Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference 2010


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Colony Collapse Disorder CCD, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Varroa destructor | Posted on 25-10-2010

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On Saturday I attended the Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s Annual Conference in Great Dunmow, an event far more exciting than its title would have you believe. It featured neither rousing anthems, nor resolutions or floor fights, nor even a gavel-banging chair person. What it did include were a number of first-class lectures on the present and future of beekeeping, each one introduced (in remarkably relaxed and professional manner) by a different member of the EBKA. Two of the speakers kindly allowed me to make their presentations available for download here.

Dr Peter Neumann presenting at the EBKA Annual Conference 2010

A stand-out performance: Dr Peter Neumann delivering his lecture on 'Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination'

Dr Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern was first up. A future TV star and spokesperson for the international beekeeping community if ever there was one, Dr Neumann cut quite a dash. At nearly 7 foot tall he dresses, if you can imagine this, like a cross between a university lecturer (which he is) and a teddy boy (which, being a German based in Switzerland, I’m guessing he isn’t). Despite talking for well over an hour he kept the audience spell-bound, before spending the remainder of his time at conference being followed around by a crocodile of enthusiasts, courteously answering an unending stream of questions.

Dr Neumann’s lecture entitled, ‘Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination’ went right to the heart of why beekeeping has attracted so many new recruits in recent years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is now a worldwide phenomenon, while its causes remain – it seems rightly – much disputed. Having listened to him I’m inclined toward the view that if Dr Neumann hasn’t yet pinpointed the source of the problem, no-one has. Logically, all the evidence points to it being a combination of intensive (professional) beekeeping practices, industrialised farming and insecticides, and parasites and pathogens. No surprises there then. But here’s the thing: in the course of presenting a compelling case in favour of standardised measurement and data collection Dr Neumann revealed some of the statistical anomalies that existing – and reputable – research has already thrown up. For example in the US, which is often regarded as the epicenter of the CCD problem, professional beekeepers actually list CCD as being not even among their top five concerns.

Dr Neumann’s slide showing worldwide recorded instances of the Varroa destructor mite, almost exclusively confined to the northern hemisphere, drew an audible gasp from the 150-strong audience. It also acted as the perfect introduction to the second speaker, Ricarda Kather, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield*. If Dr Neumann was the harbinger of bad news then ‘Ricky’ was the cavalry… sort of.

Varroa destructor mite

Varroa destructor: tricky little mites (photo courtesy of University of Warwick***)

Her presentation on The effect of Varroa and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) on the honey bee recognition system’ couldn’t help but leave me with a grudging respect for the annoying little pest, which has adapted itself almost perfectly to life as a bee colony parasite. Not so much that I won’t still nuke the little blighters given half a chance, mind you. Ricky Kather’s proposed experiments will hopefully prove most helpful in that battle.

Lunch was followed by a short pitch by author and beekeeping expert Clive De Bruyn on behalf of the charity Bees for Development, which in turn was followed by a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex** by John Hall, director of the Essex Wildlife Trust.

I confess that by this point the effects of a warm pastie and cool glass of cider were starting to kick-in. All morning we’d been under siege, but now all was well with the world. John’s slide show was a fabulous advertisement for the Essex countryside, leaving me to muse on what a very pleasant place we lived in, with all those ancient forests, and coastal marshes, and beautiful insects …and varieties of bee…

…I don’t think I actually dropped off. I’m sure it was the buzz of anticipation that hit me like a shot of adrenaline just as the prize-giving was getting underway. Having been a volunteer helper on the Essex Beekeepers’ Association stand at the Essex County Show I saw the quality of the honey products produced by club members. As I now discovered, the trophies for being best in show were pretty impressive too.

And so ended the day.

Once again I witnessed that if you ask two beekeepers a question you’ll get three different answers. More than that, I found it hard to avoid the sense that I’d joined an extended family and that this was our annual gathering; a chance to catch up with favourite aunts and cousins – while avoiding Uncle Fester – and to recognise that we were all in it together. I went not sure what to expect, and ended up having a really good time.

I commend this piece to Conference.

* Ricarda Kather’s research is being supervised by Dr S J Martin and Prof R K Butlin, and conducted in collaboration with Drs G Budge and F Drijfhout, with support from the BBSRC and East-Anglian Beekeepers.

** Note: This link will open part 1 of a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex as a PDF. Part 2, part 3 and part 4 can be similarly viewed by clicking on each link. Use the ‘back’ arrow on your browser to return to this page.

*** Photo courtesy of Dr David Chandler and the University of Warwick School of Life Sciences.


Preparing a nuc for winter: part 2


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Nucs | Posted on 19-10-2010

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Bees nuc box

Five frame nuc - not a mini-nuc

It seems a few corrections are in order. For starters, what I’ve been referring to as a ‘mini-nuc’ for the last several weeks turns out to be simply a ‘nuc’. Also, Mrs S would like me to point out that that nice Mr Turnbull off the BBC wasn’t “hopeless” on Strictly Come Dancing (see ‘In the dark with Bill Turnbull’). He was actually rather good, apparently. So, sorry Bill.

This week I had a plan and I stuck to it. I was quick (see last entry), decisive… –ish, and meticulous in maintaining a written record – which is just as well, because at one point the voice recording of my inspection has me saying, “I’m removing the third frame, no, the fourth… hang on a minute, I’ve forgotten that one I took out earlier. So that’s the fifth frame… err, or is it?”

Turns out it was the fourth frame, which – packed with capped stores and brood – I transferred from the main colony to the nuc. The nuc already contained five frames so I had to take one out to accommodate it. The big question now was whether or not I should place the spare frame taken from the nuc back in the main colony, particularly as the latter was left with only seven drawn frames, plus one new frame with foundation, inserted the day before.

Damaged beehive honeycomb

Bad comb over: when it looks like this it's best to start again

To be honest, the spare looked a bit old and weather-beaten, and I wasn’t sure that there weren’t traces of mould in some of the cells (although it turned out later that what I was seeing was probably just white pollen). I remember Richard Ridler of the Essex Beekeepers Association delivering the ‘Beekeeping For Beginners’ class earlier this year, and recounting how when he and wife Jane started they almost performed their inspections with hive tool in one hand and copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide To Bees And Honey in the other. I now know exactly what he meant. Skip forward two hours and the magnificent Beekeeping Forum was able to tell me exactly what – and what not – to do, but that was after I’d sealed the hives up, having thoroughly messed both colonies around for 20 minutes.

So instead I elected to scrape away the affected cells with the ‘hook’ end of my hive tool. Fellow beekeeping novices, hear my advice: this is not a good thing to do. You will end up with a mess. See picture above left.

Other questions you may benefit from knowing the answers to are: is this beyond repair? Answer: yes, but only because the comb is past its sell-by date. What should one do with the sticky mess of uncapped stores and pollen left in the cells? Answer: throw it away and boil the frame before fitting new foundation. Is it a good idea to leave the main colony with effectively only seven frames? Answer: probably not. Now that I have however, I should keep feeding them and thank my lucky stars I’m located in the milder south of England.

I’m indebted to the members of the Beekeeping Forum for their advice.

Next week: Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference


Importance of beekeeping records


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Mini nucs | Posted on 13-10-2010

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With inarguable logic this was to have been called ‘Preparing a mini nuc for winter: part 2’, except that it isn’t really part 2. It would have been part 2 if I’d followed Robert’s instructions or Ted Hooper’s instructions, or indeed my own plan, but I got side-tracked. No, that’s not it – I became entranced.

The one thing I have got going for me is that I keep records. Detailed records. Almost anally retentively so. My friend and fellow new-bee beekeeper Mark recently invited me over to see his Beehaus, and – in addition to its elegant design – I was immediately impressed by how carefully arranged the beekeeping equipment in his shed was. Everything laid out just so. But even Mark was impressed by how spectacularly over-the-top my bee colony record keeping was. Put it this way – I keep an Excel spreadsheet.

Honey bee larvae

Honey bee larvae in various stages of development (photo courtesy of Tony and

I also made a voice recording of my last inspection, although to be fair if you’ve ever struggled to take notes with your fingers stuck to each other and to the pencil, before flapping like a chicken to unglue the damn notebook from your hands, you’ll realise that using a digital voice-recorder is far from extravagant.

Why is all this significant? Well, for starters I now know from listening back to the tape that I spent 40 minutes inspecting the main colony. Forty minutes! I’ve seen experienced guys do ten beehives in that time. Also, in the course of my going backwards and forwards (trying to find the queen, inevitably) I lost track of how many frames contained brood. In the end I convinced myself that there were only two. My beautifully transcribed record however, now shows that there were four.

Part 2 of the plan was to have involved my moving a frame of brood from the main colony to mini-nuc. Instead, I ended up transferring another frame of stores. Which is fair enough, because while I was inspecting it (the mini-nuc) I was struck by how low on stores it was, despite it taking the bees two weeks to drain the contact feeder I gave them. My records now reveal that they’d actually been polishing off the nectar on the two frames Robert transferred in from the main colony.

So, lessons learned this week: take less time over inspections, stick to your plan, and keep records – because being able to refer back to them can help enormously.

I guess one out of three ain’t bad. Part 2 next week.


Preparing a mini nuc for winter: part 1


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Mini nucs | Posted on 08-10-2010

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2 October 2010: She’s laying! Frames 5 and 6 of the main colony have larvae. Frame 3 is the one I introduced more than a month ago now, so these are definitely the new queen’s offspring. It’s good to be back in business. I even manage to find the queen without too much difficulty. Bless that blue marker.

The weather is still not that great and the worker bees are fairly irritable, so once I’ve established that she’s there and laying I abandon the inspection and carefully push the frames back together again. …Before prising them apart to double-check that I haven’t squashed the queen, and then edging them together again …before prising them apart. Clearly the squashing-the-queen thing hasn’t quite been expunged from my memory.

I refill the rapid feeder housed in the otherwise empty super and expel half a dozen earwigs that are attempting to take up residence. Then I move on to the mini-nuc.

queen bee on frame of comb

Not exactly a hive of activity: spot the queen bee at the 8 o'clock position

With the main colony back on track and amply catered for with stores (I didn’t harvest any of their honey in this – my first – year, and have been feeding them every week since the middle of August), I can see where my attention is going to be focused in the coming months. Robert was too much of a gentleman to spell out that this colony is on loan, but there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that I must return it to him, in good health, at the start of next year. He didn’t want it back immediately, he said. So it’s up to me to see it through the winter.

The difference between the two colonies couldn’t be more dramatic. R1, as I’ve taken to calling the main beehive in deference to Robert, has ten frames packed with pollen, stores, and now brood, plus several thousand very active bees. Lifting the lid on the mini-nuc, by comparison, is like entering an old library; it’s very quiet and everyone’s hovering around the (b)reading area (sic). There are only four frames.

At first glance most of the cells appear empty, although a second glance reveals that the worker bees have begun squirreling away syrup from the feeder. The feeder itself remains half full. The queen is again easy to spot, despite having less blue marker on her than I remember. Perhaps the workers really do lick it off. Most of what little activity there is, is centered around the middle two frames. Next week I’ll start adding frames of brood from the main colony.

Before replacing the lid I carefully push the frames back together again. …Before prising them apart to double-check that I haven’t squashed the queen, and then edging them together again …before prising them apart…


A simple home-made bee feeder, plus finding and marking queen bees


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 07-10-2010

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27 September: It takes me until a week Monday to inspect the bees again. The weather and domestic routine get in the way over the weekend, so I come home at lunchtime. I’m a little concerned about how few bees there were around the entrance on both Saturday and Sunday evening. Granted it was cold (10 degrees Celsius) and wet (light drizzle) but even when I’d boldly stepped right in front of the hive there had been no reaction. Have they all gone?

Home-made contact bee feeder

"You spoil those bees": Tesco Premium Chewy Caramel 1 litre ice cream tub makes an ideal contact feeder

Mrs S – who I’m delighted to say has appointed herself chef to the bees – is out, so I make up the bee feeders myself, spilling granulated sugar across every surface in the kitchen as I do. For the mini-nuc I’ve used an empty round 1 litre ice cream tub with a dozen 2mm holes drilled in a circular pattern in the lid. Although it spills a little when you invert it, it quickly stops and the bees are then able to feed from the holes. In this case it also helps that the lid has a raised lip. When placed upside down over a hole in the top of the nuc-box it leaves the perfect gap for workers to crawl around underneath, safe from robbing insects.

Although it isn’t as chilly as it has been, it still isn’t exactly warm either, so I’ve decided to get in and out fast. Just long enough to find the queen and establish whether or not she’s laying.

“In and out fast,” is easy if you have an established track-record for finding queens, but of course I don’t.  So it’s something of a relief to find her safe, well and curiously unmarked on the third or fourth frame. Robert had said that the marker pen ink might come off.

Baldock-type queen marking cage

A queen marking cage. Those spikes are sharp. (Image courtesy of Michael Jay Beekeeping Supplies)

I then perform a classic beekeepers’ shuffle as, with one hand balancing the frame on the side of the hive and one eye on the moving target that is my queen, I fumble around with my other hand in the tool box searching for the press-in cage, using my spare eye to ensure that in finding it I don’t skewer a finger on its sharp spikes. Cage located, I gingerly place it over the queen and press down. Probably not hard enough, as in attempting to back out she gets her wings tangled in the mesh. With worker bees piling in on top I lift it up gently to free her before pressing down again.  At this point the sensible thing would be to shake all excess bees off the frame, but of course I don’t do the sensible thing. Instead, I use a finger to tackle the scrum of worker bees intent on piling in on top of the cage and their captured queen. As I push them aside I hold my marker pen aloft, ready to lunge. In fact it takes several lunges. So many that by the end of it the poor mite looks as if she’s been dipped in blue paint. Ah well, at least I should be able to spot her in future.

The mini-nuc is bound to present less of a challenge, I reason. There are fewer frames and fewer bees, after all. Robert rather mischievously refused to mark the queen when he left it, saying that I needed to get used to finding her. Bugger that. After four weeks of not finding my queen I’m ready to attach a blue flashing light to her if I have to.

The first thing that strikes me is how few bees there are. At least they don’t look like they’re clinging on for dear life anymore. Two of the original frames contain capped and uncapped larvae, and while I can’t see properly in the poor light, I suspect also contain eggs. But apparently no queen. What were the odds.

With little doubt that she really is there, but hiding, there’s nothing for it but to go backwards and forwards from one frame to the next until I find her. When I do I waste little time. I have the cage down on top of her in a flash, and while I’m spared the rugby scrum of workers I’m afraid I don’t spare the pen. She emerges marked and only marginally less blue than her next door neighbour. Shame, because she really was a very nice hazel colour underneath…


In the dark with Bill Turnbull


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books | Posted on 06-10-2010

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Arrive home at six to discover the neighbours congregated around the end of our driveway. There’s been a power cut. The electricity has been off since mid-afternoon. As I’m told this an EDF van pulls up with an engineer. Nice to see they’re on the ball.

I go inside to find the place eerily quiet. With two junior-teens in the house it’s normally lit up like a Christmas tree with them both transfixed – zombie like – by whatever is blaring out of the TV or X-Box. Now I find them sitting around (well, sprawled across the furniture) actually talking to Mrs S.

The light is fading fast so we break out the torches. I start reading a book, except that this is viewed as ‘unsociable’ by everyone else, so instead I’m persuaded to start reading aloud from Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, the impending film of which we’d been discussing recently. When he was much younger I actually read the whole Harry Potter series to Lanky Teen so it’s a bit of a trip down memory lane. I’m encouraged to ‘do all the voices’. (“My Hagrid went down a storm in Woodford Green, don’t you know.”)

The Bad Beekeepers Club by Bill Turnbull

'The Bad Beekeepers Club' by Bill Turnbull - not just strictly for beekeepers

By 8.30pm the lights still haven’t come on, so Mrs S and the Ziz decide to call it a night. I can’t get to sleep that early so stay up reading to Lanky Teen, who then surprises me by asking if we can switch to Bill Turnbull’s The Bad Beekeepers Club (Sphere, ISBN 978-1-84744-398-4, GBP 12.99). If you’ve not read it yet I highly recommend you get a copy, particularly if you’re new to beekeeping. Mrs S bought it for me as a relaxation aid a month or two ago when I was in a particularly heightened state of Andy-ness.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t really aware who Bill Turnbull was until I read his book. I could just about identify him when told that he was, “that bloke off BBC Breakfast on the telly.” I had no idea he’d been taken to the country’s bosom as the obligatory ‘popular but hopeless’ contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. More to the point though, he’s also a beekeeper, and a very good writer to boot.

Bill’s generous starting-point is that if you’ve done anything wrong or silly while beekeeping, the chances are he’s already done it – and worse. Which of course is massively reassuring to all beginners. The sections in which he describes harvesting honey and then bottling it in the kitchen are laugh-out-loud funny.

By the time I hear the click, whirr and hum of lights and appliances coming back on it’s ten o’clock. Lanky Teen is fast asleep beside me and I’m feeling a lot better about my talents as a beekeeper. Now I just wish I was a better writer.


Creating a new colony with an unmated queen, introducing a mated queen to an established colony, and I get a second colony


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 05-10-2010

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18 September, 10am: Robert calls, out of the blue, asking for directions. He’s coming over. It’ll be the first time he’s seen the place. “Can’t you just tell me what to do over the phone?” I squeak. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.” I can’t very well add, “…And I don’t want you standing over me while I balls things up” so stifle the urge.

He says it’s too complicated. It will take less time to actually do it. He hangs up. I bark at Mrs S and the kids. “Robert’s coming!” I feel like adding, “Get up, paint the house, vacuum the carpets, mow the lawn, start baking,” and only barely stifle the urge. Mrs S gives me an understanding look. The kids ignore me.

He arrives shortly after midday and steps out of the car with a lit smoker, which is a pretty neat trick. With saturation coverage on TV of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK it’s hard not to draw a parallel.

Pointing to where the hive is I help him carry his tools and a mini-nuc to an area just around the corner from it. Then we lift the lid off the super and discard the second Apiguard tray which has been in there for two weeks. The tray’s nearly empty. The rapid feeder I placed alongside it is also empty so I run inside and ask Mrs S to fill it.

We set about finding the queen. Thankfully it doesn’t take long. The last thing I did before closing the hive was mark her with a blue dot. I’m still taken by how small and dark she is.

Robert scoops her up and puts her into a traveling cage. Then he brings the mini-nuc round and sets it down beside the hive. He opens it to reveal that it contains only frames – no bees. Taking a couple of frames from my hive he swaps them with two from the mini-nuc. They’re covered in bees. He then picks up another frame from my hive and shakes more bees from it into the mini-nuc. The more quick-witted among them immediately high-tail back home next door, but enough stay to provide the basis for a new colony. I still have a few drones, so we carefully pick out five or six and drop them in. Finally, he picks up the traveling cage with my unmated queen and carefully places her onto the side of a frame before quickly sealing the box.

Read the rest of this entry »


Should you treat with Apiguard when your colony is requeening?


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 04-10-2010

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Early September: Turns out the short answer is, “no”. Sadly I only find that out a day or two after I’ve placed a tray of Apiguard in my (now empty) super. I discover several posts on the subject on the rather excellent Beekeeping Forum. Apparently the smell of Thymol drives them nuts (the bees that is, not the members of the Forum). There’s a chance that my new queens will each hatch in turn, take a whiff, and pack their bags. Fire off an email to Robert. His response is: “You’ve started, so you must finish.”

Beehive frame packed with worker bees

Well you try spotting a queen among this lot

There also appears to be a lively debate online about whether or not one should tear down some of the queen cells. Cue another email to Robert: “No”.

At my next inspection I spend at least half an hour searching for a queen. All bar one of my queen cells appears to have hatched. I say “appears” because I daren’t shake the frames in case any of the new queens drop off. So instead I perform my inspection with hundreds of bees crawling all over the frames, my hands, arms, and veil positioned around two inches from the brood cells. Later Robert tells me that more than likely the first queen to hatch tore down the other queen cells, killing her younger sisters in the process. Either way I never find a queen. So here we go again.

I let us each retreat to our own corner for ten days before going back in. It’s late in the year, the weather’s deteriorating and there are precious few drones left knocking about. The odds are stacked against me. Even if I find the queen she may still not have mated, but the view is that find her I must. It’s therefore with huge relief that I spot her scrabbling about on Robert’s marked frame. She’s quite small and very dark, and her abdomen doesn’t have that swollen look I’ve seen on other queens. I’m guessing that’s because she’s still a virgin. Given that she’s had nearly two weeks to do something about it, it seems likely she’s going to remain one. There’s no sign of eggs.


Is September too late to requeen?


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 03-10-2010

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I got my very first colony at the beginning of July. By mid-month I’d already lost my queen.

Beekeeper beginner

Getting started: I'm smiling, but minutes later I accidentally squash my queen

I think I must have accidentally squashed her. Sadly, in the brief time I had her I never saw her, despite poring over each frame on every inspection. She came as part of a swarm from Robert, a local and highly experienced beekeeper. I couldn’t even give her a decent burial. I never found the body. I just guessed that she wasn’t there because capped and hatched larvae wasn’t being replaced by fresh larvae. I never saw any eggs either. Again, I guessed that they were there once because I could see small larvae growing into large larvae. Hardly an auspicious start.

For four weeks I did nothing, hoping first that I was wrong, then that no-one would notice, and finally that the bees themselves wouldn’t notice. I did keep telling Robert that I thought I’d killed my queen. He kept telling me that I hadn’t necessarily killed her – I’d lost her. I’m still not sure whether he was being kind, or whether it’s considered impolite to mention homicide in beekeeping circles.

I consulted Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey, the beekeeping bible. Frustratingly, it mentioned that squashing one’s queen is not uncommon amongst beginners, but then didn’t spell out what you’re supposed to do about it. I did gather however, that if I could get a frame of eggs and larvae from another colony and introduce it into mine, then the chances were that my desperate bees would create new queen cells.

Back I went to Robert. Borrowing a mini-nuc for the day I swapped a single frame of mine for one of his with eggs and young larvae. Then I stuck a drawing pin in the top and placed the new frame in the centre of my brood chamber. By now my bees had been without a queen (and fresh brood) for four weeks. Would it be too late? Seven days later I had the answer: 18 new queen cells front and back.