Is a rainstorm the best time to take a beekeeping test?
I like the wet thump of a juicy raindrop smashing into a pane of glass. Rain is natures percussionist. An afternoon in the living room listening to a performance played on my window is time well spent, add coffee and cake it’s perfect. Rainy days, I love. Unless I’m taking the assessment for the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Basic, which I am. Bugger.
Reading University says it’s the third wettest July since 1941. I don’t know that trudging muddy allotment path humming ‘rain rain go away’. An unlucky hive is going to be opened by me. Unlucky for the bees because bees don’t like being wet. Unlucky for me, about to put my hands in a box of 50,000 grumpy wet bees. I’m sure there are other things I could be doing on a Saturday afternoon than beekeeping the rain. I’ve been coaxed into taking the basic by my beekeeping friends. Beekeeper peer pressure is a powerful force, that’s why we lie about regular varroa checks, and it has landed me here.
But I’m in good company. The BBKA began providing formal qualifications for beekeepers shortly after it was founded in 1874. The adoption of moveable frames allowing a more standardised approach to the craft. The basic assessment I’m taking today is the very first qualification in a comprehensive system and has been taken by thousands of beekeepers before me. I’m here to prove I understand the basics of keeping bees.
The basic is gateway drug into the BBKA educational system. If I want to take another course I have to pass this assessment first, then I’m on my way to the coveted Master Beekeeper qualification; well maybe not it sounds hard work. The basic tests my knowledge and skill in the fundamentals of the beekeeping craft: equipment, handling and keeping them healthy. The assessment is practical exam – no papers – just me, bees, the assessor and his clipboard.
Tracey, my podcasting co-host and tutor hands me a cup of tea then apologises for the weather – a very British habit. We chat about the day so far and how her other students have coped with both the assessment and the conditions. She has resorted to holding a large umbrella over the hives during the assessments hoping to keep both bees and humans dry.
I’m the last candidate of the day and my assessor is standing under the gazebo erected by the association apiary team. BBKA examiners have common traits. They want you to past, are helpful, have decades of experience, but, have a steely core forged in the heat of thousands of bumbling candidates that have come before me. He suggested we complete the oral part of the test first in the hope we’ll catch a break in the rain.
The basic has both practical and oral elements. The oral test is a series of questions ranging from hive types to the diseases bees may suffer from. Confidence is important when answering the questions. I start to answer a question about swarm control by saying – some people may .. my examiner quickly interjects – no Paul I want to know what you do, not other people. If you are taking the basic next year, keep this in mind.
I breeze through the questions, the evenings spent in the study group lead by Tracey pays off. I remember the life cycle of the different casts of bee, how to spot the most common of diseases, what jobs need to be done through the beekeeping year and how to extract honey. Making a frame is one of the practical skills I needed to demonstrate and just as I hand my completed frame to my assessor the rains slow to a mild drizzle – time to crack open a hive.
When you inspect your own hives there is a certainty to what you will find after you remove the hive roof. Opening someone else’s hives is like opening a birthday present from the serious aunt when I was a kid. I hoped it would be fun, but ultimately was disappointed after tearing the corner to realise its another education book. Walking towards my nominated hive I eyed it with the same mixture of hope and suspicion.
My lucky dip hive I has two brood boxes separated by either a crown board or queen excluder. I removed the roof and placed it upside down on the floor where it would provide a handy platform to store the other hive parts. On the crown board is a simple record card. The bees are a recently hived swarm, this is good news as newly hive swarms with a laying queen – in my experience – are easy to inspect. All the time through this process I’m explaining to the assessor what I’m thinking and doing. Being very verbal seems a good idea, he asks me some questions about the parts of the hive, what I notice about the bees coming and going from the hive entrance. I crack the crown board, as I lift it there is a problem.
Fresh wild comb is beautiful, it smells lovely and has that sunset yellow colour. The top broad box has no frames and the bees dutifully built five perfect combs from the roof. I’m rather pleased with myself manoeuvring the comb and laying the crown board on the roof with no damage to the wax.
Throughout the inspection the assessor asks me questions: can you see the Queen, what’s in the cell, what is that, where are the stores. All stuff you should be thinking about when inspecting. The rain was holding off and it is going when, he points to a hole in a cell capping and asks – what’s that?
Erm … err….. erm …… that’s me bemused. I’ve seen them before and never considered the tiny holes you see at the top of the capping. Ding! My brain snaps into shape, the bees are capping the cell. And with that answer the assessment is over. After our goodbyes my examiner went home, leaving me to hang around with the association members who’d kindly given up their free time to set up the apiary for our assessments.
If you’ve been keeping bees in the UK for over a year and are a member of the BBKA I would recommend taking the basic it. Your association will run a study group and I found that it crystallised all the things I’m meant to do throughout the beekeeping and when I carry out hive checks, but, sometimes don’t.
Don’t let the practical assessment dissuade you from trying – you’ll be fine.
More information regarding BBKA educational programs can be found here: https://www.bbka.org.uk/learn/examinations__assessments
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We sat down later in the evening to record the show than we normally do. This late-night jive has a more relaxed (if that is possible) feel to it – and more interruptions: lights going off, doorbells ringing, echoey sound and general tomfoolery.
Why not read our #BeekeepingBookClub book – The Honeybee Democracy
We’re going to the National Honey Show so let us know if you are too
05:00 – 10:00 : Introducing a new addition to Tracey’s family member.
10:00 – 15:00 : European Foulbrood found in Wimbledon. Visit this link to find out how to spot it here – http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/public/beekeepingFaqs/europeanFoulbroodEfb.cfm
15:00 – 21:00 : What’s Tracey been up to in her apiary.
21:00 – 23:00 : Do we baby our bees?
23:00 – 3200 : Winter treatments
32:00 – 37:00 : Tracey hearts hefting and Paul hates mice
37:00 – 43:00 : Strapping hives
43:00 – 45:00 : Winter cleaning begins
45:00 – 51:00 : The National Honey Show
51:00 – 54:00 : Why you should attend you’re winter beekeeping meetings
54:00 – 59:00 : British Beekeeper Associations exams
Spoon playing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POvLaziUsTo
59:00 – 1:06:00 : Stuff to do over winter
1:06:00 – 1:10:00 : #BeekeepingBookClub : The Honey Bee Democracy by Thomas Seeley
Visit our beekeeping blog at thebeehivejive.com
Follow us on twitter @thebeehivejive
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In this episode of the Beehive Jive Tracey and Paul wrap up our queen rearing year by discussing our learnings acquired trying to establish a queen rearing program in our apiaries.
We also talk about what is happening in our apiaries and beekeepers’ educational programs.
00:00 – 02:00: What’s up with Paul’s bees
02:00 – 00:00: Using Bee-Quick to clear supers – http://www.bee-quick.com/
06:00 – 07:00: Getting nucs ready for winter
07:00 – 12:00: BBKA education program – https://www.bbka.org.uk/learn/
12:00 – 16:00: What’s happening in Tracey’s honey mines
16:00 – 21:00: Treatments
21:00 – 25:00: The Ivy flow is coming
What did we learn about queen rearing this year.
25:00 – 31:00: Queen selection and grafting
33:00 – 40:00: Mating nucs learnings
40:00 – 43:00: Does rearing queens change your approach to colony management
43:00 – 49:00: Culling queens & queen selection
49:00 – 51:00: Disappearing queens
51:00 – 52:00: Cell building plans for next year.
53:00 – 1:16:00: Queen rearing isn’t a linear process.
1:16:00 – 1:24:00: Rating our beekeeping year.
Visit our occasional beekeeping blog – http://www.thebeehivejive.com
Excellent queen rearing course – http://www.tigerhallbees.co.uk/
Millar method – http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/millermethod.html
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Welcome to episode six of the Beehive Jive podcast.
In this show we discuss:
00:01 – 00:08: Tracey’s apiary update
00:08 – 00:17: Paul’s apiary update
00:17 – 00:37: Mite bombs
00:37 – 01:00: Queen rearing update – the trouble with mating nucs
Links to items in the show:
In the backwaters of beekeeping, a bitter debate is raging between the proponents of the so-called ‘mite-bomb’ theory and its opponents who claim it is stuff and nonsense. It isn’t the friendly sort of discussion beeks may have over tea and cake; discussing if you need matchsticks under the crown board when overwintering bees, goodness no, it is a debate with firmly entrenched opinions which each think the other side is either flat earthers or in the pocket of chemical companies.
In short, critics of those beekeepers who choose not to manage mite populations and allow them to die to say those actions kill other beekeepers’ hives. They claim varroa mites travel from the collapsing hives to nearby apiaries and overwhelm healthy hives leading to their demise as well.
This article in Bee Culture provides a more detailed narrative.
I’m not in the business of telling beekeepers how to manage their bees. So, I don’t intend to provide commentary on differing opinions on bee husbandry.
However, I do find the process of how varroa mites move from one hive to another fascinating and if you do too, read on.
The role of cuticular hydrocarbons in hives
Cuticular what now?
Insects’ cuticles, the outer layer, are coated with a layer of hydrocarbons – hence the name cuticular hydrocarbon. Its primary role is to stop the insect drying out. However, it also plays another important role in insects as a means of communication.
There is extensive research demonstrating that the chemicals signatures of these hydrocarbons play and important role in social insects’ communication mechanisms.
For example, in 2003 a study published in Nature described how researchers observed that ants could identify not only the tasks its nestmate was undertaking but also use that information to decide what task it needed to complete.
The context of honey bees you won’t be surprised to find out that forager bees have a different chemical signature that nurse bees.
How does varroa select the bees they hitch a ride on?
To understand how varroa move from a collapsing colony to a new one is it important to understand if varroa has a way to distinguish between different types of bees.
Work done by Dr Cervo and the team determined that given a choice varroa mites had a preference to attach themselves to nurse bees. From the mite’s perspective, a nurse bee will inevitably lead to new brood cell and a juicy fresh larva to raise more varroa on.
As a colony starts to collapse the population decreases to the point that the bees hydrocarbon signature becomes less distinct; resulting in phoretic varroa choosing both nurse and forager bees.
The other consequence of the declining colony population is an increased insistence of robbing.
Varroa will also readily attach themselves to these robbing bees and therefore make their way into other hives.
There is no question that mites have a mechanism that allows them to move from hive to hive, especially, if they have exploited their hosts to the point of colony collapse.
Intervention free beekeeping?
From my perspective, the real mite-bomb debate isn’t treatment or treatment free beekeeping but rather interventionless or interventionist beekeeping.
Being treatment free doesn’t mean you can’t make interventions in the colony to reduce the impact of varroa on your hives. There are plenty of bio-technical measures that can be deployed to manage mite levels within the colony which do not require chemical treatments that mimic how feral colonies are coping with varroa in the wild.
If you aren’t intervening in your colonies, even just to monitor health, you probably aren’t beekeeping.