Small, but perfectly formed

We’re in the hiatus between the end of the beekeeping season and the start of the beginning of the planning for the preparation for the next. Or, I am.

Of course, if you’re reading this from Australia (G’day … the 5th largest readership globally) or Chile (Hola … 62nd in the list) then things are probably just getting really busy.

Inevitably things here are going to be a bit quiet for a few months. Have patience.

Getting ready for winter

Here in the Northern hemisphere, at a latitude of about 56°N, the nights are rapidly getting longer and the temperature is tumbling. We’ve had several sharp frosts already. I checked my bees yesterday through the perspex crownboards – where present – and most were pretty tightly huddled together. In the very warmest part of the day there were a few flying in the weak sunshine, but the majority of colonies were quiet.

Since many of the most recent posts have been rather long (and I’m pressed for time with work commitments) I’m going to restrict myself to a few brief comments about this tidy – and tiny – little hive tool from Thorne’s.

Pocket hive tool

Pocket hive tool

One of the final tasks of the year is to slice off the brace comb built in places along the tops of the frames while feeding colonies. I only use fondant, usually adding 12.5 kg to start with and then a further few kilograms if I think the hive is a bit light. All this fits nicely under one of my inverted, insulated perspex crownboards. However, as the fondant it taken down and stored, the bees tend to build little pinnacles of comb under or around the plastic bag.

Before closing the colony up for the season all these bits of brace comb need to be tidied away. I simply run a sharp hive tool along the top bars of the frames, remove the wax and – eventually – melt it down in my steam wax extractor. If you leave the wax in place you can’t put the crownboard back the right way up … or, when you do, you risk crushing bees.

Bargains in the sales

In the Thorne’s summer sales this year I bought the usual range of stuff I have almost no use for, together with half a dozen of the cheapo copies of their claw hive tool to replace those I’ve lost or lent during the year.

In addition I bought a couple of their ‘pocket hive tools’ (shown above) for a quid each.

These are small and neat, have a simple frame lifter at one end and a very good, sharp, chisel tip at the other. They are made of stainless steel. They fit neatly into the palm of the hand, don’t project too far and yet are enough to provide the leverage to separate all but the most stubbornly propolised frames.

For tidying up the top bars of my hives before closing them up for year this little hive tool was just the job.

‘Pocket hive tool’ is a bit of a misnomer though. It’s certainly small enough to fit into your beesuit pocket, but just about sharp enough it won’t be staying there long. Any serious pressure, for example as you get back into the car/van/truck risks either a nasty injury ( 😯 ) or it will eventually escape through a neatly sliced-through seam.

It might be better to keep it in your bee bag, or – as I do with other hive tools – store it in a bucket of soda in the apiary.


The phrase small, but perfectly formed is at least 200 years old. Google Books first lists it in the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of 1779 (though in those days they used a medial or long ‘s’ so the title was the Gentleman’s Magazine and Hiſtorical Chronicle) where it appears in an article by Mr Rack describing (or deſcribing) a new found aquatic animal. Whether ‘small, but perfectly formed‘ is now an idiom or a cliche is unclear. The usually excellent Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2014) defines the idiom as meaning “something noticeably small but compensating for this by a perfection of quality”. Their first reference to the phrase occurs in a letter written in October 1914 by Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, later his wife, and quoted in Artemis Cooper’s Durable Fire (1983): ‘Your two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar’. The expression was probably not original to Cooper but drawn from the fashionable talk of the period. The usage is often tongue-in-cheek or journalistically formulaic for anything small … which is exactly how I’ve used the term in the title of this post.

4 thoughts on “Small, but perfectly formed

  1. WesternWilson

    Hi David, in your post on the perspex crown boards you state there was no condensation on the crown board…is that because it is well insulated? I ask as this spring one of our respected club members presented on his researches into winter wrapping methods and among other things advised to lose the upper entrance in winter (retaining the lower) and super insulate the crown board/outer cover. This struck many as heresy! I would be interested in your thoughts. The blog I did on the presentation is:

    1. David Post author

      Without insulation perspex crownboards get lots of condensation. All of mine have a 50mm thick block of Kingspan or similar insulation (Celotex is another similar product) directly on top. My ‘good’ crownboards have a 50mm thick eke on one side into which the insulation fits. When I feed fondant I simply reverse the crownboard, remove the insulation and place it on top.
      Many beekeepers here use lots of top insulation during the winter. This is very different from the old advice which was to place matchsticks under the corners of the crownboard to allow good ventilation. This insulation is regularly repeated, seems to work for some and is routinely ridiculed by those who use insulation. My bees winter well under an insulated roof. The hives all have open mesh floors all winter – other than when the Varroa trays are in for counting purposes.
      The one thing I’m considering at the moment is whether it might be worth removing (or omitting) the insulation for the first couple of months of the winter – essentially November and December here – to encourage the bees to stop brooding (by chilling the hive). Then treat with oxalic acid and replace the insulation as we go into the New Year when brood rearing likely restarts. A few of my hives have no insulation this year (at the moment) to see how things go, though it’s hardly. a statistically valid experiment.
      I have no experience with upper entrances, other than during some split procedures during the season … and that’s a long time away. We have snow, but not enough to justify the upper entrance for cleansing flights.

  2. calum

    where is Germany on your list?
    Fondant now? The bees should be fed since latest mid Setpember, surely to feed now just uses up winterbees with work that you would rather keep till spring. Light colonies I’d feed in Feb/ March rather than now…. Or perhaps if they were full fed, and are now light, you should consider they are not right and let nature take its course… their drones next year will not improve your stock.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum
      I only feed fondant in the autumn. Easier, quicker, less mess, less robbing. Simples. It went on in late August or early September. It’s all taken down (12.5-15kg per colony) by early/mid October. I then go back and tidy up the tops of the frames on a warm day before shutting the colonies up for winter. So, my winter bees are all well fed and rested! This post is about the hive tool, not the timing of feeding 😉 I also use fondant for emergence feeding in early Spring, or thin syrup for stimulative feeding to get brood rearing going.
      Germany is 7th on the list …

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