Middlesex Beekeepers’ Day – Terry Clare, Queen rearing for the average beekeeper

As I like to do each year, yesterday I went to the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers’ Associations annual Bee Keepers’ Day. Each year the Middlesex associations (Ealing, Enfield, Harrow, North London, Pinner & Ruislip) take it in turn to host a day of beekeeping talks; this time it was Harrow’s turn.

My day started well – by missing a train. So I wandered down the empty sunny platform, enjoying the warmth and peace. And found a flowering bush covered with bees and flies – honeybees, a bumble and bluebottles. My first bumble spotting of the year! I inhaled its sweet scent and watched the bees enjoying themselves. Thanks to social media, lots of kind people have told me that this is Viburnum Tinus, a great favourite with bees. Missing the train turned out to be a good thing – it led me to have an encounter with the creatures I was on my way to learn about.

Bumble and honeybee on Viburnum Tinus

Bumble and honeybee on Viburnum Tinus

Honeybees on Viburnum Tinus

Honeybees on Viburnum Tinus

Two tube trains and a bus later, I arrived at Harrow Arts Centre. It has an incredible number of rooms, but a nice girl in the Library showed me where to go – a hut outside with a sign announcing ‘Beekeepers’ at the entrance. Terry Clare, a smartly dressed man with a luxuriant white beard, had just started speaking to a crowded hall. Terry is a Past President of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (BIBBA). He was complaining at the number of beekeepers who start running training courses after 2-3 years experience, some of them charging extortionate rates like £300-£400 for a day’s course. There were nods and grunts of agreements around the room.

Terry Clare

Terry Clare

While I found a seat I lost track of things a bit, so notes begin as Terry was talking about the importance of selecting for more than one quality when breeding bees. Apparently German and Russian beekeepers in the 1920s-30s selected for bees with long proboscises that could work certain crops. They succeeded, but the resulting bees had other undesirable characteristics which made them “totally useless”. Terry looks for five characteristics: quiet on comb, non-following, productivity, thriftiness and non-swarming.

Seeing improvements in your bees will take several years. Terry was full of good quotes like this one – “Most problems in beekeeping are resolved when you get home – you find a mirror and look in it – there’s your problem!”

Hygiene and disease

If you’re going to breed queens, first you need healthy bees to work with. Learn what normal comb looks like – both sealed and open. Worry if any frames look different; if you aren’t sure why, ask a more experienced beekeeper or call a National Bee Unit inspector in.

Spot our queen

Queen on healthy capped brood

Terry has a special quarantine site for newly captured swarms, where he can keep an eye on them and monitor for diseases. In recent years he has captured two swarms which turned out to be carrying European Foul Brood.

Every beekeeper should have a spare freezer. If you want to store frames overwinter, put them in the freezer for 24 hours, then take out and store in polythene bags. This kills wax moth eggs and larvae.

Varroa treatments

He has doubts whether varroa monitoring with a board is as effective as claimed by many. He has seen virtually clean boards before yet damaged wings and mites on the bees inside. Instead he uses drone uncapping for monitoring and lactic acid as an emergency summer treatment. He found the new Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQs) treatment effective last summer, but is a bit suspicious about it as he lost four queens in nucleuses whilst treating. He will be trying it out again this summer.

Terry uses Apiguard at the beginning of August (after taking his supers off) and only one tray rather than the usual two, as he thinks it can cause damage to brood. He puts the supers back on again after 2-3 weeks to take advantage of the autumn ivy flow. The light, bitter ivy honey is very popular with his customers – “And I don’t argue with customers”. (Another beekeeper commented to me afterwards that they find it disgusting – I enjoyed a little bit Andy gave me once, but then I like grapefruit juice).

Using a brood box as a nucleus

Don’t have a nucleus? You can use two thick insulated dummy boards to make a brood box act as a nucleus. Put 4-5 frames in-between the thick dummy boards and use regular dummy boards to fill out the rest of the space and keep the bees warm.

Finding queens and calming workers

Try to avoid using smoke when looking for your queen. Terry uses a mist spray in a bottle brought from Wilko for 97p! Just a little mist over the top will do – this is standard in many European countries.

Clove oil - Terry says you can order larger bottles from Boots

Clove oil – Terry says you can order larger bottles from Boots

My favourite tip of his talk was clove oil. I dab some on my neck when I go beekeeping – not just because I like smelling like apple pie, but because it is supposed to calm bees. Terry goes one step further and puts a couple of drops on a bit of towelling (an old face flannel perhaps?) which he then keeps airtight in a tobacco tin. If the bees get moody whilst inspecting, he puts this towel on top of the frames – the bees will go down and be quiet. Or put the towel in your hands to distract the bees from stinging you. This is a common ruse in Germanic countries.

The importance of drones

When a drone emerges, he needs 12-14 days of flying before he’s ready to mate. His sperm takes time to move down into position and he needs to develop his powerful dorsal muscles by flying. If drones can’t get out during bad weather, these muscles won’t develop fully and he’s unlikely to catch a queen.

Drone face

A handsome drone, photo taken by Drew Scott.

Raising lots of good drones is essential. He told us “Any fool can raise queens – I can – but raising drones is a different game altogether”.  Use your best queens to raise drones, not queens. Tell others to sacrifice their drones for varroa treatments – but don’t do it yourself! Flood your area with your superior drones. But never use the same queens two years in succession to produce drones.

To raise good drones, your bees require access to plenty of food. If the workers run short of food, they’ll throw the drone brood out. To feed the developing brood, you also need lots of young workers under three weeks old, as they do the feeding.

Feeding

The best food to feed with is the bees’ own honey. If you’re serious about doing this, try putting a brood box (with a queen excluder underneath) on instead of a super during the summer. The bees will draw out a very heavy brood box of honey comb, which you can then keep over winter in the freezer ready for spring feeding.

Terry also uses a ‘water-dip’ method. This involves soaking a bag of granulated sugar in water for 3 seconds, then inverting it over the crown board. Feed in the evening to prevent any spills causing robbing.

Finally – the Queen

As with the drones, to produce good quality queens your young bees must be well fed. You will need reliable records, an assessment system, wide gene pool, a timetable plus an abundance of drones. Floods, wars, weddings, bereavements, football penalties etc should not affect the timetable.

Terry told us a sweet story about a young man who asked a beekeeper for permission to marry his daughter. He was told yes – but that there were no summer weddings in their family! I have messed up a bit as I’m getting married in May, just as swarm season kicks off! Whoops.

A quite unusual characteristic which Terry has been selecting for is supersedure. He mentioned an American study which had found supersedure happens naturally in about 10% of colonies – whereas about 40-60% of his colonies supersede (replace) their queens with newer ones. I suppose this saves him the work of having to do it.

To raise quality queens, you want queens raised from one day old larvae, so that they are fed copiously from the very beginning of their lives with royal jelly. The better fed a developing queen is, the better developed her ovaries will be for egg laying. You can force the bees to do this by dividing a colony in some way (like a split, artificial swarm, demaree or Shepherd swarm box – Terry’s favourite). You divide young bees into a separate hive box and remove the queen. Early on the 3rd morning afterwards, at 6 or 7 am, remove any queen cells in their box. This will force the workers to use newly hatched larvae to raise new queen cells.

Queen cells

Queen cells

Terry disagrees with the books, which often say a queen can mate within 28-32 days – he thinks she must mate within a fortnight of emerging and after that “goes stale”.

And that’s all folks

Terry was a very entertaining and jolly speaker, there was lots of laughter from the audience. I don’t plan to raise queens, but even so I picked up lots of practical tips, like the clove oil towel. David Aston spoke about the relationship between bees and flowers after lunch, so I’ll cover his talk in my next post.

Crocuses and snowdrops

It’s felt colder recently; the temperature is forecast to be around 7ºC/45°F with some wind and rain for the next few days. This is cold enough to get me shivering at the bus stop, but I know it’s nothing compared to the weeks of snow some of the US beekeepers I follow have been experiencing.

Winter is here, but spring is coming. The proof is at the Ealing apiary. Behold, snowdrops!

Snowdrops in February

Snowdrops, with no snow dropping on them.

Snowdrops in February

Gorgeous purple crocuses too, containing vivid orange pollen. So important for bumblebee queens. Little clumps of them are scattered around the apiary, so it is a challenge for clumsy footed beekeepers like me not to tread on them.

In his classic book ‘Guide to Bees and Honey’ (2010), Ted Hooper says that crocuses are “Very attractive to the bees. They provide nectar and good quality pollen in the early season, when this is so important to the colonies’ spring build up.”

Crocuses

I brought two presents with me to the apiary – cake for the humans and mealworms for the apiary robins. I like to hear their excited chirps.

In a strange act of co-ordination, both Clare and I had made banana cake. Mine was the first cake I’ve made with my new Bundt tin. A Nordic Bakery recipe, it contains all sorts of spices – cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, ginger – along with five mashed bananas. I was a bit unhappy with it as I left it too long in the oven, so it seemed quite dense. Clare’s was great though, a banana loaf with juicy raisins and chocolate chips.

“Is anyone here to do any beekeeping?” chuckled Andy.

Clare's banana & chocolate chip loaf

Clare’s banana & chocolate chip loaf

Hmmm….

Going home time; seriously depleted cake and milk

Going home time; seriously depleted cake and milk

Well, Emma and I did heft our hives and check that their fondant hasn’t run out yet. The bees were wisely hiding inside, even though the sun was out. I was amazed when Clare told us that an escaped swarm from last year is still living in her neighbour’s tree – not in a cavity, but exposed to the elements. Combs are hanging from the tree and she can see a few bees still up there. Really hope they can make it through to summer!

John Chapple gave me a good tip. Some of the lectures from the UK National Honey Show 2013 were filmed and can be watched at honeyshow.co.uk/lectures.shtml. There are really high class speakers at the show, so I’m looking forward to watching these. They’re not just about honey but on all sorts of topics, including “Keeping Bees in Frozen North America“.

The snowdrops are coming along

The tips look like they’re getting ready, don’t they?

Progressing snowdrops

There was frantic coming-and-going outside the hives today. The sun was out and the bees were even coming back with yellow pollen. But the little one on the mouse guard below was very still. It is a difficult time for the bees, as they try to increase their brood rearing activities whilst the weather is still cold.

Bee on mouseguard

And I was worried about this dark-banded lady resting on the chicken wire, as she looked sluggish. I breathed hot air out on her and she seemed to perk up a bit.

Bee on chicken wire

I let her crawl on my hand so I could breathe gently on her some more. She gently climbed about; it felt good spending time with her. It was hard to persuade her to come off, but eventually I managed to leave her at a hive entrance. If you ever get a chance to have a bee crawl on your hand, I recommend it. As long as they’re not trying to attack you, they’re gentle as pie.

Bee on hand

There was a lot of laughter with our tea and malt loaf today, everyone seemed in a jolly mood. There was some joking about beekeepers’ dislike of spending money. John Chapple told us how John Wilson (a lovely man who passed away a few years ago) used to pick up bent nails and straighten them out to use again, and he never had a hive tool because he never managed to find one. Once you become a beekeeper it’s good to keep your eyes open as you walk about. I collected some lovely pine cones recently which should make good smoker fuel in the summer.

Signs of hope

So far this winter has been mild but wet and windy. There has been flooding in several parts of the country, with huge waves breaking over the coast. No snow yet. Today brought sunshine, blue sky and fluffy white clouds.

The apiary was peaceful. It felt good to walk amongst the hives, looking in at entrances and being amongst the quiet of the bees. And from the ground, tips emerging – shoots of hope. Snowdrops and crocuses are on their way.

Snowdrop shoots

Snowdrop shoots

Crocus leaves

Looking back at my blog, last year the crocuses showed off their orange pollen in mid February and we had snow the week of 10th February. I expect we will have some snow to come.

I noticed something unusual – small wasps investigating entrances. I checked inside our hives to make sure they haven’t eaten their fondant yet and found a couple of drowsy little wasps amongst the insulation. Not the big queen wasps which I’ve found hibernating over winter before, but wee ones. Has anyone else found little wasps in their hives?

This nucleus had dead bees at the bottom and felt very light. I suspect the colony may have been dead for some time, but I didn’t have my hive tool with me so I didn’t try to open it up. These bees look more yellow than black to me; it always seems that the yellow type Italian bees imported from New Zealand do not overwinter so well. Tom Bickerdike has written about this a bit in his latest blog post on making his own oxalic acid solution.

Dead nucleus bees

Below, beautiful sunlight falling on our hives.

IMG_2701

For those of us who celebrate Christmas in England, January can be a bleak time. The feasts and presents of Christmas have passed, leaving our bank balances dented and our bellies swelled. Added to this, January is often the coldest month of the year. But us beekeepers have something to look forward to – every day of the winter that passes brings us closer to being able to spend time with our bees again.

Hope those snowdrops show their petals soon!

Apiary winter 2013/14

Not every open door can be closed; or early morning wrestling

Friday morning began to plan. I had boiled the kettle and poured some water into my thermos. A bag was packed, containing a hive tool, bee suit, latex gloves and pre-mixed oxalic acid. Soon I was on the bus and getting off by the church where Emma and I have one of our bee hives.

The day before the winter solstice, the day starts late. It was still dark at about 7.15am as I walked through the door into the apiary. Stones dug into my shoes as I made my way down the rough path towards the bees, fighting past overhanging branches.

Once in, my suit went over my coat. Hot water poured into the thermos cup, steaming magically high in the cold morning air. Into that I popped the oxalic acid container, to warm it for the bees.

Hive roof off and upturned. Insulation unpacked. And then the moment of discovery – are the bees still alive? Crown board turned over – yes! They were up under the fondant, huddled in a ball shape over about six frames. Somewhere in there, safe within the warm middle, would be the queen.

I was awestruck at the sight of the bees, but galvanised myself into action, squinting to make sure the acid was drizzled over each ‘seam’ of bees between the frames. Oxalic acid occurs naturally in plants such as rhubarb leaves. Used correctly, it is an excellent weapon against varroa mites, with a high efficiency (i.e. kill rate) of above 90%.

It was still pretty dark, but light was beginning in the sky. I have heard that bees crawl in the dark, something I had no wish to feel up my trousers. Our bonny bees seemed in a good mood, but a bit of an annoyed buzz started and I thought it best to not to push my luck. The crown board, fondant and roof went back on.

“Why is Emily doing this procedure in the dark as the dawn rises?” you may well be thinking to yourself. Well, I would have liked to be in bed too. But by the time I get home from work in December it’s even more dark, and I knew that the weather was turning to several days of rain, plus I would be away for Christmas. As I mentioned in my previous post, the research done by the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex indicates that colonies are most likely to be broodless between 10th-25th December (at least in Sussex). Oxalic acid treatment is most effective when colonies are broodless and the mites cannot hide inside the brood.

I was feeling pretty pleased by the way things had gone. Gathering my things together, I left the apiary at about 7.30am. Then I hit a snag. However hard I pulled the gate shut, however I twisted the key, I couldn’t lock the thing. The local drinkers hadn’t appeared yet, but it was likely they would turn up soon. I went round the back and managed to find a very nice lady from the church to help me, who I won’t name in case she’d rather I didn’t. She couldn’t lock the gate either, but she took the key and said she would do her best to sort it out.

After this drama I just about managed to get into work for time for our 9am team meeting. What a relief that I was able to find someone to help me, otherwise I would have panicked as I would have hated to leave that gate unlocked without anyone knowing about it. One of the hazards of keeping bees in an out apiary!

Happy Christmas to all of you, and happy honey munching to all your bees. Here’s a few memories of the 2013 beekeeping season.

Emma photographing the bees

Emma photographing the bees

Pistachio cake

Pistachio cake

David Pugh inspecting

David Pugh inspecting

Thomas inspecting

Thomas inspecting

Flat Stanley in buttercups

Flat Stanley in buttercups

Spot our queen

Spot our queen

John Chapple inspecting Albert's hive

John Chapple inspecting Albert’s hive

Sunlight falling on our beautiful bees

Sunlight falling on our beautiful bees

The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy

Bee researcher Dr Karin Alton really stirred up a hornet’s nest when she posted about oxalic acid on the London Beekeepers Association Facebook group this week.

For those of you unfamiliar with Karin’s work, she is a researcher at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex. This is the largest research group in the UK studying honey bees and other social insects. She also works as an ecologist with her husband Steve Alton at their company FlowerScapes, selling wildlife seed mixes and advising organisations on beautiful habitat creation and wildlife gardening solutions informed by the latest ecological research. You can follow her on Twitter at @KarinAlton.

So Karin certainly knows her stuff. But she really shook up us beekeepers when she posted the following advice on Facebook:

“hello! Latest research results from LASI indicate that between the dates of 10th december and christmas is the optimal time for oxalic acid treatment. Please check for sealed brood and destroy any, say, 48 hours before applying acid.”

Eek! We were all unsettled. Since I have started learning beekeeping the advice I’ve been given has been to  apply oxalic acid as close to the winter solstice as possible (December 21-22), as that is when a bee colony in the UK is thought most likely to be broodless. And the older experienced beekeepers who I’ve learnt from drizzle that oxalic over as quickly as possible before whipping the roof back on.

Emma treating our hive with oxalic acid

Emma treating our hive with oxalic acid

So based on LASI’s research, Karin is proposing two revolutionary things:

1) The best time to treat with oxalic is as early as 10th December up to Christmas
2) Sealed brood should be destroyed a day or two before applying the acid

Of course we all had lots of questions for her, and there are currently 55 comments on the post. Some further explanation and advice from Karin:

“it’s a fallacy that you can’t very quickly check for brood, we have opened hundreds of hives (very quickly- talking here couple of seconds) without any probs, even in cold, snowy January.”

“if you want to use oxalic acid, you MUST destroy brood before, as varroa hide in sealed brood, so waste of time and money putting OA on”

“Between 10th dec to 24th [in the UK] is the time with least likely/fewest sealed brood. uncap brood 48 hours before application, you would not need to pull out every frame, in fact you can tell by shifting the frames slightly if there is any, should be very few. if you use dribble method, you dont pull frames out anyway.”

I asked about timings, as me and Emma can only really get to the hives at the weekend, and Karin suggested that:

“Emily, may I suggest you pop to your hive first thing Saturday morning, and work fast, you don’t pull every frame out, but first take outside frame out, move others one at time, should be easy to check without waving them about in fresh air.

Start from middle frame, most likely here may be a small patch of brood, uncap with hive tool, quick slide check of other frames, then lid back on. On Sunday afternoon, take lid off, quick look to see the bees didn’t recap brood, then dribble OA. If you cannot do this procedure, use other varroa method. As I already have said, no point exposing bees to another chemical, if you leave Varroa in sealed brood! Hope this helps.”

As Karin says, “The research is being written up. All I can do is to inform you our findings, what you choose to do with this info is of course entirely up to you.” She also advises that fumigation is by far the best method, as the vapour permeates the frames. You just need the right equipment, especially a good quality mask.

The National Bee Unit currently offers limited guidance on oxalic acid in their Managing varroa booklet: “Ideally needs broodless conditions; 90% average efficacy possible; sugarless solutions have poor efficacy; danger of significant colony weakening; more scientific trials needed; highly toxic by inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption”. I think part of the reason for the limited printed advice is that the legal position relating to the use of what are termed ‘generic naturally occurring substances’ such as oxalic acid is complex. Generally the NBU inspectors are willing to give more advice on it in person.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

What do you think, is destroying sealed brood a tactic you’re willing to try? I must admit I’m a bit nervous about it, even though I can see the benefits of destroying every last one of those mites. I think part of the reason for that is that I want to nurture life rather than destroy it. But then again we destroy brood during the shook-swarm in spring, and the bees bounce back strongly from that. 

I’ve written a few posts before featuring advice from Karin, she is a no-nonsense lady who always has plenty to say:

Autumn ponderings

My work involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer, updating web pages and answering enquiries. I like my job but I miss the sun, as our office only has tiny windows which let little light in. On my lunch break – and I am lucky as I get a full hour long lunch break – I step outside and blink gratefully when the sky is bright. I take long strides around the city, exercising my legs and entertaining my eyes by looking at St Paul’s cathedral, at the Thames, squirrels, pigeons and all the old Roman walls near my work.

St Paul's across the river at night - there are some perks to living in London

St Paul’s across the river at night – there are some perks to living in London

Weekends are nice because I can spend more time outside, whether with the bees in the summer or staring wistfully at the hive entrances in the winter. Today was a perfect autumn day and quite a few of us turned up to drink tea and eat some Icelandic choccies Emma had kindly left behind for us. Some excellent hats were on display. Don brought his Alsatian Annie, who gets shy and barks at new people but is actually a sweetie when you stroke her.

Icelandic honey

Emma also gave me this honey and pretty snow globe. The honey was a very special present from Hjalmar Jonsson, an Icelandic beekeeper who may be visiting the Ealing apiary in the spring. When he heard Emma was coming to Iceland for a few days he kindly invited her to visit his hives. You can read about Emma’s visit and see some stunning photos on her blog post Beekeeping in Iceland. The honey smells delicious.

How many hats can you see?

How many hats can you see?

Tom has very generously given Emma and I some home-made insulated dummy boards to go with the insulated roofs he made us. He helped me put the dummy boards into Chilli’s small hive, as we had some empty frames of foundation at the end that were doing nothing to help keep the warmth in. Our hives now have fondant on over the crown board, topped by insulation and insulated roofs. We want to tuck our bees in warm this winter. Brian reported that a woodpecker had a go at one of his top-bar hives, so chicken wire is something to sort out next week.

Insulation before the roof goes on

Insulation before the roof goes on

Earlier Drew had helped me check out the Hanwell bees. Outside the church gate we were greeted by a man dressed as Elvis and what looked like a human poo on the ground. A peculiar combination. Beyond the gate I realised I had forgotten my bee suit, which was a little annoying as I wanted to put a mouse guard across the entrance.

I proceeded towards our hive and gingerly fixed the mouse guard on, putting the drawing pins in gently as bees don’t generally like anything interfering with their entrance. I stood back and Drew said “Is the entrance meant to be covered?”. I had somehow managed to put the thick part of the mouse guard across the entrance and already bees were buzzing around trying to get in. As I fixed its positioning one landed on my hand, but luckily she was just looking for somewhere to land and not out to get me.

What must it feel like to spend a few months huddling around your queen? Perhaps the winter bees have it easy, feeding on the fragrant honey their summer sisters collected. But I dislike being cold, so I think I’d rather be a busy summer bee. Dale Gibson has done a good post on his Apis blog explaining what the bees get up to: Hivernation.

How are your winter preparations coming along, either for the bees or for yourselves?