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.


Feeding honey bees in late spring, and the position of the hive


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners | Posted on 13-04-2011

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At our second, second-year beekeepers class in March our instructors, Jane and Richard, had confidently predicted that our various colonies would soon kick-start into life. Nearby fields of oil seed rape would burst forth, their balletic ripples sounding a dinner bell for honey bees far and wide. Well, within a three mile radius anyway. Start preparing now, we were instructed. Make sure brood chambers have their full complement of frames to avoid the colony swarming. Have supers made up and ready in preparation for the first ‘flow’.

It sounded alarming, and not a little distasteful. Nevertheless, it had what I presumed was the desired effect. I stopped twiddling my thumbs and logged into Thorne’s online shop to order frames, foundation and (in a moment of reckless abandon) a tin of ‘bee-friendly beehive paint’. In no time at all, (well, plenty of time actually – nineteen days to deliver – nineteen days) I’d readied myself for the upcoming nectar-fest.

Except that to date there has been no ‘fest’. No great hum of activity, just a few bees casually flying in and out when the sun is at its highest. By the end of week two I could contain myself no longer and chose a warm day to lift off the roof and check on progress.

Honey bee frame showing depleted stores

The 'bonus' frame of stores I found and moved in February

To my relief they were still alive, and appeared to be so in reasonable numbers. But they were far from bursting at the seams. I pulled out a couple of frames and, probably for the first time since taking up beekeeping nine months ago, instinctively identified what the problem was: they were hungry. Nearly all the frames with stores had been licked clean. The ‘bonus’ frame I’d found mid-February had been uncapped and was left with crystallised leftovers. To my relief I saw larvae, but not much.

Thankfully, the arrival of Thorne’s supplies coincided with a spell of warm weather. I topped up the brood chamber (even though it didn’t really need it), replaced a frame with foundation that had gone mouldy, and added a rapid feeder in an empty super. The bees pounced on it within hours, but a week later had still taken barely a third. Perhaps it’s true that honey bees sometimes need a quick feed to kick-start them. After all, I like to go to work on a good breakfast. Then again, maybe there was more to it.

mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Two days later I passed a local apiary and couldn’t help but notice that its hives were buzzing, literally. Clouds of bees hung round each entrance while, like the famous scene from Metropolis, a steady stream of bees zoomed in an out on invisible highways. Then Michelle from up the road told me that she’d only just managed to get a super on her colony in time. They’d already filled every frame of the brood chamber. Strange. And then Mark, who lives barely a few hundred yards from Michelle, asked me whether my colony was really active yet, because his bees were just casually flying in and out when the sun was up.

Interestingly, Michelle’s and the Metropolis’ hives have at least one side fully exposed to the sun. Both Mark’s colony and my own are flanked by trees or hedges. Our bees, it seems, wait for the sun to hit the hive before bothering to get up for work. Maybe they have more in common with my kids than I thought.


Feeding honey bees in winter and early spring


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 16-02-2011

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Ah, the tell-tale first signs of spring: the sound of novice beekeepers texting one another with questions about what to do next. In our case they revolved largely around whether “to feed or not to feed”. That, and the rather bizarre question as to just how many dead honey bees one should expect to find when conducting the first proper hive inspection of the year.

Honey bee frames in February (UK)

Anyone seen the queen? Honey bees spread across all frames

Most of us had quite naturally consulted text books, beekeeping forums and more experienced beekeepers… and quite naturally received completely conflicting advice. The common sense and more popular view favoured feeding them candy if there was any evidence of their running low on stores. (That ‘evidence’ presumably being the absence of any stores). I therefore duly presented myself to the colony last Saturday, with hive tool and smoker in hand, ready to have a damn good poke around.

Slight – and I’m sure new – evidence of mould inside the roof didn’t exactly get me off to a good start, but once I’d lifted the crown board I found my own spirits lifted by the hive of activity within. The bees had spread themselves across pretty much all nine frames. Peering down between them I could see plenty of dead bodies piled up on the mesh floor, and guessed that that might be part of the reason for the fresh signs of mould. They didn’t seem to bother the live bees however.

Dead honey bees at first hive inspection in February (UK)

The ones that didn't make it through winter

As I carefully lifted out each separate frame, most seemed to have at least some stores left on them. Frame 1, which I’d ill-advisedly separated from the others with a frame of new foundation before sealing the hive for winter, was virtually untouched save for a handful of adventurous bees that clearly couldn’t believe their luck at having stumbled across such bonanza. Almost its entire surface was a wonderful golden yellow-brown. Frame 3 meanwhile, showed clear evidence of uncapped stores and was already around a third full. I quickly performed a swap-around, placing the undrawn foundation on the outside, before turning my attention to the hive floor.

Separating it from the brood box I placed it on the ground to have a good look. There were certainly a lot of dead bodies – at least an inch thick in places. With a casualness that I immediately regretted I tossed them into an inaccessible space behind the summerhouse before brushing the mesh and replacing the floor beneath the brood chamber. It was only then that I reminded myself that I hadn’t yet seen the queen.


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 Gardenweb.com)

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…


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.

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