Bollington Library colony

Last month I removed a colony from the cavity wall at Bollington library. The building was undergoing some refurbishment including a new roof and new window frames. The colony was in the cavity wall below a window. The bees entry point was through a hole in the rotten window frame.

It was claimed that the colony had been there for eight years or more, but I think it very unlikely that this was the case. Colonies rarely survive in the wild for more than 3 years as without help from a beekeeper they succumb to the ever increasing number of varroa mites. 

Barriers to keep the public away

The builders had prepared the site for removal of the colony. Barriers were erected to keep the public out of the way. I’m not sure about the wording on the warning sign, but the message was clear – keep out of the way!

Designated Smoking Area !

When I lit my smoker another warning sign appeared from nowhere!

The builders removed the window frame which exposed the cavity and there were the bees. Being late February and rather cold, they were not very active. Notice how the stonework of the cavity is coated with brown propolis. This must have taken the bees a considerable time to complete.

There was a large area of comb in the cavity. The space was only wide enough for a single comb, but it was approximately two feet wide and four feet long. Some of the comb was very dark in colour demonstrating that it had been there for many years. I think it likely that the cavity had been in use by bees for many years, but I expect the original colony had died out and another swarm had since taken up residence.  

Honeycomb in the cavity

Honeycomb in the cavity

Because of the length of the comb, and the narrowness of the cavity, the builders removed a stone from the wall to provide better access to the comb.

The plan was to remove as much comb as possible, together with the bees and transfer them into empty frames in a travelling box. I set to, using a hive tool and a builders slate rip, cutting the comb into large pieces and pulling it out of the cavity together with the bees. Some of the comb and all the bees were placed into the travelling box. There was no evidence of a queen, and no brood in the combs. The number of bees was quite small, probably not more than 250 in total.

Combs removed from the cavity

Most of the comb was empty, with no bees or honey. The quantity and colour of the combs demonstrates that there had been bees in the cavity for a long period.

The bees in the travelling box were taken to my apiary but sadly the colony did not survive. The small number of bees, and lack of a laying queen probably mean that the colony would not have survived even if it had been left in the cavity undisturbed – and that wasn’t an option.

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Early Spring Feeding

Last week my bees were enjoying the unusually warm weather and I saw them foraging on snowdrops in the garden.

Checking on the consumption of fondant on the colonies picture showing how much fondant has been eatenI found two which had eaten most of the fondant put on them a few weeks ago. You can see the advantage of using transparent plastic tubs to hold the fondant in this photo of the container on top of the crownboard which clearly shows that most of it has gone. I replaced the almost empty containers with fresh, full ones.

It is at this time of year that consumption of stores accelerates as queens start to lay more eggs and the colony uses up its stores to feed the new larvae. Most of my colonies have shown no interest in the fondant, so they must still have enough honey in the combs, but I will have to keep an eye on the two that are taking it as I’ll have to make sure they don’t run short.

An old beekeeping friend of mine and well known Cheshire beekeeper, Bob Parsonage who is sadly no longer with us, used to uncap some of the stored honey in his hives on Valentine’s day each year to encourage his bees to start to expand their activity. Opening up stores like this will encourage the queen to increase her laying rate and hence result in the colony expanding earlier in the season.  There is however a risk with this as, if the weather turns cold again, the bees may not be able to maintain the brood temperature and their extra effort may be wasted if the brood becomes chilled and dies. I’m going to try this with a few of my colonies this year and I’ll let you know how I get on.

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Human Planet

The BBC are running an amazing series right now which focusses on human relationships with the natural environment. Last week they showed Tete in the Congo scaling a 40m tree to collect honey.

I doubt we would have so many beekeepers in the UK if this is what keeping bees involved!!

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Neonicotinoid pesticides

For a few years now there have been concerns raised about the effect of Neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybee health. Use of these has been banned in some countries whilst research is carried out into the risks. Early this week, Martin Smith, President of the BBKA issued the following statement:

Statement from the BBKA on Neonicotinoid Pesticides

The BBKA shares the concerns expressed relating to reports of possible harm to honey bees that may be caused by the neonicotinoid group of pesticides. It calls for an urgent review of all the available data on the effects of these compounds. The BBKA has consistently urged for more research into this group of compounds as evidenced in its paper Honey Bee Health Research Concepts (Jan 2009) and earlier papers submitted to Government. The BBKA itself is funding research on pesticide residues in bee colonies at Keele University. 

This urgent review, based not only on existing literature but also encompassing any new and as yet unpublished data, should involve a thorough re-evaluation and up to date risk assessment of these agents and their effects on honey bees by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate in the UK and competent European authorities, the outcome of which must lead to appropriate action.

 Martin Smith


24th January 2011

Yesterday there was a debate in Parliament on the same topic.  Some of the problems which have occured in europe with these pesticides when used as a seed coating are believed to have been caused by errors in the way in which the coating was applied, and the way that the seeds were sown. Whilst it isn’t certain that there is a problem with these pesticides, there is certainly enough circumstantial evidence to justify the calls for a further review of the available data. Lets hope that something does actually get done.

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Storage of spare equipment

Spare beekeeping equipment is valuable and needs careful storage to ensure that it is kept in good condition ready for use.

Honey comb, especially brood frames, represent a valuable source of food to wax moths. Empty boxes also provide an ideal nest site for over-wintering mice. Used comb can also be a source of disease, spreading infection to new colonies.

There are a number of steps which can be taken to ensure that stored equipment and comb are safely stored.


Floors, boxes and crownboards should be scraped clean of wax and propolis. Particular attention should be paid to corners and rebates. All internal surfaces should then be scorched with a blowtorch and/or washed with a solution of washing soda. External surfaces can be brushed clean and given a coat of wood preserver or paint. Take care that any treatment used does not contain insecticide. Boxes made of western red cedar do not require treatment with wood preservative.

Brood combs

Brood combs, because of their use in rearing brood, can become a source of future infection.  Old, blackened combs should not be stored but should be burnt. Combs in good condition should be sterilised with acetic acid.


Preparing combs for acetic acid treatment

  1. Boxes, complete with frames, should be stacked out of doors on an earth or timber floor. (Avoid concrete as acetic acid will corrode it)
  2. Seal the joints between the boxes by wrapping with gaffer tape. As an easier alternative, it is possible to stack the boxes inside a ‘wheely bin’ liner which provides a good airtight seal.
  3. Place a saucer at the top of the stack, in an empty super. Fill the saucer with 50ml of 80% acetic acid for each brood box. Acetic acid fumes will corrode metal, remove metal ends and coat metal frame runners with a thin film of Vaseline
  4. Place a lid on the stack and leave for 1 week.
  5. Air the boxes and frames for a week before putting into use.

Acetic acid fumigation will kill EFB bacteria, Nosema, Amoeba, Chalk brood spores and Wax moth eggs, larvae and adults (but not pupae).

Once sterilised, brood combs can be stored in the same way as for super combs as described below.

Super combs 

These can also be sterilised with acetic acid, although this is not as vital as it is for brood comb. It is however important to protect stored comb from damage by wax moth. Combs can be frozen for a few days, which will kill all stages of wax moth. At this time of year storing supers out of doors, but under cover to protect from rain, is the easiest way to freeze them. There is a biological control ‘Certan’ which can be used as an alternative. This is sprayed onto stored combs and will kill any wax moth larvae which eat it. It is harmless to humans and the comb itself.  

Acetic Acid Safety Precautions

The fumes of acetic acid are highly corrosive and great care must be taken to avoid contact with the eyes and lungs. Irreparable damage can be done to the lungs if the fumes are inhaled; there is no mistaking the smell of vinegar. Great care should also be taken to avoid contact with the skin. It is best to use both protective gloves and goggles when using this acid.

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Microscopy course

Last week I delivered the first of the National Diploma in Beekeeping (NDB) short courses. The two day course covered microscopy for beekeepers and how to teach it. We were fortunate to have the use of a super training room at a brand new honey farm in Devon.

View of the course in Devon

View of the course in progress. Photo by Reg Godwin

We covered honeybee anatomy and slide making for disease diagnosis and pollen analysis. It was a lot to cover in two days but I’m sure everyone learnt something, including me. I am running the course again in Cheshire later this month, with a few changes based on experience from the first run through.  

Acarine mite in the trachea of a bee

Acarine mite in the trachea of a bee. Slide preparation by Sue Hoult, photo by Reg Godwin

Overall it was a success and several comments made during the course have encouraged me to add some pages to the web site covering microscopy as it relates to beekeeping. I have only added a few bits so far, but I have lots more to add as time allows. I have also added a range of microscopy tools and equipment to the shop. I have been selling these for several years but this is my first venture into on-line sales.

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Varroa mite to self destruct?

Scientists claim they may be able to halt global honey bee losses by forcing the deadly Varroa mite to self destruct.

A recent press release describes how researchers from the Government’s National Bee Unit and Aberdeen University have worked out how to ‘silence’ natural functions in the mites’ genes to make them self destruct.

Whilst it is going to be at least 5 years before beekeepers see any benefit from this research, and there is no guarantee that this research will result in a useable treatment at least there is cause to be hopeful.

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Oxalic Acid treatment

I’ve just treated all my colonies with oxalic acid this afternoon.picture of female varroa mite That should hopefully see off most of the varroa in the colonies and help them get off to a good start this year. All the colonies were alive and strong, which is a relief after the recent prolonged cold spell. 

Now is the ideal time to treat, as there should be little brood in the hives after the cold spell. Leaving it a couple more weeks would probably not have been as effective as by then the queen could have started laying a few eggs.  Oxalic acid treatment is effective against varroa on the adult bees but has no effect on mites in sealed brood cells. Oxalic acid can also do some harm to brood. Hence it is imortant to time the treatment  to coincide with the colonies having no or minimum brood.

The easiest and safest way to apply the treatment is by dribbling a solution of oxalic acid in sugar syrup onto the bee cluster. You can buy ready made solutions which is the easiest and safest way. I lift the crown board, count the number of seams* of bees and then fill a syringe with 5ml of solution x number of seams. i.e. with 6 seams of bees I fill the syringe with 30ml.  This is then slowly dribbled onto the bees spreading it as evenly as possible across the bees.

Having opened up all the colonies I now know that three of my colonies will benefit from being given some fondant. Although they are OK right now, they don’t have a lot of spare stores and I would rather  not take any chances. If they don’t need it they won’t eat it, but if they do, it will keep them alive.

* by ‘seam’ I mean the number of gaps between the frames that contain bees. At this time of year colonies are clustered and don’t occupy all the seams as they usually do in the summer.

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Queen Marking colours

Happy New Year!

This year (2011) the standard queen marking colour is WHITE.

A different colour is used for marking honeybee queens each year based on the year in which the queen is reared. Five different colours are used as standard on a repeating cycle and as queens do not live for more than five years, there is no confusion.  

Marking queens in this way serves two purposes, first marked queens are easier to find when inspecting the colony and second, the colour code enables the beekeeper to keep track of the age of the queen in the colony.

The colour code is based on the last digit of the year:

 Year ending: 1,6  White

  2,7  Yellow

  3,8  Red

  4,9  Green

  0,5  Blue

A simple way to remember it is Will You Rear Good Bees (White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue)

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Winter feeding

With the recent spell of very cold weather, colonies will have been using up their honey stores more rapidly than normal. As the outside temperature drops, the winter cluster becomes tighter and tighter in an attempt to conserve heat. If the temperature drops even lower honeybees start to consume more in order to keep warm and survive.  This is what will have been happening over recent weeks.

Now that it is a little warmer, you should check that your colonies are not running short of stores. With experience it is possible to judge the quantity of stores remaining by ‘hefting’, or lifting one side of the hive and judging the weight. Another method is to carefully remove the roof and look through the feed hole in the crownboard. If the bees are clustered immediately below the hole, they could be short of stores whereas if they are much lower down on the combs, they are likely OK.

If you need to feed your bees during the winter you should use fondant icing, not liquid feeds. Liquid feeds can cause problems during the winter as the honeybees cannot deal with the excess moisture.

The best way to feed fondant is to put it in a plastic container on top of the crownboard with a hole in the base of the container.

picture showing fondant being fed to honeybees

Bees will come up to the fondant and slowly take it down into the cluster. You will need to add an empty super box or other spacer around the feed to allow the roof to be put back.

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