BIBBA Monthly – November 2020

BIBBA Monthly – November 2020

BIBBA Monthly – November 2020

Welcome to the November BM Newsletter by Karl Colyer

A bees-eye view of the world. Bees in the chimney

A bees-eye view of the world. Bees in the chimney

Welcome to a November that gave us the anticipated prelude to winter but has also treated us and the bees with some warm nights and good foraging days. Two weeks ago, I relocated my last set of bees (hopefully!) for this season. Many of us have talked about the problem with swarms and how they could end up in someone’s chimney. This time round, I thought I would share what it actually looks like to get up to a chimney and what to possibly find when you look down that chimney. In this case it was the right hand pot.

This colony had moved sometime around late August. The chimney is actually in use with a gas fired open feature fireplace. Bees had infrequently found themselves into the sitting room and I was called in a couple of months later to see if they could be made to leave. We tried putting smoke up the chimney to ‘persuade’ the bees to leave and we let the fire run for a while to act as a deterrent. A lump of comb came tumbling down the chimney and there were suddenly a lot of bees to deal with! Fire was turned off and another visit planned.

First comb building attempt, on the left. Current comb and bees on a cool day.

First comb building attempt, on the left. Current comb and bees on a cool day.

So, the next visit involved a cherry-picker, a frightened cherry-picker operator and me with some tools and a swarm box. Hopefully the picture is clear enough; I was able to reach down and cut the combs out one by one and get them and the adjoining bees into a box. It was only a small colony, some brood, very little stores and no hope of overwintering successfully.

You’ll be pleased to know that the bees, the cherry-picker operator and the home-owner were all relieved with how well the rescue went. The bees are being fed syrup and have been given some frames of drawn comb and sealed honey to help them get through the winter.

**check your personal and third party insurance if working at heights

We’ve had another busy month at BIBBA. The webinars have been well-received and the new lockdown has got us thinking how to best take advantage of the winter to get a broader range of subjects available for your viewing.

Table of contents

BIBBA Webinars  - The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP)

Need Early Queens?  Produce Your Own   by Roger Patterson

Book download

Opportunity for DNA testing of your bees

BIBBA Webinars  - The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP)

We are almost finished with our third round of webinars. When the webinar below is complete, that will be 19 webinars in total so far. We are developing the next batch of webinar subjects and speakers to help you through those dark winter evenings. We will tell you about them in the next BM and we will publish it on our BIBBA website and the beekeeping events website (just type beekeeping events into your computer) which will show our future events as well as other bee-related future events around the country that are available to you.

Our next webinar is a group panel Q’s & A’s session with as many of the recent speakers as we can organise. The questions will come from the range of questions asked during each webinar. Each speaker will be able to answer the question from their perspective. It’ll be recorded and available shortly after the event.

17th Nov      7.30pm              “Answering Your Questions"        All Speakers

In early December, there will be two more webinars by Professor Adam Tofilski of Poland which are more specialised in nature but still suitable for all ability and knowledge levels.

December 1st     7.30pm        “How to protect native honey bees”

December 8th     7.30pm        “Morphometric identification of honey bee subspecies”. 

Need Early Queens?  Produce Your Own   by Roger Patterson

There are growing concerns about the continued importation of bees and queens, including the introduction of disease related organisms, aggression in subsequent generations and the unsuitability to our unreliable climate of bees that evolved in much warmer and reliable conditions. I have to state these are not always relevant, but the threat is there, so why take the risk, especially when we don't have to?

Why buy imported queens?

There are several reasons usually given for buying imported queens, but there is an answer to each one. The reasons include that queens are needed early in the season, when U.K. bred queens are unavailable, bees are needed for beginners and that many beekeepers don't know how to produce queens, all of which I will briefly cover.

I haven’t bought a queen for well over 50 years, so I know a little about overcoming the “need”, which is easy enough with a little thought, knowledge and planning. I am regularly asked when you can start raising queens, but this varies considerably with the seasons and locality. As an example, I once ran a 2 day bee improvement course in late May in North Wales. It was too early there, as drones were hardly flying. On that course we had attendees from a wide area, including Aberdeen and Jersey. All three had very different conditions, so it’s impossible to give a date. I always reckon that if drones are on the wing and you hear about swarms in your locality, then you can start to raise queens. Be guided by the bees, not the calendar.

A simple way of having queens in the spring is to overwinter them, so I will describe some simple ways of doing that. This requires extra colonies or nuclei, so I will explain ways of producing and managing these too. This requires a little skill, with good autumn preparation.

Good queens, such as this one, can be overwintered. All photos are by Roger Patterson.

Good queens, such as this one, can be overwintered. All photos are by
Roger Patterson.

Regional variations occur

I get around the U.K. a lot and see different bees kept in different conditions by different beekeepers. I know that a general article such as this may be read by beekeepers whose beekeeping season can be 6-8 weeks shorter than others. Beekeepers vary a lot: the vast majority – probably around 75-80% - keeping fewer than five hives, but some keeping many more than that on a commercial basis. It is the former group at which this article is aimed, yet I hope it is relevant to all beekeepers.

Why are queens needed early in the season?

It depends a little on the number of colonies you have and what you intend to do with them. The usual reasons are to increase the size of the operation or to make up for winter losses. By nature, I tend to plan well in advance, and planning may well be able to do away with the need for early queens in the first place. In well over 55 years of beekeeping I have never been in a position of desperately needing early queens, even when I had 130 colonies and took bees to pollinate fruit early in the season.  In my opinion, queens, especially good ones, are a very important element of a successful and productive apiary, yet they seem to be rather low on the priority list of some beekeepers. Why? "Queen management" isn't often taught at local BKA level and I have heard some speakers, even some of the “names”, advising beekeepers to buy queens if they need them, rather than produce their own. This relegates the queen to effectively a throw away item that can be replaced for a few pounds. I give many presentations on queen rearing and bee improvement and I’m amazed at the number of beekeepers, even quite experienced ones, who don’t produce their own queens. We need to change that culture, but we can only do it by example and education.

For the majority of beekeepers, making increase doesn’t have to be done early in the season, so there is no need for early queens for that purpose. There is a lot of good sound information for colony increase and queens to head them on Dave Cushman's website

That leaves us with winter losses, so let’s look at the possible reasons, because if we can reduce these, we need fewer early queens. There are several surveys of winter losses, but they don’t usually cover some of the real reasons. Queen failure is becoming more of a problem, but this can happen with any queen, even a young one that is appearing to do well in the autumn. The signs are usually easy to spot in a dead colony. Inexperienced beekeepers are a common cause, which should obviously improve as individuals learn, but there are still beginners arriving every year. I think we should perhaps concentrate our efforts more on teaching, as I see far too many beginners advised to split their colonies late in the year, so there simply aren’t enough adult bees to survive. One fairly weak colony when split makes two weak colonies, which could both die, where the one might survive on its own. I believe that with good bees and teaching, the overall winter losses can probably be halved.

Queen rearing should not be daunting

To avoid buying queens, we need to produce them ourselves, but there is a reluctance by many beekeepers to do so. This is understandable when they attend  a "Queen Rearing" talk, where in many I have heard, the speaker is several levels higher than what the ordinary beekeeper needs. The average beekeeper only needs a few queens, not large numbers, so they need appropriate methods. Little is taught at local BKA level, but unfortunately there is so much negativity about the use of natural queen cells. What is wrong with swarm and emergency cells when the bees have been using them for millions of years? Although I raise quite a lot of queens using "artificial" methods, I am more than happy to use natural queen cells if they are good sized and come from a good colony.

What is wrong with using swarm cells?

The objection often given to using swarm cells is that you will perpetuate swarming, but this is only likely if you have swarmy bees. Why is it the same person will tell you that swarm cells are bad, but encourage you to do an artificial swarm? It is well known that the more swarm cells a colony produces at the time of swarming, the more "swarmy" it is. I have a rule with my bees that 12 queen cells is the dividing line. Less than that and if the colony is good, I will use them, more and I won't, unless the colony has exceptionally good characteristics others don’t have. I suggest checking with experienced beekeepers locally and adjusting that figure to suit. Swarm cells are produced by the bees when they decide to start swarming preparations, so timing is largely out of your control, but cells are built under optimum conditions. They are usually well built and easily cut out, so are good for the ordinary beekeeper. Emergency cells are different because they need a little care, but can still produce excellent queens. They can be easily created by removing a queen from a good colony, preferably during a nectar flow to ensure they are well fed, then letting nature take its course. This gives the beekeeper more control, as you can time it to suit you. The cutting out of emergency cells, as often advised, usually means more being built, which can result in small queens. I suggest leaving them for 8 days after removing the queen, then removing any poorly built ones, using the good ones.

The best colonies to raise queens from are probably already in your locality: if not in your own apiary, then with a local beekeeper who has spent some time improving their bees. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a dedicated bee improvement group, who should be happy to share material with local beekeepers. We are often told to raise queens from our "best colony". This is often taken to mean the one that produces the most honey, but that might not be a good one to raise queens from. There are many reasons why one colony may produce more honey than the others, one of which is hybrid vigour. There are many beekeepers who have been fooled into raising queens from such colonies, only for daughter queens to be very variable in characteristics or poor doers. It is better to confine your judgement to their temper, calmness on the comb and suitability to the locality. That is all I do and is enough for the ordinary beekeeper to concentrate on. I find that if you just concentrate on these, the rest falls into place.

A good way of making up winter losses is to do it before it happens: so, in simple terms put more colonies into the winter. They do not need to be full colonies, as a densely populated nucleus will usually winter well and if managed carefully will roar away in the spring. I suggest the ordinary beekeeper aims to put 50% more colonies into winter than they wish to have in a normal situation. As an example, I will assume that the beekeeper normally wants four honey production colonies, so I suggest putting four full colonies and two nuclei into winter. Nuclei are always useful in any apiary, any surplus can be united or used to start off a new beekeeper, as the cost is only likely to be frames and foundation.

A nucleus that has come through the winter so strongly that the bees have built comb in a space.

A nucleus that has come through the winter so strongly that the bees have built comb in a space.

As always, a colony has the best chance of survival if it has enough food, plenty of healthy bees of the right age, is dry and has a good queen. I have overwintered nuclei for many years and, if set up well, the winter survival rate is similar to that of full colonies. As a guide, the combs should be so well covered with bees that it is difficult to see the brood, or the comb where the brood should be. If you can easily see what’s underneath, it is too weak and the chance of wintering will be drastically reduced. Of course, these nucs have queens that are available in the spring, which is what we are after, together with bees that can be united or built up. At the Wisborough Green BKA teaching apiary we raise queens during the summer that are mated in standard frame nuclei. At the end of the season we try to overwinter good spare queens, often in nuclei that are weaker than I like to see, but if you have a good queen and nowhere else to put her, it is worth risking. In 2017/18 we put 12 nuclei into winter and lost 3: two to queen failure and one that was probably knocked over by a deer, but may have had a failed queen. That is probably a much lower rate of loss than many beekeepers have with full colonies. Those that survived built up quite quickly, needing to be transferred to full hives by the end of April. We put 12 nucs into the 2019/20 winter, all surviving. It is well worth doing, but overwintering bees and queens in nucs is rarely taught.

How can you make these extra colonies?

There are many methods, but you need to know how to place queen cells into a colony, something I am regularly asked. Also, remember that queenless colonies will build emergency cells that need removing. There is information here

Artificial swarms make extra colonies

An easy way is to make an artificial swarm when queen cells appear, leaving the queen on the original stand. If you know the age of the queen cells ( this is easier if they are unsealed) you can split the parent colony into two or three nuclei a few days later before the first queen emerges. Place all the supers on the old stand. If the nuclei are short of food, then take a frame of food from other colonies, but shake all the bees off. It only takes one bee to fly home to tell their colony there are undefended stores available for robbing to start.

Two-frame nuclei

For well over 40 years I have used what I call a "2 frame nuc", which is one frame of largely sealed brood well covered with bees and a frame of food, placed in a nuc box filled preferably with drawn comb. If moved more than 3 miles away there is no need to add bees, but if left in the same apiary, you will have to address the loss of bees. These can be made up from one or two colonies without the loss affecting honey production. If made up early enough, I have had these go into winter as full colonies that have not required feeding. They can also be split later, have frames of brood removed or flying bees milked off.

Make sure the queens are mated and laying, then manage these small colonies with the main purpose of getting them through the winter. If they are made up later in the season, they may need bolstering with frames of brood. One frame of brood becomes three frames of bees when it emerges, so you can build them up rapidly if needed by adding frames of preferably sealed, or largely sealed brood from the full colonies. A bee will not normally forage until about 6 weeks after the egg was laid. In many districts, any eggs laid after about the middle of June will not contribute much to the honey crop, so they may as well help to bolster the smaller nuclei. As these small colonies have no supers, they can be treated for varroa with thymol based products in early August. The queens will probably go off lay for a couple of weeks, but should come back into lay to provide young, healthy bees for winter.

The above is suitable for the amateur beekeeper, but the success depends a lot on the density of the bees on the combs. If brood is added towards the end of the summer/early autumn as suggested there are a lot of young bees to go into winter. To have frames poorly covered with bees is unwise and is likely to result in failure. In my experience the success rate is about the same, whether the nuc boxes are wooden or poly. I certainly don't mollycoddle bees, because if they suit the locality you don't have to.

Help pass knowledge on

I have confined this article to overwintering queens in standard frame nuclei. It is possible to use mini-nucs, but that is really for the more experienced beekeeper.

I think BKAs with teaching apiaries would benefit from following this method, as it teaches several things -  including how to make nuclei, uniting, raising queens from natural queen cells – as well as providing queens for members who may need them. There is a bit more to it than I have described in this brief article, so a little reading from reliable sources will be helpful.

I hope this has given help and encouragement to beekeepers who may not have had the confidence to attempt to overwinter queens. This simple approach makes up for winter losses before they happen and provides good queens that may be better than those you can buy. In addition, you can both produce queens and make increase at little or no cost, by making  probably little more than a modification of what you may be doing anyway. How much equipment have I asked you to buy? Have I told you to learn to graft? All I have done is to encourage you to use in a constructive way the queen cells that previously sent you into a panic. The experience and knowledge may help you to enjoy your beekeeping more.

This article is adapted from one that appeared in BBKA News June 2018.

Book download

When a book title starts with the word “The…”, it can be easy to miss it in an alphabetical catalogue. This month’s download is from 1910 and is called “The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture”, written by A. I. Root and E. R. Root. It’s a big file to download but, at almost 600 pages long, is an absolute gem of a book to wander through. Some of the drawings are exquisite in their detail.

Click here to view the book

Opportunity for DNA testing of your bees

BIBBA has just received the following from Mark Barnett. BIBBA may well do some testing of certain bees for comparison purposes. If you would like your bees tested, there’s a questionnaire down below to express your interest. No indication of cost yet but, with a good level of interest, they should be able to give us an idea of when they can start and how much a test is.

Dear Beekeeper

I am a beekeeper and a honey bee research scientist at the Roslin Institute. I’m writing to you because my colleagues and I are currently setting up a “not-for-profit” community interest company (CIC) that will specialize in the analysis of honey bee genetics in the UK. Whilst working at a world-leading Institute for animal research these last ten years, it became obvious to me that despite pollination being vital to the environment and our economies, our knowledge of honey bee genetics currently lags far behind other livestock species. With clear and current threats to the sustainability of pollinators and other insects, including declining numbers of honey bee colonies in Europe and North America, this is not an acceptable state of affairs. We hope that by setting up this company we can all contribute to increasing  knowledge of honey bee genetics in the UK and further afield. To help us we would be very grateful if you might complete the short 5 minute survey linked below. This will support the development of a business plan to demonstrate that we aim to provide the services that the beekeeping community requires. The survey is anonymous, and we are not aiming to collect any personal data.

The enterprise has the backing of the Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) and will be located in the Roslin Innovation Centre ( Initially we will be offering genetic testing to estimate C lineage introgression in colonies of Apis mellifera mellifera (native honey bee) to help conservation efforts. In the long term we aim to offer a range of testing that will be of interest to all sectors of the beekeeping community.

The CIC is being formed by Dr David Wragg (Roslin Institute), Matthew Richardson (University of Edinburgh) and myself. David has expertise in statistical genetics and bioinformatics and has authored many scientific articles on various livestock species including honey bees:-

Thanks in advance for your support. To complete the survey please click on the following link:-

Best regards

Mark Barnett