NatBIP News No3

Introduction – Liz Childerley, BIBBA Publicity Officer

Photo by kind permission of Roger Patterson

As we put this NatBIP News edition together, we are forecast near-Mediterranean weather across most parts of the UK, and more importantly for beekeepers, quite a sustained period of warmth over several days.  Perhaps these are the right conditions to finally get inside the hive and take a look at what’s been happening during the winter.

One of my 2021 beekeeping objectives is to be more mindfully observant. Going further than the basic inspection to ‘road test’ some of the things I have learned via all those webinars over the winter!  I pray that some of the amazing online training I’ve been glued to all winter has sunk in! With this beekeeping skill in mind, Roger Patterson recently ran a webinar entitled ‘Observation – interpret what you see’ to help us hone our bee-watching skills.

In this edition of NatBIP News Jo Widdicombe gives us some tips on those all-important first inspections, along with some help in completing your 2020/21 record card by recording the traits your bees have shown over winter.

And if like me, one of the first jobs you need to tackle this season is that troublesome colony that you ‘tolerated’ last year – Jo has some advice on how to deal with the ‘bad tempered’ ones!

NatBIP Volunteers

Given this is our first full year of running NatBIP and having asked all of you to put your effort behind this programme, we are especially keen to get your feedback. To that end, we have recently solicited for a handful of ‘NatBIP Volunteers’ who would be willing to share their stories with us this year.  In the next edition of NatBIP News we will introduce the individuals concerned, but if you are interested in being part of this initiative there’s still time to join in. Please email me to find out what’s involved at .

Parliamentary Petition to stop the import of bees

Hoping to reach 100,000 for that all important Parliamentary debate

There is currently a petition circulating online (created by Anne Rowberry, BBKA) – ‘Stop the importation of honey bees into GB from the EU via Northern Ireland’. The petition has reached 10K signatures, so Government will have to respond to it. If it reaches 100k it must be debated in Partiament. If you’d like to add your vote, go to this link and search for the petition named above

Jo Widdicombe

If you are a BIBBA Member, you may have joined us at our recent AGM where there was a bit of a ‘cabinet reshuffle’ and some Trustees stood down, and others swapped places.  We are delighted to welcome our new Chair, Selwyn Runnet and Vice-Chair Nick Mawby (who is also our webmaster and Membership Secretary).  And with a heavy heart, we saw Jo Widdicombe step down after completing no less than 5 years as our President.  There is not enough space here to do Jo’s contribution whilst President justice but suffice to say we will miss his presence in that role very much. However – the good news is that Jo has more time to devote the NatBIP now – so he will continue to be around to help mentor us through our NatBIP journeys.  Jo is succeeded as BIBBA President by Roger Patterson.

First inspections    Jo Widdicombe

As the new season commences the first thing to establish is that colonies have come through the Winter well, with a viable queen, and are in a good position to expand rapidly, as the weather and forage pick up.

Photo courtesy of Roger Patterson

From a bee improvement point of view, it is important to start assessing the qualities of our colonies, and therefore of our queens, so that we can select a queen, or queens, to use to produce the next generation of queens.

Ideally, have a record card for each colony (i.e. one for each queen) and assess the colony on each inspection. The ‘NatBIP Record Card’ can be downloaded from the BIBBA website (, for use as it is, or modified to suit personal preferences, or indeed, you can design your own, or use someone else’s design.

A ‘record of performance’ is quite different to a ‘management record card’ (although the NatBIP card can be used for both purposes) and specifically provides information on which queens are worth rearing offspring from. I have already started assessing my colonies for the characteristics that I look for. Most qualities are assessed on a 1-5 scale which is easy to use (from bad to good, similar to a review using a 1 to 5-star rating).

Assessment for ‘Over-wintering’ Jo Widdicombe

It is at this time of year that we can make a ‘one-off’ assessment of how the colonies have come through the winter. For most areas this can be done at some point in April when the colonies have had a chance to turn the corner, from winter, and are beginning to expand again. If it is carried out too early in the season the data will not reflect how they are expanding in response to the new season.

I will assess my colonies for their over-wintering strength, probably in early to mid-April, but the optimum time will vary from area to area. The number of combs of bees and/or brood can be counted and recorded. The amount of brood on a frame can vary enormously so I also record ‘S’,’M’ or ‘L’ to denote approximate quantity of brood on an average comb. We need to calculate the average size of a colony in the apiary so that all the colonies can be compared to this average and rated on a 1-5 scale.

The ability of a colony to survive the winter and expand rapidly in the spring is a good trait that will reflect on that colony’s performance during the season. As with any trait, it is as important to get rid of the worst as it is to select and breed from the best.

Even the worst colonies should be viewed as a resource to be used in the most suitable manner. A good thing to do with colonies that fall below the standards is to allow them to build up to provide bees and combs for making nucs for any newly raised queens. If you, or your group, have got as far as developing a mating area for the virgin queens, then any sub-standard colonies should be removed from that area in order to keep the genetic quality of drones up in that area.

Dealing with bad-tempered colonies  Jo Widdicombe

The spring is the ideal time to deal with bad-tempered colonies in your apiary. Bear in mind that if colonies are a bit unpleasant to handle when they are small, they will probably be much worse later on in the season, when they have expanded, and could become unmanageable and a potential danger to the public.

To assess my colonies for temperament, I like to remove the roof and observe the bees’ reaction. If the feed holes on the crown board are covered, uncover them to view the bees. The bees should be calm and not worried by the intrusion so far. If they are taking to the air and possibly pinging off the veil it is a bad sign, and you will be thinking more towards a score of 2 rather than, say, 4. These are my usual starting points, the final mark being rounded up or down from these points as the inspection progresses.

I usually give a couple of puffs of smoke through the feed holes at this point and then remove the crown board. The bees should not show any signs of aggression and should be calm whilst examining the combs. If they are ‘flighty’ or nervous on the comb they will be marked down. Of course the temperament of the bees can vary at each inspection, but an average picture soon builds up.

It is good practice not to tolerate colonies that are unpleasant to handle, particularly at this time of year, as they will deteriorate through the season as their size increases. Dealing with a bad-tempered colony is much easier earlier rather than later, when, perhaps, they are filling a brood box and three supers.

One way of dealing with a colony with less-than-ideal temperament is to remove the queen. About 7 days later, inspect the colony and examine each brood comb thoroughly, shaking bees off if necessary, and removing every emergency queen cell that is found. The colony can now be described as ‘hopelessly queenless’ as there will be no eggs or young larvae left to make a new queen from. You will now be able to exchange a frame from this colony with a frame of eggs and young larvae from your best colony, according to your records. The bees will be desperate for a new queen and so will rear emergency queen cells on this frame.

This can be checked in 7 days’ time when sealed queen cells will be seen. If there are several cells and the colony is a reasonable size, it could be split into 2 or more nucs and queen cells cut out and added to nucs, as necessary. Improving the temperament in one’s bees is often ignored but it should be the first quality to be tackled.

In less than 4 weeks a new queen should be happily laying away and you have made a start in bee improvement.

We welcome your feedback – please email Liz Childerley ‘

For questions on the NatBIP programme contact Jo Widdicombe