Category Archives: Responsibility

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.

Introduction

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.

Introduction

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.

Why?

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 ...

confused.com

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.


Note

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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.

Introduction

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 😉

Aggression

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.

Neat.

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.

Following

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.

Running

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.

Inspections

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 😉


Note

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.

Triumphs and tragedies

Synopsis: Having dealt with beekeeping tragedies last week, it’s now time to consider landmark events (‘triumphs’) in beekeeping. These four things – successful overwintering, swarm control, finding the queen and queen rearing – are what I consider the most notable. All beekeepers should be able to achieve these, and their beekeeping will benefit as a consequence.

Introduction

In the second part of the highs and lows of my (or an average beekeepers’s 1 ) beekeeping career I discuss what I consider are the four most significant events in the progression from total beginner to my current level 2.

These highs and lows, or ‘triumphs and tragedies’, stemmed from a question posed during a live-streamed Q&A session with Lawrence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. I didn’t think I answered it particularly well then – though some of the things below were definitely included – so have had another crack at it.

The tragedies I covered last week – the loss of a queen, a swarm or a colony – aren’t really tragedies. As I said in the introduction then, ” … the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them”.

However, unlike the tragedies that really aren’t tragedies, these triumphs really are landmark events that significantly improve your beekeeping.

Unsurprisingly, some of the triumphs I discuss below are how you recover from – or avoid altogether – the tragedies I mentioned last week.

Successful overwintering

Studies from Tom Seeley (in his book The Lives of Bees) indicate that a swarm from a wild-living colony has about a 23% chance of surviving the winter. Swarms perish for a number of reasons; many starve to death, others die from pathogens 3, a few queens likely fail and some colonies are lost due to ‘natural disasters’ such as lightning strikes or storms or bears.

Although I don’t know the percentage breakdown of these causes of death, I’d be surprised if the combination of queen failures and ‘natural disasters’ account for more than a small percentage.

In contrast, I expect that starvation and disease account for most losses of ‘wild’ colonies.

Hives in the snow

The survival rate of managed colonies is not entirely clear as it differs with the group or individual being surveyed.

The relatively small-scale annual BBKA surveys suggest that about 80% (the average of the last 12 years) of colonies overwinter successfully. The much larger Bee Informed Partnership surveys 4 report a slightly lower figure of 70%.

Finally, the COLOSS surveys – covering Europe and a few other countries 5 – helpfully split winter losses into those due to ‘mortality’ (presumably disease and starvation) from queen failure and natural disasters, and usually report survival rates of 70-80% 6.

COLOSS reports losses due to queen failure and natural disasters are typically about 5-7%.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these are unavoidable, and that they’re as likely to befall a managed hive as a ‘wild’ colony.

Averages, outliers and being ‘better than average’

These losses, when analysed statistically, show considerable variation between individual beekeepers. Some never lose colonies during the winter, others often experience high rates of colony mortality.

When I last checked 7 all my colonies have survived this winter. My average losses over the last decade (about 200 ‘colony winters’) are well below 10%. Many of the experienced beekeepers I know routinely experience losses in the 5-10% range.

In contrast, inexperienced – and sometimes longstanding 8 – beekeepers may lose many or even all the colonies they ‘manage’. Many give up, others make up the losses through splitting, swarms or purchases, and soldier on to the next winter, only to experience the same disappointment again 9.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses … dead bees on the floor of a hive with a failed queen.

Some losses are expected – though perhaps no more than the ‘unavoidable’ 5-7% due to ‘natural disasters’ and queen failures.

However, the remaining 90-95% of colonies should survive, particularly if we assume that their loss would be due to starvation or disease … both of which squarely fall under the term ‘management’ when considering managed colonies.

This management is the responsibility of the beekeeper – s/he must ensure that the mite (and consequently virus) levels are minimised at the right times during the season, and that the colony has sufficient stores to overwinter successfully.

Take your winter losses in autumn

The final point to remember is that the successful management of colonies involves excluding those from going into the winter that are likely to fail.

Weak colonies in late autumn, or early autumn queen failures, are often doomed anyway.

Don’t let them become a (BBKA, BIP or COLOSS) statistic.

If healthy, unite these colonies with strong colonies and then plan for some additional splits the following season to make up the ‘on paper’ loss. Far better you strengthen another colony than condemn a weak colony, or one with a poorly mated queen, to a lingering death in midwinter.

Uniting a strong colony with a weak (queenless) colony

I therefore consider the first landmark event (‘triumph’) in beekeeping is the successful overwintering of the majority (over 90%) of the colonies managed – irrespective of the severity or duration of the winter.

Achieving this involves a combination of skills:

  • successful disease management (which I term ‘Rational Varroa Control’)
  • appropriate feeding in the autumn
  • the ability to judge colonies unlikely to survive before it’s too late to unite them
  • well-sited apiaries unlikely to flood or be hit by falling trees (or visited by rampaging bears)
  • provision of young and well-mated queens to head colonies

A strong and healthy colony is likely to overwinter successfully. It’s also more likely to build up strongly the following spring, and therefore will probably swarm … or at least try to.

Which neatly takes me to the second of the ‘triumphs’ that a beekeeper should aim to achieve.

Successful swarm control

Swarm control is the management of a colony that has started making queen cells, and is therefore likely committed to swarm within a few days.

It is a necessity if (or when!) swarm prevention stops working.

I visited one of my apiaries last week. There were a dozen colonies in the apiary last year and I know I missed one swarm.

‘Missed’, but not ‘lost’.

I’d found the bivouacked swarm, dropped it into a nuc box and successfully re-hived them 🙂

Collecting the stragglers – a captured bivouacked swarm dropped into a nuc box.

However, while taking some willow cuttings I discovered wax deposits on another of the small trees I’d planted.

Clearly a swarm had bivouacked here for a day or so and I’d both missed and lost it 🙁

Missed and lost – signs of a bivouacked swarm on a small willow.

For the last couple of seasons, while living remotely, I’ve usually been very pro-active in my swarm control.

If a few colonies in the apiary start building queen cells I use the nucleus method of swarm control and take the queens out of all the strong colonies and then allow them to requeen.

For swarm control the nucleus method is almost foolproof.

It is very successful in preventing the loss of a prime swarm (one with the mated queen). However, with really strong colonies, there remains the risk that more than one virgin queen emerges. I suspect I’d missed a queen cell and lost a cast headed by a virgin queen. I know that all my colonies requeened successfully and without unexpected delays.

So, this was an example of unsuccessful swarm control, but it was less of a problem than the loss of a prime swarm (as I still had the mated queen tucked away in a nuc somewhere).

Timing and mechanics

Successful swarm control involves the ability to recognise when a colony is actively making swarm preparations i.e. being able to find queen cells, and then knowing exactly what to do (and when to do it) to prevent the colony from swarming.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The first is observational and will improve the more hives you inspect (or should if ‘seeing’ is coupled with ‘understanding’).

The second – ‘what and when’ – is the mechanics of swarm control:

  • find and isolate the mated queen somehow (Pagden or vertical split, nucleus etc.) in a way that ensures her survival. Her continued availability is important if the original colony does not successfully requeen.
  • find all the queen cells and leave sufficient to ensure the colony can requeen but not so many that the colony generates casts. I usually leave a single charged queen cell (but clearly left more than one in the colony that swarmed onto that willow above).
  • the ability to judge that the colony has successfully requeened and that the new queen is well mated, so guaranteeing the survival of the colony.

There are dozens of different swarm control methods. Most share some common features in terms of actions and timing.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can ‘mix and match’.

  • Learn one method.
  • Know when to apply it. Understand its pros and cons.
  • Have the equipment to hand during the ‘swarm season’.
  • Analyse what went wrong if it doesn’t work.

Achieve all this and you will be successful at swarm control, your colonies will be stronger during the peak nectar flows of the season, you’ll collect more honey and they will overwinter more successfully.

Swarm control – knowing what to do when, and employing it successfully – moves you from hit and hope scrabbling around with “Finger’s crossed they won’t swarm” to a reassuring 10 “What will I do with the additional colony?

It’s a real confidence builder … and while we’re on the topic of confidence.

Finding the queen … quickly, and every time

Watch a new beekeeper look for the queen. They will sequentially and thoroughly inspect every frame in the colony. Each frame is turned and rotated slowly as taught in the winter ’Start beekeeping’ courses. They’re often particularly careful to check the sidebars and the bottom bar of the frames. The underside of the queen excluder (QE) is carefully scrutinised.

A gentle puff of smoke every couple of frames keeps the colony nicely subdued.

Fifteen minutes later they find her, on a frame of stores. The frame had already been inspected at least once 🙁

She’s somewhere in there …

In contrast, an experienced – and good (!) – beekeeper gently lifts the QE, checks it briefly and closely observes the density of bees along the visible seams. She then uses a small amount of smoke to allow the dummy board and outer frame to be removed. These are carefully placed aside.

The beekeeper then splits the remaining frames where the density of young bees is the greatest, opening a 2 cm gap. The nearer frame facing the gap is then carefully removed and the queen will usually be found on it, or on the far side of the other frame facing the gap.

It’s all over in 90 seconds and – to the inexperienced – it looks like magic.

It’s not.

Blue marked queen ...

Blue marked queen …

It’s also not 100% guaranteed, but it happens enough that it’s certainly not chance.

Of course, you don’t need to find the queen to be reasonably certain the colony is queenright.

Usually their behaviour, the presence of eggs and the absence of sealed queen cells is a sufficiently good indication that there’s a queen present.

Gently does it

But, when you do need to find her – for example, to employ one of those swarm control methods that requires the isolation of the queen 11 – the 13.5 minutes saved by the good beekeeper really helps avoid frustration (and agitated bees).

In the example above the beginner found the queen on a frame of stores, almost certainly because he disturbed the colony using too much smoke and by slowly going through the box frame by frame. The queen was ‘chased’ across the box, scuttled across the floor or around the sidewall of the hive and ended up on the outer frame of stores or pollen.

The experienced beekeeper used almost no smoke. The bees barely knew she was there. She split the frames where there were more young bees. These will be tending the queen and the young larvae. If the queen wasn’t on the face of the first frame checked she’s likely to be on the reverse of the facing frame (having moved there to avoid the light streaming in through the gap between the frames).

You can keep bees without being able to find the queen, but certain things are much easier if you can reliably and quickly locate her.

This is a skill that some never acquire and that others seem to naturally possess.

But it can also be learned.

It’s easier to do with a calm and gentle colony.

However, it’s perhaps learned fastest with a double brooded box of suicidal psychotics 😉

And, if you’re good at finding the queen you will be asked 12 to requeen one of those double brooded boxes of suicidal psychotics.

Which is why this third landmark event in your beekeeping is inextricably linked to my final choice … the ability to actively rear high quality queens.

Queen rearing

Of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most useful.

I’m talking here about ‘active’ queen rearing, rather than passively allowing a queenless colony to generate queen cells and requeen itself.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this ‘passive’ approach. I use it every year. However, it doesn’t teach you as much about beekeeping.

I consider the following are the direct and indirect benefits of active queen rearing. These justify inclusion of queen rearing in this list of landmark events in beekeeping:

  • to be successful you need the ability to judge the quality of the bees over the course of the season. There’s no point in rearing queens from poor quality stock.
  • rearing good quality queens means you can readily improve the quality of your colonies, simply by requeening them. You should see the benefits in 2-3 years (or months in the case of some colonies I’ve requeened 😉 ).
  • queen rearing means you need to acquire the skills and confidence to find and (often) handle the queen. Marking and clipping the queen makes your beekeeping easier.

Returning a marked and clipped queen

  • you can readily achieve sustainability in your beekeeping. No need to buy in queens or nucs. No need to rely upon capturing swarms to maintain colony numbers.
  • you can have spare queens and nucs available when you need them, or generate surplus for gift/sale.
  • young queens – which you ensure by requeening – head stronger colonies, are less likely to swarm and overwinter better.
  • queen rearing requires understanding the colony manipulations needed to start queen cell production. This necessitates good observation and skilled beekeeping.

And there are probably as many again that I could include if I hadn’t already written 500 words more than I’d intended 😉

The most fun you can have with a beesuit on?

However, almost as importantly … “of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most”enjoyable.

Perhaps not ‘the most fun you can have with a beesuit on’ 13 but pretty darned close.

Actually, I’ve already thought of a few more things that should be in the list above:

  • the skill to prepare nucs for queen mating (either mini-nucs or 2-5 frame nucs). And subsequently manage them.
  • an ability to have nucs available for overwintering to make up losses or for (profitable) sale early the following season.
  • the confidence to dabble with methods for colony preparation to find strategies that suit your own bees and the local environment.
  • out-of-season projects to entertain you (like building my wildly over-engineered queen cell incubator) during the interminable dark winter months.
  • etc.

Portable queen cell incubator

Only a relatively small percentage of beekeepers actively rear queens.

I suspect many are dissuaded because they think it requires skills they don’t have, and are unlikely to acquire without years of practice.

Au contraire as a Gilles Fert, a well-known French queen rearer, would say.

You may not (yet) have the skills but few of them are ‘mission critical’ and most can be learned relatively easily. 

Of the four things discussed in this post, queen rearing is the skill that has provided the greatest benefit to my beekeeping.

And enjoyment.

Go forth and multiply 🙂


 

Tragedies and triumphs

Synopsis: Beekeeping shouldn’t be “a series of calamities then winter”, though it sometimes feels like that. In the first of a two-part post I look at the real and imagined disasters that can befall you during the season. The reality is that the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them.

Introduction

A few weeks ago I did a live-streamed Q&A with Laurence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. Some of the questions were both good and interesting, some of the answers were perhaps less so. Before any readers think I’m being rude here I should point out that Laurence was asking the questions – often on behalf of others – and I was answering them.

There were quite a few questions on non-chemical treatment which I was singularly ill-equipped to deal with. Not because I don’t know anything about it, but because I don’t practice it 1 and because I suspect I’m not a good enough beekeeper to be successful if I did try it. There’s clearly a lot of interest in the topic, though I fear much of this is also from beekeepers who are not sufficiently experienced to succeed with it either.

However, there were two questions – or perhaps it was one merged question – that went something like this:

What is your greatest beekeeping success and your biggest beekeeping disaster?

I’m paraphrasing here. I can’t remember the precise wording and daren’t review it on YouTube as I’d then have to listen to my erudite insights inchoate waffle … which would be excruciating.

My answer probably involved asking whether I was restricted to just one disaster … 😉

Let’s get some perspective first

New beekeepers in particular are likely to worry about the “disasters” and overlook some of the “successes” in their first season or two. I therefore thought I’d discuss what I consider are the highs and lows – abbreviated to tragedies and triumphs’ to give the post a snappy title – of the first few years of beekeeping.

Obviously this is biased and based upon my own experience, and from mentoring others. Your experience may be very different … or you may have yet to experience the highs and lows of a beekeeping season.

But before I start using superlatives to describe the chaos of my early efforts at swarm control it’s worth remembering – particularly as the war in Ukraine enters its third week – that I’m only talking about beekeeping here.

In the overall scheme of things it’s simply not very important.

What might feel like a disaster of biblical proportions in the apiary … isn’t.

Yes, it might threaten the productivity, or even the survival, of the colony, but it is only beekeeping 2.

So, having got that out of the way, which do you want first?

The good news or the bad news?

The bad news … how mature 😉

The loss of a hive tool

Clearly I’m being flippant here.

The loss of a hive tool is a minor inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

There you are!

Unless you don’t have a spare and/or you’re about to inspect a dozen heavily-supered hives in the apiary … in which case it’s a major inconvenience.

It’s remarkably easy for a hive tool to fall out of those tall, thin pockets in the sleeve or thigh of your beesuit. Inevitably it falls, not onto closely cropped sward, but into tangled tussocks of rarely-mown grass.

You will probably find it again.

You could spend 15 minutes on your hands and knees retracing your steps since you left the car or you could become a detectorist and conduct a grid-based search, sweeping the area for metal objects.

Neither method is guaranteed to work.

To be certain, you must cut the grass.

But be careful. A glancing contact with the lawnmower or brush cutter and a half-buried hive tool will be damaging at best, and potentially a lot worse 🙁

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking in a solution of soda crystal

Or you can avoid all this grief by keeping a covered bucket in the apiary – a honey bucket is ideal – containing a strong solution of soda crystals. You know exactly where the hive tools are and you soon get into the habit of dropping it back in after an inspection.

Better still, keep two hive tools in the bucket and alternate them as you look at your colonies. The soaking in soda will clean the hive tool, reduce any potential cross-contamination and improve your apiary hygiene.

The loss of a queen

This can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a bit of a calamity.

It very much depends upon the:

  • time of the season
  • whether you notice she’s missing
  • availability of a spare colony

How do you lose a queen? Other than by losing a swarm (see below) the two most likely reasons are cackhanded beekeeping or a queen that fails due to being poorly mated.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Losing a queen mid-season, for whatever reason, should be little more than a minor inconvenience. Assuming you notice she’s missing in action you can remove unwanted queen cells, leaving a single charged (i.e. known to contain a fat larva lounging around on a comfortable bed of Royal Jelly) cell, and wait while she pupates, emerges, mates and starts laying.

Nerve racking? Perhaps slightly, but it’s usually a pretty safe bet that things will work out OK.

If, through clumsiness or stupidity 3, you kill the queen during an inspection there should be ample eggs and young larvae for the colony to use when rearing one or more replacements.

Keep your eyes peeled …

But what if you don’t notice she’s missing? You assume she’s there and blithely knock back all the queen cells you can find 4.

Sealed queen cells

You return the next week … all looks good, no more queen cells.

But wait a minute … there are no eggs either 🙁

Under these circumstances you realise the importance of having at least two colonies. You can rescue the queenless colony by donating a frame of eggs from a queenright colony.

With two hives a crisis is rarely a disaster

Queens also fail because they are poorly mated. They either stop laying, or they stop laying fertilised eggs (i.e.they continue to lay unfertilised ones, leaving you with ever-increasing numbers of drones in the colony). The colony might realise and supersede her, or you might be able to rescue the situation with a donated frame of eggs.

I’ll deal with the consequences of a failed or slaughtered queen at the extremities of the season – early or late – below.

The loss of a swarm

It happens to the best of us, and it sometimes seems to happen even if you do your swarm prevention and control by the book 5.

I’ve turned up in the apiary on a warm May afternoon to discover a whirling mass of bees swarming from one of my hives 6.

It’s not a disaster … in fact it’s one of the greatest sights in beekeeping.

With luck the swarm will bivouac nearby and you’ll be able to collect them in a skep and re-hive them late in the afternoon.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

At least it shouldn’t be a disaster, but Sod’s Law usually dictates that …

  1. if you’re there when the swarm emerges, and
  2. you have a skep and sheet with you

… the swarm will alight 45 feet up a Leylandii 🙁

Even then it might end well if you’ve got a suitable bait hive set out nearby.

The time when losing a swarm is a disaster 7 is when you don’t realise you’ve lost a swarm. You find some queen cells, hurriedly knock them all back 8 and then wonder why there are no eggs the following week.

Déjà vu

At which point you’re in a similar situation to the ‘loss of the queen’ I described above … except you’ve also lost up to 75% of the workers from the colony. The situation is still rescuable with a frame of eggs from your other hive 9 but you’re likely to miss out on the major nectar flow.

Could the situation be any worse?

Oh no it can’t … Oh yes it can!

You miss the lost the swarm, you knock back all those queen cells and you then fail to realise there are no eggs or young larvae in the colony until only sealed brood remains (i.e at least 9 days).

Or worse still, until no brood remains (i.e at most 21 days).

With no brood pheromone being produced there’s now a real danger that the colony will develop laying workers. Things now get an order of magnitude more difficult as a colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen (and generally will not even attempt to rear their own if presented with a frame of eggs).

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

You’re fast approaching the next of the beekeeping ‘disasters’ …

The loss of a colony

How do you lose a colony?

What was it Elizabeth Barrett Browning said? ’Let me count the ways’ 10.

Natural disasters such as falling trees, winter gales, raging floods, woodpeckers, honey badgers and stampeding elephants 11 can destroy a colony.

Hive toppled by a summer storm

However much care you take – avoiding floodplains, strapping the hives down, seeking shelter (but not near shallow-rooted trees) – sometimes sh1t just happens 12.

You did your best and nature did her worst.

See what you can rescue and try again next year.

Queen loss at the start or end of the season

Losing a queen very early or very late in the season – for whatever reason – is a problem. There’s no chance of the colony rearing another – it’s too cold and/or there are no drones available. I suppose there’s an outside chance you could requeen the colony – if you had a queen available 13 – but doing so involves quite a bit of risk.

If the queen fails overwinter, all the bees in the box will be very old by the time your colony inspection confirms she’s firing blanks, or not firing at all. The chances of successfully requeening the hive are slim at best.

Although that colony is effectively lost – at least if it happens late in the season – it’s not an unmitigated disaster if you have another hive 14. You can unite the queenless colony over a queenright colony very late into the autumn, strengthening the latter and (at least) using the bees from the former, rather than condemning them to a lingering death.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I wouldn’t bother trying to unite a queenless colony (or one with a failed queen) at the very beginning of the season. The remaining bees will be pretty decrepit and there won’t be many of them. It’s unlikely they would contribute in a meaningful way to the successful build-up of another colony.

Winter losses through starvation

These are unfortunately common and often entirely avoidable.

Small-scale surveys from the BBKA and SBA often report winter colony losses of 20-30%, and up to 50% in some years. Large scale surveys, like the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) one in the USA, have reported annual colony losses – the majority of which occur in the winter – exceeding 40% in all but two years since 2013.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

I’ve lost colonies through both starvation and disease.

In both cases it was entirely my fault 🙁

It was a disaster for the bees and it was a sobering and educational experience for me.

I discussed starvation, and how to avoid it, in winter weight a couple of weeks ago. I won’t rehash it here, but I will repeat again that the bees are still in the ‘danger zone’.

Time for another?

Time for another? Definitely.

There’s little nectar available and they are busy rearing brood. Their need for stores is probably higher now than at any time over the last 4-5 months.

At best, a shortage will hold the colony back. At worst they’ll die of starvation.

All of which is completely avoidable by ensuring they have ample stores at the beginning of the winter, and then by keeping an eye on the weight of the colony as they enter the spring. If you’re adding fondant in late December it’s likely the colony had insufficient stores to start with … but at least you’re keeping a check on the weight of the colony.

Winter losses due to disease

I suspect that the majority of winter losses are not due to starvation but are instead due to inadequate or incorrect Varroa management.

This is a topic that has been covered numerous times in posts here. The most recent overarching review of the topic is probably Rational Varroa Control. Versions of this appeared in the August 2020 BBKA Newsletter and in The Scottish Beekeeper in the same month.

Successful Varroa control requires an understanding of the treatments available and the pros and cons of using them on your bees and in your location/climate. Too many beekeepers simply want to know whether they should add Apiguard in the third week of August or middle of September.

Apivar strip on wire hangar

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly difficult either.

Unlike many of the other diseases of honey bees – e.g. chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), Nosema and the foulbroods – there are effective treatments to control Varroa and the damaging viruses that it transmits.

Losing a colony in June to CBPV is possibly unavoidable (it’s just bad luck) but losing one to Varroa/DWV in January – which is largely avoidable – might well be bad beekeeping.

In both cases of course it’s a disaster for the colony 🙁

Disaster

The meaning of disaster is ‘An event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature; a calamity; esp. a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life’. Its origins date back to the mid-16th Century.

Some of the ‘disasters’ I’ve described above involve the loss of just one life – that of the queen. For the reasons I describe, they’re not really disasters at all, or shouldn’t be for the observant and well prepared beekeeper.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

They become disasters i.e. causing great damage or loss of life, if you miss the tell-tale signs and so contribute to the eventual demise of the colony.

The avoidable loss of a queen or a colony is a distressing experience, or at least it should be 15.

If it is distressing then it will probably also be a learning experience.

Analyse what went wrong and work out how you might prevent it happening again in the future.

We have a duty of care for the bees we manage. I don’t like losing colonies, but it still happens infrequently. When it does I try and determine whether it was just fate … or my incompetence (or – let’s be generous – my actions or inactions) that caused the loss.

And the times you manage to work out where you went wrong are the foundations for your beekeeping triumphs in the future … which is what we’ll return to next week.