Thursday, 31 December 2020

2029 Year Review

New year is a time to reflect upon the year gone by and to look forward to the coming year, to make plans and to, hopefully, learn from our mistakes. Beekeepers too often use this quiet time to make plans for the coming season. 

2020 has been pretty unique to put it mildly, I don’t need to go into details, those lucky enough to see it’s end are all familiar with stories of health, economic and metal health issues. I have been relatively lucky, my full time occupation enabled me to carry on working, maintaining a sense of normality. Lockdown didn’t mean that I was confined to my home when not at work: beekeeping activities were designated a permissible activity. This was, though, a solitary exercise, I usually use hive inspections as an opportunity to mentor new beekeepers and volunteering at my local association apiary meant that these inspections are usually somewhat of a social event.

Still these lonely hive inspections offered time to relax, think and time to just let the mind wander. They were more numerous too, not being able to do much else meant that I spent more time with my bees. I concentrated on my main apiary, on an allotment site, thereby minimising contact with other people. 

I have been able to experiment with my queen rearing, I tried out the ‘Ben Harden’ method which after failing to get grafts drawn on two consecutive attempts discovered eggs and young larvae in the box containing my grafts. The queen was subsequently found and returned to her rightful place. Fundamental principles like ‘ensure there is no queen in the cell raider’ are always correct but we still need reminders sometimes! 

I have had other disasters too. All of them were of my own making rather than that of the bees. I failed on one occasion to remove foam from the entrance of a nuc that housed a special queen. I was deviated to find the colony had overheated, the comb collapsed and bees dead. These stupid mistakes are easy to make but almost just as easy to avoid, I now make a final check of all hives before leaving the apiary. Are the roofs on and correctly secured? Are all entrances open? Easy!!

Triumphs this year? Well I have managed to raise more queens than I have done in previous years, I have increased colony numbers and passed colonies onto other beekeepers. I was able to help a beekeeping friend that last year lost a large number of colonies through a really unfortunate set of circumstances that were not if his doing. At one point I had bees in all of my hives and nuc boxes and so had to experiment with using Correx boxes as mating hives, this worked really well but I would only attempt this in warm summer months. Swarming this year, or rather the lack of it has been great, I am sure that having more time to spend with my bees was a major factor here and meant that I lost only one swarm this year. That one hadn’t gone unnoticed either, swarm prevention measures had been put in place but the queen left anyway, sometimes whatever you do the bees will have their way. 

The queens that I have raised this year have, without exception, been grafted from the Irish queens that I acquired in 2018. I have said this previously but it’s worth saying again, they have proved to be gentle, productive and forgiving bees. I will continue to use these as breeder queens in 2021 but will also try a few rounds using stock from the ‘wild tree survivor bees’ Here that  I found in 2017, yes they’re still going strong! I’m also trying out a Langstroth hive for the first time next year, a customer has both National and Langstroth hives, being pleased with the colony I supplied last year has requested a nucleus in this format so I decided to purchase a hive to trail  I’ll let you know how I get on.

Well that’s it for this year, I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

When to add a super or second brood

 This post is titled “When to add a super”. However it could accurately be called when not to add a super. 

At Woodside Apiary we take great care to ensure that our nucleus colonies are healthy, headed by a well mated queen and ready to expand quickly when transferred  Into their new full sized hive. This doesn’t mean a complete full sized hive including super or supers. The nucleus colony is a small beast, a baby. They need to be kept warm and fed well. The bees of course are well able to take care of themselves. We beekeepers can make their lives easier or harder!

A good nucleus colony on five or six frames will be well covered with bees and have brood in all stages. This brood must be fed and kept warm ......... When transferred to a full sized brood box with a crown board above the heat from the brood nest will rise, and spread outwards under the crown board, cool a little and fall, warming the adjacent foundation frames, thus enabling the bees to work these new frames, drawing new comb. 

It can be tempting to “stick a super on” at the same time as transferring the nuc. The bees now, keeping the brood nest warm have the heat escape upward and up again, through the queen excluder, through the super (or heaven forbid, a second super) cooling all the time. By the time that this once warm, humid air returns to the lower hive area (the brood box) it is cold and probably damp! The bees now have to work extra hard to try and rewarm this air to maintain the required brood temperature. The result: the growth of the colony that was ready to explode in numbers, build new comb and take advantage of the coming nectar flows to give us their keepers a honey surplus is thwarted. 

It is much better to match the hive volume to that of the bees, this is why our hive systems have multiple boxes after all. Allowing the bees to expand into the new available space a step at a time alows them to grow at their optimal rate. A layer of insulation above the crown board helps enormously too, conserving the heat of the rising air and maintaining the relative humidity, minimising the work that the bees have to do to maintain their brood nest and giving them the opportunity to expand quickly. 

Once the bees have drawn all fondation frames and there is a nectar flow on we can go ahead and add a second box containing foundation frames. If this is a brood box, moving a frame containing open larvae, encourages the bees to move up quickly. If we are expanding with a super, some drawn frames will help, if we have some. Beekeepers that do have super comb already drawn can add two supers.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

One of our 2019 queens

Last year I gave a late mated queen in a nuc to a beekeeper friend. This was a very small nuc and so you would expect that they would need to be kept in ideal conditions in order to overwinter successfully. However shortly after taking possession a storm struck, the nuc was blown over and the majority of the bees we’re tipped out onto the ground. Their new owner being a particularly caring  beekeeper, carefully scooped up as many bees as possible but resigned herself to the most likely outcome would be a failed colony.
I was delighted to hear from her last week when she told me that the small colony had made it through the winter and spring and was doing extremely well. The queen I was told was, and I quote, “HUGE AND VERY BLACK”,  Oh dear, it’s the same year after year, the queens that I sell or pass on seem to be the very best.
Today I received a photo and video of the queen. The beekeeper only has a yellow marking pen which is why the queen isn’t marked green for 2019.
I get a lot of satisfaction from hearing stories about the queens that we raise here a Woodside Apiary.

The first of this year’s  queens are out for mating now, let’s hope that they are as hardy and successful as the queen featured above.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Have Some Fun With Your Bees: Try Something New!

Why not have some fun with your bees and try something new?

Last year, out of necessity I set up a two queen hive. I used a twinstock nucleus hive. Basically these are two five frame nucs sat next to each other on a floor that keeps the two colonies apart, the entrances to each half are on opposite sides of the hive, each has two half sized crown boards and is sheltered under a single National roof. These can save on equipment: one stand, one roof etc and are flexible in their use, an extra five frame brood box can be added for instance giving the bees more room to expand their brood nest and in this configuration, as twin double nucs they over winter well, having more stores than a single nuc and share brood warmth. They will in fact construct their separate brood nests centered as if it were a single nest. Any frames of foundation placed next to the centre of the two colonies will be drawn out really quickly .

So back to last year, I had two newly mated queens in one of these twinstock hives. Their new home wasn’t ready to accept them but they were growing well, to the point where I thought there was a risk of them swarming. I didn’t have any spare five frame boxes so couldn’t give them extra room. I didn’t want to take out frames to weaken them because then they’d need time to build up. What to do? Under normal circumstances a beekeeper would just add a super or two to a conventional hive that was in need of room, so that is exactly what I did. However, the two queens cannot be allowed to meet, one or the other would come to a premature end.
What I did was unite the colonies with newspaper. This was placed across both colonies, confining them to their respective boxes. A queen excluder was placed on top of the paper, this was the plastic type that has no bee space below, not my favourite by any means but this would confine the two queens to their own brood chambers. A super then completed the stack.
The bees from both colonies would chew through the paper and gain access to the super and merge peacefully. They both got more room and I was able to maintain two strong nucs below for a couple of weeks. The left over super and bees when the nucs were moved on were later combined overnews paper to another colony.

I was thinking of this earlier today because I have a similar set up. Two of the nucs that had been split down to provide bees and brood to make cell builderswere placed into a twin stock type hive. They both consisted of a laying queen, one frame of brood and a frame of stores, drawn comb filled each half box. They had now built back up again and were ready to move on, or swarm! I decide to try something new again, I added an extra five frame brood box to each side and a super over, uniting as before with paper and a plastic queen excluder.

My thoughts are:

  • To add further brood boxes, from which I can then harvest brood and bees to make nucs to get more queens mated. 
  • Add more supers to get a honey crop. 
  • Or maybe or more likely, a combination of both. After all we have all read that one large colony is more productive than two colonies half the size. Removing five or ten frames of brood and bees from this hive, with two laying queens and a shared work force, should not knock them back too much. Replacing the lost frames with foundation frames should enable them to recover quickly, resulting in more drawn comb for subsequent use. Indeed if not managed imaginatively, I think this colony population could explode.
  • Another option would be to use this set up to effectively bank a laying queen. If I required a queen to replace one lost, I could take one from this twin hive, unite tho whole colony under one queen, the bees wouldn’t mind at all, the remaining queen would as far as they’re concerned be one of their own. There are probably other options or possible uses for this two queen hive.

As everything under the sun and in beekeeping this isn't anything new. I have taken "inspiration" from watching Michael Palmer and A Canadian Beekeeper's Blog videos on you tube. Mike Palmer uses multiple five frame box hives as brood factories, Ian Steppler uses three queens in narrower Langstroth boxes under twin stacks of wider supers (actually brood boxes) separated by queen excluders obviously!

Some pics of constructing the two queen hive today:

First extra brood box added
Second brood box added
Newspaper and QX
Super with drawn comb
Completed two queen hive

Will this work? Will I get a honey crop? Will it all go horribly wrong and I'll have two swarms issuing and loose both queens? We shall see.

Monday, 24 February 2020

The Other Half Of Queen Rearing

There is a lot that's writen about queen rearing, an increadable amount, in books and on the web. There is so much that it can become confusing, trying to work out which method to use, how to select the best queen to breed from and how to set up a queen less cell starter, cell finisher or maybe a queen rite starter-finisher. Queen rearing texts or videos often end with a foot note: You should also raise drones. This aspect is the "other half of queen rearing" that can often be neglected.

Why are drones important then?

Bees are polyandrous, that is the queens will mate with numerous males, ten to twenty is often quoted as being typical. There is evidence though that the actual number may be much higher. Whatever the actual number is, there is conclusive evidence that the more drones a queen has mated with the more viable her colony will be. The worker bees will all have the same mother (their queen) but their father will be one of the drones with which the queen mated with. The colony will therefore be made up of a number of half sister groups. I increased genetic diversity within the colony helps them to be more resistant to disease and pests, better regulate brood nest temperature, gather more pollen and nectar... the list goes on.

It is therefore essential that the queen has enough drones available to mate with. A few days after the queen has emerged she will leave the hive on short orientation flights before embarking on her mating flight proper. These flights carry a great deal of risk, the queen may be lost, fall victim to a bird or dragon fly or she may be caught in a storm. She must run the gauntlet though to find suitable suiters.

If she fails to meet the required number of matings she must go out again and again until she is suitably mated. Each flight brings the same risks of being lost and so the odds of her returning decrease.

Honeybee love is a risky business! A 20% loss of new queens is typical.

Drone congregation areas

Drones fly to congregation areas (DCAs), typically less than three miles from their colony.
The queen generally flies further from her hive than drones do. This is how bees avoid inbreeding.

So how many drones does a queen need to ensure suitable mating? The drones spend time flying to the DCA, hangs around for a virgin queen to arrive, and if one does not arrive, or he fails to mate,  he must fly home, refuel and then fly back again. Clearly then there must be many more than the minimum of twenty to maintain a suitable population in the DCA. There are reports that a DCA will break up if there are fewer than 1500 drones in attendance. This is most likely controlled by pheromone concentration, which is what will attract the queens to the DCA too.

The Problem With Drones

Drone fertility is adversely affected by the miticides that we beekeepers use in our hives. This means that although our new queen will have found the required number of partners, she may be carrying some non viable sperm within her spermatheca.
A drone needs to mature before he is able to mate.
As he ages his sperm will loose viability.

The number of drones required for a mating yard servicing a number of new queens then should surely then be maximised.
BUT drones have a poor reputation. Historically they have been described as lazy, contributing nothing to the colony's honey crop, in fact they consume honey! A normal (natural) drone poplulation in a bee colony will provide some thermoregulation to the brood area freeing some of their sisters from the task, enabling them to move onto foraging duties a little earlier maybe.

Mites can preferentially breed in drone brood, the drone's pupation cycle better suits the breeding cycle of the mite.

For these reasons many beekeepers remove drone brood from their colonies once the cells are sealed, depriving the colony of their brothers and new queens of suitable mates.

Shouldn't we then, be allowing our colonies to raise drones?

Drone rearing is best done in strong well fed colonies, under similar conditions that  we raise our queen cells.

It is much easier to do than queen rearing though: We don’t need to graft or cut out cells, we just need to provide colonies with foundationless frames, (here) or drone foundation, which the bees will draw into drone comb.
Providing such frames has other benefits too, the bees won't have to steal space under or at the sides of a frame to build drone comb. You will find that the bees build much less burr comb!

By doing this we can select for both our queens and the drones with which they will mate. We are thus able to select or influence both male and female parents, hopefully producing better, well mated healthy queens that go on to head better, healthier and more productive colonies.
We are actively making use of both halves of queen rearing.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Check Your Hives' Weight

Winter feeding, why it's vital

Our bee colonies have been surviving on the stores that they were able to collect last season. Hopefully if you took off a good crop of honey, you left some for them and they were able to build on this with nectar from the ivy flow, the last main nectar crop of the year. We beekeepers should check each colonies' honey reserve before the end of the season and feed strong syrup to make up any shortfall. This is especially important for those late splits or nucs that we made up in the later half of the season. These  need a little extra TLC to enable them to both build bee numbers and also store honey for the coming winter. Building numbers requires food but collecting surplus food requires large numbers if bees! It therefore aids the colony if we provide supplementary feed during their development.

When winter arrives the bees are no longer able to find any meaningful quantities of nourishment, they are totally reliant on the honey that they have within their hive. During the cold months the queen lays very few eggs or stops altogether, the colony therefore doesn't have to maintain a brood temperature of ~35°C. The colony without brood can get by with a cluster temperature of ~10°C. Bees generate and conserve heat by forming a tight cluster and vibrating their flight muscles (wings disengaged). The fuel for this heat generation is of course the honey that they have stored. The cluster will move around the hive slowly consuming their honey. In early winter the heat needed by the colony and so the honey they consume is relatively low, the heat loss from a 10°C cluster is such lower than a cluster at 35°C.

As mentioned earlier a bee colony must be strong in bee numbers inorder to collect a surplus of honey. When spring brings the first major nectar flows from dandelion and tree blossom the bees must have a large number of foragers ready to exploit these resources. They must, therefore build up their numbers before the nectar flows arrive, they do this by gearing up brood production in the later months of winter.  In the UK in mid February......THAT'S ABOUT NOW! To do this they must raise the temperature of their cluster, maintaining ~35°C. This requires much more fuel (honey) and so their rate of consumption increases dramatically. The brood also needs to be fed, using up yet more honey! If they don't have sufficient honey stored away they are doomed to starve. 

That is unless we as beekeepers can step in to help. We should, especially at this time of year, be checking the weight of our hives by hefting, if we have the experience to judge the weight by feel, or if not then by using a luggage type spring balance to hive us an accurate weight. Any light colonies must be fed if they are to survive. This is almost always the case for colonies overwintered on five or six frame nucs, there simply isn't the room in a nuc to provide enough feed for the winter.

It is still too cold to feed syrup to the bees, the feed provided must bee in the form of fondant placed directly over the bee cluster. This isn't the cheapest form of sugar but is a good investment if you compare it to the cost of replacing a colony of bees.

So get out there, heft or weigh your hives and get that fondant on those colonies that need it! 

Monday, 27 January 2020

How Do You Learn To Be A Beekeeper?

Starting out in beekeeping

Beekeeping is a vast subject, people get into it for various reasons: Saving the bee, honey, sustainability etc.
How though do you get started?

There are hundreds of books that have been writen on the subject, so this is a great way to learn. They can be expensive though! A good way of mitigating the expence is to join your local association, many have an extensive library from which you can borrow at little or no cost.

Of course most of us now turn to the internet for our information. There you can find videos, articles, how to guides, blogs, research papers and so much more! There are many exellent Youtube channels posted by hobby beekeepers and commercial bee farmers. A note of caution though, you must bee aware that beekeeping is a "local" activity, what works in the southern United States won't necessarally work in Scotland. The climate  and resources available have a major influence on the bees, overwintering in climes with extended cold winters requires wrapping hives or moving them indoors, this is totally unnecessary in areas that hive moderate winters. The equipment commonly used (hive format etc) vary from country to country too. Having said that though, if we bear these points in mind we can "translate" ideas or techniques to make them applicable to our own situation.

If we want to actually keep bees, that is manage bees in a hive, altough learning by reading or watching videos is great, there comes a time when we have to roll up our sleeves and dive into a colony of bees (actually I wouldn't recommend rolling up your sleeves). Only then will we know if beekeeping is for us. A strong hive can be more than a little intimidating, especially to a beginner. (See a post on intimidating bees here)

I would recommend that anyone wishing to start out finds a local beekeeper that can show them a working beehive. The best way to do this is to find our local association. Many have demonstration apiaries and run "beginners corner" sessions. If we're not put off then we know that we can go ahead, research the hobby using books, the internet and  talking to other beekeepers. We can learn a lot, not least of all is the terminology. Knowing things like what the difference between the big box and the little one is and what they're called is useful. Learning at least the basics makes a big difference in the next step which is to find a mentor before we actually get our bees. This is someone that can have as little as a years experience keeping bees but as such will have infinitely more knowledge than us when we first start out. If we know nothing then their job will be a frustrating one, having to go back to basics explaing the purpose of a super or queen excluder etc.

So having aquired our bees (quite possibly from our mentor) we can really start to learn the skills required to become a beekeeper. We can speed things up a little though, offering to help our mentor carry out inspections, volunteering at our association apiary or helping others with their bees is a great way to spend more time in more hives meeting more bees. We can learn much quicker then than just carrying out one or two inspections a week on our own colony. This way we spend time with other beekeepers, picking up knowledge and tips and making new friends as we go, what a great hobby!

So we've completed our first season and the bees are strong healthy and have plenty of store for the winter, what now? Well we can go back to our books and PC and..... we should but we can also take a BBKA ( I'm sure many countries have similar) module or two. Associations run study groups to prepare for an exam on a number of subjects. Correspondence courses are available too, so we can study at our own pace but I think that meeting up with other beekeepers to learn is a great experience. The exam is optional and there is no pressure to actually take it. Link to bbka.

The start of our second season is an exciting time, have our bees survived the winter? Will they build up quickly and prepare to swarm early? Have we prepared enough equipment, just in case?
Why not now offer to act as a mentor to someone just starting out? We know much more than we think but we also remember just how it felt when we were new. We're in the ideal positon to help someone new to the hobby and will probably learn a whole lot more in the process too. We could for instance, try our hand at queen rearing with some help from our mentee and then let them have a nucleus colony headed by one of our own home grown queens, wouldn't that be good?