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?

Into the dark of winter

The winter preparations for our hives continue. Mouseguards are on and sugar syrup feeding has finished. Tom Bickerdike has been helping Emma and me out by adding insulation to our hive roofs, sealing it in with an extra wooden layer.  Below you can see him posing with insulation with a hole cut in for fondant.

Tom with insulated roof

Last week Tom visited the National Honey Show with John Chapple. He and John were both impressed with this bee gym equipment. The name conjures up images of the bees lifting weights and doing gymnastics on mini trampolines, doesn’t it? Also the design reminds me of a boxing ring!


The idea is actually that the bee gym is placed on the hive floor, where the bees give themselves a good scratch up against the threads and those little plastic crescents or “flippers” you can see below. Like a cow trying to relieve an itch by rubbing their backs on a beehive, the bees apparently love to rub their abdomen up and down these things.
Bee gym 2

The bee gym may even be an effective way for the bees to shift varroa mites from their backs, as its creator Stuart Roweth has found numbers of mites dropped to be higher below the gyms. Stuart has given Tom and John Chapple a gym each so that they can test out whether they get the same results.

You can find out more about the bee gym at The Contacts page says “Bee Gyms are available to beekeepers who would like to try this approach to Varroa control as part of our current trials.”

Guinness and chocolate cake

Last week I made this chocolate and Guinness cake, a Hummingbird Bakery recipe. I was pleased with its complex, rich and boozy flavour. Whilst still warm it reminded me of Christmas pudding; Drew said molten chocolate fudge cake. A little goes a long way!

Fairground ride

I also tried out some long exposure photography and took this photo of a Fairground ride at the Southbank.

The days are drawing in now. It is dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I leave work at night. I go outside on my lunch break to try and get some daylight. Do the bees miss the sun as they huddle together in the winter, I wonder?

London Honey Show 2013: part 2

A second blog post on Monday night’s third ever London Honey Show, run by the London Lancaster hotel.

The headline speaker was Dale Gibson, on ‘A year in the life of the Bermondsey Street Bees. Mostly.’ He positively bounced onto the stage, full of energy, humour and a flamboyant way with words. He has been beekeeping for six years.

Rather than giving us a straight account of a year’s beekeeping activities, he told us he wanted to look at beekeeping through the ages at Bermondsey.

In 1082, Bermondsey Abbey was founded. For the monks there, Dale imagined that the bees would have been a source of seeming miracles – for instance clean-burning beeswax candles brought a God-like light to the darkness of Southwark Cathedral. Wax kept parchment documents sealed and secret, and its reliable burning even made candles a time keeping device.

As well as all the benefits of wax, bees also provided sweet honey… but they had one final blessing to confer… alcohol! However Dale feels mead must have been used as chastisement, taken as a penance for unmentionable sins! He much prefers honey beer, such as the new London beer brand Hiver, which he has supplied honey to. There were some free samples of Hiver at the show, and it did taste very good.

So, from 1082-2013, what’s changed for the bees of Bermondsey Street? Dale summed up the bad:

  • Varroa
  • Neo-nics
  • Intensive agriculture

And the good:

  • Bee space discovered – we now have hives with removable frames
  • Improved lip balm!

He gave us a quick whip through his beekeeping year. He feeds a anti-nosema thymol emulsion in 2:1 sugar syrup during autumn, which I found interesting. Apparently a emulsion recipe can be found on Anyone have any opinions or experience in doing this?

Finally Dale showed us a fun video he’d made of him receiving a queen bee and her attendants through the post. His dining table was set up very nicely to receive her.

Dale has a blog at and Bermondsey Bees have a YouTube channel – BermondseyStreetBeesOnAir, where you can see the video he showed us, ‘The day the queen came to tea‘.

Will do a third blog and final post on the show soon I think, with more of the photos I took. My cold is a little better today, thank you everyone for your anti-cold tips!

To finish this post off, here is a great photo Dale showed us of one of his diligent beekeeping assistants. I managed to find it on the Londonist website.

London Honey Show 2013: part 1

I’ve come down with a cold, so am writing this in a feverish sleepless state. So apologies if   any of it does make sense – or indeed doesn’t make sense! Feeling a bit sniffly, yesterday I headed down to the third ever London Honey Show, run by the London Lancaster hotel.

It had been moved to a bigger room this year (compared to 2011, I missed the 2012 show), down in the basement with no windows. It was good to have the space but I missed natural light, which tends to make honey glow more. Some free mead and beer samples were on offer, which helped my sore throat a little.

Some unusual hives were on display…

Nepalese Apis Cerana beehive

Nepalese Apis Cerana beehive

Apis Cerana Cerana prefer small hives.

Nepalese Apis Cerna Beehive description

The first speaker, the delightfully named Michael Badger MBE, was speaking on ‘Urban beekeeping in a bee house’. Given that his bee house (located in his garden outside Leeds) looked bigger than the average London garden, I doubt many of us will be able to replicate it, but it did look rather good.

Unfortunately his presentation was beset by technical difficulties and he seemed to have lost a lot of photos which should have been on his usb stick. This made it quite stop-and-start, as various members of the hotel’s IT team had to jump up and help him. He was unaware of how to rotate pictures, so we had to look at a few by tilting our heads 90 degrees until help arrived!

What is a bee house? Mr Badger has designed a large shed with several hives kept inside. Gaps at the top of the shed allow the bees to fly out; air being allowed to circulate in all the time prevents the problem of the bees thinking it’s warmer outside than it really is. It’s a more complex and clever design than that, but not being a practical person I’m afraid I can’t recall the finer details. He emphasised the importance of keeping the bee house clean, not dropping any wax or honey on the floor, and indeed it did look most spick and span.

I was encouraged that he mostly keeps his bees on a brood-and-a-half or double-brood system, as we are overwintering some of our hives on double brood boxes this year. For ease of lifting, some of his colonies are even kept completely in supers! I have not seen anyone do this before.

“Beekeepers never seem to know anything about bees” he told us, and recommended we read up about bees (not just beekeeping). As farmers know their livestock, so we should know our bees – their communication systems and biology. The books he finds most useful are Dr Colin Butler’s ‘World of the honeybee‘ – out of print, but available through public libraries – and the more recent Ted Hooper, ‘Guide to Bees and Honey‘ and Mark L. Winston’s ‘The Biology of the Honeybee‘.

In April 2014 Mr Badger has a book coming out, ‘Heather Honey – its production and uses’. It has chapters on heather honey ecology, production and its uses – mead, wax, honey cakes, medicinal – and will be published by Bee Craft Ltd.

In my next post I’ll write up my notes from Dale Gibson’s presentation, ‘A year in the life of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ and show you some more photos from the evening. I’ll leave you with some sweet bee cupcakes.

Bee cupcakes

Getting our hives in order

More winter preparations down at the apiary today. I hadn’t had time to make a cake, but luckily Cliff came to the rescue with a luscious mascarpone, lime and blackberry flavoured cheesecake (think that’s what he said). So creamy. We really do have a good cake club going on.

It’s been warm, so a surprising amount of beekeeping was going on for October. We had two new young and enthusiastic wannabe beeks turn up, Karen and Freddie. Karen is a music graduate who plays piano; she comes from Canada and is here in London for an internship. Freddie looks after some community land in Park Royal and is hoping he can put some bees there once he’s done the Ealing beginners course.

Andy Pedley teaching Karen and Freddie

Andy Pedley teaching Karen and Freddie

Above is a photo of Andy Pedley teaching Karen and Freddie. I love his teaching style and could listen to him all day. He has a big hearty laugh that can be heard right across the apiary. When you hear that laugh down the road, you know Andy’s coming!

He had some fun with them by asking how many bees they thought were in the hive. They came out with various guesses such as ’500′ or ’2000′, so were very shocked when Andy estimated around 30,000! I must remember to ask beginners that question, it could be very entertaining. Especially if they start trying to count them all.

John Chapple inspecting Albert's hive

John Chapple inspecting Albert’s hive

Nearby a separate inspection was going on, as Albert had noticed an unusual build up of wax and other droppings on the varroa inspection tray. He was worried that wax moth or some other creature could be living in there. Above you can see John Chapple taking a look. These bees were incredibly aggressive last week and really went for my legs. This week they were a little better, but understandably not that happy to have their combs tilted around.

John found nothing wrong, except that the hive had no brood at all – in October you would still expect a small brood nest. However pollen was being brought in, which is usually a sign that the bees are happy. He recommended that Albert put a frame with eggs in from his other hive to test whether the bees try and make a queen cell from it. If they do, that indicates the colony is queenless and he can then combine them with his other hive.

Tom's home-made feeder

Tom’s home-made feeder

We also had a look in Tom Bickerdike’s colony to see how much syrup they’d taken since last week. Tom is a fantastic carpenter and joiner and has made this feeder himself. The compartment at the side is where the bees feed. It contains sticks and other bits and pieces so that they don’t drown. Last week Tom put two gallons of syrup in and these hungry Italian bees ate it all up within the week.

Tom has very kindly made Emma and I a properly insulated roof, with a layer of insulation sealed in by wood. He says he is on a mission to get everyone to insulate their hives!

As Emma explained in her recent post ‘Turning over a new leaf‘, we now have Myrtle and Chamomile’s colonies in double brood boxes and Chilli’s colony on a single brood box, though they are only just big enough to be in a brood box rather than a nucleus, so need plenty of feeding up. This is different to how we usually overwinter our hives (filling up a single brood box), so fingers crossed all goes well. Come spring we will probably do a shook-swarm and put Myrtle and Chamomile’s colonies into a single brood box again, as that is easier to inspect.

The ivy is out now, so plenty of pollen is coming in. Think we’ll wait till it’s over to put our mouseguards on, so that it doesn’t get knocked off their legs. Tom thought he could detect some sweet whiffs of ivy nectar in the air.

Here are some pretty pink flowers that I found growing in a circle in Cornwall. (EDIT – Jonathan Harding has kindly left me a comment below to say that they are Cyclamen).

Circle of pink flowers

Thoughts on ‘More than Honey’

Last week I went to see a showing of More than Honey by the Ealing Transitions/Friends of the Earth groups at St Mary’s Church, Ealing. I hadn’t been in the church before and was surprised at how beautifully decorated it is, with rafters painted gold and intricate red and gold patterns on the arches. The church was packed, so hopefully plenty of money was raised for bee causes.

It’s a very well shot film with some ground breaking footage of a honeybee queen mating high in the air, and also unusual viewpoints such as inside a hive being trucked about, the combs swinging back and forth. The director went around the world to film it, including California, the Swiss alps and China.

St Mary's Church, St Mary's Road, Ealing

We see commercial beekeeper John Miller standing by his hives in an almond tree plantation, the buzzing in the delicate white flowers filling the air. He turns to the camera and says “That’s the sound of money… fresh printed money”. As the film goes on he loses lots of hives, in response to which he treats with Fumagilin, saying “I am backed into a corner, and I fight back with what I have – chemicals.”

Some of the practices John Miller uses do not seem healthy for the bees to me, and he admits himself that his grandfather would be shocked to see how things are now done. Mechanical equipment is used to shunt the hives about, scraping and crushing bewildered bees willy nilly. When I inspect a hive I try my best not to kill a single bee, but in these large-scale operations human interaction with the colonies is lost. The pursuit of income for commercial beekeepers comes at a cost for the bees. The trucking, the spraying of pesticides that goes on in commercial plantations, forcing the bees to exist on monocrops… no wonder colonies are dying off.

In contrast I enjoyed the footage with Fred Jaggi in peaceful Switzerland. He does not own a veil and keeps black bees native to his area high up in the mountains. He claims they swarm less and are gentler, as well as better suited to the cold conditions. There is entertaining footage of both male and female beekeepers there puffing on a cigar instead of a smoker!

But even amongst the idyllic scenes of wild flowers in the alps, disease lurks and sadly Fred’s bees are diagnosed with American foulbrood (AFB). The inspector fumigates the bees with sulphur to kill them and the bees and frames are then burnt in a pit. It sounds harsh but is better than leaving the colony to infect other bees.

In China we meet Zhao Su Zhang, who sells pollen to farmers in northern China, in areas where heavy pesticide usage means bees can no longer survive. Years ago Mao decreed that sparrows should be killed as they stole grain from the people. This was done, but resulted in a plague of insects as their natural predators had been greatly diminished. The insects were fought with insecticides and the bees died. Messing with an ecosystem never produces positive results.

Each year Zhao drives south for two days, buys flowers there and hires a room for her team to harvest the pollen from the flowers, carefully packaging it into paper envelopes. She then drives back north to sell the pollen to the farmers. Up on ladders, labourers must painstakingly dab each flower with a little pollen so that the trees will fruit. Even the slowest, most lackadaisical bee in the world would surely beat a human at this job.

The film left me feeling sad and angry. We abuse the natural world in so many ways – can we really be surprised when things go wrong and bees start dying off? It’s lucky for bees that their work is so valuable to us, otherwise governments would probably do little to protect them and those of us who care would be left lamenting a missing hum.

Edit: Rusty at Honey Bee Suite has written a post pointing out some errors in More than Honey: Take the Pollinator challenge.

Carder bee on pink flower