Synopsis: Preparing for the season ahead should include making sure you have everything you need in the bee bag for apiary visits, but that you are not carrying things you never use. A place for everything, and everything in its place … at least until swarming starts.
I think there’s sometimes a misconception that those who write (or talk) about a topic are the most knowledgeable on that topic.
After all, why else would they feel qualified to write?
And, if they’re knowledgeable – even if not all knowing – then they also have the luxury of time (to write, or to enjoy the scenery or whatever). Rather than repeatedly struggling doing the wrong thing, they briefly and efficiently do the right thing™.
Their incisive and unwavering decision making, coupled with a calm and measured confidence, means difficult tasks are made easier and routine activities are rendered trivial.
And this efficiency of thought and activity is complemented by an impressive level of organisation and preparedness. After all, how else would they be able to achieve what they do, without being prepared for all eventualities … and have the tools immediately to hand that are needed?
I’m sure that’s true of some who write … and it might even be true of some who write and talk about beekeeping … but it’s not true of me 🙁
At least, not often.
I might write about how I did something, making it sound trivial and unexciting:
“… pick the queen up by her wings and place her in the JzBz cage, add a few nurse bees to keep her company and place the cage safely in your pocket.”
But I omitted to describe the times I couldn’t find a JzBz cage, or got stung repeatedly grabbing workers, or let the virgin queen fly around the shed for 5 minutes before she disappeared out of the door.
Or when the cage fell through the hole in my pocket (caused by a razor sharp hive tool), down my trouser leg and into my boot.
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach
The luxury of writing means I can skip over those things that make me sound like the author of the bestselling Slapstick beekeeping, and instead present a coherent vision of what beekeeping should be like.
Think of it as a sort of sanitised version of beekeeping, with the swearing bowdlerised and the Charlie Chaplin-style antics omitted to make me look vaguely competent.
Not, I should add, that every visit to the apiary looks like Laurel and Hardy 1 in beesuits.
I do my best to learn from my mistakes, or at least not forget them, and – every winter – I incrementally improve my organisation for the season ahead.
I review my notes from the season just finished and I make general, and sometimes very specific, plans for the following year. If these necessitate buying or building new equipment then I try and do that during the seemingly interminable short winter days (if that isn’t oxymoronic).
This winter this has involved completing my queen rearing incubator and building some cell punches for queen rearing.
The organisation involves preparing this new ‘stuff’ as well as sorting out some of the accumulated debris from the season just finished.
In particular, I sort through, tidy and hopefully streamline, the contents of the bee bag.
The beekeepers box
When you visit the apiary there are a few tools you will almost always need – for example, a smoker and a hive tool. You’ll need something combustible in the smoker and some way of igniting it. And you should have something to carry that lot in that is itself non-flammable, so you don’t risk self-immolation when driving back home.
I’ve discussed the fireproof box I use for my smoker previously. I now keep smoker fuel and a kitchen ‘creme brûlée’ blowtorch in a clear plastic box. Bitter experience – you can guess what – taught me that a clear box enables me to easily check the blowtorch is present before I drive 150 miles to the apiary.
The easiest – and most hygienic – way to store your hive tool is in a strong solution of washing soda in the apiary. It’s always there and it’s always clean.
But there are times in the apiary when you’ll need a lot more than a smoker and a hive tool.
I’m not referring here to the large items – the spare brood boxes, the supers, the split boards or queen excluders 2.
Instead, I’m referring to the smaller stuff … like the JzBz cage to put the queen into, or the (wickedly sharp) scissors to clip her wing or the Posca pen to mark her.
Beekeepers have come up with all sorts of fancy carrying boxes made from wood or metal. Jim Berndt described a typical one in Bee Culture a few years ago. Built from 3/4” pine, and with space for the smoker, frame brush, frame hanger and any number of other things.
It must have weighed a ton.
Jim admitted as much when he acknowledged that he’d build the next one from thinner wood.
I’ve seen boxes with integrated seats, or was it a seat with an integrated beekeepers box?
The bee bag
But anything rigid, by definition, lacks flexibility.
If there’s not space in the box for Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 (something you only need every other month in the apiary) then you have to carry it separately. If there is space in the box but you only need Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 twice a season then the box is heavier and bigger than it need be.
All of which can be avoided by using a cheap bag to carry the necessities down to the apiary.
And what could be cheaper than a supermarket ‘bag for life’ ? 3
These bags are light and easy to carry, with strong woven handles. Although they aren’t cavernous (they never have quite enough space for my shopping) they are certainly big enough to carry the essentials, and not-so-essentials, to and from the apiary.
Importantly, they are strong.
Being open and flexible you can, if needed, squeeze all sorts of additional things in.
Although I described them as cheap a better term would be inexpensive. I think they started at about 25p, but they seem to be £1 to £1.25 now.
Being made of polypropylene they are easily rinsed out or wiped clean should they get dirty.
And they will get dirty.
And since they are so
cheap inexpensive, it’s not the end of the world if you melt them with the smoker or perforate them with a hive tool.
I’ve used this sort of bag for my beekeeping – not the same one, though they tend to last several seasons – for many years. The Tesco’s centenary was in 2019 and the bag above will certainly get me through to the end of the 2022 season.
Bringing order to entropy
Each winter I sort through the debris that accumulates at the bottom of the bag. I clean everything and get rid of anything that’s been carried around unused for the season. Finally, I replenish the perishables, the worn out or the irreparably damaged.
And then I’m ready for the season ahead 🙂
I don’t just carry around a bag containing a pick’n’mix of jumbled beekeeping paraphernalia 4. The items in the bag are separated into logically-labelled containers for my beekeeping activities.
And long, much repeated and enjoyable field testing has shown that the very best type of containers to use are those designed for ice cream 🙂
Not, I hasten to add, your ’fancy Dan’ Ben and Jerry’s ‘£5 for a couple of scoops’ ice cream in those pathetic cardboardy tubs 5.
Instead, what you need are plastic, square or rectangular (for efficient packing) and with well-fitting lids. Two litre containers are much better than anything much smaller, not just because they’re more fun to empty, but also because they are likely to themselves house smaller containers.
I’m still using some 2.5 litre containers that were sold full of Lidl Gelatelli Vanilla (see the photo above). The ice cream was pretty good but they appear to have stopped making it 6.
I’m sure, if you work hard, you’ll be able to find something equally good … it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it 😉
What’s in the bag?
I can get everything small I need into two of these boxes – one marked ‘daily’ and the other labelled ‘queen stuff’.
I like to keep the labelling simple to avoid confusion.
These are the things I use, or might use, on every trip to the apiary:
- a box containing drawing pins (difficult to use with gloves) and map tacks (easy to use with gloves), together with the red numbered disks I use to label the queen in the hive 7.
- numbers for the outside of the hive
- marker pen for labelling anything except queens
- a wired queen excluder cleaner 8 and an uncapping fork for checking drone brood for Varroa
- spirit level for levelling a hive. This is important if you use foundationless frames. Once you’ve tried to rearrange the frames in an wonky hive full of drawn foundationless frames you’ll realise how useful a small spirit level is 9
- a selection of closed cell foam blocks to hold frames together when transporting hives. These are simply wedged tightly between the top bar and the sidewall of the hive and thereby minimise the risk of crushing the queen (or other bees) when moving the hive.
- screw cap sample tubes, just in case I see any weird, sick or odd looking bees during inspections
- a couple of JzBz queen cages
- digital voice recorder for taking hive notes
Since a lot of my season is taken up with queen rearing this box contains both the tools for queen rearing and the used-less-than-daily tools needed for marking and clipping the queen:
- queen marking cage (I like the push and twist ones best, as you can tell from the amount of propolis and paint covering mine)
- dressmakers snips (Fiskar’s) for clipping the queen. These are very sharp. Don’t leave them in you bee suit pocket or you will get injured 🙁
- Posca marking pens. Check these in the winter and make sure they haven’t dried up or gone super-gloopy. Either outcome makes for frustration when marking the queen. I only routinely use white, blue or yellow and buy whatever is cheapest or easiest to get, and use that colour for the season (or until the pen expires)
- tools for grafting larvae and, new this season, the cell punches shown above
- USB rechargeable head torch (for use when grafting 10 )
- magnifying glasses 11
- more JzBz queen cages and some Nicot cages to protect soon-to-emerge cells
What’s in the bag but not in the box?
Inevitably, not everything fits into one of these two conveniently-sized ice cream containers 12.
The base of the bag contains some folded sheets of newspaper which are used when uniting colonies. Before the broadsheets became the same size as the Daily Mail they were preferable as a single sheet would cover a brood box. Now they’ve been shrunk you have to overlap two sheets.
Or read the Financial Times … and there’s very little point in me doing that 🙁
Avoid newspapers that are stapled.
Inevitably when pulling them apart (in a stiff breeze, with an open hive ready to be united) they tear at the staple, increasing your frustration and making you look more like Laurel or Hardy.
I also carry a couple of pieces of fibreglass insect mesh. This stuff is sold by the metre to cover open windows and so keep mosquitoes out, but is ideal for covering an open hive when moving colonies on a hot day. A Thorne’s travelling screen costs £19.40 and works no better than a piece of this mesh which costs £19 less 13. By some sort of miracle I’ve ended up with two colours of mesh, one for standard brood boxes and one for nucs 14.
I wear gloves while beekeeping so the bag contains a box of disposable long cuffed latex-type gloves for routine use. There is also be a pair of Marigold washing up gloves for any colonies that are a bit rambunctious 15.
At least there should be a pair of Marigold’s in there … something else to order.
I try and keep a couple of hive straps in the bag.
Finally, you can never have enough gaffer tape … so there’s always a roll in the bee bag. It’s ideal for temporarily sealing hive entrances, strapping nucleus roofs down for transport or patching up holes in the bee bag.
Rejects for 2022
Having sorted through the bee bag I collected a small pile of stuff that wasn’t used last season.
In the case of the ‘crown of thorns’ queen marking torture chamber I don’t think I’ve used it for years. I’ve no idea why it was still in the bag. There’s probably more of my blood on the needle-sharp points than there is paint on the mesh … and there’s clearly no point in me carrying it around for another year.
The awful ‘Chinese’ grafting tool goes out as well, as do some JzBz queen cups, a dodgy pink sparkly Posca pen 16, an ill-fitting pair of magnifying glasses and a shonky magnifier.
And that ‘clip catcher’ … again, almost never used.
Elementary my dear Watson
As I slowly approach very (very) early middle age 17 my presbyopia is becoming more noticeable. I’ve needed magnifying glasses for grafting for several years and, increasingly, in poor light can struggle to see eggs. Unfortunately, about half my beekeeping is done in sub-optimal lighting … the colonies I keep in the bee shed are easy to inspect, whatever the weather, but the lighting is far from ideal.
Having chucked out one magnifying glass I’ve found an LED illuminated magnifying glass to try this season. This has a good quality glass lens and a dazzlingly bright set of warm/cool/both LED’s around the rim, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery.
With a choice between wearing reading glasses for all my colony inspections – and inevitably tripping over a super I fail to notice at my feet – or periodically using a magnifying glass if the lighting is poor, I’ve chosen the latter route.
I’ll report back later in the season whether it was the right route to choose.
I’m ready, but the season isn’t
With the unwanted stuff discarded, and the wanted stuff checked and tidied, the bee bag is now ready for the season ahead. I’ve ordered some new Posca pens, charged the magnifying glass and the digital voice recorder …
I’ll probably still look like Fred Karno when I’m floundering around in the apiary, but at least I’ll have the things I need with me.
Unfortunately, it currently looks as though the season isn’t ready for me.
The last 7-10 days have been stunning, but it’s currently 3°C and snowing 🙁
Which is probably fortunate as I still have a couple of hundred frames to build …
I first wrote about the bee bag way back in November 2016. Time has passed, the contents of the bag have changed a bit (though the jokes are largely the same) so that page now redirects here.
- Hardy, to be precise, in my case.
- Hopefully your notes tell you which of these you need and/or you store them in the apiary anyway.
- I think the term ‘bag for life’ was coined first by Tesco, but most supermarkets sell polypropylene reusable shopping bags of the type I mean.
- At least, I don’t at the beginning of the season … by mid-September though, all bets are off, and there could be anything lurking in the bottom of the bee bag.
- Though I urge you strongly to test those as an example of the wholly unsuitable types of container you should avoid.
- At least in such volumes.
- The queen is just marked with paint, but the queen number on the outside of the hive tells me – when I refer to my records – something about her provenance. The queen shouldn’t leave the hive unless I move her, in which case the number goes with her.
- This certainly isn’t used on every visit, but if you do need to clean a wired QE you are much less likely to bend a wire using this than a hive tool.
- Many smartphones have them, but this is more propolis-resistant.
- And when working late in the apiary e.g. when moving recently occupied bait hives.
- To make me look suitably learned … and to increasingly help me see the cell, let alone the larvae.
- That could (but should not) be used as an excuse to buy and eat yet more ice cream.
- And it’s a damn site easier to store.
- I have a lot more of these sheets, but only carry a couple. If I’m moving a dozen hives – something I’ll know in advance – I get the spares out of stores.
- What a great word … ‘uncontrollably exuberant, rumbustious; boisterous, wild, unruly’ and in use since the mid 19th Century.
- Don’t ask.
Tesco bag can be traded in for a new one but you run the gauntlet if it’s returned with grubby wax ,propolis and syrup smeared over it.
I use an ex military ammo box for the smoker .It has an airtight seal so you can put a lit smoker into it.Next session will then have you a partial charge which will readily relight .
I must have a sort out….
I’ve seen beekeepers hanging the smoker on the outside of the car window and driving with it lit between nearby apiaries. My Abelo box is good and accommodates the big Dadant smoker easily (it’s overkill for the small one). It should have an airtight seal but the clip broke and I now hold it closed with a strap. I suspect the ammo box was a lot less expensive … but it might be heavier.
Who are you??? What is your connection to the bee world.? Are you a credible writer and have the expertise to make statements about bees and bee able to back it up? Are you an expert bee person? Where do you get the information you post?
I wasn’t sure whether to bin this, or whether to provide a long and detailed answer … and then I realised it was April Fool’s Day.
Nice one 🙂
PS You’re banned.
You are charitable David – I was going to tell him to p%$s off. Yours is an excellent blog, and I really enjoy reading it – and your approach to bees and life.
Thanks Apis 😉
‘Charitable’ … I’ll have to try and include that in the subtitle for the blog 🙂
The only bee-related blog I read unfailingly. Great advice and it made me smile as always.
Good stuff Andrew 🙂
“Who are you??? What is your connection to the bee world.? Are you a credible writer and have the expertise to make statements about bees and bee able to back it up? Are you an expert bee person? Where do you get the information you post? ”
I can answer on David’s behalf- if he doesn’t mind.
The Apiarist,beekeeper and virologist,yes and yes,yes,through practical experience.
Oh, and watch the multiple keystroke affliction…
I’m a dedicated reader of your excellent weekly blog & usually forward it to my beginners’ class of 30.
As you may have seen, I write for the BBKA News & often struggle to find something appropriate – may I steal your idea & write about what the beekeeper should take with them? Of course, it will be my slant & I don’t take nearly as much stuff as you do.
I tried to buy you a coffee but the system dioesn’t like me & after 5 tries I gave up.
For some reason I missed this yesterday …
I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel in the topic. After all, I wrote about it in 2016 and I cited the article by Jim Berndt above. I’m sure many others will have tackled it in ABJ and other publications. Go for it … it’s quite a personal topic and different beekeepers will feel more or less strongly about the choice of things. I don’t think I take much, but I really don’t like having to return if I forget something.
Not sure what the problem is with Buy Me a Coffee … it should be a case of simply filling in a couple of boxes. If it continues send me an email explaining the error you’re getting and I’ll look into it. It’s definitely working at the moment.
Good luck with the article.
2021 addition to my bag were the cups + lolly stick q less testers (slight upgrade using sausage cocktail stick tho 😊 ) , I’ve named them Evans Cups (will surely join famous named equipment ranks of Horsley, Langstroth, Manley etc etc)
Weirdly have also kept medieval crown of thorns for years despite never using it , now gone .
It’s all ahead of us now.
Great article as ever, thanks.
Flattering though that is, I take no credit for that “grafting cups on a stick” idea … I saw it years ago on the internet and used it a few times to test whether a colony was queenright or not. If you know how to graft it’s a fantastically economical (in terms of resources) way to check the status of a colony.
The early season sunshine has been replaced by 7°C and rain here. Colonies are all looking good and flying well when they get the chance – but not today 🙁 – and I’m really looking forward to the season.
Fred Karno …. I work for a company that strongly resembles his army …. and it’s not the government.
My word, Fred Karno’s Army … this site is nothing if not topical and full of up-to-the-minute cultural references 😉
I recall hearing how our bee instructor had put the queen in a cage in her pocket and driven home, didn’t hear it from her. I’ve discarded a lot of stuff this year but use a tool bag with lots of pockets rather than rummage around in a carrier bag. Sadly 2litre plastic ice cream cartons seem to be a thing of the past. I recommend the daily mail for lighting far better than the qualities.
I’m sure there’s a joke that can be made about the incendiary properties of the Daily Mail …
You can still by 2, 5 and 10 litre ice cream containers so I would hope, with a suitable amount of ‘market research’, they could still be found. I’ve got a pile in the shed somewhere so should be OK for the foreseeable future 🙂
I only ‘rummage around in a carrier bag’ towards the end of the season. Now, and for the next couple of months, I’m well organised 😉
inspiring as always. You are one of the very few writers that admit to mistakes or give detailed reasons why something works or otherwise.
Without being presumptuous I can see another article in this current dispatch- making a cell punch.
A couple of years ago the Chair of my bee club thought cell punching had numerous advantages over grafting and enquired of a ‘famous beekeeper’ the source of his cell punch. There was nothing forth coming and after numerous experiments gave up on the idea. What do you think?
Kind words 🙂
I’ve a very specific reason for trying cell punching that I’ll discuss in due course. They are trivial to make and I’ll provide details (of course). The commercial solutions I’ve seen have not been compelling and I want something compatible with my Nicot cell bar frames and cages. The literature is less than no help as well 🙁
I’m not going to make excuses for other beekeepers, famous or not, but anyone with a presence on the web, or on the winter conference/lecture circuit, gets bombarded with emails all the time. I try and keep up, but it’s a nearly impossible task.
Watch this space and let’s hope that I can write about a success (perhaps with a few mistakes on the way 😉 ).
At my last eye test I asked for a pair of bee keeping glasses as I seemed to be having issues seeing eggs, this resulted in a pantomine of pretending to hold a frame but essentially they’re reading glasses. Work well for looking at the frames but the second you look up everything is out of focus so after one session returned to the varifocals finding that with the new prescription I could see eggs no trouble.
That’s pretty much my experience, made worse by the fact that I don’t (now) need glasses for any sort of distance vision. The el cheapo (that’s not the make, but a reflection of the quality) 2.0 to 3.0 dioptre ones I use are about £3 and work perfectly well for the few minutes it takes to do the grafting. In really good light eggs aren’t a problem, but I struggle in the shed. It’ll be interesting to see how I cope this year now “we have the technology”!
That April 1st comment caught me by surprise – but we have to laugh – rather well written given it had me glued thinking “who was this idiot???? ” Until you noticed the date!!! A quick look – April 1 – Fool’s Day – indeed it was! More seriously, others know what that queen-cup thing is but frankly I’m in the dark. I suspect – possibly a cell punch that eliminates the need for physically grabbing a 3-day old larva from a cell to graft. That the idea? I’m anxious for the queen building post that explains the thing. Like how do you get a wax cell with an egg/larva out of the darn thing once punched if that is the idea. Next question – or lead me to the post. That sable 0000 brush – as a replacement for a chinese grafting tool or the German spoon. I must admit – after so many attempts to gently take 3-day old larva out of cells my end result has been only a fraction ultimately become viable capped queen cells. My utter consistent failure lead me to the easiest of all approaches – place a frame containing my chosen queen’s eggs into a starter NUC colony and let them chose their own. Now admittedly – less FUN! but hugely successful – like 100%. However, I most enjoyed grafting 3-4 larva, placing in cell cups and then “salting” a starter NUC with those cups. That was pretty successful but often the cups were not successful – hence 4 or so added. Could it be damage from the Chinese tool? That brush looks like a very attractive alternative. Soft, larva would stick to it and it could be gently touched down into a cell cup. Worth a try. Grafting is great fun and very satisfying. My other difficulty was lack of sufficient hives to create a good cell starter. That takes a dedicated hive and with just a few in a small apiary problematic. Hence for me, grabbing 3-4 frames from two spring hives needing swarm management and adding a frame of eggs was easy – also satisfying but not as much as searching for that perfect 3-day old larva.
Whichever way you try, it’s a lot of fun.
Agreed on it being lots of fun. Sure makes for fun spring and leads to both replacing hives and having “insurance” throughout the season. Several years back I did set up a queen right cell starter and finisher but like my many attempts only had marginal success when adding grafted cells. I think it was that same year – it got late in spring when a “purchased” queen disappeared. I hastily grafted some wax cell cups and simply stuck them on two frames in the queenless hive. Ha, well – two were capped and one produced an excellent queen. Post then I simply gave them single frames of eggs. But – it is not all about getting queens – it is the journey. I need to review you “Ben Harden” approach – I believe this is the vertical split concept you mentioned. That’s one I will work with in a few weeks.
Ben Harden and the vertical split are different. Both are described here. Ben Harden is a queenright queen rearing method, with queens reared under the supercedure response. It works well. The vertical split is a swarm control method. It also works well.
Just turned onto you by 5 apple farm in US. Thanks for all you share. I’m a bew bee haver trying to grow. I found your article helpful and encouraging.
I was always frustrated by trying to remember what we had done/found in each hive. I’ll remember that I said! 😂 but I worked out that Siri could do it. So it’s now “Siri take a note” and although she gets a bit muddled with hive four and hive for I can live with that.
I’m not sure if my phone does this, but my son will! I’ll ask him next week. The little digital recorder I use is very convenient (and a lot less expensive than a phone which is important when you consider the liberal coating of propolis it’s likely to get).
My shed has 7 positions for hives. However, my hive numbers are chosen at random from 1 – 50, and externally labelled. It causes no end of confusion when it’s hive 15 in position 3. However, by separately numbering the hives there’s less confusion when I move them to another apiary …
Hello David – Sorry for the late question – I am a week behind in blogs at the moment! I was interested in the fibreglass sheet for travel screens. Do you pin/glue it onto a suitable frame or gaffer tape it onto the box. The frame approach is probably the most secure but happy to try your method.
If you check the travel screens link I quoted you’ll find a couple of ways to use them. On a full box an eke is the easiest way to hold them in place in my experience.