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In 1994 the death occurred of a well-known beekeeper in Hampshire. Right through his last summer, his enthusiasm was unabated, and he was able to show off the finest comb honey his bees had ever produced in his 77 years of beekeeping. Of all his tales his favourite was how he started at the age of 7 – the thrill of starting was still tangible. Whether one’s first bees are obtained after a ten year preparation, reading and planning, or on the spur of the moment with a swarm or a gift, the first moments are memorable. The excitement is usually mixed with some trepidation. Will I manage? Will the colony survive? Will the cat get stung? No matter how much theory is learned in advance, it is still a question of in at the deep end, the day that that first hive is set up and inhabited, and the owner has to get a veil on and undergo the metamorphosis to beekeeper ..
The change will take the beekeeper into the universe of the insects, where sight, sound, smell, all the senses we have and then some extra, are different and strange; where social organisation is spectacular, and where extraordinary feats of communication, navigation and survival can be observed every day.
Few of us will be fortunate enough to enjoy 77 years of this pleasure, but most beekeepers display the fascination which grows through the years and decades. The aim of this particular booklet, and the series in general, is to assist the starting beekeeper over some of the stepping stones into the craft, and to learn the basic skills which will lead to proficiency.
How to start
If the start into beekeeping has been planned, then it is possible to consider aspects like the type of hive used, the type of bee, the location of the apiary, the time of year to start and the method of harvesting the honey crop. On the other hand if a swarm is taken, or a colony received or inherited without warning, then few of these matters can be controlled. In general if an opportunity to get started presents itself, seize it, providing you can get an experienced hand to give an assessment of the health and temper of the bees. More on these points later.
Type of hive
There are two topics which are guaranteed to cause battle lines to be drawn in any association. The first of these is the type of hive which is ”best”. A quick flick through a beekeeping equipment catalogue will reveal the following at least:-National, Commercial, WBC, Langstroth, Smith, Dadant, Jumbo, Wormit and we can be thankful that these are only the remnants of a much wider range. Some hives beautiful and obscure crop up at auctions and sales. Buy these by all means for painting white and storing your tools in in the garden – a lovely curio is much more satisfying than a nonstandard hive where the frames have to be jemmied out in a frenzy of bees. The variety of hives is a legacy from the largely amateur history of beekeeping in this country. In the USA by comparison, with its huge commercial basis, the choice of hives is virtually limited to one. In the UK different hives tend to be favoured in different parts of the country, sometimes for climatic reasons, sometimes because · an authoritative or respected beekeeper promoted one particular type. Examples are the Glen and Gale hives which still crop up in odd comers.
Where hives are concerned, the requirements of bees and beekeeper do not entirely coincide; indeed, of the two, the beekeeper is the fussier. Bees certainly thrive in all the hives we currently care to keep them in. Research shows that swarms prefer a cavity of about 40 litres (a little larger than a Modified National brood box), well up off the ground, with a small entrance. This is essentially a space with room enough for a cluster and winter stores, which can be easily defended. Needless to say a wide range is tolerated. Instead of a fixed cavity, the size of a modern hive is variable. It is split in two parts by the queen excluder which restricts the queen and hence the brood to the lower part, and the honey stores for removal to the top. Boxes can be added as necessary to suit the size of the colony. Normally only one brood box is used with any number of supers as the season and flow require. When selecting a hive, one of the major differences is the size of the brood box, and it is worth considering here why this should matter. The greater the population of the colony, the greater the amount of honey it is potentially capable of storing during a honey flow. The number of bees in the colony depends on the queen – some strains have very prolific queens which lay possibly in excess of 2,000 eggs per day, while other strains are less prolific. A bit of arithmetic will show that a queen laying 2,000 eggs a day will need 42,000 cells to lay in, since a worker is 21 days in the cell from egg to emergence. But around the brood nest there need to be pollen, nectar and honey stores and besides, no comb is perfect. There are nibbled away bits, and spoiled bits around queen cells, and also drone cells which take up more room. The table below gives the theoretical number of worker cells in the common British brood boxes:
|Hive Type||No. of Frames||Frame Size||No. of Worker Lugs Cells (Approx)|
|National||11||14″ x 8.5″||50,000 long|
|Smith||11||14″ x 8.5″||50,000 short|
|WBC||10||14″ x 8.5″||45,000 long|
Arithmetic based on the peak laying rate of the queen alone will not decide the size of brood box. A much better guide will be local experience and advice. Ask the beekeepers what works in the neighbourhood, and avoid the eccentric. A brood box that is too small will restrict the laying of the queen and the colony will not build up to its potential. On the other hand, putting a type of bee that maintains only a moderate population into a Dadant hive will not encourage it to expand its brood area, but will only ensure that a large part of the honey crop is stored in the brood frames where it is removable only with difficulty.
While discussing space in the brood box, it is worth referring to swarming. A common misapprehension among beginners is that a large brood box will delay, reduce or even eliminate swarming. When crowding is given as one of the causes of swarming, it is the room available to the whole colony that is relevant. Giving supers in plenty of time is good advice. Paradoxically enough, it may be the case that a smaller brood box which slows up the growth of the colony in spring is later in swarming than a large one.
So far the question of hive choice has been confined to the requirements of the inhabitants.Now the much more demanding needs of the beekeeper have to be considered, such as the area, cost, looks, the beekeeper’ s strength, and future plans. I shall recommend now for the novice the adoption of the Modified National or the Langstroth, on the grounds that they are common, readily available, cheapish and straightforward. This is not to denigrate any other type – they all have their pros and cons – and their persuasive advocates! In the following paragraphs, I shall cover some of the features of the different types, and some of the options which are available.
One winter’s night when the temperature set at in -27 C I saw two WBC hives by the high road out of Braemar. In the spring they appeared to be flying strongly and thriving despite their Arctic experience. It is not coincidence that in the remotest of glens double-walled hives like the WBC can be seen. Experience has shown that bees survive in these. The outer wall or lifts shed the rain and keep the inner boxes dry, reducing the chilling effect of wind or evaporative cooling on the colony. In an exposed or very wet or maritime location a colony in a WBC or similar will have the edge in terms of survival, honey yield, build-up and health over a colony in a single-walled hive. In more moderate conditions the advantage will be much less marked. The other factor which maintains the appeal of the WBC is the traditional appearance, which makes it a real showpiece in the garden.
There are some drawbacks to the WBC. The cost is greater, since the construction of the inner and outer add to materials and production time. It is less easy to handle. Not only do the lifts have to be removed to get at the hive proper, but the design of brood and supers means that frames almost inevitably get stuck to the box above. For the beekeeper with only a few colonies however, this disadvantage may be trivial. It means only a few seconds extra attention at each manipulation and quickly becomes habit. Lastly it is onerous indeed to move. If you want to move bees to honey crops or for pollination this is not the one for you.
All other hives on sale today are single-walled. They are usually made from timber, either western red cedar or pine, or increasingly, plastic. Western red cedar is remarkably durable. Even without treating with preservative, it is resistant to rot and hives made from it do get handed down from generation to generation. I have worked sixty year old hives which had many years life left in them. Pine is cheaper, needs timber preservative (regularly) and doesn’t last as long. Plastic hives, which are much more common on the continent, are made from high-density expanded polystyrene or polyurethane. Their thermal properties make them ideal for wintering in difficult situations or for weak colonies, nuclei or queen-rearing. Unavailable so far in British standard sizes, they have been slow to catch on in the UK.
A large part of bee keeping time will be spent handling brood frames. (Super frames are by comparison much less frequently examined.) So ease of handling of the frame may be a consideration, especially for someone who is not strong, or arthritic. The British Standard frame as used in the National or WBC is the smallest brood frame and also has 11½” long lugs, twice as long as the lugs on all other frames, making examination easier, particularly swinging the frame round to look at the other side.
Brood frame spacing
Only with British Standard frames is the beginner offered a choice: straight sided frames (DN1) which need metal or plastic spacers slipped over the lugs, or self-spacing Hoffmann frames (DN4) with 35mm wide shaped sidebars. Hoffmann frames are to be recommended for ease of manipulation. It is significant that many beekeepers make the change-over from straight sided frames to Hoffmann, but few make the reverse move.
Top and bottom bee space
In 1851 Rev L.L. Langstroth laid the foundation of modem beekeeping with the discovery of the bee space. This is a gap of about 3/5″ which bees in the hive will not block up, whereas a larger or smaller space will soon be built in or glued up with propolis and wax. Today a hive must be built to maintain that kind of space wherever possible between frames, boxes, excluders, covers, etc. In a bottom bee space hive (Mod. National, WBC, Commercial), the frame top bars are flush with the top of the box, and these frames will be stuck to the super or excluder above by propolis at the lug; This happens much less with a top bee space hive such as Smith, Langstroth, Jumboor Dadant. The extra ease of handling a top bee space hive is pleasant, and for a bee farmer crucial. For the beekeeper with only a handful of hives, the extra work in breaking the propolis seals is barely significant.
Brood box policy
The amount of room that the queen needs to lay in was touched on earlier. Once the colony is established it might be felt that the area brood comb was not large enough. The signs that would indicate that she is being cramped are brood, i.e. eggs, larvae and.sealed brood cells from comer to comer on almost all the frames, with the pollen and nectar stores, which should be adjacent to the brood nest being pushed beyond the queen excluder; or an abrupt lack of young brood because all the available space has been filled and the queen has been forced to go off lay. If this seems to be the case regularly and not just a peak freak occasion, then the two options available are to go for a bigger brood box, or to run multiple brood boxes. Both methods have their fans.
Beekeepers using National hives may scrap their normal brood boxes and obtain either deep broods, which take a frame 12″ deep instead of the normal 8½”, or use Commercial broods. In each case all other parts of the hive can still be used. Alternatively the “brood and a half” method may be used. In this case the queen excluder is placed above the first super and the queen can lay in both boxes. This method has the disadvantage that a search for the queen involves looking through twice as many frames – the psychological burden on the beginner when hunting through box A is that the queen is more likely to be in box B. And vice versa. On the plus side, it may be that regular examinations for swarm preparations are simplified, since the colony often takes advantage of the gap between the upper and lower frames to build queen cells there. So, by splitting the two boxes and looking up into top one, the examination can be done without removing a frame. Like so many aspects of beekeeping, this is an application of practical statistics and probability. It is more likely that the swarm cells will be visible between the boxes, but not certain, as many have discovered.
A bit of early planning will save some fluster later. How is the honey to be handled? This is usually very much a secondary question in the excitement of getting started. Buy an extractor, borrow an extractor, or do without an extractor; these are the options. If an extractor is available, then the super frames need to be fitted with wired foundation to prevent broken combs while spinning the honey out. Without an extractor, it is better to put in thin super foundation and cut out the comb from the frame, keeping it to eat as cut comb honey.
Besides hives, the other subject for lively debate is the type of bee to keep. In a simplistic form, the argument is over home or foreign bees. One view is that any bee which performs well in our-environment, or which can be used in a breeding programme, should be introduced. Over the last century, we have brought in to the country queens from France, Italy, USA, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Israel and many other countries. Without careful breeding or regular reimportation of queens, the virgins and drones of these queens mate with the local bees, the line purity is lost and the local bee population absorbs some foreign genes.
The opposing view is that the most appropriate bee is the native type which is adapted to our changeable environment and can cope with unpredictable flows and seasons. It may not be as productive in good years, but overall performs well and survives.
The best course for the beginner is to see what is available and ask for opinions among local beekeepers. In recent years importations have been restricted because of the threat of varroa; now that the parasite is well established here the restrictions may no longer be enforceable.
Where to keep bees
The most convenient place from the point of view of observing the colony, carrying out quick manipulations, and simply for pleasure is likely to be the back garden. Points to aim for are:- a position where the sun shines on the hive, with the hive up off the ground on a hive stand and screened by hedge, wall or fence so that foragers are not flying directly into people walking in the garden, or worse, neighbours and passersby. Many hives are kept in urban gardens and good honey yields are frequently taken from town gardens and parks. The cat and dog usually get stung once and then stay away.
If the garden is unsuitable then the hives may be kept at an out-apiary. Polite enquiry will generally locate some quiet or derelict spot that can be used in exchange for a jar or two of honey per year. Look for a place that will not attract vandals, that is not terribly exposed or in a frost pocket, and where heavy supers can easily be carried out.
If the prospect of leaving bees at an out-apiary is not attractive, then it is perfectly practical to keep bees in a shed or bee house. The neighbours may be quite oblivious to their presence . .It can be very pleasant working hives indoors, and observations, queen-rearing and experiment can be easier.
Where to get bees
An excellent starting point for the beginner is to join the local beekeeping association. Besides the social events, lectures, demonstrations, magazines and insurance, there is advice, encouragement, assistance, and access to the secretary, who usually knows where to get hold of bees, possibly from someone who is giving up or cutting down, or from an experienced beekeeper who can make up a nucleus.
Alternatively, the major beekeeping equipment suppliers offer nuclei, usually in travelling boxes which themselves become useful pieces of kit. With reputations to uphold, the suppliers pay great attention to the strength, health and temperament of the stocks supplied. The advantage of starting with a nucleus is that the colony grows with the owner’s experience and confidence.
The hive should be all set-up in time for the delivery of the nucleus. When the nucleus arrives, it should be placed on the hive stand, the entrance opened and the bees allowed to fly for at least a couple of hours. If it is not convenient to hive it the same day, there is no harm in leaving it over night, but the screened top should be covered to prevent too much heat loss. To transfer the bees, move the nucleus off the hive stand to one side and replace it with the hive. Unscrew the lid of the nucleus, give the bees a few puffs of smoke, and prise the frames apart with the hive tool, puffing gently to keep the bees out of the way. Each frame is then lifted out and placed in the hive in sequence. As the frames are transferred, each should be examined briefly to see the amount of brood and stores. The space in the brood box is then filled with frames of foundation and the cover board put on. A feeder with one or two litres of sugar syrup (50:50 water:white sugar) is placed over the feed hole, and the roof put on.
As long as the colony is expanding through the brood box, drawing out the foundation and encouraging the queen to lay in the new combs, the feeding can be continued, although if there is a good nectar flow the feeder will be largely ignored.
In a good year, the colony may be filling the brood box within a month. Then a queen excluder and honey super should be put on. It is a good year indeed when a whole super of honey is taken from a nucleus, but it should be possible to take at least a few pounds of the best honey in the world in the first season.
A swarm is the cheapest way to get bees. If the hive is ready, there is no harm in placing it on its intended site in April or May with the entrance open. It is quite possible that a swarm will move in of its own accord. If bees are seen scouting around the hive, looking all around outside and in and out of the entrance, then a swarmy colony is house-hunting. Sit back and wait.
Useful contacts for picking up a swarm are the local beekeeping association, the police station, the fire brigade and the local authority pest control. Each of these gets calls about swarms, and they are only too happy to pass them on to a willing beekeeper. Get experienced help, though, and be prepared to tackle awkward situations.
To hive the swarm, lay a board or cloth sloping up to the entrance and throw the swarm down on it, preferably in late afternoon or evening. For a few minutes, nothing may be happening, then the whole swarm seems to turn round and troop into the hive. Often the queen can be seen at this stage. The other alternative is to remove the roof and cover and drop the swarm straight into the hive, but it isn’t so dramatic. Since the bees in the swarm are full of honey, and have no comb, it is pointless to feed them straight away, but they should be fed generously in one or two days.
The disadvantage of picking up a swarm is that nothing is known of the health and temper, so once it is established, the advice of a friendly expert would be useful.
When buying colonies at private sale or at auction, some experienced help is valuable. The beekeeping magazines carry adverts and many associations have annual auctions. If there is the opportunity to open the hive and examine the brood nest, so much the better. The points to look for are:reasonable temper; good brood laying pattern by the queen, i.e. solid patches of worker brood with eggs, larvae and sealed cells; no obvious signs of disease,such as brood cells with sunken discoloured cappings, dead larvae or dead pupae; and plenty of hive bees and stores. The condition of the hive, frames and combs will also affect the value of the purchase.
The points to consider when moving a colony are how to fix the hive parts and keep the bees in, and ventilation. Commercial clips and straps are available, or the boxes and floor can be fixed together by nailing laths up each comer. A strip of foam rubber pushed into the entrance is perfectly secure. For a journey of only a few miles, it is safe to move the hive at night without extra ventilation, providing there is a super of empty comb for the bees to spread into, and the colony is not prodigiously strong. For a longer trip, fix a travelling screen on top, and spray the bees with a little water or dilute syrup if they get obviously distressed.
On arrival, put the hive on its stand, leaving all the fixings to be sorted out later and release the bees. Even in the pitch dark they will crawl out all over the front of the hive before settling down. Now that the new colony is established, the beekeeping proper begins. Initially the nucleus and the swarm will need little attention as they develop, but the full-size colony will be a bit more demanding. There is a routine for carrying out examinations, but in the early days the value of examining the colony lies more in the education of the beekeeper than in the husbandry of the hive. The questions to ask when going through the hive are:
- Is there enough food in the hive?
- Is there enough room? Should another super be added?
- Is there any sign of disease?
- Is the queen laying a good pattern of worker brood? Are there eggs as well as older brood?
- Are there new queen cells that the queen has laid in? Is the colony going to swarm?
Two more points. The parasite varroa is spreading through the UK. If left untreated it will kill colonies over a period of years, but there-are highly effective treatments which are simple to apply. The presence of varroa is nothing to fear. Secondly I in beekeeping there are usually several answers to each problem. From time to time everybody makes mistakes:· It’$ not the mistakes that count, but what is learnt from them.