entire worker population of the colony is replaced in the autumn, with the summer foragers gradually dying off and the the long-lived (diutinus) winter bees substituting for them. It’s unlikely that these corpses are summer bee stragglers as they’d be almost three months old by now.

One possibility is that there is a higher attrition rate of winter bees in some colonies (though why is unclear), or the colonies were larger to start with and the same attrition rate yields more corpses. A related explanation would be colonies with the same number of winter bees, though produced at different times. If 1% of bees over, for example, 2 months old died each week 1, a colony that produced the bulk of its winter bees early would have more corpses than one that produced the winter bees later.

The photobombed picture above is of one of my east coast colonies in the bee shed. Here on the west coast my bees are Varroa-free. The ‘corpse count’ is therefore unlikely to be due to different levels of DWV infection resulting from Varroa infestation. My west coast bees have DWV, but only at very low levels.

It’s also not due to differences in undertaker bee activity as temperatures have been too low for any bees to fly for at least a month.

Anyway, enough morbidity …

The ‘corpse count’ is hardly beekeeping, but it’s as close as I’ll get to do any for at least two months. There are always winter tasks … cleaning smokers, frames, wax processing, honey jarring, painting nucs etc. but enthusiasm levels are low and it’s easier to sit in front of the fire and drink coffee 😉 .

My good deed for the day

To take my mind off corpses and all the frames I’ve yet to start building I’ve been doing some reading about foraging distances and how they vary during the season. This is great because it makes me think of summer days, wildflower meadows, fields of clover and acres of flowering oil seed rape.

By coincidence, this morning there were two articles in The Guardian – on deaths attributable to pollinator decline and severe weather events. It struck me that a better understanding of changes in foraging patterns and activity may be informative in investigating both the decline of pollinators and the consequences of severe weather events like drought.

Front page news … The Guardian 9th January 2023

I’ll return briefly to these two articles at the end, but will concentrate upon how we can determine where the bees are foraging and how this changes during the season.

And, even if you would rather not think about potential ecosystem collapse or climate disaster, from a beekeeping perspective it’s just interesting to know how far our bees are going when they zoom out of the hive entrance on a balmy summer afternoon.

It’s good to talk

Although we can communicate with animals to an extent – I can tell our puppy to ‘sit’ (and she might) – it’s not true communication. Similarly, although we can recognise the differences in songbird alarm calls to sparrowhawks vs. cats, the informational content is extremely limited when compared to true communication.

In contrast, and perhaps uniquely, we can eavesdrop on communication by returning foragers with their nest mates and interpret the distance to the nectar or pollen source, the direction the source is from the hive and – to an extent – the quality of the source (I’m going to restrict discussion to distance and direction here).

All of this information is encapsulated in the waggle dance, for which von Frisch was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973. Without question this is the most complex communication signal known in insects and, arguably, in any animal.

The waggle dance has two phases; the waggle run is essentially movement in one direction while vibrating the abdomen from side to side, the return phase involves the worker looping back to start another waggle run.

The waggle dance

The informational content of the waggle dance is primarily in the waggle run, the:

  • duration of the waggle run provides distance information
  • angle of the waggle run provides directional information, relative to the solar azimuth

By keeping bees in a hive with a glass observation panel and videoing waggle dances we can determine the likely location of nectar or pollen (or tree resins or water under certain conditions) sources after analysing the recordings.

Noisy dancing

However, although it sounds relatively straightforward, dance interpretation is complicated by the inherent noise in the dances of returning foragers.

Foragers returning from a point source of nectar (such as a syrup feeder placed in the field by a scientist) show variation in their waggle dances; both individual foragers in sequential dances, and different foragers reporting the same nectar source.

When decoded this means there is variation in both vector components – distance and direction.

All of which makes accurately monitoring changes in foraging distances over a season or more rather problematic.

However, before describing how scientists have solved this problem think about whether this matters to a bee.

A bit of noise is OK for the bees (right) but just looks like noise to scientists (left)

In nature, although individual locations of nectar 2 might be point sources e.g. a flower in a field, in reality the entire field may be filled with similar nectar-yielding flowers. Typically bees rarely have to return to the reported location of a point source.

As long as the dance followers get to the right field they should be OK.

Noise suppression and increasing probability

Using a syrup source to which a colony had been trained, Couvillon and colleagues (Couvillon et al. 2012 3 ) demonstrated that the first and last waggle runs within any one dance were not very accurate. If these were ignored, but instead four consecutive runs were used from a single dance, this gave much better prediction of the syrup source.

However, this decoded directional and distance information (e.g. 1100 metres at 46°), when plotted onto a map, still just indicates a point source, effectively over-estimating the confidence in the decoded information.

Instead, they reasoned, it would be better to predict a probability distribution.

Roger Schürch did this (Schürch et al., 2013), analysing his own data and published archival data from both von Frisch and Wenner (I introduced you to Adrian Wenner a few months ago when I discussed using Varroa to eradicate honey bees from Santa Cruz Island).

Using some clever 4 statistical analysis Schürch showed that; 1) there was a linear relationship between the duration of the waggle run and distance, 2) that angular variation between dances was independent of distance, and 3) that the combination of the two vectors (from several recorded dances and several thousand dances simulated with appropriate levels of scatter in the distance and angle vectors) could be used to plot a probability distribution of the location the bees were reporting during the dance.

Heat map (b) and 3D representation (c) of combined multiple dances

Effectively this method enables a relatively limited dataset to predict the most likely location of the nectar source – in the image above, blue is less likely than yellow, than red.

As you can see from the 3D projection – where probability increases in the vertical axis – it looks pretty good.

Dance like nobody’s watchin’ 5

Though there usually is 😉 .

Margaret Couvillon and Roger Schürch worked with Francis Ratnieks at the University of Sussex. Together they applied this methodology to predict the likely foraging areas by conducting waggle dance observations over two full seasons (Couvillon et al., 2014).

They recorded over 5000 dances to track seasonal changes in foraging and so address these questions:

  • how do foraging areas change over the season?
  • are foraging distances influenced by temperature?
  • how might nectar quality influence foraging?

Of course, as soon as you start thinking about questions like these you’ll realise that the observations will inevitably reflect the locally forage available, so the direct results may not be applicable to different areas, but the patterns might be.

And importantly, the methodology may be useful to address other questions in a changing landscape and environment.

4 km circle around the hive location – note urban and rural areas

The hives were located at the University. This was an area surrounded by open farmland 6, but Brighton has encroached from the south west. As a consequence at least ~21% of a 4 km circle centred on the University is classed as urban or suburban i.e. built up, but including gardens and allotments etc.

Seasonal variation in foraging distances

From August ’09 until July ’11 (excluding the months between November and March which are too cold for regular foraging) 5076 dances were videoed and analysed. By plotting the average distance reported 7 by returning foragers each month, it was clear that bees traveled much further afield in the summer than they did in either the spring or autumn.

Monthly differences in foraging distances

The average distances for early spring (March), summer (July/August) and autumn (September/October 8 ) were 493 m, 2156 m and 1275 m respectively.

Temperature and foraging

Although summer is the warmest season, there are warm days in spring and cool days in summer. Since the team recorded dances on almost every day good enough for foraging it was possible to look for a correlation between the actual temperature and the distance reported by dancing foragers.

There wasn’t one.

That means that the longer flights in summer were not because the bees needed a higher ambient temperature to fly further. We can therefore assume that the bees were choosing to fly further, not because they could but because they had to.

Nectar and foraging

Honey bees are able to judge the energetic rewards of a nectar source. This involves a calculation of the energy expended collecting it vs. the energetic ‘value’ of the nectar collected. For example, the bees might favour a distant sugar-rich nectar source over a poorer one that is closer.

It was therefore important to determine whether the increased summer foraging distances were because the bees were favouring nectars with a higher sugar content.

How was this determined?

Returning foragers 9 were captured, chilled and gently squeezed to force them to regurgitate the content of their crop. Using a refractometer (of a slightly smaller scale than you might use to measure the water content in a bucket of honey) the sugar content of the crop contents was measured.

About 5% of returning foragers were carrying water, not nectar, and these were excluded when calculating average nectar content.

Whilst there was considerable month to month variation in the sugar content of nectar, there was not a correlation with the foraging distance. Therefore, the bees foraging further afield in the summer weren’t travelling greater distances because the distant nectar sources had a higher sugar content. They were travelling that far because they had to.

The sphere of influence

I used this term previously to describe the area of the landscape potentially impacted by a hive or apiary. Essentially it is defined by the maximum flight distances of the foragers, drones, scouts and queens. Numerically of course, the foragers are the largest group.

Using the methods described above the authors plotted ‘heat maps’ of foraging areas in spring, summer and autumn. The colour scheme is the same as that used above (essentially a probability map of likely foraged areas) – blue is predicted to be the least visited area (though see also the note below), yellow gets more attention and red gets the most.

Heat maps of seasonal differences in foraging – black circles denote 3 and 5 km from hive

There is clearly a big difference in the area visited by foragers in spring (0.8 km2), summer (15.2 km2) and autumn (5.1 km2), and this difference is not because the bees are going further to collect better quality nectars, or because the long hot days of summer encourage them to travel further from the hive.

As an aside … I’d have liked to see this data normalised somehow to forager numbers (which vary over the season) to get a better idea of potential competition for nectar or pollen resources with other pollinators.

It’s worth noting that not all foragers dance, but those that do report the best quality nectar sources. Therefore the maps above, and the distances I discussed even further up the page, represent the best choices the bees have in different parts of the season.

There may be poorer quality nectar sources not mapped by this type of analysis.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy

These studies show that – at least in this particular environment – honey bees have abundant forage close to the hive in early spring. In summer the bees have to forage over an area ~22 times larger 10 than in early spring to collect the resources they need.

Since the nectar sources are no better the livin’ is anything but easy.

Once the ivy starts flowering (mid/late August in this part of the world) then things get appreciably better and the bees don’t need to travel so far.

There’s no discussion in the paper on the areas foraged, or the potential sources of nectar (other than the ivy), or hive weight changes (which would have been really interesting). However, it seems likely that the large tracts of farmland to the north and east of the hives are very poor in forage during much of the season, and especially in the summer.

The heat maps show that the bees appear to spend more time to the south and the west … both areas where there is the greatest amount of urban development.

Readers with good memories will remember a post explaining the differences in foraging distance between urban and rural bees. The former travelled less far.

Urban environments are often better for bees as there is less boom and bust in terms of available nectar sources.


Honey bees are generalists; they can exploit a wide range of nectar and pollen sources. This at least partly accounts for their success and distribution.

Because they are not ‘tied’ to particular flower source(s) they are likely to share many of these sources with other flower-visiting insects, many of which will also be generalists.

It therefore seems likely that the apparent paucity of nectar and pollen sources ‘reported’ by dancing honey bees (who have to travel further to get what they need) will also be experienced by these other pollinators (many of which have smaller home ranges, perhaps 0.25 km2 for Bombus terrestris; see Osborne et al., 2001).

Therefore, rather than conducting time consuming survey work recording which flowers are visited by which pollinators (and when), the overall quality and quantity of nectar and pollen in an environment could be determined by monitoring the distances travelled and areas visited by a few honey bee colonies.

Wildflower meadow (in Andalucia)

Are set-aside and land-management programmes optimised to provide nectar and pollen where and when it needed?


Competition and environmental change

One reason proposed for the huge decline in non-managed pollinators is from competition with managed honey bee colonies. Honey bees may be generalists and are actually rather inefficient at pollination (in terms of fruit set per visit), but they more than make up for this by sheer weight of numbers.

The studies showing competition is responsible are not completely clear cut, and there are almost certainly other factors that have a greater influence e.g. persistent pesticides, removal of hedgerows and wild flower meadows.

However, if honey bees are struggling to find suitable nectar i.e. having to travel long distances, it’s likely they may be having a landscape-scale impact on other pollinators competing for the same resources in their own (smaller) ranges.

It’s a little sobering to think that our apiaries may be influencing survival and reproduction of other pollinators kilometres away.

Finally, as our climate changes, repeated studies of this type every few years would provide a very good insight into the degradation of the environment.

We know that the gradual warming of the environment is changing the flowering times of plants. We also know that weather extremes – particularly drought – can have a significant impact on seed set which, in turn, will influence the abundance of plants flowering in the following seasons.

Honey bees are the only indicators of these types of qualitative environmental changes that we can directly listen to and understand.

These things are not often discussed by beekeepers … perhaps they should be?

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Couvillon, M.J., Riddell Pearce, F.C., Harris-Jones, E.L., Kuepfer, A.M., Mackenzie-Smith, S.J., Rozario, L.A., et al. (2012) Intra-dance variation among waggle runs and the design of efficient protocols for honey bee dance decoding. Biology Open 1: 467–472 Accessed January 10, 2023.

Couvillon, M.J., Schürch, R., and Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2014) Waggle Dance Distances as Integrative Indicators of Seasonal Foraging Challenges. PLOS ONE 9: e93495 Accessed January 7, 2023.

Osborne, J. l., Clark, S. j., Morris, R. j., Williams, I. h., Riley, J. r., Smith, A. d., et al. (1999) A landscape-scale study of bumble bee foraging range and constancy, using harmonic radar. Journal of Applied Ecology 36: 519–533 Accessed January 10, 2023.

Schürch, R., Couvillon, M.J., Burns, D.D.R., Tasman, K., Waxman, D., and Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2013) Incorporating variability in honey bee waggle dance decoding improves the mapping of communicated resource locations. J Comp Physiol A 199: 1143–1152 Accessed January 9, 2023.


Tough love

Synopsis : ‘Nature knows best’ sometimes doesn’t apply to your bees and a responsible beekeeper must intervene with a little tough love to rescue the situation.


Beekeeping involves quite a lot of responsibility. It’s not a ’fit and forget’ pastime. You need to think about others that you (and your bees) share the environment with.

Or, at least, you should.

If you want an apiary in your small urban garden you need to consider the impact it will have on the neighbours. If your colony develops American foul brood you have a responsibility to inform the local bee inspector who will notify the National Bee Unit. They, in due course, send one of those dreaded 1 ‘Foulbrood Alert’ emails to other registered beekeepers in the immediate area.

But your responsibilities don’t end with the civilians (i.e. non-beekeepers) and beekeepers around you.

Common carder bee

Arguably they also apply to the other pollinators your bees will be competing with in the environment. Will a quarter of a million generalists (your bees) threaten the survival of the – often more specialised – local solitary or bumble bees? 2

And, just when you thought I’d run out of responsibilities to remind you about, there’s the responsibility you have to your bees.

They’re not pets, they’re not domesticated, but they are at least partially dependent upon us. For shelter, for food (at times) and for their health and wellbeing.

And that sometimes means beekeepers have to take tough decisions …

Tough love

The phrase tough love was coined by Bill Millikan in his 1968 book of the same title. It’s usually taken to mean the ’act of treating a [person] sternly or harshly with the intent to help them in the long run.’

I put ‘person’ in brackets because – on a beekeeping blog – I’m talk about bees.

Although some beekeepers love to dabble with their colonies, the reality is that – for the most part and for much of the season – they do a pretty good job of looking after themselves.

Our interventions are really for our benefit – checking for queen cells so the workforce doesn’t vamoose, adding supers etc.

However, things can go wrong. Either we mess up, or there’s some bad weather or bad luck or bad karma. Whatever the cause, the colony may be left in a state in which their long-term survival becomes much less certain. At that point the beekeeper may have to – or should – make a pragmatic decision that resolves the situation.

And that decision may have to involve some ‘tough love’.

Not intervening may risk the total loss of the colony. Intervening, even though it may involve some sacrifices, may well save the colony.

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary

This topic is timely as we’re reaching that point of the year where active beekeeping must stop and the, seemingly-interminable, off-season starts. Colonies that look in a precarious state now may well not make it through to the spring. Indeed, if they look really precarious now, they might not survive the first few frosts.

However, similar pragmatic interventions may be needed at other times of the season. In the following paragraphs I’ll illustrate a few scenarios and possible solutions.

Failed queens

The queen is, or should be (!), the longest-lived bee in the colony. Many live a couple of seasons, and some significantly longer.

But all good things must come to an end, and at some point she’ll run out of sperm, or enthusiasm or whatever. Usually the colony realises things are amiss well before the beekeeper and, quietly and efficiently, stages a bloodless coup and supersedes her.

A lot of supersedure happens in late summer and early autumn. The first you know of it is that you find an unmarked and unclipped queen the following spring.

Very late season virgin queens

‘Very late’ is a subjective term and depends on your latitude, the number of drones that are still about and the weather. Here in Scotland my colonies have been turfing out drones for almost a month and it’s already feeling quite autumnal. Further south things might be very different.

If you do find a virgin queen scampering about the hive (very) late in the season you have a dilemma. Do you cross your fingers and hope she gets mated in the next few days, or do you accept that it’s unlikely, sacrifice her and unite the colony.

Many beekeepers do the former.

Ever the optimist …

But let’s be realistic for a minute. How long since the queen emerged? If the weather has been poor for a fortnight she might already be going a bit ’stale’ (and if the weather has been poor you can be pretty certain that drone numbers in the area will be seriously depleted).

Is there a good chance she can get out in the weather predicted in the next week? And is there then sufficient time for her to lay enough brood to populate the colony with good numbers of winter bees that will ensure its viability until spring?

If she’s already ageing, if the weather is a bit dodgy, or if there’s any real doubt about the chances of success, I would always sacrifice the queen and unite the remaining bees in the colony with a nearby strong colony.

Yes … she might get mated … but if she doesn’t the colony is doomed.

Late season cast swarms fall into the same category, except they already may contain too few bees to rear lots of autumn brood.

Very early season queen failures

Sometimes – though rarely – you find a colony with a failed or failing queen very early in the season. I barely ever see these as I’m not usually opening boxes until mid/late April, but I know some beekeepers are busy at least 4-6 weeks before that.

It’s too early in the year to have any queens of your own and an overwintered queen will cost megabucks. Adding a frame of eggs/larvae is a non-starter … there are no drones yet.

But buying a new queen is unlikely to be satisfactory (aside from the megabucks that is). If the queen failed (or started failing) weeks ago – for example, she never started laying again properly after a few weeks off late the previous year – the colony will be dwindling fast and are unlikely to be strong enough to build up for the season ahead.

In my view buying a queen – or using one of your own – in this situation is not sensible. Cut your losses. Get rid of the queen if she’s still present and unite the remaining bees with another colony.

This isn’t even an example of tough love … it’s more just plain common sense and economically prudent 3.

Mid-season queen failures

Sometimes you find a colony with a really patchy brood pattern. Perhaps the queen is running out of sperm, or she’s very poorly mated (with only a small number of drones).

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

However, in this instance it’s obvious to the beekeeper, but not necessarily obvious to the colony as they’re showing no signs of superseding her.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that there may be other reasons than a failing queen for a patchy brood pattern. A very strong nectar flow can often result in the workers backfilling cells within the brood nest … give them more supers. It’s also been reported that a spotty brood patten can be due to the colony, not the queen i.e. you transfer the queen to another colony and her laying pattern improves.

Again I’d argue that, whilst you could let events run their course, it is probably better to intervene and get things back on track. In this instance I’d cull the queen and requeen directly or unite the colony (if I was sure there was no disease). Alternatively, if I had no spare queens, I would leave them queenless for a week, knock back any/all the queen cells and add a frame of eggs from a ‘good’ colony in the hope – actually expectation – that they’d rear a better queen.

Why intervene? After all, there’s lots of the season left, the weather is good, there are ample drones about etc.

By intervening I’ve got reasonable certainty of the timing of things. If I let the bees make the decisions they might wait until very much later in the season … which takes us back to ’Very late season virgin queens’.

Laying workers

By definition, a colony with laying workers is queenless. Laying workers develop in the absence of pheromones produced by open brood (larvae).

The colony thinks it is queenright. Therefore, if you try and requeen it they usually kill the introduced queen.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

One solution is to add a frame of open brood to the colony, and then add another a few days later … and perhaps one more a bit later. The brood pheromone suppresses the laying workers in the hive 4 and, with a bit of luck, they will rear a new queen from the last frame of eggs/larvae you added.

But they might not. And if they don’t you will have to intervene or the colony will inevitably perish.

Don’t throw good brood after bad

Over the years I’ve more of less (because I still sometimes try!) learned that laying workers are a lost cause. The resources that must be invested – in time and in open brood – are insufficient to justify the success rate.

So, time for some tough love … I remove the colony from its stand and shake all of the bees off the frames in front of other strong colonies. I discard the frames and any brood they contain (this will almost all be bullet-shaped drone pupae in worker cells).

Frames showing the characteristic dispersed bullet brood of laying workers

The brood will perish as will some of the bees you shake out … but they were doomed anyway 5.

Do not unite a colony containing laying workers with a queenright colony. The former thinks it is queenright … that’s not going to end well. I would expect the queen in the recipient colony to be killed 6. For similar reasons, if I only had two hives and one had laying workers, you risk the queen in the ‘good’ hive if you shake them out.

Varroa-infested colonies in midseason

I’ve discussed this recently so will be brief.

If you have a colony heavily infested with mites in midseason (let’s not discuss why this happened) you could treat them with a suitable miticide, accepting that the treatment period is likely to be protracted and it may even preclude adding honey supers 7.

Remember, the majority of the mites will be busily munching on sealed brood. You either need to use a miticide that permeates the cappings – go back and read the last footnote – or you need to treat for at least a complete brood cycle (and usually longer).

A colony that has recently been subjected to a shook swarm

Alternatively, you can conduct a shook swarm on the colony and then treat with a vaporised (which would be my choice) or trickled oxalic acid-containing miticide like Api-Bioxal.

Divide and conquer

During a shook swarm you separate the adult bees (and the queen) from all the brood. The latter is discarded (that’s the tough love bit). Since you now only have adult bees and their phoretic mites you can, more easily, kill 95% of the mite population.

I’ve done this many times 8. The resulting colony builds up again really strongly and – most importantly – the Deformed wing virus levels remain low for the remainder of the season.

Again, by sacrificing the brood that carries the vast majority of the mites, the remainder of the colony is given a new lease of life and should flourish.

This approach needs either a good nectar flow or a gallon or three of thin syrup (and suitable weather for comb building). To build up quickly the colony must draw a full box of new comb. Give them every opportunity to do so.

Philosophy corner

In the examples above I’m suggesting sacrificing one component of the colony – the queen, the sealed brood etc. – to ‘save’ the rest of the bees.

Of course, I’m well aware that the individual bees in a colony only live a few short weeks. The queen is the exception and can live several years.

So, in the case of a late season virgin queen, if you sacrifice the queen the remaining bees are saved, but they’re going to perish pretty soon anyway (Stalin’s ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ comes to mind – though he might not have said this anyway).

So, does it make any difference?

I’m outside my comfort zone here, but I think it does.

If you do nothing and the queen fails to mate the queenless colony will die overwinter. They’ll dwindle until the cluster is the size of an orange and then freeze to death … or something equally sad/tragic/heroic/pathetic/inevitable (take your pick).

If you intervene, remove the queen and unite them with another colony, the individual bees (you added) probably won’t make it through to the spring, but they will contribute to the strength – and therefore survival – of the colony you united them with. Their demise, whilst still inevitable, will have some benefit.

And what about sealed brood? 9 I think something reasonably similar applies. Varroa-exposed pupae will almost certainly die before or shortly after emergence anyway. High infestation levels – I’ve seen colonies with 20,000+ mites – mean the majority of the brood is probably doomed. I would therefore have few qualms about sacrificing the brood with the expectation of purging the colony of mites within a few days of the shook swarm.

Sustainable beekeeping

Michael Palmer titled one of his excellent talks The Sustainable Apiary. It is all about being self-reliant in your beekeeping. Don’t buy in queens, do overwinter nucs to make up for overwintering losses etc.

I think this sort of sustainability is a very worthwhile goal for a beekeeper. It means acquiring the skills to rear new queens (which doesn’t necessarily mean grafting, mini-nucs or any of that ’high tech’ stuff … it can be a whole lot simpler, yet extremely effective 10 ), to identify disease and treat according, and to manage colonies so that they remain strong and healthy.

But sustainability does not mean save everything at all costs. Significantly understrength colonies, failed or failing queens, laying workers etc. require some tough love so that your remaining colonies can thrive.

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

It’s worth remembering that a strong overwintered colony, that builds up well in spring, will almost always produce both a new nucleus colony and a honey crop. Rather than try and maintain a failing colony overwinter, investing time and resources (like frames of brood or bees to give it a spring ‘boost’) – remembering that it may well perish during the winter anyway – unite it in autumn and then split off a nuc during swarm control the following spring.

Everybody’s a winner 😉

The two hive beekeeper

If you only have one hive and it’s weak going into the winter, or the queen fails, or it develops laying workers, then almost all of the above isn’t going to help much. What’s more, if you’ve only got one hive, how can you tell that the colony is weaker than it should be?

It’s much easier to compare colonies in the same environment to determine if they are strong or weak.

Compare and contrast – much easier when you have something to compare with

This reinforces the importance of having at least two hives. If this was your first season I’d strongly recommend you aim to go into next winter with two strong colonies. If you’ve yet to start, remember that a single colony can reach a state in which it will inevitably perish, but you can almost always rescue things if you have a second hive 11.

As you embark on your last inspections of the season, don’t go into the winter with crossed fingers and a prayer for ’that little colony in the blue hive’ … it’s not too late to unite it with a neighbouring hive.

Don’t let it be a statistic … or a tragedy 😉


Tim Toady

Synopsis : The large number of beekeeping methods is both a benefit and – for beginners particularly – a distraction. Learn methods well enough to be confident when you apply them. Understand why they work and their pros and cons.


In an earlier life as a junior academic I was generously given a crushingly boring administrative task. The details don’t matter 1 but it essentially involved populating a huge three-dimensional matrix. The matrix had to be re-populated annually … and, when I was allocated the task, manually.

To cut a long story short I taught myself some simple web-database computer programming. This automated the data collection and entry and saved me many weeks of tedious work.

Geek alert …

This minor victory resulted in me:

  • writing lots more code for my admin and research, and for my hobbies including beekeeping and photography. It’s been a really useful skill … and a lot of fun.
  • inevitably being given an additional mundane task to fill the time I had ‘saved’ 🙁 2.

The programming language I used was perl. This is a simple scripting language, which although now superseded in popularity by things like python, remains very widely used. All proper computers 3 still have perl installed.

Perl is perfect for manipulating text-based records. The name is an acronym for ’practical extraction and reporting language’ … or perhaps ’pathetically eclectic rubbish lister’, the latter reflecting its use to manipulate text (‘garbage in, garbage out’ … ) 4.

Perl was (and remains) powerful because it’s a very flexible language. You can achieve the same goal in many different ways.

This flexibility is reflected in the perl motto: ’There’s more than one way to do it’, which is abbreviated to TMTOWTDI.

TMTOWTDI is a mouthful of alphabet spaghetti, so for convenience is pronounced Tim Toady … the title of today’s post.


Because exactly the same acronym could be applied to lots of things in beekeeping.

Ask three beekeepers, get five answers

But one of the five is wrong because it involves ’brood and a half’.

Anyone who has attended an association meeting and naively asked a simple question will understand the title of this section.

’How do I … [insert routine beekeeping problem here] … ?’

The old and the wise, or perhaps the old or the wise, will recommend a series of solutions. Some will offer more than one.

Each will be different.

Many recommendations will be perfectly workable.

A few might be impractical.

At least one will be just plain wrong.

How do I avoid brace comb?

Confusingly … despite all being proffered solutions to the one question you asked, many will appear contradictory.

Do you move the queen away (the nucleus method) or leave the queen on the same site (Pagden’s artificial swarm) for swarm control? How can they both work if you do such very different things?

Ask twelve beekeepers, get nineteen answers (ONE IN ALL CAPS)

Internet discussion forums (fora?) are exactly the same, but may be less polite. This is due to the absence of the calming influence of tea and homemade cake. At least one answer will include a snippy suggestion to ’use the search facility first’.

Another will be VERY VERY SHOUTY … the respondent either disagrees vehemently or has misplaced the CAPS LOCK key.

Actually, in many ways internet discussion forums are a lot worse … though not for the reasons you might expect.

It’s not because they’re populated with a lot of cantankerous ageing beekeepers and arriviste know-it-alls.

They’re not 5.

There are some hugely experienced and helpful beekeepers online, though they probably don’t answer first or most forcefully.

The internet is worse because the audience is bigger and is spread over a wider geographic area. This is a problem as beekeeping is effectively a local activity.

If you ask at a local association meeting there will be a smaller ‘audience’ and they should at least all have some experience of the particular conditions in your area.

Včelařské fórum … and something you won’t see on the BKF … a whole sub-forum on subsidies

But if you ask on Beesource, Včelařské fórum or the Beekeeping & Apiculture forum the answers may literally be from anywhere 6. The advice you receive, whilst possibly valid, is likely to be most relevant where the responder lives … unless you’re lucky.

On one of the forums I irregularly frequent many contributors have their latitude and longitude coordinates (and sometimes plant hardiness zones) embedded in their .sig.

Geeky perhaps, but eminently sensible … 7

Tim Toady beekeeping

Let’s consider a few of examples of Tim Toady beekeeping. I could have chosen almost any aspect of our hobby here, but I’ll stick with three that are all related to the position or fate of the queen.

Queen introduction

Perhaps this was a bad option to choose first. Queen introduction isn’t only about how you physically get the new queen safely into the hive e.g. in some form of temporary cage. It’s also about the state of the hive.

Is it queenless? How long has it been queenless and/or is there emerging brood present? Is the brood from the previous queen or from laying workers? Is it a full hive or a nuc … or mini-nuc?

Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

And it’s about the state of the new queen.

Is she mated and laying, or is she a virgin? Perhaps she’s still in the queen cell? Is the queen the same (or a similar) strain to the hive being requeened? Is she in a cage of some sort? Are there attendants in the cage with her?

And all that’s before you consider whether it’s ‘better’ to use a push-in cage, a JzBz (or similar) cage or to omit the cage and just rely upon billowing clouds of acrid smelling smoke.

Uniting colonies

This blog is nothing if not ’bleeding-edge’ topical … now is the time to consider uniting understrength colonies, or those headed by very aged queens that may fail overwinter.

Uniting two weak colonies will not make a strong colony. However, uniting a strong with a weak colony will strengthen the former and possibly save the latter from potential winter loss (after you’ve paid for and applied the miticides and winter feed … D’oh!). You can always split off a nuc again in the spring.

All the above assumes that both colonies are healthy.

There are fewer ways of uniting colonies than queen introduction, and far fewer than the plethora of swarm control methods.

This is perhaps unsurprising as there are fewer component parts … hive A and hive B, with the eventual product being A/B.

Or perhaps B/A?

United we stand …

But which queen do you keep? 8

And does the queenright hive go on top or underneath?

And how do you prevent the bees from fighting, but instead allow them to mingle gently?

Or do you simply spray them with a few squirts of Sea breeze air freshener, slap the boxes together and be done with it?

Swarm control

If you find queen cells in your colony – assuming they haven’t swarmed already – then you need to take action or the colony will possibly/probably/almost certainly/indubitably 9 swarm.

The primary goals of swarm control are to retain the workforce – the foragers – and the queen.

There are a lot of swarm control methods. Many of the effective ones involve the separation of the queen and hive bees (those yet to go on orientation flights) from the foragers and brood. Some of these methods use unique equipment and most require additional boxes or split boards.

Split board

Split board …

But there are other ways to achieve the same overall goals, for example the Demaree method which keeps the entire workforce together by using a queen excluder and some well-timed colony manipulations.

No landing boards here ...

And then there are the 214 individual door opening/closing operations over a 3 week period (assuming the moon is at or near perigee) needed when you use a Snelgrove board 10.

Like any recommendation to use brood and a half … my advice is ‘just say no’.

Just because Tim Toady

… doesn’t mean you have to actually do things a different way each time.

The problem with asking a group – like your local association or the interwebs – a question is that you will get multiple answers. These can be contradictory, and hence confusing to the tyro beekeeper.

Far better to ask one person whose opinion you respect and trust.

Like your mentor.

You still may get multiple answers 😉 … but you will get fewer answers and they should be accompanied with additional justification or explanation of the pros and cons of the various solutions suggested.

This really helps understand which solution to apply.

Irrespective of the number of answers you receive I think some of the most important skills in beekeeping involve:

  • understanding why a particular solution should work. This requires an understanding of the nitty gritty of the process. What are you trying to achieve by turning a hive 180° one week after a vertical split? Why should Apivar strips be repositioned half way through the treatment period?
  • choosing one solution and get really good at using it. Understand the limitations of the method you’ve chosen. When does it work well? When is it unsuitable? What are the drawbacks?

This might will take some time.

More hives, less time

If you’ve only got one colony you’ll probably only get one chance per year to apply – and eventually master – a swarm control method.

With more colonies it is much easier to quickly acquire this practical understanding.

Lots of learning opportunities here

Then, once you have mastered a particular approach you can decide whether the limitations outweigh the advantages and consider alternatives if needed.

This should be an informed evolution of your beekeeping methods.

What you should not do is use a different method every year as – unless you have a lot of colonies – you never get sufficient experience to understand its foibles and the wrinkles needed to ensure the method works.

Informed evolution

If you consider the three beekeeping techniques I mentioned earlier – queen introduction, uniting colonies and swarm control – my chosen approach to two of them is broadly similar to when I started.

However, as indicated above, there are still lots of subtle variations that could be applied.

With both queen introduction and uniting colonies I’ve more or less standardised on one particular way of doing each of them. By standardising there’s less room for error … at least, that’s the theory. I now what I’m doing and I know what to expect.

In contrast, I’ve used a range of swarm control methods over the years. After a guesstimated 250+ ‘hive years’ I now almost exclusively 11 use one method that I’ve found to be extremely reliable and fits with the equipment and time I have available.

It’s not perfect but – like the methods I use for queen introduction and uniting colonies – it is absolutely dependable.

I think that’s the goal of learning one method well and only abandoning it when it’s clear there are better ways of achieving your goal. By using a method you understand and consider is absolutely dependable you will have confidence that it will work.

You also know when it will work by, and so can meaningfully plan what happens next in the season.

So, what are the variants of the methods I find absolutely dependable?

Queen introduction

99% of my adult queens – whether virgin or mated – are introduced in JzBz cages. I hang the queen (only, no attendants) in a capped JzBz cage in the hive for 24 hours and then check to see if the queenless (!) colony is acting aggressively to her.

If they are not I remove the cap and plug the neck of the cage with fondant. The bees soon eat through this and release the queen.

Checking for aggression

I used to add fondant when initially caging the queen but have had one or two queens get gummed up in the stuff (which absorbs moisture from the hive). I now prefer to add it after removing the cap. The queen needs somewhere ‘unreachable’ in the cage to hide if the colony are aggressive to her.

It’s very rare I use an alternative to this method. If I do it’s to use a Nicot pin on cage where I trap the queen over a frame of emerging brood 12.

Nicot queen introduction cages

I use this method for real problem colonies … ones that have killed a queen introduced using the JzBz cage or that may contain laying workers.

Doing the latter is a pretty futile exercise at the best of times 🙁 .

Uniting colonies

Almost all colonies are united over newspaper. A sheet to two of an unstapled newspaper is easy to carry and uniting like this is almost always successful.

The brood box being moved goes on top. I want bees from the moved box to realise things have changed as they work their way down to the hive entrance. That way they’re more likely to not get lost when returning.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I don’t care whether the queen is in the upper or lower box and, if there’s any doubt that one of the colonies isn’t queenless, I use a queen excluder over the newspaper. I then check the boxes one week later for eggs.

I’m not absolutely certain one of the colonies is queenless

At times I’ve used a can of air freshener and no newspaper. This has worked well, but it’s one more bulky thing to carry. I also prefer not to expose my bees to the chemical cocktail masquerading as Sea breeze, Summer meadow or Stale socks.

Since uniting doesn’t necessitate a timed return visit there’s little to be gained from seeking alternatives to newspaper in my view. Perhaps if I lived in a really windy location I’d have a different opinion … placing the newspaper over the brood box can be problematic in anything more than a moderate breeze 13.

Swarm control

Like many (most?) beekeepers I started off using the classic Pagden’s artificial swarm. However, I quickly ran out of equipment as my colony numbers increased – you need two of everything including space on suitably located hive stands.

I switched to vertical splits. These are in essence a vertical Pagden’s artificial swarm, but require only one roof and stand. If you plan to merge the colonies again i.e. you don’t want to ’make increase’, vertical splits are very convenient. However, they can involve a lot of lifting if there are supers on the colony.

Vertical split

Vertical split – day 7 …

Now I almost exclusively use the nucleus method of swarm control. Used reactively (i.e. after queen cells are seen) it’s almost totally foolproof. Used proactively (i.e. before queen cells are produced) also works well. In both cases the timing of a return visit to reduce queen cells is important, and you need to use good judgement in deciding how strong to make the nuc.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The nucleus method has a couple of disadvantages for my beekeeping. However, its ease of application and success rate more than make up for these shortfalls.

Tim Toady is ‘a good thing’

I love the flexibility of perl for programming. I can write one-liners to do a quick and dirty file conversion. Alternatively I can craft hundreds of lines of well-documented code that is readable, easy to maintain and robust.

Others, in the very best tradition of Tim Toady, might write programs to do exactly the same things but in a completely different way.

The flexibility to tackle a task – the three used above for example, or miticide treatment, queen rearing, uncapping frames or any of the hundreds of individual tasks involved in beekeeping – in different ways provides opportunities to choose an approach that fits with your diary, manual dexterity, available equipment, preferences, ethics or environment.

In this regard it’s ‘a good thing’.

Choice and flexibility are beneficial. They make things interesting and, for the observant beekeeper, they provide ample new opportunities for learning.

… and a distraction

However, this flexibility can also be a distraction, particularly for beginners.

That is why I emphasised the need to learn the intricacies of the method you choose by understanding the underlying mechanism, and the subtleties needed to get it to work absolutely dependably.

Don’t just try something once and then do something totally different the next year 14. Use the method for several years running (assuming it’s an annual event in the beekeeping calendar), or at least on a lot of different colonies.

Choose a widely used and well-documented method in the first place 15. Read about it, understand it and apply it. Tweak it until it either works exactly as you want it to i.e. reliably, efficiently, quickly or whatever, or choose a different widely used and well-documented method and start over again.

Get really competent at the methods you choose.

Once your beekeeping is built upon a range of absolutely dependable methods you have the foundations to be a little bit more expansive.

You can then indulge yourself.

Explore the options offered by Tim Toady.

Things might fail, but you always have a fallback that you know works.


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Bad behaviour

Synopsis : Bad behaviour by bees – aggression, following and stability on the comb – may be transient or permanent. To recognise it you need to keep records and have hives to compare. Fortunately, these traits are easy to correct by requeening the colony.


That’s a pretty generic title and it could cover a multitude of sins.

Slapdash disease management, insufficient winter feeding, poor apiary hygiene, siting bait hives near another beekeeper’s apiaries … even bee rustling.

However, I always try and write about a topic from direct practical experience.

If I did ever exhibit any of those examples of bad behaviour:

So, instead of discussing bad behaviour by beekeepers, I’ll write about badly behaved bees.

Nice bees

Most beekeepers have an idea of what ‘nice bees’ are like. It’s a 2 term that encapsulates the various characteristics that a beekeeper values.

These characteristics could include temper, stability on the comb, productivity (in terms of either/both bees or honey), frugality, colour and any number of other terms 3 that define either the appearance or behaviour of individual bees or, collectively, that of the colony.

Of course, all these terms are relative.

Nice bees and a nice queen

My definition of aggressive bees may well differ from what another beekeeper would consider (un)acceptable.

The relatively calm and stable bees in most of my hives could be defined as ’running about all over the place’ by someone who’s bees stick, almost immobile, to the comb.

This relativity is nowhere more apparent than when visiting the apiary of another beekeeper. I’m always a little wary of someone donning a beesuit 100 metres from the hives 4 while simultaneously claiming their bees are ’very friendly’.

These differences don’t matter if you keep your bees in an isolated location where other people – in particularly civilians (i.e. members of the general public) – won’t be impacted if your ’friendly bees’ are actually ’murderous psychopaths’.

However, they do matter if your bees are in an urban garden, or a shared allotment.

They also matter when making comparisons between colonies to determine which to split (so creating a new queen) and which – perhaps urgently – need requeening.

Transient or permanent?

For the purpose of the following discussion let’s consider that the ‘bad behaviour’ is aggression.

Here’s a screenshot from a YouTube video (from CapLock Apiaries) which shows some really unpleasant bees. The final words (in this part of the video) by the beekeeper on the right is ”This queen has to die!”.

‘This queen has to die’ … beekeeping doesn’t have to be like this

The brood boxes were stuck together, presumably because the colony is less regularly inspected and everything gets gummed up with propolis. The first comment 5 was

I’m new to bees and thought I found a hot wild hive today. Went to youtube to find some comparison. The hive I saw was absolutely docile in comparison to these guys, and the first wild hive I extracted are absolute angels!

Which emphasises the relative nature of behaviour.

I dislike aggressive bees so have no videos of my own showing this sort of behaviour 6.

However, that doesn’t mean that my bees never show aggression … 😉

Weather, forage, handling, queenless … all can influence temper

Aggression – or defensiveness – can be a permanent feature of a colony or can appear transiently. In my view, the former is unacceptable under any circumstances 7.

However, in response to environmental conditions or handling, a colony may become defensive. Again, the amount of ‘aggro’ varies. Some bees may just buzz a little more excitedly, others can go completely postal. If you are careful to only select from your better behaved stocks for splits and queen rearing you can usually avoid even transient unpleasantness.

Environmental factors that can influence the behaviour of a colony include the weather, the availability of forage and the gentleness and care exhibited by the beekeeper during inspections.

Queenless colonies may also be more aggressive, but all the comments in the post this week relate to queenright colonies.

Scores on the doors

There are two easy to achieve solutions that allow a beekeeper to make sense of the variation in any of these traits. These are:

  • keeping good hive records to allow undesirable behaviour, or a gradual decline in behaviour, to be identified, and
  • managing more than one colony so comparisons can be readily made

I score temper, running (stability on the comb) and following, but I know some who record a much greater range of characteristics.

Each are recorded on a 1 – 5 scale (worst to best, allowing half points as a ‘perfect 5’ is unattainable as the bees can always be better, whereas a 4.5 is a really good colony).

The bees in hive #34 run all over the place. They are being requeened.

I also make a note of the weather. A colony may consistently score 4’s or better until you inspect them in a thunderstorm, but that’s OK because when you look back you’ll see that the conditions were woeful.

Compare and contrast

With just one colony you have no reference to know whether all colonies in the area are suffering because there’s a dearth of nectar, or if this colony alone is a wrong ‘un.

With two colonies things get easier.

Increasingly – for reasons I’ll discuss in a future post – I think three is probably the minimum optimum number.

The more you have the easier it is to identify the outliers … the exceptional (whether good 🙂 or bad 🙁 ). That should be qualified by stating the more you have in one location as the local environment may differ significantly between apiaries.

The great thing about hive records is that they provide a longer retrospective view. You can overlook the hammering you received from a colony last week 8 if there are a long list of 4’s over the last 3 months.

They also allow you to observe trends in behaviour.

Growing old disgracefully

I’ve recently noticed that a couple of my colonies are markedly less well behaved now we’re reaching mid-season than they were throughout 2021 or the beginning of this year. I think at least one has (actually had, as it was requeened last week) a 2020 queen.

As the queen ages the behaviour of the colony has gradually changed.

I crudely classify my colonies into thirds – good, bad or indifferent. Anything ‘bad’ is requeened as soon as I have a suitable queen available (or the larvae to rear one).

These ‘declining’ colonies were never worse than indifferent last year but, as they’ve expanded this spring, are now firmly in the ‘bad’ category. I presume this is consequence of the combination of the influence of the queen’s pheromones and the size of the colony 9.

Whatever … I think all it really demonstrates is that consistently taking even cursory hive records is useful.

The colonies I’m referring to above haven’t become more aggressive (though this can happen). The characteristic I’ve seen change the most is the steadiness of the bees on the comb.

It’s worth noting here that colony size can fundamentally impact behaviour. A well-tempered nuc can develop into a big, strong and unpleasant colony. In contrast, the nucs I prepare from ‘indifferent’ colonies during swarm control and requeening don’t appear to generally improve much in temperament.

If I’m conducting swarm control on the third ‘bad’ tirtile 10 the queen is despatched so I never get to experience the performance of the resulting nucleus colony 😉


I’ve discussed aggression above and covered it in more general terms previously. There are several studies of the genetics of aggression, usually by GWAS (Genome Wide Association Studies) of Africanised bees which can be significantly more bolshy than anything I’ve encountered in the UK 11. The colony shown in the video cited above is Africanised.

A recent study analysed individual aggressive bees 12 and compared them with pollen-laden foragers from the same colony. However, they failed to identify any genetic loci associated with aggression.

In contrast, by ‘averaging’ the genetics of hundreds of aggressive or passive (forager) bees, the scientists identified a region of the genome that – if originating from European honey bees – was more likely to result in gentle bees. Conversely, if this region is Africanised, the colony was more likely to be aggressive 13.

Hive genetics, not individual genetics

This is a really interesting result 14 as it means that, even if individual bees are Africanised and potentially aggressive, if the majority of the colony is European-like (and so gentle) the individual Africanised bees are unlikely to be aggressive.

Aggression is therefore a consequence of hive genetics, rather than individual genetics.


Aggression in psychotic UK colonies (which, by definition, are not Africanised) may have a different genetic explanation, though some of the genes involved may be similar. Since aggression can manifest itself in several different forms – jumping up from the frames, buzzing around your head, response to sudden movement, targeting dark colours etc. – I suspect there may be multiple genes involved in the sensing or threat response.


Some aggressive bees – particularly those that buzz agitatedly around your head during an inspection – also have the profoundly unpleasant trait of following you out of the apiary … down the track … back to the car … or even into the house.

The car is packed, you’ve taken you beesuit off … and PING!

The very worst of these lull you into a false sense of security by flying off, only to return in a lightning-fast kamikaze strike as soon as you remove your veil.

Ouch, that hurt.

I consider ‘following’ a worse trait than overt aggression at the hive.

I’m suited and booted’ at the hive. Ready for anything … ’Come on if you think you’re hard enough’.

At least, I am if I’ve remembered to zip my veil up properly 😉

But 15 minutes later, when I should be contemplating a cuppa, I don’t want to be pestered by bees dive bombing my head.

Looking for trouble

Followers don’t necessarily just follow.

They can initiate long-range and unprovoked attacks on individuals just walking near the hive.

I think this is an example of bad behaviour that should not be tolerated.

If you think it’s bad as a beekeeper, just imagine how unpleasant it is for passers by.

Sometimes it’s difficult to identify which of several hives is showing this trait in an apiary. To confirm it, change the order of hive inspections, leaving the likely suspect to last. If the followers don’t appear until the final inspection you have your answer.

If they’re present before that you either guessed wrong or – Eek! – have more than one hive behaving badly.

I’ve seen many aggressive colonies that showed little or no tendency to follow. Conversely, I don’t remember seeing followers that were not from an aggressive colony. I presume this means that the genes involved are distinct but linked.

Whether different or not … they’re unwanted. Any colonies of mine showing overt aggression or following are requeened. Perhaps 5% of my colonies each season are requeened for this reason.


Remember back to your early days of beekeeping when you had to ’find the queen’ and were faced with this … 15

Find the queen

I estimate there are about 1200-1300 bees on the face of that frame 16. There are the same amount on the other side.

All of the bees are moving.

Of course, this makes it much easier to find the queen as she moves differently to the workers on the frame. I’m probably not alone in sometimes struggling to ‘find the queen’ on a photograph of a frame when I rarely have trouble locating her on a frame in my hands 17.

However, the more the workers move, the more difficult it gets.

Spot the queen

See if you can spot the queen on this frame of relatively sedate bees:

And what about this frame of more mobile bees? It’s worth noting there are only about half the total number of bees on this second frame.

OK, I cheated. Only the first frame has a queen on it. She’s in the middle near the bottom of the frame, moving left to right 18.

The top frame is pretty standard in terms of ‘running’ (shorthand for the stability of bees on the frame) in my hives. The bottom video is nothing like the worst I’ve seen, but (if consistently like this) it’s certainly a reason to score the colony down and requeen them from a more stable line.


Bees running around on the frame certainly make locating the queen more tricky.

However, as I’ve written elsewhere, you don’t need to find the queen unless you need to do something with her. The presence of eggs is usually sufficient to tell you the colony is queenright (assuming there are no big, fat queen cells or a queen corpse on the open mesh floor 🙁 ).

The reason I dislike bees that are not stable on the comb is because they make inspections more difficult. They prevent you clearly seeing eggs and larvae so you have to shake the bees off the frame, thereby overloading the next frame you look at with agitated bees.

Furthermore, the bees must have somewhere to run to … which usually means they run onto the frame lugs, and then your hands and – in the worst cases – up your forearms.

There was a frame lug there a few seconds ago

In addition, they run over each other, forming heavier and heavier ‘gloops’ 19 of bees that eventually become too heavy, lose their grip and fall … onto the top bars of the frames you have yet to inspect, onto the ground, or into the top of your boots.

A ‘gloop’ forming

Running appears to be a feature which isn’t influenced much by environmental conditions, perhaps other than a chilly and gusty wind 20.

Better bees

There are two good things about aggression, following and running:

  • these behaviours are easy to identify; you can easily tell if the colony is too hot for comfort, or if your neighbour complains repeatedly about getting chased by bees, or you’re plagued with ‘gloopy’ bees that make inspections a pain. Remember, there’s no standard to compare them to, no ‘reference colony’. All that matters is how they’re viewed by anyone that interacts with them. If they’re too defensive, if they bother you away from the hive or are too mobile, then score them down in your hive records. If they remain the same for the next two to three weeks, or don’t improve when the weather/forage picks up, then make plans to do something about it.
  • all these undesirable traits can be easily corrected by replacing the queen. Four to six weeks after requeening the characteristics of the colony will reflect those of the new queen. Of course, this only works if you source a good quality queen – either by rearing your own or purchasing one 21, or by ensuring that the colony raises its own queen from larvae sourced from a high quality colony. While you’re at it do yourself and your neighbouring beekeepers a favour and fork out any drone brood in the misbehaving colony.

It really is as easy as that.

Incremental but steady improvement

Over a few years the quality of your bees will improve.

Of course, with open mating you’ll occasionally get rogue colonies. However, as the average quality improves, you’ll have a greater choice of colonies from which to source larvae.

Over time you’ll need to recalibrate your scoring system. In five years a 3/5 will be a much improved colony over a 3/5 now.

When you next (reluctantly) open a bolshy colony, struggle to find the queen because of the wriggling mass of bees on the frames and are then stung repeatedly as you take your veil off by the car, think of it as an opportunity.

You have now recognised the problem and you already know the solution 😉


I’ve chosen aggression, following and running as three easy to spot traits that can be, just as easily, fixed. There are other examples of bad behaviour that may well be unfixable. There’s a dearth of nectar in my west coast apiary until the lime flowers and robbing is a problem 22. Although robbing is a variable characteristic (amongst different strains of bees) I doubt it could be excluded completely by requeening. Selection would be time consuming, being dependent upon environmental conditions. However, the ‘fix’ is again relatively straightforward … keep very strong colonies, feed late in the evening (if needed) and physically protect colonies with reduced entrances and/or robbing screens. Robbing is an example of bad behaviour by bees where the solution is almost entirely the responsibility of the beekeeper.