Monday, 11 July 2016

Queens, Birds and Sunshine

We're getting some warm Summer weather between the downpours. Good time of year to observe high levels of activity outside the hive or just go for a wander in one the city's many Cemeteries. With over 40 to choose from Sunnydale's got nothing on on Hull. One of the more interesting ones is on the corner of Springbank West and Chanterlands Avenue and with all those mature trees I'm sure my bees visit the place regularly -linked it back to bees seamlessly there.

Old part of Western Cemetery, a little haven for wildlife.
Some of the colonies have been busy with Supersedure, where they replace their Queen for reasons known only to themselves. Some beekeepers don't like it and prefer to replace the Queens themselves but I just let mine get on with it. The new Queens will be open mated wherever the local drone congregation area is, no idea where they are myself, and their offspring will be a mix of the drones' DNA and whatever the young Queen inherited. So basically these are mongrels. As bee breeds go there's a bit of a variety in my apiaries. Between my first colony and now I've purchased 4 colonies which I'm told were Buckfast and caught a few swarms of dark looking bees. I've also bough in a few Buckfast Queens in the past and one Dark European Bee Queen for a dark swarm who seemed to have gone queenless -those dark bees are a bit xenophobic so easiest to replace like with like for them. I'm fairly sure that most of my bees are various degrees of mongrel from whatever their original species was but you can see quite a variety looking the Queens. Some have very dark Queens that are clearly from European Dark Bee stock (Apis Mellifera Mellifera) whilst others look more like Buckfast varieties.

This Queen is very dark and slender as Queens go, let's call her Maleficent.
Good Queen Chubbychops on the other hand looks closer to Buckfast.
The two Queens above look very different but both head up very placid colonies although whilst the dark bee's offspring are busy with their third super the lighter Queen's colony are still on their first.

Good Brood pattern from the Dark Queen
I'm still using drone culling to reduce Varroa numbers in the hives, and I often see bees bearding in the space below the shallow frame I leave for drone comb.

Bearding under a shallow frame

I'm using Commercial Brood boxes but a while ago moved some test frames from the colony I bought in May into one and they'd come on smaller National Frames. The bees used the space under one to draw brood comb which I've removed to control Varroa.

National Frame with brood comb built below it
Depending what you read a bee colony can be 10-15% drones in Summer and whilst removing these large sections of drone comb is probably a a setback for them I usually find them making a rows of drone brood  rows of drone cells towards the bottom of other frames anyway. My culled drone brood goes in the freezer to get cooked up later. I've read that the removed drone brood makes a great treat for the chickens but I don't give it to mine in case the scent draws bees to the birds.

There's more than just bees enjoying the sun

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Bees, Laline Paull

The Bees is a novel by Laline Paull, a friend recommended it last year and it sounded interesting enough for me to whip out my phone and order a copy from Amazon right there in the pub, the pub was Pave in case you were wondering. 

Whilst waiting for it's arrival I did a little Google search and found various reviews online gushing about how well researched The Bees is and that it was shortlisted for the 2015 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. When it hit my doormat I had a quick look at the front and back covers which apart from a rather nice yellow, black and gold colour scheme includes endorsements from three authors and four newspapers, "Gripping" said Margaret Attwood, "Frightening" said the Guardian -making me wonder if they'd maybe read the wrong book... There's some short reviews on the inside front cover, and then another three pages of one paragraph reviews by various people I don't know. The publisher seems very keen to tell you how great and highly acclaimed the novel is before you read it yourself and make up your own mind. Unfortunately, whilst I very much wanted to like the book I have to disagree with all of them.

In the words of Public Enemy:
"Don't Believe the Hype"
The Bees follows the life of Flora 717 from the moment she emerges from her cell onwards. I think the life of a bee certainly has a lot of potential to make an interesting novel, unfortunately Paull seems to know very little about bees. I found an article in the Independent in which Paull says she spent three months reading up on bees in which she read manuals, essays and poems. To be blunt, having read the book I'm more inclined to think she maybe she watched half of Bee Movie before putting finger to keyboard. In the acknowledgements Paull namedrops a number of noted biologists, entomologists and a book on bee anatomy but given the number of mistakes she makes I've got to wonder what she actually talked to them about and if she opened the anatomy book at all.

Whilst it's fair to expect some artistic license in a fictional novel about the life of a bee, Paul goes so far from reality she might as well have written about a colony of hippogriffs, in fact I rather it had been.. In her novel the worker bees are born into separate castes which predetermine their lifelong duties, some being cleaners, nursemaids, guards or whatever. In reality a bees duties depend upon its age. One of the castes seem to be made up of unmated Queens who she gives an important role within the colony alongside the actual Queen, in reality those unmated Queens would've killed their mother and the first to emerge would've probaby killed her sisters too.

Her understanding of bee anatomy seems a bit limited as well. Her bees have actual blood, she mentions it a lot. I'm not sure which edition of The Biology of the Honeybee she looked in but blood is something bees definitely don't have. In insects oxygen is transported in a fluid called haemolymph. as two minutes with Wikipedia will tell you. She also refers to bees making wax, but seems to get that wrong too, writing about liquid wax coming from between cuticle bands when beeswax is actually excreted as flakes from six glands under the bees' abdomen.

She describes Queens fighting but again doesn't seem to get things right. Whilst worker bees have a barbed sting which is why it gets stuck in you Queen Bees completely lack barbs allowing them to dispatch multiple  unhatched rivals. Not Paull's Queens though. For reasons unknown her Queens have extra barbs on their stings.

Her bee behaviour is wrong too. Foraging bees collect from one particular type of food from one partiicular type of  flower at a time. In  Paull's novel, Flora collects nectar and pollen from a dog rose then an echium too, it's probably like going to a scoop shop and bunging everything into the same bag. At one point Flora spends a night sleeping rough and is surprised as she believed no bee could survive a night outside the hive. The fact is it's not unusual for a forager to sleep rough especially if the weather changes. .

As well as having some difficulties with the actual bees she doesn't seem to understands the roles of honey or pollen either. She writes of Flora going to collect pollen to satisfy a craving for carbohydrates. Whilst there are carbs in pollen the bee's main source of carbs is the nectar they collect and make into honey. Pollen is their protein source. I also noticed Paull makes no mention of the fact bees need to dilute honey with water to consume it either, in her novel the bees are eating it neat.

It's not only the bees Paull seems to be getting wrong. There are wasps too. In this novel the wasps bleed green blood reality wasps, like bees, have haemolymph not blood, and it's not green. She also seems to think wasp venom is formic acid. Poor research again. There's formic acid in bee and ant venom but wasp venom is alkali, the complete opposite. Two minutes with Wikipedia would've avoided that mistake.

It's not just entomology Paull struggles with. Ornithology seems a problem area too. Her Crows have red eyes, well unless there's some albinism or something very wrong with them Crows eyes definitely aren't red. At one point she also mentions the scent of a crow's sweat. That would be quite something to experience given birds don't actually have sweat glands. Crow sweat doesn't exist.

There's a mouse. She describes it as having red eyes, again unless there's some kind of albinism mice don't have red eyes.. She refers to it's hundreds of whiskers drawing in scent ..well whiskers don't actually draw in scent, being nothing but thick hairs, and mice don't have hundreds of them anyway. She also describes its "long scaly tail," although mouse tails are covered in fur.

Unfortunately it's not just insects, birds and animals that Paull doesn't seem to have properly researched, it's beekeepers too. The beekeeper in her novel makes an appearance removing frames of honey straight into a plastic bag whilst bare foot and wearing a red dressing gown. Sounds a good way to get stung in exciting new places before getting home with a carrier bag full of bees. She later describes the removed honey comb as 'wet walls of wealth' but they're only wet when the honey is unripe and it's unlikely a beekeeper will be taking unripe honey as it has a very short shelf life before fermenting. When honey is ripe and ready to be removed the cells are covered in wax cappings, dry wax cappings. Dry waxy walls of wealth perhaps, but not wet ones.

I don't know why she decides to give her crows and mice red eyes or the beekeeper a red dressing gown but it really grated with me as it suggests she's missed another noteworthy bee fact: Bees can't actually see the colour red. To them it appears black. Curiously she's aware they can see ultra violet. at the other end of the colour spectrum though.

Whilst the Independent article wrote of beekeepers being impressed with her "accurate depiction of the secret world of the hive" this beekeeper certainly wasn't. If you still feel you want to read The Bees then go for it but I'd strongly advise skipping the blurb on the back as it gives away the plot completely.. and obviously try to forget anything you know about bees, wasps, birds or mice.

Beverley District Annual Honey Show is Approaching

Top up the honey jars, clarify the mead, polish the wax, print your photos, finish that bee drawing and start baking because the Beverley District Annual Honey Show is approaching. Aside from the chance to show off your talents and wares being able to put "Award Winning" on your labels and adverts won't damage your sales, however with 21 classes including honey, wax, candle making, photography, baking and cafts there's categories for beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, there's also a few categories for schools to enter.

Yorkshire Beekeepers’ Association

Beverley District

Annual Honey Show

Driffield Show Ground, YO25 9DN

July 20th 2016

For more info check out the Beverley Beekeepers Association website.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Make a Metal Bucket

This entry will be particularly exciting for anyone who's really into buckets! 8-D ..but for everyone else possibly not so much..

The smoker is a fairly important piece of beekeeping kit, but it's also a bit of liability being basically a tin of fire with a hole for air to go in and another for smoke to go out. It's not unknown for smoker fuel to relight  long after you thought it'd gone out. That's how the plastic bin I used for smoker ash met it's demise. Luckily it was sat on concrete and did no damage beyond the tragic loss of a cheap bin but clearly you need something that won't burn or melt to keep it in. You can buy a lockable metal boxes for that purpose but it's a bit extravagant unless you particularly need to move a smoker in a vehicle. My solution is a metal bucket. Being a bit thrifty I make my own.

Pull one of these from a bin
Takeaways and restaurant bins are a good place to find old metal oil barrels. I found the above one outside a local eatery and hauled it home. Actually I found three in deifferent places, I've made a few of these over the years. A few minutes with the Dremmel was anough to cut the top out then I went round the sharp edge with pliers squashing it flat to make it safe -don't want to be getting cut on this thing, it's out of a bin after all. Used some wash liquid and water to get rid of the oil residue inside.

One brand spanking new metal bucket

I drilled a hole in each side, deburred it with the Dremmel then added some nylon rope I'd found to make a handle. It's not actually stainless steel and left outside does rust but should last a few years and it only cost a few minutes work.

New home for the smoker
As these barrels are bigger than a typical bucket there's room to keep the smoker inside it hanging from the edge so the hot cylindar and base isn't actually in direct contact with anything. The smoker at home lives in this all year. The stick in the smoker is just what I use to block it when I don't want anymore smoke.

Friday, 24 June 2016

On The Waterfront

I got a phone call on Tuesday about a swarm of bees that had arrived in the grounds of a Ship Repair and Dry Dock company. I said I'd be happy to go collect them and after work went to my apiary and grabbed a nuc. In it was 4 frames of new foundation and one frame of old dark used comb. I also gave our Regional Bee Inspector a call as he's asked us to contact him if we get any calls about swarms within a kilometer of the Humber bank or local ports due to concerns about pests arriving in the area -specifically small hive beetle. It took a while to find the ship yard as the number of site entrances to the dock area confused my satnav but once there the security chap showed us their location. There's a lot of trees and greenery in the area but these bees had opted to cluster on the corner of a pallet of Marine Lubricant, on a metal grid, tucked just under some nettles near a load of paint.

Lots of nature around, but the bees chose this.
My usual method of swarm catching involves initially getting as many bees as possible into the box at once by shaking or brushing them in. There wasn't space to do that with these though. Luckily the RBI had a different approach. He held the frame of old comb to the swarm and the bees walked on to it. They love the smell of brood and other pheromones in there.

Coaxing the bees onto the comb

Once on the frame he shook it out into the Nuc then went back to the swarm with the old comb to get more bees and repeat. I'd wiped some swarm attractant into the Nuc -think that stuff's going to be a regular part of my kit after this year. The bees seemed to be staying in the Nuc once shaken in.

They seem to be staying
Sliding the frame under the pallet he used a stick to prise the bees off the wood to the comb below. When once most were in the Nuc I popped the crownboard on then used smoke and a little encouragement to move the remaining bees on the pallet and under the metal grid.

In you go ladies.

The Nuc was sat on top of 120 litres of Lubmarine (the marine lubricant used on over 7000 vessels!) and I'm not too sure what that contains so I was a bit careful with the smoker. Eventually with workers Nosanoving at the entrance we left the bees to finish getting themselves inside.

They're to the left

The RBI gave me a thing called a Better Beetle Blaster to put in the hive. It's a trap for Small Hive Beetle (SHB). SHB is an African beetle which so far has caused huge problems to beekeeping in the USA and parts of Australia. As far as we know Small Hive Beetle hasn't made it to the UK but it reached Italy in 2014. Controls put in place to have included destroying complete apiraies where the beetle has been found and treating the ground around them. The Italian's scorched earth policy is understandably upsetting a lot of beekeepers there but left unchecked the beetle may cause far more damage and their efforts seem to be stopping the beetle spreading.

Better Beetle Blaster
To use the Beetle Blaster you pour some vegetable oil filling the reservoir to about half way then sit the device between the topbars of two hive frames. The theory seems to be when you open the hive beetles sat on top of the frames will try to run into the dark and mistakenly run for the black top of the Beetle Blaster going through the holes which are too small for a bee and get caught in the oil.

Beetle Blaster with oil in place in the Nuc.

Back at the apiary I added some oil to the trap and popped it into the top of the Nuc then closed it up. Given the size of the colony and the calmness of the bees the RBI felt they had probably come from a nearby colony rather than a passing ship but given the impact Small Hive Beetle could have if it arrives it's best not to be complacent. He's told me to keep an eye on them for two brood cycles and I'll have a quick look in there next inspection.

The next day I got another call from Environmental Health reporting a second swarm in the same yard. Sometimes returning scouts can form a little cluster on the site a swarm was at if the person collecting it doesn't wait long enough for the scouts to rejoin the colony -ideally it's best to leave the box the swarm are going into till night time but that's not always doable. I was very sure I'd waited long enough though for the colony to get in so any stragglers wouldn't present a problem though. I grabbed another Nuc and went over. This time there was a smaller swarm very close to the previous days colony but in a slightly different place. Instead of being tucked under the pallet they were gathered on the corner of one the 20 litre lubmarine bottles. There were a couple of chaps curious as to how I was going to get the bees into my box (the Nuc) so I said I'd show them. Opening the box I placed it on top of the bottles with a view to using the old comb  to gather the bees up and drop them in, but that didn't happen.

As soon as I put the box down the bees started running into it. Some went into the entrance others went running up the side for the opening at the top. All I had to do was wait. Never had such an easy swarm collection before. Whilst the previous day's swarm had included a number of drones this one didn't. I spoke to the RBI as once again they were the dock area and he felt they were most likely  a cast swarm from the same colony that had produced the previous day's prime swarm. A cast swarm is a smaller secondary swarm sent out with a virgin Queen. I've taken them to my apiary and placed them next to the other swarm and on Monday the RBI will be dropping off another Beetle Blaster which I'll be adding some vegetable oil to and popping in the Nuc.

Talking to the guys at the ship repair place (impressive place with two dry docks BTW) swarms seem to arrive every year. One said swarms often come off the lumber ships going past to the unload at the docks which  sounds very feasible so whilst checking swarms in the port and river bank area is making more work for our Inspector I'm inclined to think it needs doing. With the arrival of bees on passing ships and what may be a local feral colony in the area he may look into setting a bait hive up in the area to both keep an eye open for SHB and reduce impact of swarms - after all two swarms in two days must be quite annoying especially if they're holding work up by sitting on equipment that's needed.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Another two brood boxes

Yet more woodwork in this entry, I might rename the blog Shoddy Carpentry and Me. I recently made some Horseley Boards for swarm control but on their own they're not much use, you also need a spare brood box and a full compliment of frames to go with each. So it was buy more brood boxes or build them myself. As usual I opted to make them myself.

Cutting glued floorboards the hive side size
Last year I was given a load of floorboards which I glued and cut to get the right size for brood box sides. I was cutting 16 sides and didn't feel like doing it by hand so I used the the circular saw that normally lives in the tablesaw housing for that.

16 hive Commecial Hive side sized bits of wood.
I used a few of the side to make up a couple of Nucs earlier. For the joints I just used screws and wood glue. Brood boxes can end up bearing a lot of weight though so I needed to make the joints a bit more robust. Dovetail joints or finger joints are the way forwards. Ideally this could be done with a router and a template but I tried that and just found it confusing so I went back to hand tools. I decided to cut two fingers per side then use glue and screws.

Cutting corners whilst cutting joints.
Previously I've cut the joints one board at a time using pencil marks, whilst my cuts have improved with time there's room for improvement. This time I decided to cut both sides of the corner joint together using a thin saw blade. Clamping two boards at a time onto the workbench and marking the joints I made what would be the horizontal cuts by holding a hacksaw vertically. I marked the edges on the joints A,B, C and D on each box because as I was guaging the cut positions by eye instead of measuring them so each joint would be unique.

More cutting..

The boards were then seperated for the other cuts which I made with the same saw for the outer cuts and a coping saw for the inner ones. I broke a few coping saw blades along the way which wasn't hugely surprising bearing in mind they cost me the princely sum of 19p each.

Test fitting. Looks ok to me.
The floorboard edges have a rebate on the top sides, I used a rabbit/rebate plane to cut off the inner side of the rebate to create a shelf for the frame lugs to sit on. Using a lot of glue on all the mating edges and some long wood screws with predrilled holes I stuck and screwed the sides together. This is normally a real pain unless you have a large collection of big wood clamps but I borrowed another set of hands which made made it a doddle. I added some metal runners saved from the Easipet Supers and gave them a coat of red Shed & Fence Paint. I paint most of my stuff green but these floorboards are quite soft wood and I doubt they'ed stand up well to Winter. Differentiating them with red paint will remind me to swap them out.

Thanks to the existing groove the rebate was too wide.

After filling the boxes with frames I found the rebate for the frame lugs were too wide so the frames could slide too far to one side and fall into the box. I fixed that by gluing and pinning a thin bit of wood into each. Thanks to the free floorboards these brood boxes only cost me a few screws, a couple of batons, a little glue and some paint I already had lying around.

Two more finished brood boxes

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Cleaning under the hives

In nature bees nest in a hole high up in a tree, dead bees on the ground around the tree wouldn't really affect the colony and the hive floor would have it's own little population of woodlice and so on eating whatever fell on it. However as most beekeepers aren't twenty feet tall and generally keep their hives at a height they can work them and use open mesh floors dead bees and detritus can accumulate on the ground around and under hives. If your hives are above bare ground or grass you might not really notice this as nature does it's thing but mine are sat above concrete pavers so I get to see the mess.

Hive detritus on the pavers
I've noticed wasps picking at the dead bees before and slugs feed off the general mess too. More recently I've been seeing bumblebees picking through the litter too. That poses a risk of disease or parasites spreading between the honey bees and the wild bumble bee colonies so it's not something to be ignored. It was time to clean up under there.

A party of Bumble Bees picking through litter below a hive

I went to sweep up just after 8pm, it was still fairly warm and whilst it was still light the bees were all in the hives or bedded down. Taking a sweeping brush and standing behind the hives I began sweeping the dead bees and miscellaneous hive crap towards me, slugs and all.

Slugs and woodlice were enjoying the banquet

It didn't take long before a couple of bees buzzed round to see what was going on. I noticed them but carried on sweeping. They didn't like that. I got a sting in the arm from one and decided to walk away to let them settle. A few minutes later I returned and resumed sweeping at the other end of the line of hives. A few bees came out and wasted no time planting two stings in my head. Raking the stings off with my finger nails (didn't have a cash card on me at the time..)  I went back to the car and got a jacket with a veil and some latex gloves. All covered up I went back. The bees had retired again but it wasn't long before angry guards started buzzing me as I worked and they planted a couple of stings in my clothing but rather then stretch it I opted to work quickly and got the job finished

I don't keep angry bees, whilst some claim they give better honey yields I don't think it's worth the effort or the risk. Mine are usually rather placid, placidf enough that I keep a few tools and things near the hives which I often retrieve with no more protective gear than jeans and a tshirt. So what made the bees angry today? I think it must have been the smell of the decomposing bees as I was disturbing them with my brush. Thinking back when I've cleaned under hives before I've used a lot of water, soda crystals and a sponge instead of just a brush. The liquid probably reduces the odours being released. I'll remember that for next time.

I buried the dead bees in a composter, pretty sure the vegetation breaking down on top will help mask any odours and the ant colony already living in it will speed up their decomposition. Another evening I'll pop back with some soda crystal solution and give those pavers a quick scrub to help shift any greasy residue amd remaining odours. Probably needs doing once or twice a season really.