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In this episode of the beehive jive, Tracey and Paul visit each others hives and chat about what they achieved this season.
00:00 – 08:30: We visited Paul’s bees to see what was up
08:30 – 11:30: We dared to visit Tracey’s bees as well
11:30 – 53:00: Did we achieve our goals for this season?
53:00 – 01:00: Varroa treatment ramble
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Android |
Tracey and Paul discuss poly hives, forget the name of varroa treatments and Tracey has discovered sugar rolling.
00:00 – 04:00: The most random of beekeeping updates
04:00 – 07:00: Superseder problems
07:00 – 16:00: Managing lots of poly nucs
16:00 – 18:00: Tracey’s honey shack
18:00 – 23:00: Over wintering on poly hives
23:00 – 34:00: Poly hive vs. woodern hives
34:00 – 47:00: Sugar rolling
47:00 – 01:05: Tracey’s bee safaris
If you haven’t already started your end-of-summer varroa treatments, then you will be thinking about it now.
Here in Southeast England the heatwave ended the nectar flow earlied than usual, so I’m going to get started on the treatments.
First, work out the size of the varroa problem
I don’t routinely treat my colonies with varroacides at this time of year. I usually prefer to first do a mite count in each colony to see if a treatment is needed.
This approach can be risky, because you need a reliable method of obtaining an accurate varroa level. If you get it wrong and underestimate the varroa population – well, you know what can happen, and how devastating it can be.
The most accurate way of measuring varroa levels is actually an alcohol wash BUT this has the drawback of killing the bees that are used for the test.
So this year I chose to use the sugar roll method which also has good accuracy and doesn’t kill the bees.
Equipment needed for a sugar roll
I was inspired to try this method when Paul (my Beehive Jive co-host) gave me a kit from the University of Minnesota, which was put together to promote the sugar roll method that they developed.
It’s a really handy kit in a plastic tub that contains everything you need to do a sugar roll: a scoop to measure the right number of bees for the test (approx. 100 bees), a plastic ‘jar’ with a wire mesh lid to roll the bees in, icing sugar, and the tub itself, to shake the icing sugar and mites into at the end.
Obviously you could assemble the kit yourself very easily.
Simple and effective
The sugar roll is so simple: shake the bees from a brood frame or two into the plastic tub, then fill the scoop with bees and put them into the jar with the lid on. Just make sure that the queen doesn’t end up in there!
Put approx. two tablespoons of icing sugar into the jar, through the mesh, using your hive tool.
Then simply roll and shake the bees in the jar until they are coated with the sugar. Leave the bees in a cool place for a couple of minutes and then . . .
THE FUN PART: shake the icing sugar out of the jar, into the plastic tub. You can literally see the mites shaking out amongst the sugar! Scary but fascinating!
THE SERIOUS PART: count the mites that have shaken out into the tub (I find it easier to do this if I first spray some water into it). If there is brood in the colony when you do the test, you must then
DOUBLE the number of mites that you have counted.
The sugar roll method is essentially telling you how many mites you have per hundred bees. If the result is more than 10-12 mites per colony, you need to take action immediately.
Too many mites – treat immediately
Once you’re done, tip the bees in the jar onto the tops of the frames. They will look slightly dizzy but will be fine!
A win-win method for the bees and the beekeeper
I love this method because it’s simple, clean and almost instant. Just what you need when making the decision about how to manage your colonies at this crucial time of year, when the winter bees will start developing.
In the past I have used the varroa drop method, where you count the mites that drop onto the tray through the open mesh floor. I never felt completely confident about this because often it was difficult to find the mites amongst other debris on the tray, and some colonies seemed to clean the tray, so I had no idea how many mites were there to begin with.
It’s worth noting that the sugar roll is not the same as when you dust the bees with icing sugar to encourage them to groom their mites off. The sugar roll is a different method and an accurate one.
So, thanks to the University of Minnesota for this simple way of getting an accurate varroa reading in just a few minutes, without harming the bees.
If you listen to the Beehive Jive podcast (and you should), you’ll know that Tracey and I are big fans of polystyrene nucleus boxes, by fans I mean borderline obsessed.
These cheap, lightweight and flexible little hives are the swiss army knives of beekeeping. Every year I put mine hard to work: catching and controlling swarms, splitting hives and queen rearing. April I move six poly nucs to my apiaries where they are invaluable throughout the season. I’m own four types of poly-hive: Paynes, Maisemore, Lyson mating nucs and this year the BS Honey 2in1 nuc.
BS Honey are the new kids on the poly block and late last season launched an innovative 2 in 1 hive; allowing beekeepers to run two, three frame, colonies in the same box – or use it as a simple six frame box. Sharing the same dimensions as the popular Maisemore nuc, you can use additional brood boxes and supers purchases for the Masie hive with the BS Honey boxes. I grabbed eight of them at last years National Honey Show and used them in queen rearing this year.
The nuc includes an integrated hive top feeder, dividing board and has an entrance at each end. The corex dividing board separates the two halves of the nuc box preventing bees, or more importantly, queens crossing between the two colonies. I’ve raised about twenty queens in these boxes and never experienced leakage between the two sides. As the bees start to build the frames out, the separating corex board often bends, and the frames become quite tight in the box; requiring finesse when removing the frames. In day to day use, I transfer the colonies to larger six frame nucs once I’ve established a mated and laying queen is present.
The corex board has two positions, either in the centre position for a two colony configuration or stored at the side if you are using the box as a traditional six frame nuc. I would strongly recommend using the stored position, or like me, you can simply lose a board by putting is ‘somewhere safe’ in the apiary and then forgetting where that is.
The bees do fill the board runners with propolis, I’ve had to scrape them out regularly to use the stored position – I’m only going to be using them for mating nucs next season and leaving the board in the centre position means no more runner scraping for me.
The hive top feeder is very clever; it separates each of the sides of the hive with a shared syrup reservoir; if you over-winter them as six frames nucs a silicon stopper can be removed allowing you to lay fondant in the feeder.
All season I’ve used these hives in my queen rearing program (it’s not a program, just me swearing a lot a being amazed I’ve got new queens – but program sounds like I have a plan) and in a small-scale queen rearing workflow three frame mating nucs are a joy. A frame of brood, food and an empty frame for the bees to work means that the nuc requires little care during the three to four-week mating process. After a year using the BS Honey 2in1, I wouldn’t be without them now.
BS Honey have raised the bar for poly-nuc innovation; I look forward to seeing how the other manufacturers in the industry react further feeding my poly nuc addiction.
You can find BS Honey at https://www.bshoneybees.co.uk/
It’s been a strange ‘swarming season’ in my apiary this year. Most of my colonies haven’t tried to swarm, and the ones that have have been rather half-hearted about the whole business. One colony started to make queen cells, then changed their minds and tore them all down. I’ve not seen that before in my own bees.
So far I’ve only had to do swarm control manipulations on four colonies, which is no problem at all now that I have my polynuc method so well-rehearsed that I could do it in my sleep!
Every year as the bees begin swarming preparations, I give thanks to whoever invented the polynuc . . .
Polynucs: possibly the most useful thing you can buy
New splits in polynucs with 14×12 ekes and a feeder on top
I started beekeeping just eight years ago but I don’t remember polynucs being a feature of my early learning. Perhaps that’s because many of the books I read as a beginner were written before polynucs came into use.
(If you want to learn about polynucs and polyhives, look online e.g. dave-cushman.net)
At any rate, everything I read advised that you need a spare complete hive for every colony that needs an artificial swarm.
This always worried me, because I didn’t have the cash (or the storage) for so much spare equipment.
Polynucs to the rescue
I needn’t have worried though as I was about to be rescued by a polymer (how poetic!). The polynuc has changed the way I approach swarm control, and many other aspects of my beekeeping.
When a colony starts to produce queen cells for swarming, I just grab an empty polynuc and within 10 minutes the situation is dealt with, with no dramas.
It’s as simple as this:
- Find the queen and put the frame she is on into the polynuc having checked it thoroughly for swarm cells and destroyed them
- Put in two frames of sealed brood that is ready to emerge – check there are no swarm cells on them first (or the bees will swarm just like in a full colony)
- Put in a frame of pollen and stores
- Put in a frame of empty drawn comb if you have one, or a frame of foundation, or just a dummy board
- Shake in a couple of frames of nurse bees from the main colony (to ensure there are enough bees to take care of the queen and brood)
- Close and move the polynuc straight to where you want it to sit (close to the parent colony if you think you may want to reunite, but you can move it further than three feet – just remember that the number of bees will be depleted by the flying bees returning to the parent hive).
That’s the first stage of the swarm control manipulation; you then need to deal with all the swarm cells in the parent colony as per usual. (My advice is to choose one unsealed cell, not two (always a contentious subject!), and don’t forget to do a second knock-down of queen cells 4 days later.)
Why this works to stop swarming immediately:
- The queen has been removed from the main colony, therefore it will not swarm (bees don’t swarm without a queen)
- The polynuc will not swarm either although the queen is there; obviously you need to keep an eye on it because it will grow rapidly and you may well find queen cells in there in a few week’s time if you don’t give it more space.
- Have your equipment clean and ready, on site. I stack mine up and leave it there
- As soon as you see a primed queen cell, go for it! In my experience this immediate action is crucial to success (I learned very early on that knocking down queen cells is not a method of swarm control!)
- It’s essential that no swarm cells go into the polynuc so check everything carefully. It can be a challenge to find every queen cell and I’ve missed queen cells many times . . .
- Ensure that your queens are marked beforehand, it makes everything faster and easier
- Having some spare brood comb is a real asset – you can get your bees to work on this for you during the active season, removing and storing the drawn comb for use when needed.
What to do with the colony in the polynuc
The new nuc establishes itself quickly. Just watch that they don’t run out of food especially during the ‘June gap’.
You may need the nuc if the new queen in the parent colony doesn’t mate successfully – just reunite the two. However very few of the nucs I make up in this way ever get reunited with the parent colony.
I always like to have a half dozen nucs in my apiary because they are just so useful. I use some of them as ‘factories’ to generate all the components that I need for my small-scale apiary such as drawn comb, frames of brood and bees. You can keep them going throughout the season with a bit of delicate management i.e. don’t take too much at any one time. Obviously you have to give them more space to keep them going like this, and I use the handy extensions that you can get.
Try new things in your beekeeping
One of my ‘factory’ nucs using a polynuc extension
Once I learned all the things I could do with polynucs, I started trying more and more new things in my beekeeping.
If a strong colony is building up very quickly, you can remove a couple of frames of brood and a frame of stores and pollen to make up a nuc (splitting the colony). Do you have a spare queen cell that is too nice to waste? Make up a three frame nuc and let the bees raise her. Do you have a spare unmated queen that has just emerged? You can try introducing her to a nuc and see if she mates.
It was all these little experiments in my own apiary that gave me the confidence to start queen rearing. Now, I’ve learned to use three frame nucs as mating nucs because I find they work better for me than apideas and are more suitable to my small scale beekeeping.
I have even just bought some supers for polynucs. When these first became available I laughed at the idea. But now that I’ve learned a little more about how polynucs can really be put to work, I am converted!
So for me, a polynuc is the way to go when dealing with swarming colonies and I hope they prove useful for you too.
I’ve just come back from a weekend course at the British Beekeepers Association in Warwickshire. I spent two days in the company of two Master Beekeepers, covering the syllabus for the ‘General Husbandry’ exam which – if I decide to do it this year – will put me through my beekeeping paces.
Exam preparation aside, it was great to pick up so many practical tips from the tutors. Simple but essential things like the right way to pick up queens; how to shake combs with queen cells on them (yes, it is possible) and the right way to give a colony a test comb when you suspect it might be queenless. Plus many more nuggets of information that you only get from beekeepers with a life-time of experience.
Right now I am still thinking about our discussions on the subject of oxalic acid. Having been concerned that I left my oxalic acid treatments too late, I was reminded by the tutors that oxalic acid isn’t just for the broodless periods of Christmas and New Year . . .
Why treat with oxalic acid?
Treating colonies for varroa with oxalic acid sublimation is now pretty standard where I live. When I started beekeeping ten years ago, the norm was to do a ‘trickle’ (or spray) treatment directly over the bees in the cluster during the broodless period roughly between Christmas and New Year.
But then the research done by Professor Ratnieks and his team at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex demonstrated that it is more effective to sublimate the crystals (vaporise them using heat).
The LASI research said that 2.25g of oxalic acid applied to broodless winter colonies via sublimation killed 97% of the varroa. Furthermore, these colonies then had 20% more brood in spring than those treated via trickle or spraying, or untreated colonies.
Add to this the fact that you don’t need to disturb colonies when you treat with sublimation, and it seems a no-brainer . . .
From the ridiculous to the sublimation
I have a confession: I get put off by the need for extra equipment and by anything that sounds complicated. And at first the need for car batteries, cables etc. put me off trying sublimation. Trickle treatments continued to be the norm in my apiary – and there’s nothing wrong with that, they do work in knocking back varroa levels.
However this year a friend offered to lend me a Sublimox vaporiser. This was an opportunity to try a piece of kit that I couldn’t say no to.
Plenty has been written about this device elsewhere. Suffice to say that it is compact and efficient to work with. You can hold it in one hand. The dose of oxalic acid vaporises when it comes into contact with an integrated heated plate. You simply invert the device and put the ‘spout’ in the hive entrance, and it administers the does quickly and efficiently.
Sublimox ready for use
Using the Sublimox did make the process of treating all my colonies very quick and easy. There was no waiting around for it to heat up. Even I could handle the car battery/power set up. With a long extension cable I could leave the battery and adaptor in my car and run the power down to my apiary without any fuss. It was brilliant.
He’s wearing a safety mask, you just can’t see it in this photo
If you get the opportunity to try this lovely bee toy, be aware that you absolutely must have a proper full-face mask with breathing filter, because when you stand at the hive entrance and administer the vapour, you are bound to come into contact with some of it. This is very important because oxalic acid is highly toxic to humans.
What about the results of the sublimation? I had a hefty mite drop after each treatment, no surprise there. But as I said earlier, I’ve been wondering if it could have been even higher if I’d treated earlier, when there would have been less brood. I assume so.
Oxalic acid: not just for Christmas
Good news . . . oxalic acid treatments are affective at any time the bees are in a broodless state.
This is because oxalic acid acts on the mites that are attached to the adult bees (the mites in the phoretic stage of their lifecycle), rather than the mites in brood. It is thought that the acid burns their mouthparts, causing them to drop off the bees and out of the hive through the open mesh floor.
Phoretic mites on adult bees
So if you’re planning shook swarms, or swarm control that involves separating the queen and flying bees from the brood and nurse bees, it’s a good opportunity to administer another treatment. I think this will make a huge difference to my own management of varroa throughout the year.
A word of caution about using oxalic acid
Interestingly, oxalic acid has been used by beekeepers to reduce varroa levels for years. It is a naturally-occurring organic acid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t highly dangerous to work with, requiring precautions and care.
Also, unless you use Api-bioxal (see below), the crystals used in sublimation treatments are not an ‘approved medicine’ in the UK for use with honeybees.
This is important to know about, especially if you sell your honey. There is the potential for any treatment to leave a residue in honey or in other hive products intended for human consumption. Obviously there was no honey on my hives at the time of treatment.
Api-Bioxal, is the only oxalic acid-based treatment that has been approved for use in the UK for trickle or sublimation (if you do use a Sublimox be aware that you can’t use Api-Bioxal in it because it has sugar in it, and it will mess up your lovely new toy).
You can of course buy oxalic acid crystals in the di-hydrate form and use those. I did and they are slightly cheaper. But when you buy your di-hydrate oxalic crystals and notice that it says ‘hive cleaner’ on the packaging, it’s because they aren’t approved for use as a varroa treatment and legally can only be sold for cleaning purposes.
For chapter and verse about licenced treatments search the National Bee Unit website for its leaflet on bee medicines.
And for further information about how to prepare oxalic acid, see The Apiarist’s blog.
Ultimately the choice as to how you treat your bees is yours. But don’t let indecision stop you treating your bees per se. In my opinion, anything we can do to keep varroa levels down without resorting to chemicals is a good thing.
So I’ll definitely be sublimating again. I just hope I can borrow that Sublimox. If not, it may be back to trickling for me!