Advice on beekeeping advice


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

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Beekeeping advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Slow bee colony build-up in May


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Bee diseases, Beekeeping advice, Varroa destructor | Posted on 04-05-2011

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Something’s wrong. I only have two frames of brood and the bees are very docile. Too docile. Just a couple of miles away Michelle’s colony has nearly filled its second super.

I have varroa. I have wax moth. I appear to have some small red mites, possibly balaustium, which I’m told are harmless to bees but feed on pollen. I may have nosema. It’s always hard to avoid a slight sense of one-upmanship with other second-year beekeepers, but this isn’t quite what I had in mind.

I’ve recently been to several presentations on honey bee diseases and poor colony hygiene, so am trying to remain objective and to not fall into the trap of transposing it all to my beehive. But I’ve seen the varroa, the wax moth and the balaustium (if that’s what they are). Granted, not in any great numbers: less than one varroa a day, and two wax moths and five balaustium in total. Hardly an epidemic. There’s no sign of dysentery to indicate nosema, and no melted larvae to point to European Foul Brood. The queen is present and laying. I have eggs, larvae, capped brood and newly hatched bees, as well as uncapped stores and pollen. But I have only two frames of brood. Four frames of brand new foundation remain untouched.

It might be the queen. Michelle’s colony swarmed on Friday. On Monday we opened her hive to take a look and found 6-8 queen cells the size of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs. Interestingly, we also found the old queen amid a small heap of writhing workers on the next door neighbour’s driveway. She looked absolutely knackered (the queen, not the next door neighbour), which you could forgive her as the colony itself had bees spilling out from every quarter. They were pinging off our veils. All frames were heaving under the weight of stores, eggs, larvae and capped brood, while drones the size of my thumb stomped about looking ready to pounce – which I guess they were.

So what’s with my bees? I even cut the hedge to give them more sunlight.

Last Tuesday I ran into Robert, my bee guru. He suggested I had nothing to lose by going for a little shock and awe. Apiguard for the varroa, Fumidil B for the nosema (as it will do no harm even if it isn’t present), and an uncapping tool and no mercy for the wax moth. The red mites will sort themselves out, he said.

I’m going in…


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.


I lose a(nother) colony, and treating with oxalic acid


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Nucs, Varroa destructor | Posted on 23-01-2011

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Frozen nuc bee colony

Old nuc + -13C = disaster

There was no more putting it off. The snow had been and gone. The temperature had risen from “Good grief it’s cold” to “I’d probably better put a sweater on”. It was time to open up the hives and take a quick peek.

Deryck had followed up on his promise and offered me some leftover oxalic acid. I collected about 100ml in a rinsed out pint milk carton and promised to pass on whatever was left to two other novices. It felt a bit alien suiting up and lighting the smoker again, but as it was I needn’t have bothered on either count.

I started with the nuc because in my heart of hearts I knew what to expect. Sure enough, there they all were, pathetically huddled together, unmoving. Looked at at arm’s length it was like viewing a snapshot – as if someone had snapped their fingers and made the world stand still – their queen right at the center of the mob, for once really easy to spot. There was something even sadder about the single stragglers clinging frozen to the outlying frames. It’s ridiculous how attached you become to an indistinguishable group of insects, but you do.

Mouldy nuc

The inside of the nuc

I knew before I saw it where it had all gone wrong. At the height of the cold spell I’d hung a greenhouse thermometer on a post beside the nuc. Apart from reading the temperature it also records the highs and the lows. The low measured -13.2 degrees Celsius. So much for the mild micro climate. I also noticed when it was snowing that the melted water wasn’t draining from the crown board. I’d stuck a roof on top of it but it was obviously too late. All of the frames had sprouted mould, as had the walls and floor.

To be honest I didn’t really feel much like opening the main colony after that. I did though, and was immediately greeted by the gentle fizzing sound I’d heard weeks earlier when I’d bent down and placed my ear near to the entrance. When I removed the roof and crown board they too were huddled in one corner, but very much alive, though displaying a reluctance to move that put me in mind of my daughter on school days.

Following Deryck’s advice I plunged my syringe (free with every bottle of Nurofen) into the milk carton and drew 5ml of oxalic acid. I then played ‘dodge the dozy bee’ for a while as I repeatedly attempted to empty its contents down the gaps between occupied frames. In the end I used 50ml between five frames (seven gaps). I’m sure several bees got absolutely drenched, but I did my best to get it in to the spaces.

Now I need to clean out the nuc and recycle the frames. The new beekeeping year has begun.


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.