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

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

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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.

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25 really simple beekeeping tips

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Making a beehive, Varroa destructor | Posted on 22-04-2011

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Recently spent a delightful couple of hours at Deryck Johnson’s garden and apiary listening to him give a talk on beekeeping equipment.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to various hobbies, and in that time have found the following to be universally true: the advice you treasure most is always of the, “now here’s a trick that’ll save you half an hour / 50 quid / sore thumbs” variety.

Deryck basically spent an hour giving us the benefit of decades of experimentation. I wish I’d filmed it and put in on You Tube. Instead, here’s the novice beekeeper’s print-out-and-keep guide to “25 beekeeping tips you will otherwise probably take years to pick up”. All credit to Deryck Johnson.

Colour coded beehive

A national beehive (with eke to convert it to 14x12), placed on a milk crate stand, and showing coloured crown board, clearer board and queen excluder

Advice on beehives

Empty milk crates – of the type used by milkmen to store milk bottles – make ideal hive stands. Deryck gets a supply of old broken ones from his local dairy.

White catering trays (price £1) slide neatly between hive floor and crate to create a removable surface on which varroa will stand out for monitoring purposes.

Make it easy to ‘read the hive’. Paint the edges of crown boards, queen boards and clearer boards so that you can see at a glance from a distance how the hive is made up:

Crown boards = blue

Clearer boards = green, because workers can ‘go’ through them

Queen excluders = red, because they ‘stop’ the queen.

Use different coloured plastic frame spacers to quickly identify different age foundation (e.g. white new, yellow old).

Squares made out of Xtratherm building insulation make ideal winter beehive insulation if placed between crown board and roof.

In winter, prop open the corners of your crown board with matchsticks to improve ventilation and avoid mould.

Drape a net over the hive in winter to protect it from woodpeckers, being careful to peg the edges away from the sides of the beehive. The bees will still be able to get in and out, but the woodpeckers won’t get through the net.

Home-made bee frame feeder

Home-made bee frame feeder - holds around 3.5 pints of syrup

Car body filler works just as well as wood filler to repair beehives.

Advice on beekeeping smokers

Buy a stainless steel smoker.

Dry grass makes the best and cheapest smoker fuel. It’s cooler and less acrid than cardboard or egg boxes.

Attach a square hook to the back (bellows wide) of your smoker to hang it from your hive and because a square hook is easier to carry with one finger.

Useful things to have in your beekeeping toolkit

Apart from the obvious (hive tools, uncapping tool, marker pens etc) keep:

a laminated (photo)copy of brood timings (Ted Hooper’s Guide to bees and honey features a useful table);

a small tin of drawing pins for marking the top of frames (should they contain queen cells or anything unusual, for example);

hammer and nails (two nails hammered into the top bar of a frame makes a handy emergency lug if the wooden end breaks off);

an empty plastic container (to store any excess bits of wax);

DIY beehive mouse guard

Cheapest beehive mouse guard around:four nails

an empty matchbox (to keep bee samples);

matches (for testing for foul brood);

nail scissors (for wing clipping).

Miscellaneous beekeeping musings

Don’t bother buying propolis remover.

Fabi-Spray, on the other hand, is a good 5-10 second alternative to using a smoker, for quick manipulations.

Nails hammered vertically into a wooden entrance at short intervals make an ideal (and dirt cheap) mouse guard.

After every inspection stick your hive tool through the dishwasher.

Do you have any simple beekeeping tips that save money and hassle? Please share them by leaving a comment.

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Beekeeping for Beginners classes – Essex Beekeepers’ Association

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association | Posted on 23-02-2011

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Almost exactly twelve months ago I signed up to attend a novice beekeeping class run by my local division of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA). The course cost just £40 and included three classroom sessions and three or four practical sessions in an apiary. I had no experience of beekeeping and didn’t own a hive or colony. Here were my thoughts at the time.

Thaxted Guildhall

Thaxted Guildhall in Thaxted, Essex (photograph by Bev Aston)

Attend ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ class run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association at the 600 year-old Guildhall in Thaxted. Beautiful building, if surprisingly small inside. All low ceilings and uneven floors.

My fellow beginners cover all ages (including teens, surprisingly) and both sexes, but with an encouraging preponderance of yummy mummies. Excellent. Something to tell the wife. For six months now she’s been gently indulging my talk of taking up beekeeping, including arranging for me to be given a copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey at Christmas. At the start of the New Year however, she quietly pulls me to one side and asks me whether I’m serious. Only I’ve been telling rather a lot of people, it seems. I might want to tone it down if I’m not.

I react with indignation. Of course I’m serious. I signed up for a course.

And now here I am, three months later, with still only a copy of Guide to Bees and Honey as proof of my intent; £12.99 worth of commitment, and I didn’t even pay for it.

I look around. Lots of other copies of Guide to Bees and Honey in evidence. I’m clearly in good company. I can’t recall whether it comes out as a result of a show of hands or just in the course of conversation, but it turns out I’m not in the minority. Plenty of people talking about buying beehives, and quite a few brandishing pages printed from the Internet featuring hives for sale, but not many fellow pupils actually own a beehive, it seems.

You see my problem is the start-up costs. This was meant to be a cheap hobby. I’d been hooked in by the promise of being able to do my bit to save the bee population, of hives and equipment costing a couple of hundred pounds – literally – and of my being able to recoup even that (should I be so inclined) by selling a few jars of honey. And I’m sure there was a time, not so very long ago, when that was the case. It just isn’t any more. The same magazine articles, radio and TV programmes that drew my attention to the plight of the honey bee also caught the attention of thousands of others. Equipment prices shot up. Rustic old beekeepers couldn’t believe their luck when stuff they’d had laying around in a field or shed for years was suddenly worth more second-hand than they’d paid for it new. Ebay is now awash with chancers selling ‘beginner hives’ they’ve knocked up in their spare time.

If I’d wanted an expensive hobby I’d have bought a motorcycle. If I’d wanted to splash out more cash on house and garden the catalogue of things on our ‘to do’ list remains endless. This was meant to be a low-cost diversion, a bit of fun – relaxing.

‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course – week 1

The problem is immediately acknowledged by Richard and Jane, who are delivering the course. I sense tacit resignation among all present that this is going to cost. Now it’s just a matter of establishing how much.

Richard and Jane put on a good show, neatly avoiding the perils of death by PowerPoint and deftly handling an uninhibited barrage of questions. Turns out Jane used to teach at secondary school. So we cover the bee colony, the bee’s anatomy, the inside of the beehive, and beekeeping equipment and tools – all at a rattling pace, for an hour and a half – before ending the evening with tea and biscuits.

It’s fascinating. What amazing little creatures they are. How industrious and devoted to the common good. About the only criticism you can level at them is that they produce more food than they need. What a preposterous notion…

As I leave I’m at once elated, exhausted and in more of a quandary than ever. This looks like fun. This looks like a worthwhile challenge. There has to be another way.

Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ classes start Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. More details from Jane Ridler at EBKA. Open to members of the EBKA, membership of which costs £30.

Photograph of Thaxted Guildhall reproduced by kind permission of Bev Aston. See more of Bev’s images, including some delightful shots of bees, on her Photostream page on Flikr.

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Preparing a nuc for winter: part 2

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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

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In the dark with Bill Turnbull

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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.

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