Monday 11 August 2014

Star Wars and beekeeping do go together.

Cleaning beehives usually involves a wire brush and maybe a blowtorch. But some beekeepers are taking a more vigorous approach to hive hygiene. Check out this novel method ....

Hoping the summer is being good to you all,


Tuesday 24 June 2014

Weston on Trent Bee Keeping (scarecrow style)

Hi :Last weekend was our village scarecrow trail and being off according to Monique I had plenty of time to make a scarecrow - we decided on a Bee theme - As you can see we had quite a bit of info and a few live bees as part of our display .
The beekeeper was modelled on Tim !



Tuesday 22 April 2014

How to Save The World and create a ‘nuc’.

This year my personal focus is on creating nucleus colonies to build up the number of local queens that I can then pass on to others later in the year. To do this I need to build up my current colonies with suitably tempered bees so that they can withstand me stealing some of their comb and brood. When I judge that a colony has begun to build up strongly, and a pollen flow has begun in the area, I can begin to make nucleii.

To build up the colonies I want to use I have to encourage them to make bees. To do this I use a process called ‘checker boarding’ when I add bars during the spring buildup. As the colony builds from its winter cluster the brood area of the nest begins to expand. To encourage this I add new bars between the existing bars in the nest area. This ‘one old, one new’ pattern forces the bees to build new comb and, crucially, encourages them to fill the comb with brood so that the nest doesn’t get segmented. I am usually able to start this around the end of April and, at the same time, take the first combs for a nuc colony.

The weakest part of a bee colony is the single point of failure represented by having only one queen. To counter this bees are able to create a new queen at any time they wish provided they have eggs in the colony that are less than 2-3 days old, the newer the better. So if a queen isn’t laying well, gets injured or dies, it can be replaced. Bee wranglers can use this talent to expand the number of colonies they have by creating a nucleus colony, also known as nuc, which is a mini version of a colony that grows to fill a new hive. In essence the aim is to create a mini colony knowing that some of the usual elements won’t be included. Flying bees are unlikely to be involved as they will fly back to the queen they know and, obviously, a queen won’t be there. So a few compromises have to be made to take account of this to ensure some success.

When choosing comb to use it is crucial to find comb with freshly laid eggs. When you hold up brood comb there should be some cells with very tiny white grains, like little grains of rice, sticking upright in the bottom centre of the cells; the smaller they are the fresher they are. Counter intuitively this will be most likely on comb with the oldest sealed cells where bees are just about to emerge. They will be surrounded by cells that have just hatched, cleaned out and propillised by nurse bees, and seeded by the queen who is desperately searching for cells to use as she is trying to lay up to 1000 eggs a day. Most of the bees on these combs will be non-flying nurse bees. The biggest danger to these eggs is dehydration which, because they are so small, can happen in minutes. So when you find a suitable comb slot it straight into you nuc box to get it out of the wind. From these eggs the bees will choose one to build into a queen cell. Always make sure you have not moved the queen accidentally as she may still be on this comb.

The next comb you are looking for is one with cells that have worker bees about to hatch. The nurse bees that you transfer now will become your flying bees over the next 2 weeks so the hatching ones will be your next generation of nurse bees. You need to find comb where most of the cells have a flatter wax seal, are darker brown and slightly crusty - you may be lucky and find a cluster of cells in the process of hatching. Again, slot that into your nuc box swiftly to keep as many nurse bees on the comb as possible. Once more, make sure you haven’t transferred the queen as well as she may also be on this comb.

The final component is stores to help the colony survive without bees to forage. You need to find a comb with, ideally, sealed honey or more likely stored pollen and nectar. When you’ve found one put that into you nuc box. The queen is unlikely to be on a stores comb provided it doesn’t contain any eggs or brood as well.

And that’s it. Easy peasy. We aren’t interested in flying bees so you can even have the nuc near your current hives without a problem. It takes 2 months for a new queen to be created, mated and get laying so if you get started now you should have viable colonies to house or pass on at the start of July.

So have a go. If you need a suitable nuc box let me know and I’ll make one for you. Making local queens from local well tempered colonies ensures the survival of bees that are ideal for this area and doesn’t risk introducing more diseases, parasites, etc.


Weston Bees Take Flight (part II)

Mike’s phone call caught me taking a car full of kids to the cinema, but I was able to offer to pick up the cardboard container of bees from him and foster them whilst they are waiting onward deployment. After getting everyone home, and supper, I set off to Sarah’s to collect a suitable 10 bar box that I’d left at hers. She is now custodian of a late split I made in June last year, that had survived the winter in the box, and it had been left at hers to allow stragglers to move out at the end of their transfer to her hive. Once home with the box it was dark and the transfer could begin.

I got everything I would need together next to the box. I found a broken piece of comb from an exercise earlier in the week (another post I think) and tied it onto a bar with garden string poked through the comb with a pencil. I found enough spare bars to cover the top of the box (another lesson learned the hard way), secateurs to cut away any hedge clippings that might be in the container, and a knife to open the container with. I set the garage light to stay on and off we went.

I set half the bars onto the box, including the one with the tied on piece of comb. The bees now had a dark area to settle into, with comb ready for the queen to start laying into straight away, that smelled of ‘bee’ - all ways to encourage the colony to decide that this would be their new home and make them less inclined to abscond. Then I opened the cardboard container to see what surprises Mike had passed on. There was very little vegetation in the container so I was able to tip the bees straight onto the box and let them begin to find their way inside. The benefit to doing this in the dark is that the bees are less inclined to fly as they can’t see. However the downside is that it makes it more difficult for me to see them when they do. At this point, as I was bending down to check on progress, I hadn’t noticed a bee caught in a fold of suit material on my leg which I then leant on and got a sting for my trouble - another lesson learnt. With the bulk of the bees now working their way into the box, and many signs of fanning that shows ‘this is home’, the long wait could begin. I opened up the other end of the container and tapped out the last stragglers onto the box and then went inside to find a good film and a cup of tea for an hour.

At a suitable point in the film I went back out to check on progress. The bees were mostly in the box or sheltering in a small cluster under the end of the bars. I fitted all but the last bar onto the box. I then scooped a handful of bees onto the top and waited whilst they made their way in. Once the last ones were in I fitted the last bar and cleared the tools away. I know that some bees will be sheltering under the hive as it has a screened bottom. When I move it into place in the morning I will remember to be suited up so that these loose bees won’t do any harm and can be moved safely with the box to their new location here for their fostering.

If you already have bees yourself please consider splitting them over the next few weeks so we can pass viable colonies on to others later in the year. You can always ask for help if you are not sure what to do and, with a little notice, I can build suitable boxes ready for you. If you have need of bees and don’t already have any to work with, please make sure you have added your details to the comments on the ‘Bees Wanted’ page with this years date.


Monday 21 April 2014

Weston Bees take flight

Hi all
I'd just come back from my customary cappuccino and bacon cob ride , when my neighbour let me know that our bees were going mad in the back garden .
They had swarmed into the hedge between us , I phoned  Tim who would pick them up later for onward delivery.
So Set about how to get them into our box . They had managed to lodge themselves into the hawthorn hedge by the side of a black birds next !

I managed to shake them into the box with a little pruning  and then set about getting the stragglers in with a goose feather and dustpan !

Tim has picked them up and it'll bee good for the recipient to continue the blog on the Weston Bees .
See you at the next meeting in May


Thursday 20 February 2014

Spring is nearly here.

Yippee!! Hords of bees on the wing ...

Overcast with sunny spells but, crucially, temp over 10 deg C for the first time this year. Lots of orientation and 'cleansing' flights.


Tuesday 18 February 2014

Top Bars, Hives and Nuc Boxes.

I saw my first bee of the year yesterday. It popped out of a 10 bar nuc box for a cleansing flight. The weather was calm, overcast and around 9 deg C, just balmy enough for a bee to make it out and back without freezing. This sign of life from my late split last year reminded me that I have to get a move on with a full hive for them. But it made me think; as I've got to make top bars for this hive I can easily make bars for anyone else who might need them. As I'm building and assembling a hive I can easily build the components for, and assemble if requested, a hive for others. I'm also soon to be building a couple more nuc boxes this year to house more splits to spread bees amongst the group so I could easily build some for others as well.

So if you are interested in taking me up on this offer then please let me know and I'll price something up for you; it won't set you back as much as the competition from here:

Best as always,


Sunday 2 February 2014

Should I sell my honey?

Sustainable beekeeping is all about the bees and not about the honey at all. However, a chance conversation with a farming couple who are setting up an on-farm shop to supplement their raw milk business, got me thinking about the issues I might have around passing on any surplus stocks of honey I might accumulate. They mentioned that they had a client who would jump at the chance to access raw honey as I was describing it as it would be a perfect complement to what he was already buying from them. So here’s the problem; at the moment I’m not eating honey. I gave up two years ago as part of a dietary experiment to try and avoid arteriosclerosis and heart attack events rather than be prescribed statins (long story, check out or as a starting point for more details as I’m sure I get very boring very quickly on the subject). And it works; I got the all clear inside 4 months. [Note: I’m now questioning the removal of raw honey from my diet. I have since become aware that raw honey has a glycemic index (GI) of around 30. Green grapes can have a GI of 46. What this means is that raw honey generates a 50% less insulin response than grapes and so maybe I should be eating raw honey in preference to the small amount of fruit I allow myself - more experimentation and research required on this.] So what happens to the surplus honey?

My son gets two teaspoons a day from February to September in an effort to try anything that might relieve his hay fever. Wifey puts some in yogurt most days to have with fruit. The rest I provide in recycled jam jars that I rent to my mother-in-law at £5 a time for 340 grams. This year I will probably have just enough for these uses. But a number of establishments have expressed an interest in taking on the product for sale, so what to do?

When considering selling honey to offset our meagre costs my immediate concern is appearing on the radar of government authorities. These include DEFRA for the bee inspectors and the Food Safety and Trading Standards people. I’ve nothing against the individuals concerned, they are probably all wonderful people with delightfully well-behaved offspring, it’s the unnecessary intrusion they represent that I resent. There is no requirement for me to notify any authority that I look after bees (or my small flock of egg laying chickens for that matter). Obviously, if I come across anything I don’t recognise in a colony, like small hive beetle, or suspect the bees are afflicted with something like AFB or EFB, then I would immediately contact the inspectors, as these are notifiable conditions. They will arrive in their large black unmarked vans, take samples and insist that all known colonies within 5 miles will be destroyed - don’t get me started on the pointlessness of this one. If anyone in my family suffers from a massive reaction to the honey then we will deal with it using the normal services.

Putting a product ‘out there’ increases the chances that I might slip into the purview of an Agency. No-one cares if the only person affected by my hobbies is me but, quite rightly, everyone will care if I, inadvertently or knowingly, put risk in front of someone else. A little googling shows that my product may be described as a ‘raw pressed honey’ - the gold standard for those looking for the most nutritious edible honey. It must be made from broodless and insect free comb and bottled at less than 40oC so as not to destroy the enzymes that make raw honey so beneficial, and there are well over 400 of them apparently!!

But the very thing that makes it such a sought after product by those in the know also increases its risk to susceptible folks. Raw honey is by definition unprocessed - the production method I use is called ‘crush and strain’ because, once any dead bees are removed from comb where any brood has been cut out, it is crushed, or mashed in my case, and then strained through a corse gauze - and that’s it, what you see is what you get. Everything in the hive will be represented in the honey. It is unfiltered - all of the big bits are removed by the straining but it is not passed through a fine filtering process so it retains a very high pollen content. Nothing is heated, except the jam jars and lids to sterilise them, so all the enzymatic properties of the propolis and the honey are intact. (A few people can have an anaphylactic reaction to some or all of this and as a consequence raw honey should not be given to children under the age of three.) My product is unadulterated. No heating is used to speed up the process; nothing is added or removed, other than what stays in the gauze; it is stored in glass so no out-gassing can taint or pollute the honey. It is as safe as I need it to be for my family without ruining it’s considerable benefits. So why must I pay the price of oversight for the failings of others to look after their clients in a responsible fashion?

A product needs a label to say what the client is getting. Based on my limited research so far the labels used by a producer of low volume hobbyist raw honey need to have a product name that describes the contents using officially prescribed words, as they have formal definitions and standards associated with them; a ‘use by’ date (2 years after production is acceptable for honey, as its a potentially perishable food, although egyptian honey over 3000 years old was said to be perfectly edible but a little sharp); and a note of the country of origin. Although regulations are less rigorously applied for direct hobbyist sales ‘from the door’ it helps to get it mostly right from day 1 for the benefit of everyone. There are notes on some websites that say that the producer needs to be identifiable from the label (that can easily be detached from the jar - go figure). But because I have such small volumes of honey on offer all my clients will know me personally so I don’t feel that I need to put out any more information. People will know where to find me if they have a problem with my product. So why do I need to add yet another way for appearing on a radar screen?

I can offer you no answers on this question. For me the issues are: labelling; regulatory oversight; food safety standards and regulatory oversight. I admit, I’m uncomfortable with what I see as the unnecessary oversight of what I do - if my customers don’t like my product, or the risk it might represent to them, they don’t have to choose it and it can stay in my cupboard for the next 3000 years.

Here's to the upcoming new season and the vitality of our bees.


Sunday 5 January 2014

When will the autumn end?

Bees tend to stop flying when the environmental temperature drops below around 8 deg C but they still remain active in the hive. Normally this is a 'good thing'. However, a busy bee is a hungry bee, and a hungry bee needs food. In winter, when a colony's stashed away food has to last through to March, hungry bees can be the undoing of an otherwise successful hive as they chomp their way through the precious honey and have no way of replacing it as its too cold to fly.

So far, this winter has all the halmarks of being one of those annoying mild and wet ones; no snow, few frosts and interminable showers and longer spells of rain with a glimmer of sun every few days. This is far from ideal for our bees. As temperatures remain relatively high the colony has no need to form the tight cluster that they need to retain heat. When tightly clustered the bees are able to dramatically reduce the amount they eat and so ecke out their stored supplies until well into springtime. Without this tight clustering it is entirely possible that a colony can starve itself by consuming everything it has kept before the first of the new year's nectar appears and the weather is good enough to fly.

As usual, this places the bee wrangler in a quandary - to feed or not to feed. And, as with every other year it seems, the answer depends on your view of the impact of intervention. Some bee herders take the view that they should feed irrespective of the weather, a prophilactic intervention 'just in case'. Others take the view that they should never intervene as this would weaken the evolutionary strain of bees - 'they will survive if they are meant to survive' and so they don't want to do anything that will mean that next year the colony will have a greater dependancy on human intervention as they will have started to loose their genetic trigger to cluster and conserve food.

It is 'well known' that certain sub-species of bee have different food consumption rates in winter. The original british black bee is said to be very frugal, probably because it is used to having to deal with our unpredictable weather patterns. The italian bees tend to be more exuberant in many aspects of their lives, and will gannet through a colony's stores in very short order, probably as a result of surviving the relatively short mediterranean winters, and then starve long before Christmas. All our colony's are hybrid bees - mongrels if you will - so their performance over winter will vary according to the story of their origins. However, as I've been watching bees for a few seasons now, it appears to me that the average winter bee in some colonies seems to have a darker countenance than their summer relatives. Its almost like a genetic switch is thrown and the winter bee has more of the british black's characteristics than its more italian summer bee version. Please note that I've not yet found any empirical evidence for this observation so don't hold me to any of my theorising. But I do know that we humans exhibit the ability to switch genes on and off (an emerging aspect of genetic science called epigenetics) by doing simple things like changing what we eat, so why shouldn't bees be able to switch 'frugality' genes on and off using environmental factors as a trigger. It may be that these frugality genes also bring about changes in physical appearance, hence the apparent colour change as well.

A flip side to this idea is that the italian bees have the 'well known' propensity to build a colony's numbers up quickly when the nectar flow begins in spring; larger numbers of bees can more quickly replenish much depleated stores. Whilst this sounds great in principle for a mediterranean climate it may also bring about the demise of a colony here in the UK as lots of energy is required to grow bees and if the timing is out, or the weather turns wet or cold for a spell, the colony can quickly starve before its able to begin feeding again (as happened to some of mine with the cold snap in March last year). Darwinian selection must the favour colonies that get this timing right in most years so bringing on a genetic line of bees suited to that local climate. This would explain why the way bees procreate, effective hybridisation, has allowed them as a species, to survive extremes of climate change and to be found surviving in most habitable areas of the world. So, as I've discussed before, there is a strong argument in favour of limited intervention if we want bees that are aclimatised to our locality - letting the less suitable colonies die off and allowing the more suitable ones to show themselves as survivors (and using these to split from in the spring to make our new colonies).

It is also a very strong argument to support the request for a ban on the importation of queens to the UK; the imact of these alien genetics from stranger climes disrupts the natural hybridisation of our local bees to create strong genetic lines that can more easily survive in our UK climate (see the Natural Beekeeing Forum for more on this).

Food for thought as I face digging out the mulch in the chicken run (many thanks Richard and Mandy for the replacement chippings). May I wish you all a Happy New Year of beeness.