Teaching in the bee shed

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

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

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

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

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

Learning from bees and beekeeping

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

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

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

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

Shed life

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

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

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

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

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

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

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

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

Open colony in the bee shed

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

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

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

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access

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

Hives in the bee shed

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

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

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

Kippered

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to access again.

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

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

Broiled

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

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

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

Phew!

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

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

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

Bee shelters

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

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

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

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

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

A bee shelter

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


 

Footnotes

  1. We continued to harvest pupae until mid-November last season and all colonies overwintered very well.
  2. I can still write this though it unfortunately looking like I’ll need to find an alternative phrase by late October.

17 thoughts on “Teaching in the bee shed

  1. James

    Interesting setup! Do some bees not get stuck in the shed once you have finished inspecting and put the roof back on?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi James
      No … I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the setup of the shed. Have a look at the ‘equipment‘ pages if you want all the gory details. I described the windows in early 2016 in one of the first posts on the original bee shed. These were so successful I simply duplicated them in the new one. The bees clear the shed in 5-10 minutes. The windows have no moving parts and are completely weatherproof.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Sandy Scott

    Thanks for spending the time to produce the blog, your experiences and comments give a lot of food for thought. I’m sure that the teachers who are so proactive in encouraging the National 5 Beekeeping course will appreciate your views and hopefully the administrators will pick up on them also.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Sandy
      Beekeeping offers a wealth of educational opportunities and I see no reason why our (variable and sometimes inclement) weather cannot be mitigated for with a little ingenuity.
      After posting the article I remembered I’d meant to also include a comment about remote hive monitoring. This would increase the scope of the relevant subjects to electrical engineering – it’s pretty easy to build Arduino or Raspberry Pi-based hive temperature and humidity monitors, or commercial ones can be purchased that measure additional variables like hive weight and entrance activity. There are all sorts of projects that this could lead to which could be done whatever the weather and with or without a bee shed to accommodate the hives.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Emily

    I like the open shelter idea, could do with some shelter when Cornwall throws one of its freak hail storms at me.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily

      Fortunately, since climate change isn’t real these types of freak weather conditions will not be increasing and there will be no need for shelters in the future … 😉

      A less expensive way to avoid cloudbursts is the Dark Sky app … I find this pretty accurate.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. calum

    Hi David,
    I’d add shed lighting, honestly with poor lighting I am fed up always running outside with a frame to check for eggs. So I am using a headtorch now. Much better, also for working bees into the night very practical. (Think you have LEDs in your shed?).
    And mice can be more of an issue in sheds. I am still collecting photos, looking for the perfect “open” bee shed design- will share when I think I found it.
    BR
    Calum

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum
      I look forward to the ‘perfect’ open shed design … I’ve got a head torch and regularly use it for working with mini-nucs at night. I’ll give it a go.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. calum

    Hi
    re lighting, this is what I use https://www.blacks.co.uk/equipment/267427-eurohike-4-2-led-head-torch.html brilliant at 3pounds.
    See you are using SüdZucker – we use them too for fondant, and a French supplier for our liquid feed (at 0,58€/kg). wonder how Brexit will affect prices….
    Regarding kippering, try sticking the pointy bit from an egg carton in the pointy end of the smoker ;)-
    You could also just remove a couple of slats from the shed to improve Ventilation – either the topmost ones (possibly better bee escapes, and better natural light), or the ones where your entrances are – that would add flexibility in hive positioning or at least allow you to squeeze in a couple more hives / 5 frame nucs.
    Great post as ever, sorry rushed reply, writting on stolen time between meetings…

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi
      I’ve got one of these – reachargeable LED headlamp – which is dazzlingly bright and has the benefit of not needing batteries (or, more correctly, not needing replaceable batteries).
      Don’t get me started about Brexit … I try and keep bad language and politics out of posts and comments. I only use fondant as you know … I pay about 11€/12.5kg for it by the pallet (which I share with friends).
      The shed was 33oC when I was going through colonies late this afternoon. I’m not complaining … it’s good to have some great weather. Ventilation is problematic and I might well fit a 12V fan under the apex this winter. If I built a small shelf immediately underneath it I could stand the smoker there and it would be easier to get to. The roof is metal so can’t easily be butchered. The entrance system we use works well and keeps bees out of the shed very effectively. Going back to your earlier comment … we’ve not had problems with mice (yet – touch wood!) but are careful not to leave too much of a mess to attract them.

      As they say “third time lucky” … I’m already planning v3 of the bee shed (for home) and hope to iron out all of these problems before then. That one might well be used for teaching, so I’ll need to have solutions for the space, lighting and smoke!

      With Best Wishes
      David

      Reply
  6. Bridget

    That’s interesting about temperature. Our shed is usually just one or two degrees above the outside temperatures, summer and winter. We do have some insulation in the roof – kingspan. I think our roof is tin.
    The kippering and smoker outside the door is relateable as is the taking of frames out to check for eggs. Usually have the outer frames outside as well.
    Just steaming past the westerly end of ardnamurchan on our way to Coll. Can’t see any rhododendron so perhaps you are the other side!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Bridget
      The roof on the shed is a sort of square-section corrugated metal. Very neat but I bet it contributes to the heating. There’s no insulation. The shed also faces due South. For 90% of the year the additional few degrees is welcomed by me and the bees. The last week or two not so much!

      I’ve yet to clear all the rhododendron but I am making good progress. I’ll continue planting native trees for the rest of the year now I think I can keep the deer off.

      Famous last words 🙂

      Enjoy Coll, a wonderful part of the world. Look out for corncrake. We’ve got them on Ardnamurchan I think, but I’ve yet to see (or more likely hear) them.

      Best Wishes
      David

      Reply
  7. Fraser Clyde

    We had LED tubes over our five hives and also over the bench, which is along the opposite long wall. However still hard to see eggs in old frames!
    Re temperatures- our inside temperatures tend to stay about 1-3 degrees above outside. Our bee house is built on stilts, so sits 450mm off the ground and this may assist the temperature balance ? Although the floor does have 50mm of insulation! Note that the bee deck in independent of the floor, so no transfer from my heavy feet-))

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fraser

      My stand design more or less follows yours after some discussions I had with Bridget ‘back in the day’. I can jump around in the shed without causing too much disruption to the bees, though it does look odd from outside.

      I’m planning v3 of the shed, building on what I’ve learnt so far. It’s for the west coast and the first part of the design is “even bigger” 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Dave Kearns

    Hi, the beeshed at Oban High School is working well. Thanks for your advice. I agree that it does allow us to inspect when we need to and not just when we can. Great for teaching beginners.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Dave

      That’s great news. Well done. The one we have for research is invaluable. I’m just in the process of having the foundations prepared for an even larger one (for personal use) at a site on the west coast.

      I think I’m talking at Oban Beekeepers Association in mid-March next year. I’m not yet sure what I’m talking about (!) i.e. science or practical beekeeping, or a combination of the two. If you’re there please introduce introduce yourself.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *