Today was day one of the National Honey Show here in Southeast England and it definitely delivered. I arrived early, found a seat in the lecture theatre and pretty much camped out all day. There were some good talks, but for me the highlights were the lectures by experts from the US and Canada.
The day began with a lecture by Tom Seeley. This was the first time that I had heard him speak in person. I should say that he is a hero of mine, not just because he is a truly great ‘bee scientist’, but because he clearly loves bees for the amazing and fascinating creatures that they are and he is brilliant at communicating this to ordinary beekeepers like me – whether through his books or in person. He is inspiring.
The title of his talk was ‘The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory’. This was not a talk about how to harvest more honey! Instead the emphasis was, as it always is with Tom Seeley, about the bees and their behaviour, in this case how they divide and regulate labour for efficient honey production, mobilising more foragers and also more bees to process and store food when there is a nectar flow.
Using video clips he showed us how the bees use dances to recruit help where needed: the waggle dance to recruit more foragers, shaking signals to wake up sleeping bees (yes, bees do sleep!) and tremble dances to recruit more bees to process incoming nectar.
And there are also the beep signals (like head butting with a buzzing squeak!) which bees inflict on waggle dancers to get them to stop, at times when the colony is already working at full capacity and doesn’t need more nectar.
His lecture gave us layer upon layer of insight and no doubt left many of us pondering yet again how a small creatures with tiny brains can gather and manage information within the hive to organise and direct a workforce of thousands.
I feel like I was given a glimpse into the incredible wonders and possibilities of the ‘bee universe’! I know that my bees are capable of mysterious and wonderful things, but to be shown the depth of possibilities was awe-inspiring!
In short, listening to Tom Seeley today was an absolute pleasure. He gave his talk with excellent awareness of his audience and talked about the bees in such a happy and affectionate way that it’s impossible not to feel good just by being there.
There were some other great speakers too:
Ohio-based Kim Flottum gave a light-hearted but very interesting talk about drones, a subject to which we should all pay more attention (and I include myself in that!). He showed us why drones are ‘special in so many ways’.
So often overlooked, they are of course central to the survival of our bees. As well as being a ‘gene transfer mechanism’, they are an important indicator of colony health and nutritional status.
He spoke about the need to make sure that queens mate with drones that are good genetic stock and how he has moved his bee yard close to particular drone congregation areas in order to facilitate this. He advised us to look for a combination of horizon, tree line and open area when seeking to locate our local drone congregation area.
When it comes to managing varroa, he recommended drone brood removal as an effective method of keeping the varroa population down. He has a weekly cycle of adding empty drone combs/foundation and removing sealed drone combs but warned that this must be done on a fastidious timetable before the brood hatches, or else we are just creating ‘varroa incubators’ (this is how he manages honey production hives; drone brood isn’t removed from mating hives obviously).
The last lecture of the day was given by Heather Mattila from Wellesley College. The title was “Hard Working Bees Need Pollen”. Heather’s research has shown how ‘pollen stress’ on larvae affects the performance of adult bees.
When pollen is in short supply, colonies respond by decreasing brood rearing at first, then, as the shortage progresses, by reducing the number of feeding visits that nurse bees make to larvae and by early capping of larvae. When the shortage becomes severe, bees will cannibalise larvae rather than try to feed them.
Bees that have been deprived of pollen as larvae are smaller, lighter and have a shorter life span. Interestingly, they do less foraging and are twice as likely to disappear while foraging. They also have limited hypopharyngeal gland development, and feed larvae less food, less frequently. And their dances are less precise.
A good supply of pollen is vital for the health of our bees, given that it provides almost all of a colony’s nutrients. Pollen that is stored properly in cells in the hive (processed, packed into a cell and sealed with honey) has a relatively stable nutritive value. We should make sure our colonies have plenty of it for overwintering, as pollen substitutes aren’t as good as the real thing.
Each of these speakers is giving further talks at the Honey Show over the next two days, including Tom Seeley, so head on down to Esher for some inspiration.
It’s the time of year that we all love . . . Whether honey is a motivation for your beekeeping or not, it’s always exciting to see those shining jars full of beautiful honey from YOUR bees. Talk about job satisfaction!
And yet a new beekeeper said to me the other day that they are ‘dreading’ their first honey extraction because they have read about how messy and disruptive it is.
There is a lot of advice written on the subject of honey extraction, ranging from the melodramatic (e.g. ‘it’s a nightmare, you’ll get honey all over your house, cat etc.’) to the overly-fussy and uptight (e.g. you can only do it with expensive kit and a specialised tool for every task).
To me the most important rule of honey extraction is: don’t mess up what the bees have perfected! They seal the honey in a pristine state and we come along and uncap it, and expose it to all kinds of spoilage risks. Our extraction methods should be designed to give the honey the best chance of staying as the bees intended!
Here are a few tips that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years.
Clearing supers: Porter bee escapes take at least 24 hours to clear supers (meaning two trips to the apiary to bring your supers home) and in my experience they can’t be relied on to clear supers completely. They also tend to break or get propolised by the bees. This year I have used Bee Quick as it clears supers almost instantly on warm days and avoids repeat trips to the apiary. It’s pretty much faff-free and that suits me!
Is it ok to extract unsealed cells?: you can extract unsealed cells as long as you check that the moisture content is not too high. You can use a refractometer to do this (they are easy to use and you can now find them relatively cheaply now) and also do the ‘shake test’ (shake the horizontal face of the comb downwards to see if any drops of watery nectar fly out). I prefer combs to be at least 70% sealed before I extract them. Remember that honey with too much water will spoil through fermentation. Honey from different floral sources can have different water contents so make sure you know what is right for yours. I know that 19% water is too much for my lavender honey to last more than 12 months (but luckily it’s never around that long).
Transporting and storing supers: remember to keep your supers and frames in clean conditions prior to extraction – don’t lay them on the ground or put them in the dirty boot of your car. This is food we’re talking about! And when you bring them home, keep them in a dry and odour-free place until you extract them which should be within 24 hours. Honey is hygroscopic (absorbs water) and can also absorb odours, which could ruin your whole extraction.
Honey extractors: the only expensive piece of equipment I use is a nine frame electric extractor which is worth its weight in gold. Every year I rent it from my local beekeeping association and it has transformed the extraction process in my house. It’s so easy to use and much more efficient at extracting every drop from the comb. Having said that, when I had just a few supers to extract my four frame manual extractor served me just fine and I still have it safely stored away. Whatever extractor you choose to suit your needs, I think this is one piece of equipment that is worth investing in.
Uncapping tools: one thing I will never use is one of those uncapping knives with the wavy edge. I bought one and used it for about 5 mins. It just seems to mash the comb. I much prefer a thinner, flexible blade. I have an old-fashioned, serrated bread knife and a carving knife which, when sharpened, does a brilliant job at getting just under the cappings and removing them in one piece. After all, you want the honey to go into the extractor, not to spill all over the uncapping tray. There are of course quicker ways to uncap. I have never tried an uncapping roller but I have seen them used and they are very speedy and efficient. Hot air guns of the paint stripper type are fine as long as you use them lightly and fast – or else they char the honey and can even cause damage to the comb.
Uncapping trays: this is where I get really low tech! You know how you sometimes get attached to a favourite thing that is old but does the job so well that you can’t find a replacement? Well, mine is a 10 year old serving tray from Ikea, with a cheesecake recipe printed on it! . . . and it is the perfect size and hygienic and just the thing for me. I once borrowed a steam-heated uncapping tray which was very efficient but it was huge, very hot and the steam peeled the paint from the ceiling of my kitchen. And it’s a very bad idea to have steam in the extraction room because honey will absorb moisture.
Tips for your extraction room: whether it’s your kitchen or another facility, your extraction room should be scrupulously clean – especially surfaces and floor. Please do remove the dog’s bed and the cat ‘s litter tray!!!!! It helps a lot to declutter surfaces and tidy everything away. The room also needs to be ‘bee tight’ i.e. keep windows and doors closed during extraction or you’ll have every bee from miles around trying to get in. It’s a good thing to keep the extraction room warm because honey ‘runs’ better when it’s warm and you’ll get a better yield. Put the oven on if necessary and put the extractor in front of it.
‘Operator Hygiene’: contrary to how this sounds, it’s not anything to do with surgery but is actually about food hygiene practices. I’m not going to go on a rant here but it should be common sense to stop your hair falling into the honey, or cigarette ash, or to not wear a fluffy woollen jumper while extracting or leave a basket of dirty laundry by the extractor! However you’d be surprised what some people think is ok. Whether you are selling your honey or giving it away, present it to the highest standards. It pays to be fastidious especially when dealing with a beautiful product.
Keep honey and water well apart: one of the most important things to remember is to keep water away from your honey. Obviously honey does naturally contain moisture but the bees manage it to ensure fermentation doesn’t take place. As soon as we remove the cappings the honey is vulnerable to absorbing too much moisture and drops of water or steam from the extracting room can spoil the whole extraction. I’t’s very easy to splash water into the extractor if its near the sink so put it elsewhere if you have room. You also have to be very careful when washing your hands – dry them properly before touching anything.
How to prevent stickiness: this really isn’t a problem or even an inconvenience. I simply start off with a clean, washed floor and lay down a sheet of newspaper on every drop of honey that falls. The newspaper can be scooped up and recycled when the extraction is over. I find that normal surface spray quickly dissolves blobs of honey on worktops, cupboard doors, doorhandles, taps etc. If you don’t like sticky hands or arms, wear disposable food gloves that fit (not ones that twist around because they’re too large) and a long-sleeved shirt.
What to do with the cappings?: if you don’t want to deal with cappings, there are methods of uncapping that deal with them for you e.g. hot air guns which melt them. I do however like to have some cappings left over. I filter mine over a bowl overnight, covered with clingfilm. I then strain this honey a second time into the main ripening tank before bottling. Some people spin cappings in muslin bags in the extractor but I’ve never tried this. It seems like a good idea. Remember that you can make mead from the water that you use when washing your extractor afterwards. You can also make it from water that you’ve use to wash the cappings. I haven’t made mead but I love the idea of nothing going to waste.
Be warned – honey is silent!! : just when you’re enjoying the sight of your hard-earned honey flowing into the filter, you turn your back for what you think is a second only to find honey overflowing down the sides of the tank and onto the floor without you hearing it. Unlike water, it doesn’t make a sound. The key moments of risk are when you have opened the tap to run honey into the wire mesh filter. It fills up very quickly especially if there is wax debris blocking the drainage; it can also happen when jarring. Don’t take your eyes off it!
Leaking honey gates: this is quite common so always test the seals before you use the equipment for the first time each year. If your honey gate is leaking it could be one of a few things. Have you taken the gate off to wash it? Make sure you put it back on the right way. The smooth side of the gate must face inwards and the grid side must face outwards. Make sure the seals are in good condition and are securely in place. Sometimes as they get older they sag and stretch, so you won’t get a good seal. Spare rubber rings should be supplied with any tap you buy but if not you can get them online.
A leaking honey gate caused by the tap being fitted wrongly: the smooth side should be inside.
Settling honey: I leave the filtered honey to ‘ripen’ for 24 hours before skimming it and running it directly into jars. Honey is vulnerable to moisture and odours while it’s settling. Now is definitely not the time to fry up some bacon! With my tank I find that if I push the lid on too firmly it’s hard to get it off again (in fact I think they used to have a label that warned they may break). So I sit the lid on top and drape a couple of clean tea towels over.
A tank of honey after settling with a white froth of air bubbles on top
Once you get it all into the ripening tank you are just 24 hours away from some beautiful jars of honey. More on the jarring process soon . . . as that’s another story.
Wishing you a sweet and successful extraction!
So . . . how did you and your bees come through the ‘swarming season’? Hopefully you didn’t lose any swarms, and hopefully you might have some new queens laying by now. Most of all, hopefully you didn’t experience any dramas in the process!
In Part 1 of this blog I talked about how swarming can seem like a very big deal indeed. Here, in Part 2, I want to share the method I use to control swarming. It’s a simple method but, like anything in beekeeping, it does rely on having the equipment you need at hand when you actually need it. Getting prepared is essential and believe me, it reduces swarming- related drama by at least 50%!
OK then . . . how to control swarming?
The first step is to understand the difference between swarm prevention and swarm control because the process of managing swarming begins way in advance of finding that first queen cell.
Swarm prevention begins as the colony starts to expand rapidly. The key objective is to ensure that the colony has enough space. This is absolutely vital because a congested colony is not happy: the queen doesn’t have space to lay and queen substance, which keeps the colony together as a cohesive society, cannot be transmitted as effectively through the crowded highways and byways of the hive.
To relieve congestion, you can remove a couple of frames of brood and give them to other colonies that need a boost, and replace them with empty drawn comb (ideally) or frames and foundation. Or you can make up a three frame nuc and let them raise their own queen.
Adding supers is also crucial – the bees will need the space if there is a flow on, and there is already a tendency to swarm during a flow because the abundance of food enables colonies to raise queens. Without supers, they will store nectar in the brood nest, forcing the space issue to crisis point. It’s essential to know when the nectar flows begin in your area, so that you can stay one step ahead.
The moment for decisive action arrives: a primed queen cell is found
You will have been inspecting your colonies every seven days, searching for signs of swarm preparation. It starts with production of drone brood in spring, then small cups – ‘play cups’, which are rough and unpolished inside, and which the bees are constructing around the edges of the comb. Sometimes it doesn’t progress beyond this, especially if you have managed them well as they expand. But it’s more likely that on subsequent inspections you will notice that the cups are being polished, and eventually you’ll see a larvae floating in a milky puddle inside – a primed queen cell.
This is the point at which you have to act immediately. Don’t panic!! Don’t knock down the queen cells and ‘come back next week’. I’ve done it, and they swarmed in the interim. (Incidentally, in my opinion, constantly knocking down queen cells is not a method of swarm control. The bees get depressed, and the colony dwindles.)
The basic principle of swarm control is to separate the queen from the brood to simulate swarming conditions. So, when you find that primed queen cell here’s what to do.
You will have your equipment ready to go because you got everything prepared, right?! Have an empty polynuc fitted with frames and foundation, for each colony, ready to use.
First, go through the swarming colony and check where the queen cells are and which one looks like a good one to keep. Remember not to shake any frames at this point to ensure that you don’t damage any queen cells that you might want to keep.
Next, find the queen and put her and the frame she’s on in the nuc. It is vital to destroy any queen cells on this frame – look very carefully because the bees are ingenious at hiding them. Use smoke to move the bees around and check all areas of the comb. (See Dave Cushman’s website for very helpful information about making up two frame nucs and their uses.)
Then put a frame of stores and pollen in the nuc, another frame of capped brood that’s ready to emerge, and an empty comb or some frames and foundation. Again, these frames must not have queen cells on them. Shake in some more bees from a few brood frames and add a dummy board and close up the nuc. Feed it syrup if needed, 2:1 if you want them to draw foundation.
Move the nuc away from the hive but keep it relatively close by in case you want to unite it again at some point (the general rule is 3 feet away).
Now deal with the queen cells in the main colony: take a another look through the frames and, without shaking any of them, choose a nice open queen cell, with a plump larvae inside and mark the frame with a drawing pin. Again, without shaking the frame, check it carefully for other queen cells and knock them all down so that your chosen cell is all that’s left. Avoid choosing capped cells because you can’t be sure there is a queen in there (I once chose a beautiful sealed queen cell which turned out to have nothing in it).
Having chosen your cell, its time to seek and destroy all other queen cells in the hive. This is no mean task. Not only do the bees resent the process of shaking them off the frames but it’s also very easy to miss queen cells which the bees are so good at hiding, especially in indentations or shrunken parts of the comb around the sides and bottom. One missed queen cell can derail the whole process further down the line.
But pause for just a second before you go on a rampage and ask yourself if you can use any of the other queen cells in the hive: if it’s a colony with traits that you like, you may want to use a queen cell to requeen another colony, for example. Bear in mind that you can’t use a cell if it has been shaken.
Now continue: carefully shake the bees off all the other frames and knock down all queen cells, doing a thorough job at getting the larvae out with your hive tool. Shake the bees off all other frames and carefully find and destroy all unwanted queen cells.
Finally, and this is crucial: open the hive again 4-5 days later and destroy any further queen cells that they will have made from the eggs and larvae that were still in there when the queen was moved into the polynuc. If you miss this step the colony will make a ‘second round’ of queen cells, meaning that you may have multiple queens hatching in a week’s time and chaos could ensue. I also check the queen cell again after seven days to check she has emerged.
Leave for the colony for 10 days up to three weeks to give her time to mate and start laying. Depending on her performance you can then cull the older queen and re-unite the hive and polynuc, or leave the nuc to grow into another full-sized colony.
Hopefully that sounds simple because it is in practice! Here are the key benefits:
- It’s quick: it takes around 15 minutes to do the whole thing
- No need for another complete hive, just a polynuc which is much cheaper
- No moving heavy colonies around.
There are also a couple of don’ts:
- Don’t leave the colony for a month as some books say – be sure to check again for the ‘second round’ of queen cells
- Don’t leave two queen cells – the first queen to emerge doesn’t always sting remaining queen cells. Sometimes she can depart with some of the remaining bees, further depleting your colony. There is lots of conflicting advice on this, but I have learned the hard way that one queen cell is best!
And that’s it! Hopefully this has shown how easy it is to manage swarming colonies. And how to take the drama out of swarming!
Yes, it’s that time of year again. If you are anxiously inspecting your colonies, dreading that you might find a queen cell, then you are not alone!
The swarming process can be very confusing and stressful, especially if you are in your early years of beekeeping. Everything seems to be going so well: the hive is full of bees and you start visualising those jars of golden honey when suddenly, it seems that you lose all control – and then half your bees!
For me, swarming has been the cause of tears, injuries, marital discord and hangovers! All beekeepers have their ‘swarm stories’. And yet, now that I’ve worked it out, I realise how easy the swarming process is to manage.
Swarming is, after all, a natural behaviour that we need to work with, and not try to stop it or suppress it. Even before you find that first queen cell, there is a lot you can do to control or at least influence your bees’ swarming preparations.
Why all the drama?
As I said, swarming is completely natural. But that doesn’t lessen the panic you feel when your neighbours are enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon in their garden and all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems to them and you.
Seeing a hive swarm is incredible and fascinating. You really feel the full animal force of the super organism as it divides and reproduces! However if you’re not a beekeeper, you would undoubtedly be more likely to run away than stand in awe. I understand why people who aren’t wearing bee suits feel a need to flee the scene.
Then of course there is the strange aftermath with swarms hanging around in trees or wherever – imagine if one of those suddenly appeared in your garden with its busy scouts flying to and fro. (Obviously as beeks, we’d put it in a hive, but if you’re not a beekeeper . . . ?!)
So I think that swarming can indeed cause a lot of drama – but in itself it isn’t something to panic about. You are not a bad beekeeper if your bees swarm! But the goal is to find a way of managing their natural swarming behaviour to avoid a swarm issuing from the hive in the first place.
It takes time, attention and experience to do this, but it can be done without the drama – I’m living proof!
Can someone name a swarm control method after me please?
My first nuc swarmed when I’d had it for two weeks. I now know that shouldn’t have happened, but nevertheless I was scarred from the start!
Determined to tackle swarm control, I tried using the Pagden method of artificial swarming in my first two years. It was like the dummy’s guide to swarm control: I went through the manipulation but didn’t always understand why. I don’t think I ever went through the process of moving the parent hive to the other side of the swarm hive.
As I grew more confident, and space became an issue in my garden, I switched to vertical methods such as Demaree and Snelgrove Boards.
But to be honest, none of these really worked for me. No doubt there were things that I wasn’t doing correctly. But at the end of the day, I like things that are simple and that work. I don’t like equipment or methods that you have to fiddle around with all the time. And my problem with the swarm methods I was using was that they supposedly required a full spare hive for each colony, and lots of lifting and shifting stuff around.
In searching for a new swarm control method I became overwhelmed with all the options and ideas out there. Every time I opened a beekeeping journal there was something new to me, named after someone! This added to my anxiety: was I doing the right thing? Would my bees suffer from my ignorance??!!
The kindness of beekeepers
Beware: when you ask for advice about swarming, set aside an hour or so for the answer. Beekeepers are notorious for conflicting opinions and contradicting themselves! I think we all know what I mean! Should you leave two queen cells or one? Does the first queen to emerge always sting other queen cells? Is the cell always capped on day seven? Etc.
I once had two beautiful queen cells to choose from in a swarming colony, and asked fellow beekeepers if I could leave both. Some said yes, some said no. I left the two cells and the first queen to emerge didn’t sting the other cell as I had been told. Instead they cast, leaving me with even less bees. Still, it was ultimately my decision – and I learned a valuable lesson!
Having said that, when you are at the point where you need support or just don’t know what to do with a colony, ask a beekeeper! I have always found beekeepers to be kind and supportive (as well as driving me nuts!). Don’t suffer through swarming alone – ask for help.
So, what is the answer to drama-free swarm control?
I eventually arrived at a simple method of swarm control that doesn’t require a whole spare hive, or moving hives around. I will explain the process in Part 2 of this blog, but for now, the clue is ‘polynuc’!
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘swarm therapy’ session. I certainly feel better to have got some of these things off my chest. Just don’t ask me about the time I tried to collect a swarm in my dressing gown!
Whether your apiary is at home or away, it’s important to consider whether it is safe and convenient for you. I’m not talking about ‘health and safety gone mad’, just common sense!
Fly poster by subdude
An apiary should work for the beekeeper as well as the bees. And as I’ve discovered recently, there are a number of danger zones in my apiary that need attention. Spring is the time to asses your apiary and rectify anything that doesn’t work for you.
Take a look at the following: a taut wire (in the foreground), a fence post from a fallen-down fence, a thicket of brambles and nettles, and some broken breeze blocks thrown in for good measure:
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it did go wrong the other day and certain parts of my anatomy are still tingling from the thorns and nettle stings! I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse. I could have knocked myself out or disembowelled myself with my hive tool.
Luckily no-one was there to witness my humiliation but the most embarrassing thing about it is that I’ve tripped there before and I did nothing to remedy it.
There are other things that keep happening: hitting my heat on overhanging tree branches, not having enough space to work certain colonies and mossy logs lying camouflaged on the ground which I always take great care to step over . . . that is, until I’m carrying equipment and can’t see them.
This makes me sound like a sloppy beekeeper but I definitely am not that. I just get so wrapped up in what’s best for the bees (and the public) that I de-prioritise my own convenience.
It is completely about applying common sense.
Allow me to share some tips from my own experience. Hopefully I have made these mistakes so that you don’t have to!
First, take time to cut back those brambles and anything else that can trip you or catch hold of you. Trim back branches so they don’t hit you on the head or slap you in the face! Ducking and dodging is risky and inconvenient.
Arrange your apiary so that you have adequate space to inspect hives in comfort, including putting roofs on the ground, lifting and stacking supers and generally moving around. If you’re in a small space that is uncomfortable it risks the chance of falling over or of being clumsy and disturbing the bees. If you can’t move a hive consider changing the frames from warm way to cold way or vice versa.
When it comes to equipment, remember that your hive tool is like a weapon – it’s strong, sharp and would get you arrested if you carried it in certain situations! Learn to use it properly and be careful when it’s in the pocket of your bee suit.
You’ll think I’m really pointing out the obvious now, but smokers can and do set fire to things – like dry grass at your apiary or the back of your car! Suddenly your car is full of smoke and other drivers are frantically gesticulating at you. Yes, I know that this need to spell things out probably explains a lot about my own mishaps, but it did really happen to me and others I know!
Lie smokers on their side and plug the spout with a knot of green grass or a cork. Check that they are cool and fully extinguished. If you’re not careful the lid can slip open when you’re driving along, letting in oxygen which re-ignites the fire. Some beekeepers put them in a tin which seems like a good idea, I just have to find a tin that’s big enough.
On a more serious note, something happened that really scared me one evening: I was hassled by two people who wouldn’t go away. My apiary is tucked away and not visible. My phone was in my car and I couldn’t get to it. I thought that if they came any closer I would push over a beehive.
Luckily it didn’t come to that but now I do keep my mobile on me and fully charged and I tell someone where I’m going. I think that’s especially important for us girls. And I do keep Piriton in the car in case I react to a sting (which has never happened, touchwood, but I have beekeeping friends who this has happened to).
To me, beekeeping is beautiful thing and anything that niggles me in my apiary is an unwanted distraction from quality time with my bees.
The moral of these sad stories?: a happy beekeeper helps to keep bees happy too!