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

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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.



The 2011 beekeeping year


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

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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.


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

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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…


25 really simple beekeeping tips


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.


Advice on building a beehive: plans, materials, wood paint and protection, and tools


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive | Posted on 07-03-2011

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Tools for making a beehive

Beehive making toolkit (clockwise from top): saw, hammer, rebate plane, tape measure and wood plane. You can get away with just the hammer, saw and tape measure.

As anyone who’s dealt with builders will testify, sometimes the only way to get a straight answer is to know what question to ask. A bit like playing “Simon says”. Making my own beehive was like that.

What type of beehive did I need? Well, that depended on personal preference and how I wanted to use it, I was told. I didn’t have a personal preference, and how should I know how I wanted to use it? I was a complete novice, remember. I presumed they were all designed to keep bees?

Fortunately, any further confusion was made irrelevant when I was given a set of plans for a modified national beehive. For the benefit of any novices asking themselves the same question however, I’ll say now: get a national unless – like me – you live in a rural area near to crops beloved of bees, in which case get a 14×12 if you have a bad back or a commercial if you don’t. If you want it to look like something straight out of Winnie the Pooh get a WBC. If you’re ever likely to move abroad get a Langstroth. If you live in Scotland get a Smith (apparently), and if you enjoy weight-lifting or just standing out from the crowd get a Modified Dadant. Why no-one ever puts it into those simple terms beats me, but there it is.

Beehive plans can be obtained from the British Beekeepers’ Association (Update October 2013: BBKA no longer appears to sell plans online) for a couple of pounds, or from the Scottish Beekeepers Association or magnificently psychedelic David Cushman website for free. Incidentally, I was very sorry to hear that David passed away in February. I know that his website will have helped thousands of novice beekeepers such as myself.

Choice of building materials was another straightforward issue. Cedar is the ideal wood type to use. It’s stable, lightweight, has some natural resistance to decay and insect attack, and can cope with the eccentricities of the British climate. But I had a stack of plywood left over from some work we had done on the house. Plywood is heavier, doesn’t respond well to preservative treatments and is prone to splintering, but it’s cheap. Especially if you already have a few large sheets lying around the garage. Lots of beehives are made from plywood. True, I had a little scare when someone (a builder, bless them) pointed out that there are different grades of plywood …after I’d started work. There’s interior grade, waterproof bonded ply (WBP) and marine. The only one you shouldn’t try making beehives out of is interior grade. Of course it’s not marked on the ply itself (of course it’s not). Mine turned out to all be 18mm thick WBP.

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Then, there’s the question of what paint or wood protection to use. A beehive generates honey, so that’s food production. Which means that you can’t slap on any old lead-based, insecticide-ridden paint you like. Well, you can. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat anything that came out of it.

Until recently the poor (lazy) beekeeper’s wood preservative of choice was Cuprinol Clear. Due to changes in EU legislation however, Cuprinol can no longer claim that it’s bee safe. (It might still be, Cuprinol just can’t claim it is). Beekeepers’ suppliers sell beehive-friendly paint at around £13.50 a litre. And I’m told it’s very good. The real enthusiasts (in the evangelical sense) though, advocate a combination of boiled linseed oil and beeswax. Beekeeping forums are full of sound, and often conflicting, advice on the subject.

For what it’s worth, I used Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base because – you guessed it – I happened to have some. I’ll be happy to take on board any comments from horrified readers.

Finally, tools. You really don’t need many: a saw, a hammer (or screwdriver) and a tape measure about covers it, at a pinch. Once again, I relied heavily on tools I already had. Here, at least, my motives owed more to sentimentality than penny-pinching. Most of the tools belonged to my late father. To his impressive collection of planes, chisels and saws of every size and description I added a rebate plane to enable me to make the runners out of softwood. That, the frames, foundation, queen excluder and porter escapes were the only items that cost me anything.

By summer 2010 I’d completed my first beehive.


Beekeeping for Beginners course – part 2


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Making a beehive | Posted on 02-03-2011

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More thoughts, recorded at the time, from the novice beekeeping course I attended almost exactly twelve months ago. This year’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course, run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA), starts on Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. Contact Jane Ridler at the EBKA for further details.

Week 2: More of the same, except that we’re now all on ‘second day at school’ nodding terms with each other. Richard and Jane briskly finish off equipment and tools before moving on to the life cycle of the honey bee.

We’re joined by several new folk who, we’re advised, are experienced beekeepers and will be our ‘bee buddies’ in the practical sessions. When the tea and biscuits are finally wheeled out once more a wave of students rises as one from the centre of the room and surges outwards towards them. They soon each have their own little flotilla of novices, earnestly asking questions and bobbing between conversations, sheaths of notes clutched to their bosoms.

I get involved in a discussion about bee suits. I’ve found a guy in Poland selling them on eBay for around £36 – which is cheap – and ask whether anyone knows if they’re any good. A fellow novice has just bought her suit from ‘Polish man’ and reports that, as long as you follow the clear instructions and order one size larger than you’d expect, they’re fine*. I decide that that’s the bee suit sorted. Eastern European smokers and hive tools are also given a cautious thumbs up.

modified national beehive plans

Modified National beehive plans

(*Three months later she’ll tell me a quite alarming tale of how the zip broke while she was wearing it, causing her to get over a dozen bee stings. Sadly, she got a less than helpful response from the seller, so buyer beware).

Week 3: The third and final lesson covers the beekeeping year (what happens when) as well as pests and diseases, and where to site your beehive.

Before it starts I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. They already have several colonies, housed in national beehives. He bought them from a ‘retiring’ beekeeper friend, but only after a succession of wasted road trips chasing what turned out to be mangy old equipment offered at over-inflated prices. I sympathise, and mention the idea of building my own beehive. He says he has a set of plans and – true to his word – later gives them to me. They’re for a modified national beehive with bottom bee-space. In woodworking terms I suspect they’re barely one step up from book shelves but to me they’re like blueprints to the space shuttle.

beehive entrance block

My first attempt at a beehive entrance block. See if you can spot the obvious flaw...

Practical beekeeping sessions: My bee buddy is Robert Pickford. Robert is a vastly experienced beekeeper and, it turns out, a first class teacher. Later he’ll also prove to be a more than decent friend, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. For several weeks four of us present ourselves at his apiary on a Tuesday, self-consciously suited and booted in virgin white overalls and veil.

Robert has us making frames, lighting smokers and, of course, inspecting bees. He has hives spread around everywhere and appears to be perpetually playing host to at least three other beekeeper’s colonies at any one time. As a consequence we get to see beehives and nuc boxes of all shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of decrepitude. As I inspect them a mental image springs to mind of the beehive now slowly taking shape in my garage. Robert defends their state by pointing out that, “the bees don’t care what they live in.” We’ll see. They haven’t experienced the limits of my wood-working skills yet.