How to make a honey warming cabinet out of an old fridge


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Honey processing | Posted on 29-11-2012

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One of the joys for someone like me, who’s not very technical, is being told by builders, electricians and assorted handymen how easy it is to do something I find utterly baffling. Need to fix that leaking gutter? “Well, what you want to do is…” they start, before rabbiting on about soffits, fascias and rafters, but without really telling me what they are, where to buy them, or how one bit fits to the next.

Honey warming cabinet from an old fridge

“Just get an old fridge, sling some light bulbs in it and Bob’s your uncle: saved yourself the trouble of reading any further.”

I’m now going to add ‘building a honey warming cabinet’ to that category, because if I had a pound for every textbook, magazine article and website forum I read that talked about processing solidified honey in the same breath as remarking that, “you can easily convert an old fridge into a honey warming cabinet” – without explaining how – then I could have saved myself the trouble and bought one from Thornes.

How?! How do you convert a fridge into a honey warming cabinet? How do you ensure that it’s not leaking CFC gasses? How do you know whether it’s safe to drill holes through the sides? How do you wire it up? How do you do prevent it from overheating? What I wanted was an idiot-proof guide.

There wasn’t one.

Until now that is, ladies and gentlemen. I hereby present ‘The Nervous Beekeeper’s if-you’re-not-technical-you’re-in-good-company, Complete Beginner’s Guide to Building a Honey Warming Cabinet from an Old Refrigerator’. It may not be funny, but by golly it’s comprehensive. I’ve assumed that you can wire a plug, but not much else. Oh, and although I actually did everything described here myself, you follow these instructions entirely at your own risk (read the important notes at the end of this blog post). As and when others weigh in with their own advice – or contradict mine – I will publish their notes under ‘Comments’.

Click here for a printer-friendly version of this, with more pictures and funnier captions (well, more pictures).

Making a honey warming cabinet from a refrigerator – materials list

I used the following (prices correct in 2012):

  1. Whirlpool fridge model ARC 0460 – free
  2. 5m 3-core 0.75mm2 round (electrical) flex cable; Homebase product code 386688 – £10.99
    (or just buy the 3m you actually need for £1.49 a metre from Maplins, I later found out)
  3. 13 amp fused plug – free (attached to fridge)
  4. 2x 100W BC daylight bayonet fitting light bulbs JD024T3 – £2.50 each
    (Possibly a bit over the top. You can achieve the same result with two 60W bulbs from Toolstation, price 98p each …I found out later)
  5. 2x light fittings to suit above; batten holder T2 straight; Toolstation product code 46677 – £1.05 each
  6. Corgi PCS Dual Pipe/Cylinder Thermostat; Toolstation product code 68281 – £8.98
  7. DC Brushless fan (as used to cool PCs); size 60 x 60 x 25mm; Maplin product code ZT88 – £7.99 (or pinch one from an old PC. See ‘Wiring the thermostat, fan and light fittings’ below)
  8. Power Pax UK 12V DC 500mA UK PSU (transformer); 2.1 x 5.5 x 12mm output connector, Maplin product code N93JU – £9.99
  9. Electrical connector block – free (lying around garage)
  10. Mastic – free (as above)
  11. Electrical and gaffer tape – free (as above)
  12. 1 inch wood screws – free (as above)

Total cost: £45.05 (or less, prices correct 2012)

Step-by-step guide to building a honey warming cabinet out of an old fridge

These instructions are for converting an old fridge into a honey warming cabinet using a pair of 100 watt light bulbs as a heat source, a thermostat to regulate the temperature, and a PC cooling fan to circulate the air and avoid localised hot spots. Wiring is based on UK (United Kingdom) protocols.

Whirlpool fridge model ARC 0460

Whirlpool fridge model ARC 0460

Finding a suitable old fridge

Refrigerators contain pollutants, and must therefore be disposed of responsibly, often via local recycling centres. These usually don’t take kindly to you skipping up and helping yourself. So how do you get hold of one? Well, I turned to my local independent electrical retailer [] Goddards Electrical of Saffron Walden. I guessed correctly that they receive a steady supply of old fridges and freezers from customers buying new ones, and as it turned out were only too happy to throw one in my direction. For several weeks I haunted their yard, searching for a small fridge with no icebox and as much internal space as possible.

Old, old fridges still contain CFC gasses, which are highly damaging to the environment. Newer fridges use Isobutane (R600a), which has negligible ozone depletion potential – but is explosive if mishandled! Goddards told me to look out for one with ‘R600a’ printed on the little sticker on the black tank at the back (the compressor). Eventually I found a Whirlpool fridge, model ARC 0460, that fit the bill perfectly.

R600a sticker on compressor

R600a stamp on compressor indicates that system uses Isobutane

Prepping and drilling

The next challenge involved trying to establish how much of the fridge’s internal workings to keep. Was it safe, for example, to drill holes through the sides and back? And how should one attach light bulbs and the thermostat to the internal walls?

Back of fridge, showing component parts

The black grill across the back is the condenser. The black tank at the bottom is the compressor.

Home brewing forums supplied the first answer. They use old fridges for – well I’m not entirely sure what exactly – but it seemed to involve drilling large holes through the side walls, so I was able to determine that if your fridge has a grill (called a condenser) on the back it’s probably safe to drill through the sides, because you’re unlikely to encounter any pipe work. That said, this only really matters if you’re keeping said condenser and attached compressor. I actually completed the conversion of my fridge before deciding to remove both after reading on Wikipedia about the highly flammable, and potentially explosive, qualities of Isobutane []. Sparks from sawing the pipe work could ignite the gas, so a refrigeration engineer advised me to use metal snips to cut the pipes, and to do so outside. The small amount of gas thus released was relatively harmless to the atmosphere. The rest of it just unscrewed. He also pointed out that the compressor contained oil, so it had to be disposed of carefully at my local recycling centre.

As far as attaching things to internal walls was concerned, none weighed that much, so I found that wood screws worked perfectly well.

Fixing the component parts in place

In an ideal world the internal dimensions of the fridge would have allowed me to pack it to the gunnels with 30lb buckets, with just a few inches to spare for the heat source and thermostat. Although my fridge had a commendably voluminous interior, neatly parking 30lb buckets in it in such a way that the light bulbs wouldn’t be touching them, heat could circulate freely around them, and honey wouldn’t spill out of them, proved about as easy as – well, storing a turkey at Christmas. In the end I decided that warming two 30lb buckets at once would be more than sufficient. Which, given that in nearly three years of beekeeping I’ve only managed to produce two-and-a-half buckets of honey in total, probably wasn’t too unambitious.

Batten holder T2 straight Toolstation product code 46677

Heat source/light fitting screwed into side wall and floor. Gap in hole sealed with clear mastic

That decision made, it was relatively easy to work out where best to place the two light fittings, thermostat, heat sink, and fan (see picture). I placed one light fitting on the floor away from where the buckets would stand, and the other on the wall above and to one side, with the fan high on the wall opposite, pointing down slightly to circulate the warm air. All reference sources agreed that the thermostat should be positioned centrally to more accurately measure the temperature. It also needed to be attached to a heat sink.

At this point I should flag my indebtedness to ‘Steve’ (not necessarily his real name, although it is), a fellow EBKA member who a paid a heavy price for striking up a casual conversation with me at this year’s Essex County Show and letting slip that he’d already converted a fridge into a warming cabinet. His subsequent, and very detailed, written instructions not only bridged huge gaps in my own research, but also included the names of parts suppliers, catalogue numbers and prices.

Polystyrene heat sink holder

Polystyrene was cut using a fret saw and smoothed using fine sandpaper. Heat sink was an empty 200g Nescafe Gold Blend jar.

It was Steve who pointed out the need for a heat sink, and who suggested that an empty coffee jar filled with water would serve perfectly. I fashioned a jar holder out of cast-off polystyrene, and attached it with a long bolt to the raised block behind where the compressor would normally sit.

DC brushless fan Maplin product code ZT88

PC cooling fan fixed using two long bolts attached to IKEA kitchen shelf brackets screwed into the wall

The fan was a standard 9 volt 60mm x 60mm PC cooling fan bought from Maplin, although in the unlikely and frankly bizarre circumstances of my ever building another honey warming cabinet I’d pinch one from an old PC. The problem was that – again – everyone advised me to use a PC fan, but no-one explained how to attach it to the fridge or how to wire it. Attaching it to the one of side walls actually turned out to be surprisingly easy, using two thin bolts and a couple of tiny IKEA shelf brackets (see picture). A very helpful assistant at Maplin then told me how to wire it and which transformer type to connect to.

Wiring the thermostat, fan and light fittings

PC fans tend to have three wires attached to a tiny plug. Transformers tend to be moulded into a three point plug at one end, from which two wires, encased in plastic and fused together, emerge and attach to another – mismatching – type of plug. (I’m not going to pretend that I know the correct name for either plug type, and it doesn’t really matter). Cut the little plugs from the ends of both the fan and transformer wires. Examine the transformer wires closely and you’ll see that one side of the plastic casing has white dashes painted on it. The fan wires are coloured red, black and yellow. Attach the white dashed wire from the transformer to the black wire on the fan, and the red wire from the fan to the other wire on the transformer. Don’t attach the yellow wire from the fan to anything. Test that it works by plugging the transformer into the mains.

wiring a thermostat

Test rig proved hopeless at providing answers, but remarkably efficient at blowing fuses

Corgi PCS dual pipe/cylinder thermostat correctly wired

Corgi PCS dual pipe/cylinder thermostat correctly wired

You’d think that a thermostat would come with a wiring diagram that spelled out which colour wire is attached to what terminal, and how this in turn is connected to the heat source. Think again. Mine came with an ambiguous drawing of a straight line, punctuated at three points with the cryptic labels ‘Common, ‘Demand’ and ‘Satisfied’, and interrupted by a little squiggle that was meant to represent a switch. Nor could I find much help online. How you wire up a thermostat varies depending on the thermostat, apparently. Best guesses and trial and error resulted in me blowing the fuse in my garage several times. Understandably deterred, I then went over to Deryck Johnson’s house and blew the fuse in his too. My best advice to you therefore is to buy the same make and model thermostat I used, and to wire it exactly as shown in this wiring diagram, which does label and colour-code all the wires. (You do so entirely at your own risk however. Always use an RCD device when connecting to mains electricity). I eventually got the answers from Steve, to whom I shall remain eternally grateful, and without whose help I would now more than likely just be a wispy lump of charcoal hanging by two threads from an electrical socket.

Corgi PCS dual pipe/cylinder thermostat with improvised heat sink

Fully assembled thermostat attached to improvised heat sink (the jar is filled with water)

Wiring the light fittings was one of the few things I could manage completely unaided. There are three terminals, one of which is clearly labelled ‘earth’. Attach the green and yellow wire to the earth terminal and then the blue and brown wires to each of the other two. It doesn’t matter which way round you do it. I mounted the two light fittings ‘in parallel’, the other way of doing it being ‘in series’. The only difference is that ‘in parallel’ both receive power directly from source, whereas ‘in series’ the power flows through one light fitting before going on to the other. I used a connector block to connect the wires from the thermostat to the light fittings.

Initially I used old-style bayonet fitting 60 watt light bulbs to supply the heat, but I wasn’t convinced that they were powerful enough, so replaced them with (much more expensive, and harder to find) 100 watt bulbs. Indeed, 100 watt bayonet fitting light bulbs proved so hard to find (because EU legislation is in the process of outlawing them) that I had to resort to ‘daylight’ bulbs at £2.50 a piece.

Calibrating the thermostat

The only thing left to do after all this was to calibrate the thermostat. It came with a temperature dial on the front, but I presumed that it may not be that accurate. Using a garden thermometer that records highs and lows I therefore set the thermostat to first 30, then 40, and finally 50 degrees Celsius (oC) and recorded the actual ‘on’ and ‘off’ temperatures inside the fridge. From that I established that 50oC on the dial equated to an actual temperature range of 46-54oC.

The big roll-out

Fridge converted into honey warming cabinet

Cabinet doubles as naff Christmas decoration

You know you’re being indulged when your enthusiasm for having achieved something obscure is matched by family and friends not even remotely involved in the process. Of course it’s perfectly possible that they were all just relieved to be finally getting their hands on some honey, having been promised it for two years. Nevertheless, while even they could then only muster polite interest in my subsequent dissertation on the journey their honey had undertaken, all agreed that it looked good and had retained its original flavour.

Long before I’d finished I began to think about honey jar labelling. Now I run (among other things) a studio with full design facilities, so I wanted to know what the precise food labelling regulations are regarding label dimensions, font type, letter size and width.

“It’s all available online,” I was told.

Yeah. About that…

Print this blog post

View and print the thermostat wiring diagram

Important: As ‘hilarious’ as these instructions may be this next bit is deadly serious and you should read it carefully, because if it ever comes to it, it is what I will read out in court.

Electricity is dangerous. Hot light bulbs are dangerous. A combination of electricity, hot light bulbs and liquids is potentially fatal. Fridges are not designed to have done to them what is described here. I am not an electrician. I am not a refrigerator technician. I am not even a very good beekeeper. I have no qualifications that have any bearing upon what is described here. You are therefore strongly urged to check absolutely everything written in this blog post with a qualified individual – and to follow their advice over mine. I am not offering advice. I have simply described what I did. I make no claim whatsoever that it was safe, legal, clever or effective.

You should never connect any electrical appliance to mains electricity without using a residual current device (RCD). You should never leave a home-made electrical appliance unattended. You should always consult a qualified electrician before connecting anything to mains electricity. Goddards of Saffron Walden played no part in this undertaking beyond supplying me with a fridge and advising me on how to dispose of it responsibly. ‘Steve’ never claimed to be an expert and was completely unaware that I might use his notes as I have. He did not approve this blog post and had absolutely no say or involvement in its drafting or publication. You have been warned.


I AM allergic to bee stings


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee stings and bee venom, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 12-11-2012

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bee sting on right hand

My swollen right hand, twelve hours after being stung by a honey bee, and without the benefit of medication. The sting is faintly visible near the wrist, between thumb and forefinger. It’s circled in pen.

In July 2010 I took up beekeeping. Exactly two years later I was stung for the first time. A week later I was stung for only the second time, and a week after that the third. Then things got a little weird. Not until a whole eight hours had passed following the third sting did I experience a reaction. Of course, the first two stings hadn’t gone unnoticed: both hurt and there was some localised swelling. But the third sting was different. A half day after being stung in the foot, and not inconvenienced to the extent even of having to give up mowing the lawn or pushing around a wheelbarrow (dammit), my head suddenly registered that something was wrong. I had difficulty breathing. I wheezed my way through a sleepless night and by morning discovered that my right pedal extremity had been replaced by a hairy pink inflatable. I’d had what appeared to be an allergic reaction. Perhaps more alarmingly, barely 24 hours later I’d also received a clear instruction from my doctor to give up beekeeping.

My subsequent plea for advice on whether or not I should continue generated a record number of comments from fellow beekeepers. All were positive. The overwhelming majority advised me not to give up. Many included accounts of readers’ own, similar reactions to bee stings. Some included detailed information about medication, and a few suggested novel remedies, such as placing a copper coin on the sting, or heating the affected area with a hair dryer.

For a while I did nothing. Nor did I go anywhere near the bees. Then I did what most people in receipt of an unwelcome medical opinion do: I went and got a second medical opinion. It echoed much of the advice I’d already received via this blog: carry on but be sensible, upgrade my bee suit, always have someone check overalls for stray bees before disrobing, and have medication on stand-by. The one area in which my two doctors were in complete agreement, however, was that I should attend an allergy clinic for further tests.

Now as it happens, one of the leading allergy clinics in the country is just up the road from me in Cambridge. So early last month I presented myself at the reception desk of the catchily titled ‘Clinic 2a’ at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was welcomed by a succession of nurses, all of whom had apparently been schooled by call centre staff. Each one introduced themselves by their first name, which I immediately forgot, and regularly punctuated their sentences with mine, presumably lest I forget that too. None could resist cheerily informing me that every customer that morning had been a beekeeper.

Eventually I was introduced to a slightly more senior-looking nurse, whose name I again forgot, but whose step-by-step description of what I was about to experience left an indelible impression. Taking my right forearm she wrote the numbers one to ten down it in biro, before pricking the skin surface next to each number with increasing dosages of, first bee, then wasp venom. I was then invited to wait in the office next door for 20 minutes, to see whether there was any reaction.

‘Seeing whether there was any reaction’ involved one of the first nurses coming back and measuring the inflammation around each pin prick with what looked like one of those plastic widgets hardware stores sell to gauge the size of wood screws. I could tell that she was disappointed. Clearly I wasn’t inflaming well. She disappeared and came back with more bee venom, before adding an eleventh dot. Twenty minutes later I was ready to gnaw my arm off. The sensation took fully 24 hours to subside.

Clearly we’d established that I’m not very quick on the uptake. More to the point, we’d apparently also put beyond doubt that I am allergic to bee venom. The nurses were all delighted. As a reward, I was going to finally meet a doctor.

The specialist who saw me was a dead ringer for a former girlfriend, which was a little unsettling as she looked like the girl I dated 20 years ago, whereas I now look like a balding guy in his late forties. It didn’t help that when it came to taking the inevitable blood sample my needle phobia meant that she insisted on holding my hand. That just felt plain wrong.

The existence of my allergy seemed to interest her far less than the time it took my head to register an assault upon my extremities. I had, since being referred, incurred a fourth bee sting on my big toe. That time I had removed the stinger using a credit card, and taken the prescribed Fexofenadine Hydrochloride (antihistamine) and Prednisolone (steroid) – all within five minutes. The subsequent absence of any reaction at all had been as much of a surprise as a relief. Twenty-four hours later I couldn’t even locate the puncture wound.

When I relayed this to my doctor she seemed almost put out, and promptly instructed me to delay taking any form of medication next time, “just to see” whether in my case delayed reactions were the norm. (They are. A fifth sting saw my hand inflate like a pink washing-up glove after 12 hours).

Notwithstanding the unlikelihood of my keeling over on the spot when next assaulted by Apis irata, I was judged a suitable candidate for ‘desensitisation’ therapy. Next summer I’m to report to Addenbrooke’s Clinic 2a every week for an 11-week course of treatment. Still, with all those other beekeepers around I shall be in good company. I wonder if Cambridgeshire BeeKeepers’ Association has an Addenbooke’s division yet?


Am I allergic to bee stings?


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee stings and bee venom, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 01-07-2012

Tags: , , , , ,

I wasn’t quite sure how to approach this post. I guess I’m looking for advice. Most of all I’m probably looking for reassurance. Two years of beekeeping it took me to produce any honey, something I used to joke about through clenched teeth. Oddly, I felt slightly more ashamed of the fact that in two years I also hadn’t been stung once. Call myself a beekeeper. That changed three weeks ago. And two weeks ago. And last Sunday. And now, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that I’m probably allergic to bee venom…

I suffered what I believe is called an anaphylactic shock, although you’ll have to forgive me for not yet knowing the correct terminology, or for really knowing much beyond what happened to me. I was stung (for the third time) at about 10.30am near the crown of my right foot. It hurt like hell. Nevertheless, I hobbled around for the rest of the day, proudly showing the sting to my kids, and even a bemused visiting Deryck. At six o’clock that evening something really strange happened: within the space of five minutes I began coughing and wheezing. This was followed by my sinuses blocking up. For all the world it was like having a cold, but without any advance warning. At this stage my foot was painful, but not overly swollen. I went to bed and spent an uncomfortable night with a streaming nose, unable to breath except through my mouth.

The following morning my foot was a sight to behold. It looked as if someone had inflated it with a bicycle pump. As the day progressed it got worse. By lunchtime my wife insisted on driving me to the local pharmacy and, when that turned out to be closed, to the nearby doctors’ surgery. With my foot now gently fizzing I expected them to tell me to pull myself together and come back in a week’s time. Instead I had receptionists dashing in all directions, trying to locate a doctor or nurse. The doctor who saw me didn’t pull her punches. Without even examining the bee sting she questioned me closely about my breathing difficulties. Then she dropped the bombshell: time to give up beekeeping.

It’s now a week on. With steroids and anti-histamine tablets it took the foot four days to return to normal. I have an appointment to see an allergy specialist. Mrs S has done a little reading up and I’ve spoken to Paul, a local beekeeper who’s also allergic to bee stings. He said it’s about taking sensible precautions. He upgraded his bee suit and carries an EpiPen with him at all times. I went to Boots and asked them to show me an EpiPen. It scared the living daylights out of me. It doesn’t help that I’m needle-phobic.

I don’t want to give up beekeeping but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’m a little nervous about continuing. I can’t be taking time off work or – as the doctor suggested – dialing 999 every time I get a bee sting. For once this isn’t a joke. I’d genuinely be grateful for any advice from other beekeepers who’ve faced the same thing.


Migrating from commercial to 14×12 frames – part two (a change of plan)


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Artificial swarms, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books | Posted on 12-06-2012

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I love to browse beekeeping books. I confess I don’t own that many: two, to be precise. But I like to browse, or ‘to look at the pictures’ (as my sister once rudely described my reading habits). My problem with actually buying books is that I have no time to read them, and that I suspect the bees never get around to it either.

Anyone coming here from Migrating honey bees from commercial frames to 14x12s – part one with the not unreasonable expectation that ‘part two’ might – you know – progress from there, ought to brace themselves now. I had a plan, an elaborate twelve-point plan, which I’d even begun to render into a series of beautiful colour illustrations. Unfortunately, (or possibly fortunately) the bees had a different agenda.

homemade and shop-bought National beehive supers

Shop-bought super (below) versus homemade super (above). After taking this picture I went out and bought three supers.

At my next inspection I found drone brood and over a dozen unsealed queen cells, the unmistakeable signs that the colony was preparing to swarm. The presence of queen cells was obviously a dead give-away, but I was quite proud of the fact that having noticed more than the average volume of drone brood on the outer frames I was already on the look-out for queen cells before I found them. And what was this in the super above? Honey. Honest to goodness honey. Two years of trying and approximately £400 in equipment and granulated sugar was about to pay off and result in my first jar of golden nectar: retail price £4.

I called Deryck Johnson for advice and, bless him, he came over the very next day. I don’t think I could have kept him away. I thought we’d split the colony, but what we ended up doing was an artificial swarm. I say “we”. Deryck did all the work. I stumbled around knocking into things. I could finally see what he’d meant about my apiary being small. With two of us it was like working in a broom cupboard. I proudly showed him the new apiary site I’d prepared around the corner. I’d put up fencing and everything. He said it needed to be twice as big. Ah.

We (he) knocked down all but two queen cells and then moved them and the entire colony (minus the old live queen), in the commercial brood box, to the new site in the back garden. A single frame of brood was kept back and rehoused, together with the old queen, in my 14×12 brood box on the original site. The rest of the brood chamber was then filled with frames of undrawn 14×12 foundation. A second super was placed on top and I was left with strict instructions to leave both colonies alone for a fortnight, but to keep an eye on the supers. So far so good.

Thirteen days later the second colony swarmed.

Next week (possibly): Extracting honey for the first time, and I get a third colony.


Migrating honey bees from commercial frames to 14x12s – part one


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive | Posted on 04-05-2012

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The last few weeks have been wet. Very wet. Nearly five weeks of steady rainfall we’ve had now, which must have gone some way towards alleviating East Anglia’s drought, you’d have thought. Leaving aside the issue as to whether it was the right kind of rain, both the bees and I have pretty much just had to get on with life – which, in the bees’ case, they’ve interpreted literally. Five weeks ago I snuck a quick peek between cold snaps and found capped brood. Three weeks ago I nipped in between rain showers and saw eggs, larvae and more sealed brood. I also initiated step one of a convoluted plan to migrate the colony from commercial frames onto 14x12s. Last weekend I progressed to step two.

Eke fitted to commercial brood chamber

The bees are so impressed by my carpentry skills that they crowd around to admire the gaps between eke and brood chamber.

So here’s my plan: my one and only colony spent the winter housed on eleven commercial (10”) frames, inside a commercial brood chamber. The commercial brood chamber doesn’t belong to me, so needs to be returned to its owner. When I decided to build my own hives I elected to go for national 14×12 brood chambers because they’re the most commonly used in these parts (we live next to fields of oil seed rape). National 14×12 frames will only fit into a commercial brood box with an eke fitted. Commercial frames will not fit into a national brood box of any description (standard or 14×12 deep). National frames will of course fit both a commercial and a 14×12 brood box, but they’re too short and will encourage brace comb.

With me so far? Good. Because this is where it gets really complicated…

Apart from commercials, the only frames I have with drawn foundation are five (actually four and a bit) national frames (DN5s). All my 14×12 frames are brand new and therefore only have undrawn foundation. I live in an area where, as mentioned, the local oil seed rape normally produces an early crop of honey – which hardens within the frames if it’s not harvested promptly. And I’ve never had so much as a single jar of honey from my bees since I took up beekeeping, er… two years ago. No pressure there then.

So my challenge is to migrate the bees from commercial frames to 14x12s, via a short stopover on nationals, without weakening the colony so much that they won’t produce an early harvest. A bit like getting a fox, a chicken and a sack of corn across a river in a small boat without any of them getting eaten.

In this regard I’ve had some help from Deryck Johnson, who’s forgotten more about beekeeping than I’ll ever know. Together, we discussed the merits or otherwise of a shook swarm (essentially, tipping the bees from the commercial brood chamber into the 14×12) before rejecting the idea on grounds that, with so much undrawn foundation, the new colony could be weakened too much to produce any honey. Had that not been the case it would also have been an effective method of disease control. Instead, we elected to go for the world’s most complicated 12-step plan, involving spending a month or two carefully moving the commercial frames outwards from the centre and my few national frames, followed by 14x12s, inwards from the edge. And adding a homemade eke, and a super. And perhaps starting another, separate colony around the corner.

I can’t see what could possibly go wrong.



My first swarm collection


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee swarming and swarm collection, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 23-12-2011

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Why is it that I should hear the words, “Would you like another colony? Only there’s a free swarm going spare” for the first time just as I was settling into a warm sofa with a cold glass of wine? In other circumstances my answer might have been, “A free colony? Yeah, bring it on.” I’d wanted a second colony for some time. But now, with TV remote in one hand and glass of Sancerre in the other, I was overwhelmed by doubt and self-loathing, mainly at the realisation that I might be the kind of middle-aged, overweight supertanker that would forgo the prospect of new adventure in favour of a soft cushion and Julia Bradbury’s Railway Walks. So instead I wearily handed my glass to Mrs S and chirruped down the phone, “A new colony? Wow, that would be great. I’m coming right over.”

That pretty much paints the picture of my phone conversation with Mark at the end of May. Neither of us had captured a swarm before, and both had expressed interest in doing so. Now the opportunity had presented itself, literally, in Mark’s backyard. A next door neighbour had spotted one from over the fence.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Up a tall tree.”

Of course it was.

“Easy to reach?” I ventured hopefully.


What were the odds?

Mark lives barely three miles away, so it took only a few moments to get round there in the car. I brought along a recently finished homemade nuc and found Mark’s partner Julie fully suited and wandering about with an open copy of A Guide To Bees And Honey in her hand.  Mark appeared from around the corner carrying a long ladder and with a mobile phone clasped to one ear. He was taking advice from Deryck.

“Yeah, Andy’s just arrived now,” Mark said. “We’re just heading to the bottom of the garden.”

I could just make out Deryck’s disembodied voice. It went on for several minutes, before signing off with something about garden rubbish.

“He says he really likes your blog,” smiled Mark, as I followed him to a small copse.

Sure enough, there at the top of a tall, willowy tree was a rugby ball sized writhing mass of bees.

Clutching a tree-pruning saw, and with his next door neighbour spectating from the safety of her kitchen door, Mark gingerly climbed up the ladder. As I clung onto its base to prevent it from slipping I wondered whether it might not have been more gallant of me to offer to go up there myself. That is, until I realised that I’d been left looking upwards as he sawed his way through a branch dripping in bees directly above me. Julie watched with interest from a discreet distance.

Mark removed the branch and descended, before carefully placing it inside the nuc which we’d already positioned on an old bed sheet spread out at the base of the tree. Time for a cup of tea! Forty-five minutes later I was driving home with the taped-up nuc box wedged behind my car seat. So much for adventure. Nice cup of tea though.

I positioned the nuc next to my other colony and for nearly six weeks fed and fussed over it, even getting excited that it contained both light and dark coloured bees (see Black honey bees and yellow honey bees). Eventually however, the penny dropped. The queen was laying drone brood. The number of bees was gradually declining and there were unmistakable signs of ‘bobbling’ across the face of the comb. I transferred the frames into my new brood chamber,  placed that on top of the existing colony, and separated them with sheets of newspaper, merging the two colonies. The swarm queen I put into a match box and left to die alone in the shed. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.

So much for adventure.

Wishing all beekeepers everywhere a very merry Christmas.


Black honey bees and yellow honey bees


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice | Posted on 19-12-2011

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise, but he delivers a great line in A Few Good Men (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, of whom I’m a very big fan indeed). While Demi Moore’s character is flapping over minutiae, all the while missing the bigger picture, he deadpans: “Ah, I get it now. It was professor plum, in the library, with the lead pipe!”

I had a similar moment of epiphany with the colony last May: “Aa-ah, it’s the queen. She’s not laying, because she’s knackered!”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the signs were all there. She did look …well, dishevelled. And I guess you would too if your life consisted of a free-for-all gangbang followed by years in the dark giving birth thousands of times a day. Although I’d daubed her in blue marker last year I suspect I still wouldn’t have found it difficult to spot her if I hadn’t. For weeks she remained rooted to frames five or six, wandering around aimlessly, like a frail aunt in her dressing gown. Her offspring meanwhile, (in an odd reversal from my own experience) busied themselves filling the empty cells around her with food.

Of course hindsight being what it is, I didn’t actually cotton on to any of this until I saw the first queen cell. Which I promptly tore down. News of my action was met with much teeth-sucking by experienced colleagues. A week later – thankfully – there were two more queen cells, both uncapped. By this time I’d got the message. I marked the frame, replaced it in the brood chamber, and tip-toed away.

A new queen eventually emerged and, for nearly two months, co-existed beside the old queen. Having briefly established that her royal newness was indeed laying, I largely left her to get on with it. Running a business got in the way of running an apiary across much of the summer. Hive ‘inspections’ consisted largely of keeping an eye on the entrance to see what colour bees emerged from the new brood.

Yellow honey bees

My bees - Apis Mellifera, but more yellow than black

All my queens to date (four in total – although only three have been documented here so far) have been the product of swarms. Although presumably all of the species Apis mellifera, they’ve been mongrels. Among the local population of honey bee mongrels however, I have noticed that there appear to be two distinct sub-species: ‘yellow’ honey bees and ‘black’ honey bees. Both types have black and yellow bands on their abdomen. The ‘yellow’ bees just have slightly wider yellow bands while the ‘black’ bees have slightly wider black ones. It’s only a matter of emphasis, but when viewed side-by-side you can see a distinct difference in colouration.

As I seem never to tire of saying, being a novice beekeeper is a lot like being a novice parent. There are manuals, but most of what you learn comes from actually interacting with the little darlings – both your own and the offspring of a whole host of new friends that seem to come with them. And, like parents, you almost can’t help yourself from degenerating into a little competitive beekeeping when it comes to comparing notes.

Black honey bees with queen in centre

A captured swarm (with queen in centre) - more black than yellow

“Gosh, my bees are so docile”, you find yourself boasting, “they’re an absolute doddle to handle.”

“You’re so lucky”, will come the reply, “mine fly everywhere, it makes extracting honey every few weeks a real nightmare.”

Now the truth about this exchange is that there isn’t a beekeeper anywhere who wouldn’t swap docile bees for high yielding ones at the drop of a hat. My bees have always been docile and, perhaps as a consequence, have so far produced b****r-all in the way of honey. By comparison, opening up my friend Michelle’s hive is like entering a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night, and ordering a cocktail. This summer it produced so much honey, so fast, she nearly ran out of supers. I have ‘yellow’ bees. Michelle’s are ‘black’. I wanted black bees.

As my lovely new chocolate-coloured queen began to make her mark on the colony I started to see newly hatched furry bees and squinted hard to determine whether they were of the lighter or darker persuasion. Unfortunately there was no mistaking it. They were distinctly yellow. Damn. It seems that what the yellow bees lack in temperament they make up for in other departments. Time for a little family planning in 2012, I think.


The 2011 beekeeping year


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive, Nucs, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 12-12-2011

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Homemade beehive: 14x12 brood box and floor

My first homemade 14x12 beehive - best viewed from a distance

Well, it’s been an… engaging year. Not all bad, and certainly not run-of-the-mill, but definitely full-on. While I churned out reams of copy on topics as diverse as door access systems, 360 degree photography and male waxing (for completely separate clients, I hasten to add) I confess I struggled to find time to jot down musings on life within the colony. Not that interesting things weren’t happening. No sirree. This year the queen stopped laying, was replaced by her offspring, continued to live alongside the new queen for a while, was joined next door by a new colony (my first swarm collection) with, it turned out, an equally unproductive queen (this time of the drone laying variety) before having the neighbours move in when I united both colonies using the newspaper method. Meanwhile, I also built a hive and two nuc boxes, and began to experiment with the idea of setting up a beehive web cam.

Lessons learned: dozens. Jars of honey harvested: nil.

So, rather like those American sitcoms that condense the last six episodes into a breathless fifteen second monologue, that was my beekeeping year. If you want to read the glorious details, sign up to receive the next installment.


Advice on beekeeping advice


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee diseases, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 14-06-2011

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beekeeping advice

"Bless him, he's doing his best. But perhaps if he just left us alone..." (Pic: Subbotina Anna)

Got a bit of a mauling on the Beekeepers’ Forum. Essentially, I was reprimanded for not reading the textbooks properly and for medicating my colony without proper evidence of disease or infestation. Some of it I’ll take as fair comment, some of it as a reminder of the perils of ‘diagnosis by forum’.

I opened the hive four weeks ago and found – surprise, surprise – a sealed queen cell. I removed the tray of Apiguard and the temporary solid floor and found – surprise, surprise – no sign of varroa. Not-a-one, in seven days. Which I recognise wasn’t to say they weren’t there, just that I clearly wasn’t overrun with mites. (Either that or they were really good at climbing back onto the frames). No balaustium / spider mites either. And no wax moth… although I rather forgot to look for them (it’s so hard to remember everything).

As for the nosema, since I don’t have a microscope we’ll probably never know. Robert said that treating with Fumidil B would do no harm regardless. The Beekeepers’ Forum begged to differ.

So I found a single queen cell and I tore it down. That was a mistake too, apparently. Trouble is, Ted Hooper said you should have a plan for these situations, but I couldn’t quite remember what my plan was. I was pretty sure it involved tearing down the first lot of queen cells, but then I only had one. Then again (I reasoned after the event) my worker bees may have been inhibited from creating more by the smell of Apiguard.

Anyway, I was concerned that the old queen – still very much alive and present – might kill the virgin new queen, or else slink off with a batch of workers and leave the colony even weaker. Which, in the cold light of day, I now accept wasn’t very logical. (Old queen knackered, workers create new queen to ensure survival, then …bugger off with old knackered queen)? Nevertheless, I was sufficiently concerned to commit my fears to a new forum thread, only to find that I’d placed myself at the centre of a hail of criticism. I should read up about swarming and supersedure I was told (agreed, I should). It’s all there in Ted Hooper, I was told. Er, no it wasn’t. Not what I was seeing. I’d riffled backwards and forwards through its pages looking for relevant passages. Bits sounded familiar, but nothing covered my exact circumstances.

Which is not to condemn the beekeepers that offered their ha’penny worth on the Beekeepers’ Forum. They were all trying to help, and I appreciate that. But this was a classic example of why I set up a novices’ beekeeping blog in the first place. Because no two colonies are alike, and because no text book can cover every eventuality.

Anyway that was four weeks ago, since when I’ve hatched a new queen and acquired a second colony. And while I haven’t done a particularly good job of writing about either I have at least begun to appreciate that, when it comes to beekeeping advice, there are usually several good ways of achieving the same objective, and that invariably one of them is to do absolutely nothing.


Building a beehive – national, modified national and 14×12 hive types explained


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive | Posted on 10-05-2011

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

As a b2b writer I’ll occasionally get the urge to revisit an article and tweak it. A word or a sentence will start to bother me. So I’ll change it. And then the paragraph it sits in won’t work as well. So I’ll swap it around, only to find that doing that messes up the ending. Before you know it I’ll have cut and pasted the thing to shreds and found that I’ve had to start over again practically from scratch.

My first homemade beehive, completed in the summer of 2010, is back in pieces on the garage floor.

It didn’t have a varroa mesh floor, which wasn’t the end of the world, but it struck me as sensible to provide it with one before installing a colony. More significantly, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted it to remain a modified national. And I didn’t like the roof. And, well, I’m not terribly good at sawing wood in straight lines so wasn’t convinced about some of the gaps between brood chamber and super. And then I bought a tin of bee-friendly beehive paint and thought that I should probably use it to cover up the untested Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base I’d already coated it in.

All that said, my haphazard approach should at least reassure any DIY beekeepers contemplating making their own beehives: believe me, if I can do this stuff, you can.

modified national plus 14x12 eke and frames

A modifed national brood chamber, together with eke to convert it to a 14x12, plus national DN4 frame (left) and 14x12 frame (right) for comparison. I'll fix the eke permanently to the underside of the brood chamber.

Let’s focus on perhaps the most serious problem. I chose the ‘modified national’ design because, well, I was given a set of plans. And because the ‘national’ remains the most popular type of beehive in England. Interestingly, it isn’t the most popular hive type among experienced beekeepers in these parts (north Essex). We’re surrounded by fields of yellow oil seed rape – as anyone who’s driven up the M11 couldn’t fail to spot. The bees love it and they make lots of honey out of it. Local, more experienced, beekeepers therefore tend to favour the ‘14×12’, sometimes referred to as the ‘national 14×12’.

Now if you’re wondering what the differences are between a ‘national’ beehive, a ‘modified national‘ and a ‘national 14×12’ you’re not alone. I searched high and low before being told the answer.

A ‘national’ beehive, sometimes also referred to as a ‘standard national’, has a brood box measuring 460mm x 460mm x 225mm externally. So does a ‘modified national’. The only difference between the two is that a ‘standard national’ has a double-thickness wall on two sides (the sides that carry the frames). The ‘modified national’ has L-shaped rails top and bottom, connected to the side walls (see photo above). The top rail carries the frames. The bottom rail extends outwards to line up with the floor. As a consequence the ‘modified national’ can be made with four walls of uniform thickness. The ‘national 14in x 12in’ shares the 460mm x 460mm footprint, but is a lot deeper – 315mm deep to be precise. It can therefore take taller frames, which means more brood and, ultimately, more honey. Whoever came up with the idea of mixing imperial and metric measurements was clearly having a laugh.

All three hive types share the same floor, super and roof dimensions. The differences only affect the brood chamber. Both the ‘national’ and ‘modified national’ brood chamber can be converted to a 14×12 by means of an ‘eke’ – a 460mm x 460mm x 90mm wooden spacer. Which is what I’m now adding.

Many ‘homemade’ hive plans quote internal or (occasionally) external dimensions only, forcing the DIY beehive builder to compensate based on the thickness of the timber they’re using, or compromise based on the standard external dimensions of shop-bought crownboards, queen excluders and floors. The internal dimensions are more important. Get those wrong and either your frames won’t fit or your bees will fill the gaps with brace comb.

national brood chamber dimensions

National brood chamber dimensions: the figures in brackets show the width at the narrowest point, where the frames hang.

That being the case, why did I quote external dimensions? Because if you ask any experienced beekeeper what size a national brood chamber is, chances are those are the measurements they’ll supply. The internal dimensions of the brood chamber are shown in the table above.

And if you think that’s confusing, don’t get me started on brood and super frame types and spacing…