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The Hive – A Closer Look

October 6, 2010 in

Last time we started looking at what you need. Lets now take a closer look at the first and most basic thing that you will need to keep bees – and that is the hive.

When talking about hives I’ll be referring to 10 frame Langstroth hives, as this is what I have always used. This does not mean, however, that these are necessarily the best, but I would suggest that, whatever hives you use, make sure they’re all the same. It makes interchanging hive parts so much easier.

First of all we have the floor or ‘bottom board’. This is a flat board the same width as, but slightly longer than, the normal hive sections. It is bordered on three sides (two long sides and a short side) by a rim which will raise the first chamber about half-an-inch above the floor. The side without a border then forms the entrance to the hive. The extended length creates a ‘landing board’ for the bees to alight onto at the entrance. Then we have a ‘brood chamber’ or deep chamber. There may be one or more of these before we have a ‘super’ or shallow chamber. Some beekeepers use brood chambers as supers but, when full of honey these are a lot heavier than the normal supers and, if you are lucky enough to have a lot of these full of honey, they play havoc on your back. The number, of each of these, that you will need will be discussed later.

Next you will need an ‘inner cover’ to put onto your top super. The reason for this is that the inner cover covers the same area as the chamber on which it lies and is, therefore, flush with the top chamber. Very often the bees will build wax on top of the frame between the frame and the lid. This has the effect of ‘gluing’ the lid down (although that is not actually their intention). If this happens it is easier to get your hive tool between the cover and the top super and prise them apart.

Finally you have a telescopic lid or ‘outer cover’. This has a slightly larger area than the super and has deeper sides (an inch or two) which fit over the hive. This helps to keep the top weatherproof. The inner cover should have a smallish hole in the centre and a rim round the edge (of the cover – not the hole) so that there is a gap (half-inch or so) between the inner and outer covers. This is to allow ‘breathing’ which helps with regulating the internal temperature of the hive. It also helps to eliminate condensation within the hive.

There is also a piece that can fit between hive parts called a queen excluder. This is a frame, the size of the top of a super, holding a thin sheet of metal with slots punched into it. These slots are big enough to allow bees to pass through but too small to allow the queen to pass through. Another type is made of stout wires spaced far enough apart to allow the passage of bees but not the queen. Some beekeepers swear by them though I, personally, do not believe in them. We’ll discuss, later, why some beekeepers use them and why others do not.

Finally there are the frames. These should be wired and waxed. In other words there should be wires going from side to side or, I have seen, from top to bottom in a ‘V’ pattern. This wire must be taught and should be embedded into the wax sheet or ‘foundation’. This is to reinforce the combs otherwise, when you spin them in the extractor, they will disintegrate into chunks in your honey. We try to keep the combs intact so we can put them back into the hive to be refilled. It takes seven units of honey to make one unit of wax so, if we can help the bees to save time making wax, we’ll be rewarded with more honey.

We must have foundation in the frames to guide the bees when building the combs otherwise they will build them wherever they please, which would, more often than not, be across the frames, or diagonally from one frame to the next frame, and we’d end up with a solid mass of combs which would be impossible to manage. If you want to save some money you can put strip foundation into the frames. Wire the frames in the normal way and place the foundation, which has been cut into strips (about half the width of a normal ‘super’ sized sheet) into the frame.

The foundation needs to have the reinforcing wire embedded into it. This can be done with an ‘embedding wheel’. This is a ‘spiked’ wheel that looks a lot like a cowboy’s spur. The wheel is a few millimetres thick and, in some cases, the ‘spikes’ have a groove in the centre to guide you when you run it along the wire. Weave the foundation between the wires then run over the exposed wire with the embedding wheel. Keep the wheel hot by dipping it into hot water every little while.

Another way of embedding the foundation is electrically. You need to be very careful with this as I shall explain in a moment. For this you will need a car battery and a length of lamp cord (electrical cord that you would use for your bedside light). To one end attach two bulldog clips that can clamp onto the terminals of your car battery. On the other end have two little crocodile clips.

Clamp the bulldog clips onto your battery and clip one of the crocodile clips onto the beginning of your reinforcing wire. With the other crocodile clip just briefly touch the other end of the wire. This will heat the wire enough to melt the wax which will then solidify round the wire. Now this is where care must be taken. Just touch the wire with the second crocodile clip for no more than a second otherwise you’ll end up cutting the foundation into strips. I’ve done that often enough when I started using this method. It makes embedding a lot quicker and easier, but it does take a little practice to get used to it.

As mentioned before, one should also have a stand on which to place the hive. Although this is not considered a ‘hive part’, it is important to keep the hive off the ground and, as far as possible, away from moisture. An old motor car tyre can make a very durable and cheap hive stand. Beware: Too many car tyres, one on top of the other, will have too much give and may cause the hive to either stand skew or to fall over. Two should be the max.

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Equipment – What do you really need.

September 13, 2010 in

Having looked, briefly, at the ‘Why’ of beekeeping; and in more depth at ‘Where’, we now look at ‘What’.

What will you need to start beekeeping? There is not a lot you’ll need just to get started. As you progress you may find that beekeeping is quite lucrative and decide to grow. As your apiary increases you’ll need more equipment, but at the very beginning you’ll need, obviously, a hive with bees. Next (assuming you’ve already established ‘Where’ you’ll be keeping them), you’ll need a veil, gloves, a smoker and a hive tool. And that is pretty much it.

As to details about the equipment, all I’ll say here is that there are a lot of beekeeping equipment suppliers on the net, each with pretty substantial catalogues that you can browse through.

Briefly, the veil can fit over the head or it may be of the type that fits over the whole torso and having long sleeves. If you really need to cover up get a pair of overalls. Theses MUST be white or a light colour. Bees DO NOT like dark colours.
The gloves will need gauntlets with elastic tops.
The hive tool is needed to prise the frames out of the hive. It also needs one end to be sharp – not too sharp but sharp enough to scrape wax off the top of the top bar of the frame, to prise off the inner cover or to scrape off propolis used to ‘stick’ the frames in place.

As mentioned in the last article, you will need a stand to place the hives on in order to keep them off the ground. These may be made of wood or they may be metal. However, a very cheap – and durable alternative – is an old motorcar tyre. It serves the purpose admirably, it will probably cost you nothing AND it will not rot or rust.

You might find that you need an extractor. These vary in capacity and price and, even ‘cheaper’ ones are expensive. If you join your local beekeeper’s society you may find that one of the older (more established) members has an extractor that you may use. Otherwise getting the honey out of the combs will be very difficult, messy and time consuming. Remember that, just as you need a place to keep your bees, you also need a place to work with the honey. You do, after all, need to keep in your mum’s/wife’s good books and not mess up her kitchen too much. You could sell your honey in the comb or, if you have some friends who are also interested in keeping bees, join forces and club in to buy an extractor.

If you do get to the point where you need to afford an extractor, you’ll also need an ‘uncapping knife’. These can be either electric or steam heated. You can get away with a sharp carving knife and a jug of hot water. Although this is feasible, it is not ideal.

Keeping bees involves more than having a box of bees somewhere and collecting honey every now-and-again. There is a certain amount of management required – and we’ll have a look at that next time.

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Swarming – Things to look out for

August 18, 2010 in

I thought Id write a quick article regarding swarming, in particular some signs to look out for which may denote that your hive is about to or will soon swarm.

Queen Cells1. Queen Cups
One of the most obvious swarming behaviours is the building of queen cells. These cells normally reside on the edge of frames but they can appear almost anywhere. To prevent swarming remove these queen cells, unless you require to superseed etc. See the picture on the right:

2. Queing and Overcrowding
If the hive entrance is fully open (i.e. no mouse guards etc) and bees are queing or you notice a lot of bees gathered around the hive entrance this could be a pre-cursor to swarming. If a lot of bees exit the hive and cluster around the entrance when you approach it, this too could be a sign the bees lack a bit of space. Add more space by adding another brood box and/or super.

3. Large Cluster Bottom
If you look through the hive entrance and the bottom of the bee cluster fills the hive width then they are lacking space and will probably be looking to swarm. Add more space by adding another brood box and/or super.

4. No Laying Room
If the brood frames are all full of brood and honey stores then the hive could look to start swarming. Add another broodbox and frames to help prevent this.

Swarming is most likely to occur between the beginning of June to the end of August. Bit late me writing this now really but hey Ive been busy!!

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Choosing The Site For an Apiary

August 6, 2010 in ,

You need to know what to look for when choosing a site:

1. Books may tell you that the hives should be in full sun all day, and in this country that may well be a good rule of thumb to stick to. However, having kept bees in South Africa for many years, I found that that was not a good idea for two reasons.
The first was that wax melts at 110 deg. F. If we start getting very warm summers, being in full sun may cause a problem. The bees will be spending a lot of time collecting water to cool the hive instead of collecting nectar to make honey. The bees collect water then evaporate it by flapping their wings at the entrance of the hive. This cools the hive using the same principles that your fridge uses at home.
The second is comfort. Mainly your own comfort. Remember that you will have to spend time working on your hive, not only when you rob the hive, but also when to spend time ‘managing’ it, and we’ll come to that at a later stage. You must also consider the bees’ comfort. Bees do not like to be disturbed if it is too hot, too cold, too windy or too wet – and they will let you know that too (adding to your discomfort!).

2. Next we should consider security. I shouldn’t imagine there would be the same problems with human thieving in this country as there is in South Africa. It was heartbreaking to come to an apiary to find £500 damage to the hives and a couple of small swarms left, out of 30+, all for about £10-£20 worth of honey. That was done by the indigenous people, but the same sort of damage could be wrought by badgers. If you have badgers in your area try to make the apiary badger-proof. Failing that you could get some strong luggage straps and strap the hive together.

3. If you have any sort of traffic nearby, people walking past, etc. make sure you have a solid fence. A board fence, wall, or hedge 6ft or higher. Make sure that the bees cannon fly straight out and hit somebody walking past Having a solid fence will force the bees to fly up and over the heads of passers by.

4. Make sure that the hives are out of the wind. Wind will either cause the bees to abscond (leave) to find a better place, or it will cause them to block the entrance with propolis, or ‘bee gum/glue’ as it is sometimes referred to. The bees collect resin from trees and mix it with, amongst other things, wax and pollen, to make propolis. This is not good for two reasons. First, they leave small holes in the propolis for access. This restricts the movement of the bees and ‘slows down’ the work.
Second, it takes seven times as much foraging to make 1 unit of propolis as it does to make 1 unit of honey – waste of the bees’ time.

5. This should have been No. 1 as it is the most important: Proximity to a nectar supply. Bees will forage up to 3km from the hive, but if there isn’t a good enough source of nectar nearby, they have been known to fly up to 12km in search of food. Once they find it they will leave the hive and move closer to the source. This is not good for the beekeeper who will come back and find an empty hive.
Bees need a lot of flowers. When I was running a bee farm in South Africa we would ‘chase’ the crops, moving from one crop to another so we could have honey all year round. We would work on about one acre of eucalyptus, or 5 acres of beans, or 2 acres of citrus trees per hive to provide a good yield of honey. As a hobbyist you could keep a fair number more hives in an area than a commercial beekeeper might.

A few more considerations, not dealing on the position of the apiary, but important none-the-less are:

a. Make sure people, especially children and animals, cannot enter the apiary by accident. If you are keeping the bees at home you need to just warn guests of the presence of bees. If your bees are on somebody else’s property, a farmer for example, make sure the site is secure.

b. The hives should be placed on stands as:
i. It raises the hive and places less strain on your back when you’re working on it.
ii. It keeps the hive off the ground. This is to prevent rain from splashing into the entrance and also keeps it above the damp of the soil and surrounding vegetation. This helps to prevent rotting of the floor and sides of the brood chamber.
iii. It (should) raise the hive above the weeds which would impede the flow of bees going to and from the hive. Proper maintenance of the site should include periodic weeding in front of the hives. This should be done in the evening after a few good puffs of smoke into the entrance of the hive as bees do not like the smell of cut grass or disturbed vegetation too close to the hive.
iv. This may not apply in the UK, but if there is an ant problem in your area, there are ways of making the stand ant-proof. Ants are tolerated by bees but a large enough colony of ants nearby can have a serious effect on the amount of honey there is left for you to take.

I’ve said quite a lot about the apiary here, all of which is important, but have not left any time to go on to the ‘paraphernalia’ as I had promised. We’ll have to do that next time.

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So You Want To Keep Bees

August 4, 2010 in ,

First of all “Why keep bees?”

Beekeeping is something you will either love or hate. You will either become extremely passionate about it or you will give up in a very short time. There are two things which may cause you to give up: Stings and impatience on you part.

Can you stand the stings? They say “No pain, no gain”. When I was a boy my dad used to say “It is a good thing that bees sting. If they didn’t, then everybody would keep bees and there would be nobody to sell honey to”. That may not be entirely true but he did have a point.

The second is also true. My dad gave me my first hive when I was about twelve. I was so chuffed that I looked in it almost every day. Needless to say there was (visibly) no more honey in the hive than there had been the day before. It wasn’t long before I lost interest and my dad incorporated ‘my hive’ in with his own. Every couple of weeks he’d give me a few bob for ‘my share’ of the honey.

He also made quite a bit by selling hives, with bees, plus a whole lot of the paraphernalia that goes with it, then, a few months later, buying it all back again at half the price.

Some very important considerations will be:
1. It will cost a lot of money to get started. This can be recouped within two to three years if you sell your honey, though it could also take longer, depending on the source of the nectar.
2. There will be w-o-r-k involved.
3. You will also have to learn about bees. It is not enough to get a bunch of bees, put them in a box then sit back and wait. You could have a hive with 100 000 bees in it one day and the next there may be only 10 000. Or worse still, it could be empty.
Bees require proper management to prevent, or reduce the likelihood of them absconding.
4. You will need a safe site. They must be safe from robbery, either by people or animals such as badgers. They must also be in a position where they will not be a nuisance to other people or animals (especially horses). Bees and horses really don’t get along and it’s usually the horses that fare the worse. And that will lead you into a lot of hot water.

In my next article I will deal with choosing a site and some of the ‘paraphernalia’ you will require.

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It was a hard Winter for honeybees

May 25, 2010 in ,

Well now we are well into Spring its time to take stock of how our bees coped with the unusually harsh Winter. It has been estimated by the British Beekeepers Association that loss of the UK honeybee population is around 17% which compares to around 19% last year the huge 30% loss between 2007-2008!! However I have heard some stories and rumours of the losses in Scotland being as high as 50% for some beeks up here. The BBKA survey did reveal marked regional variations. Beekeepers in the north of England lost more than a quarter of their honeybee colonies, while the south-west recorded the lowest losses: 12.8% of colonies between November 2009 and March 2010.

Martin Smith, the president of the BBKA, said this year’s losses showed a “small and encouraging improvement” on the previous year and are “much better” than the “disastrous” losses of three years ago. “It shows that our honeybees are slowly moving out of intensive care, but they are still not healthy enough,” he said. “Winter losses between 7-10% are acceptable.”

So definitely an improvement especially when considering we have had such a harsh Winter! Personally I think the harsh Winter will prove useful, being a Darwinian believer; these weaker bees can no longer reproduce and so any deficiencies or unwanted traits they may have had die with them.

The other great news is that mebership of the BBKA has gone up by 20%. I personally know that some of our local associations in Scotland are seeing record numbers attending their courses. Plus this website is becoming more and more popular with visits increasing each month!

The number of hives estimated to be in the UK is around 80,000 with 48 billion bees.

The US in comparison has suffered over one third of their colonies wiped out for the fourth year in a row. Not good! CCD is the main unexplained cause.

It is thought that honey bees contribute around £200million annually to the UK agricultural economy by pollinating a huge variety of crops. Its scary to think what would happen if we lost our bees!

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3D Bees! – Scanned beehive reveals bee life live in 3D

May 17, 2010 in

Entomologist Mark Greco and his colleagues at the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern, Switzerland and scientists at the University of Bath led by Professor Cathryn Mitchell and Dr Manuchehr Soleimani are pioneering a new way of viewing the inside of a beehive.

3D inner beehive image

3D inner beehive image

The technique is called Diagnostic Radioentomology (DR) which scans the hive taking a series of 3D images. These images create a live picture of whats going on inside the hive, meaning we can gain a greater insight into what the bees are doing behind closed doors. These live images produced by X-ray computerised tomography can also be used to track individual bees within the hive, thus allowing the tracking of the Queen, again giving a greater insight into her movements.

Mr Greco told the BBC when interviewed, “the approach is non-invasive and does not modify their normal behaviour…..We can accurately assess the number of bees and where they are at the time of scanning.”

The researchers are working to improve this new technique which will hopefully result in clearer 3D images and more accurately measure the bee population, volumes of pollen, wax and honey within a hive.

The University of Bath scientists are also working on new computer models which will hopefully allow better evaluation of parasites and pathogens affecting the hive.

“Because the method is extremely accurate, we will be looking for critical thresholds of pathogen and parasite loads and loss of food resources from which bee populations can not recover,” explained Mr Greco, who is completing his PhD thesis.

“[We will also be investigating] how pathogens such as mites, viruses, bacteria and fungi might interact, both among themselves, and with environmental pressures or stressors, to produce colony declines or collapses.”

The team hopes too that the new imaging technique might indicate what is reducing the numbers of other solitary bee species.

“Many solitary bees forage on the same floral resources to those of honeybees, some also suffer from the same pathogens, such as fungal infestations in their nests.”

The UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, together with the British government is spending £10 million on researching the population decline of bees, some of this money could be well spent on furthering these new techniques to gain greater insight into the inner-workings of beehives.

See a video of the 3D images on the BBC news website here

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The Dutiful Beekeeper

May 3, 2010 in

Well June will soon be upon us and the dutiful beekeeper will be checking their hive(s) in a 7 day cycle. Why? Well the early summer honey should be due for removal before the first week in June.

Honey left where it is and the bees left to their own devices will result in (if the early summer bloom has been good) bees gradually taking back the honey ready to swarm. The bees will take the stored honey ready to feed the swarm for the three to five days it takes to relocate and get settled. If the honey is removed the bees do not have this option and you will gain a larger early harvest.

If the early bloom is not so good it simpy take longer for the above process to happen. They probably will still swarm but the honey extracted for the process will be over a longer period. Also the bees will be producing more brood to replace the innevitable swarm later in the Summer, which could result in Queen fatigue or congestion, plus the bees wont have much to do because of the lack of forage!!

Not sure if your bees are going to swarm? Well if they are short of space (lebensraum) they will swarm!! Is the brood box rammed full of bees (another delay tactic would be to add another super for brood)? Are there queens cells or even other queens? If yes a swarm is imminent.

One of the best solutions and certainly the easiest is to remove the early honey harvest (sealed honey) at the end of May and create a couple of “mini” swarms with the bees which would otherwise have not much to do. So give these new nuclei a couple of frames of eggs and open brood and remove to another locale. Feed all the hives well with 1 part sugar to 2 parts water syrup.

Now you have a queen right colony and perhaps two “mini” colonies with the right tools to re-queen start anew!! Awesome!

The other good thing about this whole process is the opportunity to treat Varroa and look out for EFB and AFB!!

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Vanishing of the Bees – Film

April 8, 2010 in ,

Bees are dying in their billions!

In the UK around 1/5 of honeybee hives were lost in the Winter of 2008-2009. Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, contributing £200 million a year to the UK economy.

The co-operative has made a film documenting the vanishing of bees in the UK and why its happening. The film is 90 mins and takes in the beekeepers point of view, aswell as farmers and scientists.

You can buy the film from Amazon by following this link:

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Scottish Government Rebuff Black Bee Nature Reserve

April 2, 2010 in ,

Doesn't Alex care about bees?

Doesn't Alex care about bees?

The Scottish Government has rebuffed a reserve for Black bees on Colonsay. The reserve was brain child of Andrew Abraham, Andrew spent years trying to secure the reserve on Colonsay only to have it Squashed by the Scottish Government early this year.

Scotland on Sunday published an article where the Scottish Government said; “the black bee is considered a domesticated creature”. This was the reason they said no to the black bee reserve! The Countryside and Wildlife act 1981 can only be used to protect and secure reserves for wild animals, as it has be used before for Red Deer on the Isles of Rum, Jura and Arran.

I find this completely insane! How can black bees be considered a domestic creature, there must be 1000’s of wild hives of black bees in Scotland!! And of course going by this idiotic thinking the Scottish Government has failed to take pro-active measures in helping our native black bee!

I urge all who disagree with the Scottish Parliments decision to write a letter of complaint and send to:

Alex Salmond MSP,
First Minister,
Scottish Parliment,
St Andrews House,
Regent Road,

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