Saturday, 25 June 2016

Mike's Bees!

Mike, a work colleague of NSB, has recently undertaken a course in Beekeeping and with a view to having his own hive. Thought that it might be worth sharing Mike's Beekeeping story with you!


3rd April
"First beekeeping lesson! Great fun."

Todays Beekeeping suits look GOOD!


10th May
"The beekeeping stuff arrived today! It's like Christmas! Tried on the bee suit, God it's hot. Now, all I need is some bees, maybe I should get a net."

"A beehive typically consists of two distinct parts. A brood box and a Super. The brood box is usually about a foot tall and contains large frames upon which the bees can build honeycomb and raise more bees. When the frames are almost full the beekeeper puts a grid called a "queen excluder" on top of the brood box -this grid is specially sized so that workers can get through but the queen can't - then puts on a Super filled with frames.

Schematic of a beehive 

Mike's brand new hive, smoke gun and tools

The Super is usually half the height of the brood box. The bees then fill the Super frames with honey but because the queen can't get up there there's ONLY honey - makes it easy to extract.

So that's the basics, if you get lots of bees you can add more Supers - more Supers = more honey. If a beehive gets too crowded the workers will create a queen cell , grow a queen, she (or sometimes the old queen) will then leave the nest with about half the bees - which is why you sometimes get swarms."
Incidentally, the hive, like most in the world is based on the Langstroth design from the 19th century. This was the first design that allowed individual combs t obe removed and took advantage of the observation by Huber that bees would keep a "bee space" of 5-8mm between combs. As this is the space between the combs in a Langstroth hive, the bees to not join the combs up. This enables the beekeeper to slide any frame out of the hive for inspection, without harming the bees or the comb, protecting the eggs, larvae and pupae contained within the cells. It also meant that combs containing honey could be gently removed and the honey extracted without destroying the comb. The emptied honey combs could then be returned to the bees intact for refilling. Langstroth's book, The Hive and Honey-bee, published in 1853, described his rediscovery of the bee space and the development of his patent movable comb hive.


22nd May
"Interesting beekeeping tidbit I picked up from today's lesson.....bees can sting through your protective rubber gloves. Little sod. Still, I took it like a man, no crying or screaming, just a "ow you little git - you die now!" (which of course he was going to anyway, still........)"


12th June
"I was given a hive chock full of bees by a chap who had to give it up because he became dangerously allergic to bee stings (this can happen). As a result the beehive I got had not been inspected for 8 months - you're supposed to check them weekly when it's warm and dry enough.

Got to the allotment, the hive is very heavy but can't check it for about a week to let the bees settle.

There is a big IF about them settling down, common bee rules state that you move a hive either 3 feet or a minimum of 3 miles otherwise the bees will go back to the original spot. Well we've moved them just under 3 miles so they might not stay - we're keeping our fingers crossed."

The 2nd Hand Hive, complete with bees...

So how do bees make honey? Well, what happens is that the worker bees extract nectar from flowers and store this in their extra stomach (called a "crop") where it is chemically modifed by enzymes. When back in the hive, the honey is passed between bees several times by regurgitation until it is eventually placed in in a honeycomb. But it is still a thin liquid, so bees flap they wings to evaporate much of the water off before sealing the honeycomb cell with wax.


18th June
"The girls seem to have settled in! Gonna open up the hive tomorrow and see what sort of population I have. The hive could be full of honey or full of disease or parasites, I'll find out tomorrow, fingers crossed."

Video here


19th June
"Well I did it. Took the top off and unfortunately the top super (layer) didn't have any frames so the bees have made their own combs. Also, there's eggs and larvae in the upper layers so no idea what's going on there. Gonna have to bring in an expert. No sign of disease though."
.....A lot of bees

Bees had got busy in the top section of the hive,
 making their own honeycombs

Video here


24th June
"So today, with the help of an experienced keeper I took a look at what I had. The hive consisted of TWO Supers and a brood box. The queen excluder was on top of the brood box. So far so good. We saw that the top Super had no frames and so the bees had build their own combs which were all over the place. We decided to look at that last because it was heavy (hopefully with honey).

We looked at the middle level Super. LOTS of bees, AND grubs and sealed brood cells and honey - obviously the queen had got above the queen excluder, there shouldn't have been young bees in there. No sign of the queen though - you check every time for the health of the hive and to make sure that the queen is OK, she's hard to find in 50,000-odd bees because she's only a bit bigger, so as long as you can find eggs in cells you know the queen is in there somewhere and still working hard. Well we found no eggs, so we took off the queen excluder and checked the brood box. Every frame had either empty cells or cells with nectar, pollen or honey. No queen, this is bad, very bad- she may have left but in that case why were there still so many bees in the hive?

Beekeepers! This is not the Queen you are looking for...

We decided that maybe we'd missed something and we'd check again the following week. So, to the top Super with the natural combs. We took the cover off and it was brimming with bees, there was brood in the cells too. With natural comb we couldn't look for the queen but we did find a capped queen cell (with a pupating queen) AND an uncapped one with a queen larva inside. Maybe the queen is in this level then.

...Neither is this...

So, no honey for me and a real conundrum. The beekeeper and I discussed various options. Eventually we came up with a real risky plan. I have a spare empty hive so, we carefully (VERY carefully) cut the capped queen cell from the natural comb, we then placed it in the older hive carefully UNDER the queen excluder. The plan is that this queen cell will be tended by the existing bees and she'll take over (she'll have to leave the hive to mate and hopefully come back). We then put a new Super on top with new frames in it.

....close, but still no cigar..

The other crammed Super was placed on top of the new hive brood box with no queen excluder (they call it a brood and half), hopefully the bees will use the extra space in the brood box to keep going. If the old queen is in there and a new queen hatches they might not swarm because there's lots of space for them now so they'll probably fight to the death, cruel but that's survival of the fittest for you.

...Bingo !

Eventually I'll have to get the bees out of the natural honeycomb, destroy it and put in proper frames but that's a long way off.

So, no honey for me yet BUT, if my plan works I might end up with TWO hives - of course I could end up with two dead hives if it doesn't work. Fingers crossed."


7th July 2016
Thought it might be nice to fill in a little information about the group that provided beekeeping training to Mike - the Chesterfield and District Bee Keeping Association.

The CDBKA website is very good, and contains a lot of interesting information. For example, did you know that worker bees only live for 4-6 weeks - except for the last brood of the year that live all through the winter maintaining the hive (and keeping it warm by flexing their thoracial wing muscles to create heat)? No? Neither did NSB until reading one of the articles on the CDBKA website.

Lots of fascinating info on the "General Beekeeping" page also, including an article on how Australian researchers have been placing tracking backpacks on bees to study their behaviour!

Bee with a backpack, obviously!

An article on the CDBKA can be found on the "Bee-Craft" website, which bills itself as the "The Informed Voice of British Beekeeping". The article describes how the group worked hard to replace the post-war beekeepers who were retiring at the end of the 20th Century, and managed to increase members by 19% year on year. This growth in interest was then accelerated by media articles sounding alarm at bee population levels - in one 18 month period members increased from 85 to 160!

And the CDBKA has some high profile alumni, for example, Kim Schofield, beekeeper at the Longshaw Estate.


24th July
Update from Mike: "OK so bee update...last Tuesday a friendly beekeeper came and delivered a queen with a load of bees. We put them into the bigger hive with a layer of newspaper separating them. Well today I went down to check...either I'd find a settled queen or a load of dead bees. I didn't find a queen but I did find larvae. Couldn't see any eggs but larvae could be a good sign (of course a worker may have started laying drones) FINGERS CROSSED that's not the case. There's a hell of a lot of honey in there - I'll have to add another layer sharpish.

The smaller hive has eggs!!!!! The bees in the smaller hive are more placid too, didn't need smoke to check them. They're building new cells on my new frames instead of just in the natural comb.

This is the situation in the (smaller) Hive 2

I'm still praying but things could be looking up."


7 Aug
Update from Mike: "A new bee being born! Just one of about 50,000 but pleasing to see nonetheless. And I didn't get stun!". Video here.

Bee emerging from cell (arrowed)!!!


Update from Mike : "So a pile of wood and nails.........
You won't find this in IKEA...

an hour later has become 10 honey frames....huzzah"
Voila! More frames!


Update from Mike :"10 frames ready for extraction."
Honey Laden Frames removed from the Hive 


Update from Mike: "I was expecting maybe 10 jars, got 24 in total!!!!!! PLUS the combs are intact so they go back into the hive,the bees will clean and repair the combs (and lap up any remaining honey). No more honey until next year though, time to start prepping for winter.Honey in my coffee,on my toast,on a spoon. Time to make some mead too methinks." And that honey was from just one super which was about 80% full. I left another super which was half full at that time and the brood frames were about 30%full of stores but the queen was still laying eggs like crazy. I'd taken the frames to Ropers Honey in Sutton Scarsdale - about 5 miles from home, how lucky is that? They spun the honey outwith a centrifuge and bottled it for me. They could have melted it and given me the honey AND the wax but if possible it's better to keep the frames intact.
Honey from honey laden frames now in jars!


Update from Mike: "Checked on the bees for the first time since taking the honey. The big hive was ok actually, the bees were pretty calm but hadn't started working in the new frames yet so I took them out and replaced them with the frames which had the honey taken. These frames were pretty much intact because the honey was spun out so by putting in these frames the bees just have to do some repair work to the comb and they're good. There's also lots of residual honey left over so they can recover that too.

Getting them ready for winter now so time to start parasite treatments - it's a bit fiddly but it started ok, next dose in two weeks. All good.

Then hive number two, the little one. Still no progress on any new frames AND they're doing all their work in the natural comb which is no use to me. Also, my God they are aggressive! Almost the whole hive rose up and started banging into me, eventually two of them stung me through my gloves, I hadn't been trapping them between my fingers (which is why I've got stung up to now), they just landed on my hand and bang! Finished the check anyway and got the heck out of there.

I had noticed a lot of wasps hanging around and this is the time of year that you can get a lot of 'robbing' of honey stores by wasps. So I made so wasp traps and came back later and installed them around the hives. The bees shouldn't get caught because they don't want jam. Anyway I'm sat beside the hives, closest to number one and watching them both -they were VERY busy which is great- when I saw a black shape getting closer to my left eye, of course it was an angry bee (from hive two I'll bet) who then bashed into my eye. I start flailing at my face, catch the sod but not before she stings me about 5mm under my eye (yes I did yell out). Pack everything up and lock up the allotment, get to the car and look in the mirror - the sting was still in there, took a while to get it out too - full dose. It's not very swollen but it IS very painful to touch. Hope it doesn't swell up tonight which is a possibility.

Still love my bees, apart from hive two, those girls are all jerks.


10th Oct 2016
Update from Mike : "So once I'd got the honey home I then went back to the hive and re-installed the frames, they still had a small amount of honey in them so the bees could extract that and store it. They started on it immediately. Within one week they had removed all of the honey dregs and repaired a lot of the comb (some of it got a bit squashed in transit) so I then removed the super with the empty frames and put them In a sealed bag (to protect them from wax moths) leaving just one super and one brood box on the hive.

I started the Varroa treatment, a pan of white goo sits on top of the frames for two weeks. The bees paddle in it and spread it around the hive. This stuff kills the dreaded Varroa Destructor mite. These days every hive has them and the only hope is to keep the numbers under control. I can check how well it's working by removing the bottom tray from the hive, on hive 1 I usually see two or three [dead mites] on there per week, after the mite treatment there's over 60! The nasty hive (hive 2) has over 100 [dead mites]. So it's working.

After two weeks, remove the goo and put in a new one, this is to catch the sneaky little devils that hid in a sealed brood cell. So after another two weeks I remove the goo for the last time this year - around new year's time I'll try another treatment but the dead mites in the tray are numerous which is a very good thing. The queen has slowed right down with her laying and the brood cells are more filled with stores than brood.

[NB: This paper suggests that "Overall, results suggest that varroa mites could be the main culprit for the death and reduced populations of overwintered honey bee colonies in northern climates."]

Varroa Destructor mites on bee pupae

Then I made a big decision, I decided to go 'brood and a half'. This means that I moved the queen excluder from the brood box and put it on top of the one [half sized]super. So now the queen will have access to the brood box and the -half sized- super. More cells should equal more eggs larvae and BEES and so hopefully more honey - as long as the queen is young enough and strong enough.

So then I have to start 'feeding' the bees, just to make sure that their stores are chockablock for winter. I put a top feeder in the hive crown board over the entrance hole. It's a small plastic tub with a 50mm circle cut out of the lid into which a tight stainless steel mesh is stuck. Fill it with sugar syrup (2lbs sugar dissolved into 1 pint if water), put the lid on, flip it upside down and a lit bit drips out but the rest stays put. The bees can then drink from the mesh. So they're chugging it like mad -almost a litre a week but the mild October weather is keeping them active. I've closed the hive entrance down to only a 60-70mm opening to reduce the risk of wasps and other bees (especially those from hive 2) getting in and stealing honey -something that can happen a lot, especially if another hive is low on stores."

Feeder - bottom of tub has small hole covered in wire mesh.
Dark brown is just top of hive, not a layer of  feed!


30th Nov 2016
Update from Mike: "Checking the hive on Sunday. All quiet but still some bees occasionally coming and going. Some dead bees on the ground around hive 1 (friendly hive) but lots of dead bees around hive 2 (not so friendly hive) - around twenty of them. Also two bees dead at the entrance, just sitting there like they decided 'sod it, it's too cold' and died on the spot. Took the lid off hive 2, felt the top and it was cold, put my ear to the top and gave the hive side a tap and could still hear them buzzing so they're still OK.

Put the lid back on hive 2 but noticed that I'm giving shelter to other mini beasts too.

Hive 1 looks OK, very quiet but as I said still some bees coming and going, the weight of the hive indicates good honey stores for the depths of winter."



12th Dec 2016
Update from Mike : "Checked the bees on Sunday. Still noise from both hives but looking at the ground at the front of the hives you can see a big difference. These may just be early autumn bees that have finally run out of energy, the winter bees being much more long-lived. Or it could be an indication of hive health. Either way the surviving bees will always throw out a dead or dying bee to keep the hive free of disease and mould."

Dead bees circled in red on the ground outside Hive 1

Dead bees circled in red on the ground outside Hive 2


22nd Dec 2016

Update from Mike : "Last Saturday I went down to the hives and applied a different form of Varroa mite treatment. In this case using oxalic acid. This is strong stuff, a lot more aggressive than citric acid for example and is bought in powdered form.

Oxalic Acid

What we do is we heat the powder so that it sublimates - goes from solid to vapour. You can buy expensive heaters for this task but I just bought one of those car plug-in water boilers - the kind you plug into the cigarette lighter and immerse it in a mug to heat water. Make a little cup of foil and sit it in the middle of the heater element, add the powder then connect it to a 12V battery - voila, sublimation. We do it at this time of year because there should be no developing brood (eggs or young larval bees) in the hive, the fumes won't harm capped brood but open brood cells will be killed by the vapours.

The fumes are nasty and certainly not good to breathe, the bees don't like it at all but as long as you get the dosage right it does them no lasting harm, but the smaller varroa mites hate it and should drop off any bees and die.

[Interestingly, oxalic acid is also used by the Fenestraria plant to produce optical fibres that direct light into the photosynthetic parts of the plant. Researchers are wondering if this might have applications for solar panel technology.]

Fenestraria - note transparent tips

So I did both hives, applying the vapour through the bottom of the hive, instantly the quiet hive began buzzing and because I'd blocked the entrance they had nowhere to go. It was trickier with hive number 2 because they've sealed the top vents with honeycomb so I don't know how well the vapour got into the hive - they certainly seemed upset about it so maybe that's a good sign.

I'll check under the hives this weekend to see if there's a lot of dead mites under them - fingers crossed.

Because I wanted to support hive number 1 -and say sorry for gassing them- after the treatment I placed a block of fondant on top of the top vent hole on the hive. It's in a take-away plastic container which has access holes melted into it. Sort of an early christmas present too. Within 5 minutes of placing it on the hive it was covered with greedy bees all stuffing themselves. This was a good sign after the treatment AND it will help to make their honey stores last even longer which judging by the weight of the hive are substantial."


23rd Jan 2017

Update from Mike : "Deep in the heart of winter the bees need to be left alone now. I just check on them once a week to make sure that there's no outward cause for concern such as damage from weather, animals or vandals (which does happen to some hives apparently). Another thing we do is 'heft' the hives, we gently lift the hives up with one hand on one side of the hive to get an idea of how much they weigh. A heavy hive still has lots of stores and is doing OK -remember that the bees still need food and at this time of year honey is what they have (remember I also put some fondant in Hive 1 too to supplement their honey stocks).

Hive 1 (the friendly one) is really heavy and so I feel re-assured that they're OK - I'd like to see inside but don't want to disturb them when it's this cold. Hive 2 is VERY light, this hive is full of very aggressive un-productive bees so I'm not helping them at all. My expectation is that they'll die out before spring which is a shame but aggressive bees are not nice to have and if they're not productive (or bred to recognise the need to build winter stores) then natural selection will take care of them.

My Christmas present finally arrived, I've got time to give it a few coats of Cuprinol then let it sit out to get a bit weathered then I'll fit the inner brood box and supers - then if a swarm becomes available I'll be ready. The old wooden hive from Hive 2 will be binned, it's a National/Hybrid model which I don't like. Anyone want a hive?"

New Hive !


10 Apr 2017

Update from Mike : "Checked on the bees properly for the first time this year.At the moment the friendly hive is composed of one brood box topped with a half brood box and then there's the queen excluder with a super full of frames on that. The bees have already half filled the top super with honeycomb and nectar so progress is good. Lots of brood and stores in the brood sections but there's a LOT of drone brood in there which is unusual this early in the year - might be a sign that they're thinking of swarming, maybe not, the queen is laying eggs at a good rate and there's plenty of space so I'm doing what I can to reduce the swarm impulse.

Schematic of a beehive 

Unfortunately the top half brood box has odd sized frames and this has allowed the bees to build comb between layers so when I pull out the half brood frames for inspection I destroy the extra comb - which has brood in! Not nice to see larvae and pupae spilling out. So I had to take drastic action - with the help of another beekeeper I removed the half brood layer and replaced it with another super filled with empty frames, then I put on the queen excluder and then the half brood level with the dodgy frames, on top of that went the half-full super.

So now the brood will hatch from the half brood but with the queen excluder in place the bees will refill the cells with honey. The super underneath the queen excluder with new frames will take a while to be re-populated but once the bees have drawn out the comb they can start using it for brood again. We scrutinised the half brood frames very carefully to try to ensure that we don't trap the queen above the queen excluder - that would be a disaster and I won't know for sure if she WAS in the bottom level until I do another inspection next weekend - if I find eggs or young larvae ABOVE the queen excluder then I know she got above it and I have to find her at all costs.

Whilst doing the check I saw that one of the larvae which had fallen out had THREE varroa mites on it. They were the only ones I saw but I'll have to put the varroa floor at the bottom of the hive this weekend and then a week later count how many of them have fallen onto it. There's a nifty calculator on the National bee Unit website that gives you an idea of what sort of infestation you have based upon the fall of varroa - it also tells you when and what action to take. If it's bad I could lose my honey harvest so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Larvae with varroa mites

Whilst checking I found a huge dead bumblebee at the bottom of the hive. It had been stung to death obviously but it had also been plucked - apparently this is a common practise for bees when they encounter a dead bumblebee - opinions vary as to why they do it.

Dead Bumblebee "plucked" by honeybees 

The nasty hive is still going, albeit with a reduced population. I never fed them at all during winter and yet they hung in there - still naggy little devils though.


Related links
Nottinghamshire Beekeepers Association
Derbyshire Beekeepers
Article on how African Farmers use beehives as elephant repellant
The National Bee Unit

Related NSB Content
Talk on reproduction in Bedbugs
Talk "From Soil to Supper"
Wildlife in the Garden
Talk on Dungbeetles and Drugs

Image Sources
All by kind permission of Mike, excepting the following:
Bee with Backpack; Queen, Queen, Queen, Queen
Varroa Destructor Mite, Fenetraria, Oxalic Acid