Beekeeping amongst the snowdrops

There was a properly bitter chill in the air last weekend, but I knew there would be a few tough beekeepers down at the apiary. Alan was packing up nails neatly into boxes and quickly had the kettle on. In the end four of us turned up around a small feast of cookies, biscuits and banana chocolate flapjacks.

Biscuits and flapjacks

There had been snow swirling around in the morning, but it didn’t settle. No bees were flying, not even our usually eager nucleus bees. Still, the snowdrops had come on.

Snowdrops

One of the snowdrops looked like it had been nibbled at to reveal its pollen.

Snowdrops closeup

Inside the nuc the bees were still active over about four frames. They have fondant on the side; I just hope it doesn’t get too cold for them to reach it. I smeared some extra blobs nearer the cluster.

Poly nuc cluster

Soon it’ll be shook-swarming time! Alan has all his frames ready. I, of course, don’t!

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‘Just Bee’ honey drinks on Dragons Den

It was good to see a bee-themed company on this week’s Dragon Den. I’ve been following the progress of Joe and Andy from Just Bee Drinks since I helped them out with some market research feedback a couple of years ago. Joe’s dad and grandad were beekeepers and he grew up adding honey to his tea. This gave him the idea for a honey sweetened rather than the usual sugary or artificially sweetened drink. Just Bee Drinks are now for sale in national retailers like Boots, Waitrose and Holland & Barrett.

Just Bee Honey Water

It was interesting to hear the dragons’ feedback. Deborah Meaden said “It’s very personal but I don’t actually like the taste. It’s slightly antiseptic” and a couple of the other dragons agreed with her. I’m now curious to try one to see for myself!

Colony collapse was also brought up by Deborah, who wanted to make sure the honey wasn’t coming from intensively farmed bees. The duo reassured her that all of the beekeepers who supply the honey are completely ethical and leave the colonies enough honey for winter.

 

You can catch up with the show on the BBC website and find out whether the pair got the investment they were after. Joe and Andy have also blogged about their experience on the show: Dragons Den: our story. Let’s hope more bee-themed business ideas are featured in the future!

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Oxalic acid sublimation demo

It was a beautifully sunny but chilly day yesterday for a demonstration by Tom of oxalic acid sublimation. Amazingly some of our bees were still flying even at temperatures of under 10°C (50°F). The snowdrop shoots haven’t come on much further.

Winter apiary

Inside our nuc the bees were still active but clustered more tightly than before. I smeared some extra fondant on top of a few of the frames. They have fondant left in the side feeder still, but I thought it would be nice for them to have some nearer the cluster.

Nuc

In our bigger hive the ladies remain up in their fondant and pollen bags, but they have plenty of the sweet stuff left still. Nibble nibble.

Bees on fondant

A good number of us had gathered to see Tom demonstrate how oxalic acid sublimation (vaporisation) works. His subliminator cost around £35 (see Thorne’s Vapmite one) and the car battery charge around £35 too, so initial equipment costs are about £70. He did say this was a cheap subliminator and it’s starting to fall apart, there is a more expensive version available for around £100 which would probably last longer. You will also need oxalic acid in the approved form of Api-Bioxal, which conveniently contains extra sugar that identifies it as Api-Bioxal and makes the subliminator tray extra-sticky.

Tom demonstrating oxalic acid

As the apiary bees were already treated by the drizzle method before Christmas, this was only a demonstration on an empty hive. The hive had a glass crown board so we could see the effects of the gas in a confined space. We were all wearing masks, this is very important as the oxalic fumes are dangerous to humans.

Oxalic equipment

The equipment

Oxalic acid sublimation

Tom began by putting foam in at the entrance, this helps keep the fumes inside the hive. He left the subliminator in for 3 mins 20 seconds attached to the battery to heat up the oxalic acid, then another 3 mins without the battery to cool down. You can then remove the subliminator and leave the hive sealed up with foam for 5-10 mins after that, before removing the foam (please read the official instructions before doing it yourself rather than relying on these timings, in case I am mis-remembering anything!).

As the oxalic acid vaporises, the vapour fills the hive, coating the bees and hive surfaces with a very thin layer of oxalic acid crystals. The bees cope well with these crystals, but they have a deadly effect on varroa mites.

Oxalic acid sublimation

The advantages of sublimation are:

  • You don’t need to open up the hive, which breaks propolis seals and can potentially disturb the bees.
  • You can carry out repeated treatments, whereas the drizzle should only be carried out once annually.
  • Research carried out by the University of Sussex Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects suggests that, compared to spraying or dribbling, sublimation has a higher varroa kill rate (see Integrated control of Varroa mites on the LASI website).

The disadvantages of sublimation are:

  • The extra costs of the subliminator and battery equipment.
  • Oxalic acid is toxic to humans, so you have to be very careful when handling it; including wearing gloves and a mask to avoid breathing in the fumes.

The instructions on Thorne’s website have some interesting details – they say the air temperature should not be below +4°C and the last cleansing flight should not date back more than four weeks. This is probably not something we need to worry about in London, but further north daytime temperatures might drop lower than 4°C. The LASI guidelines recommend applying oxalic at outside temperatures of 4-16°C.

Useful links:

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Of bee butts and wiggles

It’s fun to investigate what people were looking for in 2016. Although there were 7,136 “Unknown search terms” which Google is keeping private, amongst those from other search engines I noticed a theme:

‘Why do bees wiggle their bums’ (3 searches)
&
‘Why do bees shake their bum’ (2 searches)
&
‘What does bees shaking it’s back mean’ (1 search)
&
‘pepperpot in rectum’ (1 search)

I hope my blog was able to help with the ‘pepper pot in rectum’ problem. It must have been a large bee, or a very small pepper pot.

A bee bum.

A bee bum.

In one of my revision posts on Bee communication for BBKA Module 6, Honey bee behaviour, I covered the various meanings of honey bee vibrations and movements. When it comes to wiggling, the waggle dance is well known, but there are many different types of honey bee dances: round, transition, wagtail, buzzing runs and the DVAV (dorsoventral abdominal vibrating dance).

However, this search suggests that some of these observers were not seeing a communication dance but something else:

What does it mean when a honey bees butt moves in and out?’

Bees have no lungs but move oxygen into their bodies through breathing tubes (tracheae), which are connected to surrounding air through multiple holes in their body called spiracles. In his book ‘The Biology of the Honey Bee’ (1987), Mark L.Winston explains that “When the bee is inactive gas exchange can operate simply by diffusion, but during periods of increased activity bees pump their abdomens to increase gas exchange” (p.34). This pumping movement makes the abdomen move rhythmically as oxygen goes in – which could be the ‘in and out’ movement the searcher was thinking of.

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Endurance and hope

January is a stern month. The festivities of Christmas have passed and many of us are left feeling plumper and poorer. A time for austerity and cutting back, combined with chilling days that cut through to our fingers and whistle past our ears.

But the bees know that the days are getting longer. Becoming not darker but lighter. Whether bee or human, the winter solstice has passed and spring is coming, if we can just wait a little longer and keep nibbling away in the dark. It was warm for January yesterday, around 11°C (51.8°F), so the bees at the apiary were taking full advantage of this chance to clear their bowels.

Poly nuc

Inside the poly nuc, the bees are very active across all five frames. Lots of condensation, so it must be warm in there. I am not sure whether a warm January is a good thing as it will cause them to go through their stores more quickly. They have fondant so I’ll keep an eye out to make sure it doesn’t run out.

Poly nuc close up

In our full sized hive Emma has carried out John Chapple’s trick of putting two Ambrosia fondant bags on top of each other, with a hole punched between them so the bees can get in both. This much fondant should be enough to last the bees until the spring forage begins. Through this sugary double layer I was able to take a photo from above before the bees realised and started flying up.

Bees in fondant

And just poking out from the apiary ground I found these snowdrop shoots. Told you spring is coming.

Snowdrop shoots

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A festive feast and Apibioxal time at the apiary

Wine!

There was a surprise treat for Ealing beekeepers this weekend – Pat had brought us some mulled wine, which he heated up and dished out to eager takers. He gleefully told us that unlike most recipes, his doesn’t involve burning off most of the alcohol (he followed Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to make perfect mulled wine‘ method).

Pat Turner with mulled wine

Pat with his mulled wine

We also had a bit of a feast to go with the wine – mince pies, baguette, cheese and cake. Well it is Christmas. The bees huddle up and eat and so do we.

Festive Christmas feast

Api-Bioxal

With this warming fuel in our bellies we even managed to do a bit of beekeeping. In the association apiary hives are given a one-off anti-varroa treatment of oxalic acid around December/January time. Those of you outside the UK may not know that UK beekeepers can no longer legally use generic oxalic acid crystals and should use Api-Bioxal, a Veterinary Medicines Directorate approved product containing oxalic acid, instead. Of course you can still buy oxalic acid crystals, which are cheaper than Api-Bioxal, but you would technically be breaking the law if you used them for anything other than ‘hive cleansing’. Would anyone find out… probably not… but in an association apiary things need to be done by the book, so on Saturday we trickled Api-Bioxal on the bees.

Apibioxal drizzling

Apibioxal drizzling

I’m happy to say that both our hives were bursting with bees. They were not in a tight cluster and the day was warm enough that some colonies were flying. It’s a quick job to trickle 5ml of the Api-Bioxal syrup mix over each seam of bees. They were gentle on us and the most difficult part was closing up afterwards without squashing any. The National Bee Unit estimates it should have a 90-95% efficiency rate – you can never get all the mites but you can get a satisfying number.

Bee Music

Exciting news for bee music lovers – on Wednesday 21st at 10am BBC 6 Music have a bee-themed show, as BE will be performing their 2016 album ONE, which was created for the Hive installation at Kew Gardens using a live feed of bee colony sounds. If you can’t listen live you can catch up with it afterwards. 

Happy Christmas everyone!

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Getting our bees winter-ready

Last week Emma and I met up to check on our two hives. It was a warm day for November and we wanted to make sure our larger colony was set up well for winter, with not too much empty space which the bees might struggle to heat.

Here’s Emma glowing as she lights up the smoker. Particularly toasty feet – she had two pairs of socks on!

Emma with FLIR camera

We had been considering removing the super and overwintering the bees on a single brood box, but we found they were covering several frames in the super and appeared to be using the honey. So instead we made up some insulated frames to place either end of the super, which should help keep them cosy. They also have plenty of silver foil thermal insulation sheets in the top of the hive (the kind you buy in rolls to help insulate lofts and walls).

Insulated frames

Below is a FLIR thermal camera image of our polystyrene nuc. Inside the bees are doing great, they are covering all the frames and were bringing back two colours of pollen, dark and light yellow. I expect one is ivy but am unsure what the other might be.

Nuc hive with FLIR camera

I am skeptical about how exact that 11.4C reading is, as I would expect the colony to have brood, with frames containing brood kept nearer 34-35C by the bees.  I also took a photo of a empty hive and found the camera read a similar temperature of around 9C! Philip over at the Mud Songs beekeeping blog has a useful post on Beekeeping With a “Flir One for Android”, with links to tutorials in the comments. I wish I had more time to investigate the software, but everyday life with Tommy is pretty full-on.

Look how much extra comb the nucleus bees have been busy building along the top of the glass.  We have left them some fondant in the feeder hole.

Poly nucleus hive

Mouseguards are on now. The next thing to do will be oxalic acid treatment in December. Now that the law has changed, this should be done with Api-Bioxal. Annoying as it is a bit more expensive and doesn’t come ready-mixed.

Best of luck to everyone over-wintering your bees.

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