Back in the saddle with some bumbles

It is has been quite some time since I posted and indeed nearly as long since I had bees. We had several very difficult years here for bees and my principles on minimal feeding and proved to their detriment. We live and learn, it is unfortunate that this often at the cost of the bees. Despite this, I am still known as the “bee man” in my village. As such I was approached by a neighbour asking if I could collect some “honeybees” who had moved into their bird nesting box, he kindly said “…not to worry I don’t want any money for them” (how generous). Anyone who been on a swarm collection list finds very quickly that the number of calls you receive for tree bumbles vastly outnumbers the calls you get for honeybees. They are smaller than what most people recognise as bumblebees, they nest high up (in the eaves of houses, or their favourite, bird boxes). They also tend to have larger colonies and in June have drone displays which look a little like honeybees when they orientate. Since the little bumbles only nest for a season I usually advise people to just leave them alone. In a few cases, the bees have started to worry people and I have relocated the bird boxes to my apiary for summer. It’s always nice to have a little diversity to my bee group. (below left: tree bumble, below right: honeybee).



The very next week a local smallholder asked if I could help them startup with bees. I offered to help with equipment (if needed), advice (if required), and opinions (regardless), but regretfully couldn’t help him “get” bees. Walking the dog through my apiary just three days later I found I had unintentionally lied to him! Not only did I have bees I had two lots of bees! Two swarms had moved into neighbouring hives, one into a topbar hive (a prime swarm) and another into a conventional (national) hive (a cast swarm), probably from the same mother hive. They had been there a while already as the cast was successfully laying and the prime had brood that had already emerged. We have transferred the cast to his smallholding, a beautiful spot surrounded by wildflowers.

My 10 year old daughter has announced she intends to help with the bees this year. In naming the queen for our topbar hive I explained to her I usually name queens after what is around at the time. When Poppys have been in bloom we have named the queen poppy etc. Based on this I asked my daughter what we should be call this queen and without missing a beat she said “Puddle!”.


Since then, we have had another swarm arrive which quickly requeened and threw a tine cast. My daughter has pronounced these queens to be called splash and squirt (for the smallest). I think she may have a real talent for naming.

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Warréing about Fondant


I am really not sure how many more bad puns I can get out of warré hives.
Moving on I am fed up with my jam thermometer. Yes, I know you probably haven’t opened up my blog to hear about that, but I have to get it off of my chest then I will give you a top tip I promise. Every year we make what is in my clearly unbiased assessment the best blackcurrant jam that has ever been made…ever.. Every year we struggle with the jam thermometer and then just outright ignore it. Thinking about it, I am not entirely sure why I decided to use it to make fondant given its previous crimes. When making fondant you must take care not to over heat the sugar or indeed heat it for too long. The thermometer ensured I was safe. If you underdo things instead of a fondant you end up with an…eh…gel I suppose or very thick syrup.

Fondant recipe
4kg sugar (cane source)
1 litre water
2 teaspoons white wine OR cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sea salt
Heat stirring constantly to dissolve and bring to boil. Maintain a boil til “soft ball” is reached at ~240 oF (115 oC). ON YOUR JAM THERMOMETER. Allow the mixture to cool to 200 oF (~95oC) before pouring.

The process inverts the sugar i.e. it converts it from your normal table sucrose into glucose and fructose, which bees can much more easily digest. The vinegar also slightly acidifies the mixture bringing it closer to the pH of honey. As you may have guessed on this occasion I got a gel not a fondant. But there is a backup plane! If this happens add some icing sugar. I use old takeout boxes for fondant which hold 75omL liquid volume. If it hasn’t set I add two tablespoons of icing sugar and stir in vigorously. This slightly increases the sugar concentration but it also provides a large number of small crystals throughout the mixture which catalyse the formation of more and more crystals making fondant! Yes, I know this will mean 20160814_202937a small amount of the sugar isn’t inverted but it is a small amount and at least you have fondant and not gel. See… a top tip and you only had to read a few lines of complaining to get it. Now for the Warré bit.

I taught my first ever beekeeping course yesterday at Peat Rigg Outdoor education centre and I think it went quite well. At least no one fell asleep or demanded their money back which I am taking as a success. Although the course was predominantly based around kenyan top bar hives there was a lot of interest in warré hives so we talked about the pro and cons and compared types. I was asked how I would go about feeding a warré over winter. Although warré hives are traditionally low to no invention they are being used more and more by people who wish to undertake some bee-keeping rather than just bee-having. As I have said before I don’t normally recommend warré hives for the beginner as too much has to happen on faith. Experience of bees and knowing what is happening inside the box whilst remaining on the outside is an essential warré skill. The other issue for a beginner is the bees. It is all very well when you have 6 colonies saying “I will not intervene in the warré hive or feed and allow them to fail or succeed on their own” but if you have just started out beekeeping you really do want to KEEP THE BEES. As such I came up with this converted warré quilt.

I cut the cap and screw thread from a large plastic container and screw the lid onto the thread from the outside of the quilt. This allows me to cut a hole through the quilt and the cap (1 inch or 25mm) through which the bees can feed. I box around the whole large enough to take my fondant takeout containers. The box is secured to the sides but has gaps to allow the movement of sawdust and moisture. I used a small piece of corex to cover the box. This allows saw dust to be placed over and around the box.

When not in use for fondant the box can have foam so that fondant can be readily added if you need to. If you prefer a small bag of sawdust could be used. I would point out that you would only have this on a colony that showed signs that they “needed” feeding. If the weight of the hive was poor or the colony was a late swarm and had only filled one warré box you could switch this quilt on in september (when it is still warm enough) to allow you to support them through their first winter. I will post another time about my philosophies on feeding and leave with a picture of some of our new arrivals.

20160812_202729 I am the one on the left 🙂

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The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew

As part of the Summer holidays, we decided to spend a few days with my folks in London. This afforded the opportunity to do some of the touristy things in our capital. Although I grew up within a short train ride of central London, my daughter has lived her whole life in a village in the Yorkshire wolds and the “big smoke” is something of a novelty. We asked her where out of everywhere in London would she like to visit and like any other 7 year old girl she said “Kew gardens” ???

My daughter is a very big fan of David Attenborough so has wanted to visit Kew for a while. My wife and I have never been so it was a joint first experience.

Kew was stunning! we spent all day there and would happy have returned the next day. By far my favourite was the waterlily house, though I may have loved the palm house more if it hadn’t tried to cook me.


But “WHAT?” I hear you cry “Does this have to do with bees?”. Well, Kew gardens has recently had a new piece of installation art…eh…installed.

The hive is a large metal structure that you enter through a small wild flower sown area. We are reminded that the wild flowers are part of the art work and should not be walked on. The structure itself is lined with lights and speakers which are linked to one of hives located in the kitchen garden at Kew (below). The lights illuminate based on activity in the hive and the speakers provide the sound. Underneath this is an area where there are columns presenting wooden spatulas! You are invited to place these between your teeth and hold them against metal plates in this column whilst plugging your ears….no really. Sound is transferred more efficiently through your jaw by vibration than through your ears. You then experience and clearly “hear” the sounds of a hive swarming and new emerging queens pre-recorded and played on a loop.

The wild flowers around the “Hive” were strangely quiet but it seemed every other flower in Kew was fit to bursting with bees, especially honey bees. I have never seen so many honey bees foraging in one place.  With all that activity I expected Kew to have much more than two hives, but with urban beekeeping becoming more and more popular these may have been visitors like us. I especially liked the bumble bee nests alongside the national and WBC hives.

Whilst there I made certain I took down some names of the most popular honey bee plants. Every single plant and tree in Kew is labelled with its common and Latin names, and some have been there since the early 1700s. Here are some of the most popular with the honey bees:

Echinacea seems like an obvious one but I have had rubenstein echinacea in my garden for years and although it is very popular with butterflies the bees are not so much with the being interested. The two above are Echinacea purpurea Magnus (pink) and White swan (white). The most popular by far was the pink.

Nectar flows in my area are meager at best and I am always looking for a good autumn source for the bees. Verbena boraniensis (Argentinian Vervain OR Purple top) seems perfect. It is drought tolerant, can grow in sandy soil, is largely disease resistant, and everyone loves a perennial.


Echinops bannaticus (Taplow blue OR Globe thistle) photo:

The globe thistle certainly got some attention but by far and away the star of the show was Allium angulosum (below).

The allium angulsom (mouse garlic) was COVERED in the honey bees. I have never seen one plant so completely … well…eh…pollinated. This was definitely the winner for me and I have already made my seed order for all of the above. Had I a little more presence of mind I could have been one of the many furtive looking characters lurking in Kew with brown envelopes, notepads, and small secateurs for the collection of seeds and cuttings. Nevermind, I’ll just have to go back another day.

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The Propolis Properties’ Possibilities

Unless you have been living in your bee hives for the last few years you cannot have missed the amount of attention propolis has been getting as a health supplement. I find more and more people ask me propolis. Still not as much as honey but it is getting close. A brief search on Pubmed (a science journal search tool) yields 2314 articles related to propolis, and 382 related to propolis and bees.

This is a review article from Jun 2016 covering some of the stand-out findings.

Although propolis is being touted as the new cure all there are clear areas where propolis provides a measurable effect as a treatment option. Afterall alternative medicine that has been proven to work is just medicine. Propolis is gaining a reputation in allergy, obesity, and autoimmunity but today I am going to briefly mention one aspect of its well known anti-viral properties (I have provided a table at the end of this blog with a list of published antiviral effects along with the links to the articles).

Significant progress has been made is in describing propolis’ affect on Herpes simplex virus-1 (cold sores) and herpes simplex virus-2 (genital herpes). Bee products have been used medicinally for millenia but the first published account I found mentioning propolis used specifically in this way was published in 1978 by F.K. Feiks to the Third International symposium on Apitherapy. Since then there have been a number of small multicenter studies comparing the use of propolis ointment at 3-5% to acyclovir (a well known antiviral) and placebo. Consistently, propolis has shown a therapeutic effect over the placebo and has outperformed acyclovir in healing time. Even studies using propolis directly against the virus under laboratory conditions have shown propolis to have “a pronounced virucidal effect against herpes simplex viruses type 1 and type 2, and also interfered with virus adsorption”.

My wife is a cold sore sufferer so when she came to me and asked where the acyclovir was I put on my lab coat and safety specs (figuratively speaking) and made for the kitchen. Two hours later she was presented  with 21x 10mL pots of cold sore treatment. Perhaps this was overkill but then I had no idea how big the cold sore she was expecting would be.


WARNING: Those with asthma and those allergic to bee products should NOT use propolis.

All of the ingredients I used have either been empirically shown to improve cold sore recovery time or have a large amount of anecdotal support. Most of the ingredients are functional in providing the right consistency for the salve/balm so any extra added effects are a bonus. Propolis has a number of components and depending whether you extract in water, oil, or alcohol you get something different.

Cold-sore Salve:
I make this in a bain-marie style affair, though in actual fact I use an old pasta sauce jar in a saucepan of water. It is important to note for this one that you will almost certainly have to throw the container away after use. A second jar (or classier container) is required to filter into.
10 g Propolis
100 mL Olive oil
50 g cocunut oil
15 g beeswax
20 drop of tea tree oil
Add propolis to oilve oil in your first container (the one that will be thrown away). Heat gently in water for ~1-2 hours stirring with a lolly stick (popsicle) or bamboo skewer. There will still be a LOT of undissolved resin in the bottom at the end, this is normal. The oil however will be darker. This should be filtered whilst still warm threw a piece of cheesecloth or even old net curtain into your second container. In the second container add the beeswax and coconut oil and continue to heat until both are melted. Once melted stir gently and remove from heat. Allow to cool for 10 mins before adding the teatree oil and stirring. This can now be poured into containers. This did 21X 10 mL containers for me.

If you really don’t want to throw you away the clump of proplois in that first container then you can dissolve in alcohol and use it as a shellac style finish for your hives.

Antiviral activity of propolis and its chemical constituents.

Table taken from: Propolis: A Complex Natural Product with a Plethora of Biological Activities That Can Be Explored for Drug DevelopmentRicardo Silva-Carvalho et al

Origin Propolis type/plant source Type of extract/isolated compound(s) Species/cells/viruses Effect References

Purchased: Sigma Aldrich Co. Characteristic of European type propolis Caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid, benzoic acid, galangin, pinocembrin, and chrysin RC-37 cells, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) strain KOS High anti-HSV-1 activity for both extracts when cells were treated prior to viral infection [123]
Czech Republic European propolis/Populus nigra PEE and PWE RC-37 cells, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) High antiherpetic activity for both extracts when viruses were pretreated prior to infection [196]

Brazil Brown propolis/B. dracunculifolia HPE HSV-2 strain propagated in Vero cells, female BALB/c mice Effective against HSV-2 infection and in reducing extravaginal lesions by acting on inflammatory and oxidative processes; reducing reactive species, tyrosine nitration, ascorbic acid levels, and myeloperoxidase activity and protecting against inhibition of catalase activity [124]
Characteristic of Brazilian propolis Isopentyl ferulate (isolated from an PEE) Influenza viruses A/PR/8/34 (H1N1), A/Krasnodar/101/59 (H2N2), and A/Hong Kong/1/68 (H3N2) Suppression of influenza virus A/Hong Kong reproduction in vitro [121]
Green propolis/B. dracunculifolia, B. erioclada, Myrceugenia euosma PEE Influenza A/PR/8/34 (H1N1) virus propagated Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells, female DBA/2 Cr mice Reduction of body weight loss of infected mice and virus yields in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluids of lungs [122]

France European propolis/Populus nigra PEE RC-37 cells, HSV-1 strain H29S, acyclovir resistant mutant HSV1-R strain H29R, HSV-2, adenovirus type 2, poliovirus type 2, and vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) Reduction of titre of herpes virus, being vesicular stomatitis virus and adenovirus less susceptible; virucidal action on the enveloped viruses HSV and VSV [120]

Brazil Geopropolis from the stingless beeScaptotrigona postica Hydromethanolic extract African green monkey kidney cells (ATCC CCL-81); herpes simplex virus strain (McIntyre) Inhibition of HSV replication and entry into cells [125]

Synthesized Characteristic of Brazilian red and green propolis Homoisoflavonoids, specially 3-benzyl-4-chromones BGM (Buffalo Green Monkey) cells, coxsackie viruses B3, B4, and A9 and echovirus 30 Good antiviral activity against the coxsackie viruses B3, B4, and A9 and echovirus 30 [126]

Canada European propolis/P. trichocarpa and P. tremuloides PEE HSV-1 and HSV-2 virus replicated in MDBK (monolayer cultures of Madin-Darby bovine kidney) cells Impairing the ability of the virus to adsorb or to penetrate the host cells [197]

Brazil Green propolis/Baccharis dracunculifolia Water extracts Female BALB/c mice, Influenza A virus strain A/WSN/33 (H1N1) Extension of the lifetime of mice. 3,4-dicaffeoylquinic acid which increases mRNA levels of tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing and decreases H1N1 hemagglutinin mRNA [198]
Characteristic of Brazilian green propolis 3,4-Dicaffeoylquinic acid (Isolated from Brazilian propolis)

Brazil Characteristic of Brazilian green propolis Melliferone, moronic acid, anwuweizonic acid, and betulonic acid (isolated from Brazilian propolis) H9 lymphocytes, HIV-1 Moronic acid inhibiting anti-HIV replication [129]

Israel Mediterranean propolis/Populusspp., Eucalyptusspp., andCastanea sativa PWE Jurkat, uninfected human T-cell lines, and MT2 (HTLV-1 infected human T cells) cells Inhibition of the activation of NF-κB-dependent promoter by Tax and prevention of Tax binding to IκBα and its degradation [127]
Purchased: Sigma Aldrich Co. Characteristic of European propolis CAPE

Provided by Binzhou Animal
Science and Veterinary Medicine Academy of Shandong
Nanometer propolis Flavone Kidney cells (PK-15)
Porcine parvovirus (PPV)
Britain White guinea pigs
Inhibition of PPV infecting porcine kidney- (PK-) 15 cells
Restraining of PPV copy in lung, gonad, and blood, decrease of the impact of PPV on weight of guinea pigs, and increase of hemagglutination inhibition of PPV in serum as well as improving the contents of IL-2, IL-6, and -IFN

USA and China European propolis/Populus nigra PEE Peripheral blood mononuclear cells obtained from blood of healthy donors, microglial cells isolated from human fetal brain tissue, HIV-1AT, HIV-1SF162 Inhibition of HIV-1 variants expression [119]
Brazil Green propolis/Baccharis dracunculifolia


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A Queen in the Making, a Hive in the Building

I may have mentioned in the verbose chronicle that was my previous posting that I performed a walk-away split on one of my topbar hives. For those still learning this involved removing 3 combs of young brood (including eggs) and shaking in the same amount of combs of bees (to account for returning foragers). This is referred to as a walk-away split as there were no queen cells pre-split. The bees in the now queenless nuc hive  go into emergency mode and try to raise a queen as soon as possible. For this, they use the young brood that is 3-4 days old. This cuts their queen production time down to 12 days for emergence.

Below is a picture taken four days post split. This is about a day prior to capping of the queen cells (4-day larva + 4 days = 8 days). You can clearly see 6 emergency cells on the comb. The close up shows the larva in the cell helpfully pointed out by a bee antennae.

Although we handle most brood in a fairly casual manner as beekeepers it is best to take extra care with queen cells. Even once capped queen cells can be easily damaged by inversion  or chilling until after the prepupal stages. ie leave them alone until day 13 (9 days after a walk-away split). The new queen then emerges on day 16 (12 days after a walk away split). Don’t be in too much hurry to check on her though. New queens are flighty and can fly out of the hive and will not easily find their way back.

Why the split? Well, I am glad you asked that question as it is essential for the continuity of this post. It also shows a healthy curiosity on your part so well done you!

As you may remember from a previous post I have been asked to run some beekeeping courses. I am starting off with a one-day course for beginners and converters but have plans for full weekend residential courses, and hive building weekends. I have the first date sorted and the content already organised thanks to all the foundation work I had from all the other presentations and training sessions I have hosted. In fact, I45208586-2dee-4921-b132-73221a4be838-540x720 ready to go except for one thing I don’t have a hive at the site. This new queen is destined to take on that task. Since she is the daughter of Wonderwoman I needed another female comic hero. I wanted to go with Jean Grey (or X-Men fame) my wife vetoed, an1451361-shera_wallpaper_sherad said simply….


Yes, She-Ra the alter-ego of Princess Adora of Eternia, who as a baby was taken to Etheria and ultimately charged with battling the forces of evil. Transformed thanks to her magic sword and with the aid of her winged unicorn she fights for justice. The parallels are obvious and I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself.

Anyhow, she is going to need a kingdom hive. Luckily, I found some old scaffold boards a while back. They are mostly rotten, worm-eaten, and covered in splits and cracks, sounds perfect right! For some reason, I feel the need to try and make things from wood others wouldn’t even burn.

The hive body has now been glued and sanded (on the outiside and ends) and has had many coats of oil and shellac. The entire hive will also be sealed with an oil and wax finish. The legs and roof frame have had to be made with new wood (booooo hisss) but I have used a wood stain/preserver to get to that lived in colour.

Onwards and upwards… wish me luck for the 13th August.

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A Few Good Men…(or drones)

Anyone who has already done a bit of bee reading knows that there three bee castes in a hive. The Queen, the worker bees, and the drones. Most will also know that queens and workers are from fertilised eggs and drones are from un-fertilised eggs (this process is called parthenogenesis). Drones are the pure off-spring of the queen which makes them more like the workers’ uncles than their brothers. As such drones only have half the number of genes than their female relatives having only the genes provided by the egg. Females have 32 chromosomes, drones have 16 chromosomes. All 10 million (give-or-take) sperm that the drone produces are identical clones with no variation. On mating a Queen will perhaps mate with upto 20 drones. So although all the workers have the same mother they may have different fathers. Those who have the same mother and father are related by 75% of their genes and are termed supersisters. Workers are therefore more genetically related to a supersister raised as a queen (75%) than they would be to their own direct offspring (50%). This explains in an evolutionary sense why workers would fight to the death to save the offspring of a different individual OR more correctly why this behaviour has been maintained.

Where am I going with this?
good question!

Drones are mostly overlooked in beekeeping. They are considered lazy do nothings and conventionally foundation is used to constrict the bees to making workers. Of course there is one thing they do very well, and that is chase down virgin queens. Their whole physiology is attuned to it. Big top mounted eyes to spot the queen and approach from underneath. Large size to fly fast and of course a penis nearly as long as he is. The very fact that even constrained a colony strives to make drones suggests that either they perform some other important functions we are unaware of or this one function is SO important the bees will invest time, and resources to support it. We like to think with queens the bigger the better. Some beekeepers even tear down small queen cells. I think this is even more the case for drones and we force them to make drones in small cells at low numbers and then wonder why our queens are poorly mated.

There is also a lot of attention on queens for developing colony traits like behaviour, productivity, disease resistance, frugality, and overwintering success. Queens though are only one half of this genetic equation and the slower more complicated half at that. I will explain this in more detail below but the take home message is IF YOU HAVE A GOOD QUEEN LET HER MAKE DRONES NOT JUST MORE QUEENS thanks.

There four driving principles of natural selection:
Variability – Diversity of genotype (genetics material) and phenotype (its appearance/characteristic).
Inheritance – The passing on of distinctive genetics or characteristics to subsequent generations.
Selective Pressures – Other factors that cause a characteristic to become a positive OR negative influence on an individual’s chances of survival.
Survival of the Fittest – Better termed as opportunity to reproduce through not dying!

Absolutely raise queens from good queens. Traits around productivity and behaviour are good bred in or out in this way. Queens though, live a long time, take a while to show their colours, and because they mate with so many drones the genetics gets complicated to track. Because each colony can only produce one of two drone “types” and these are all culled at the end of the season drones are a much faster way for a colony to select for successful genetics. Any pressures being put on a colony in terms of disease, climate, or location can rapidly effect drone success.
If allowed to make drones here is how they can help all beekeepers in an area.

a) only successful colonies makes drones.
b) The bigger and more successful the colony the greater the number of drones produced.
c) within a colony the more successful it’s supersisters are the more of that drone type is produced.
d) those drones adversely affected by disease or the environment do not get to mate.
e) if d) then the colony will produce more of its other drone type to compensate (the one not badly affected).
f) if both drones types (that is all the queen’s genetics) are affected badly the colony will produce only a few weaker drones. Provided other colonies are allowed to produce drones the successful ones will be bigger, stronger, and more numerous so will be the ones to mate with the queens conserving the successful genetics.

The genetics of “hygienic” behaviour is becoming better understood every day. That is to say, it is getting more complicated and harder to explain. So instead I will go with a very simple model of varroa sensitive. Let us say there is a varroa sensitive trait which resides in one of the chromosome sets a queen can pass on (this is shown in red; and yes that is supposed to be a varroa not a tomato). This queen may mate with any number of drones but will always pass on this sensitivity to half of its female offspring.

varroa sens

This is where the supersisters kick in. We know that these supersisters congregate on combs and display nepotism. They will feed and care for the workers, queens, and drones they are more closely related to. Many of the viruses associated with parasitic mites are transferred by the nurse bees. Without allowing all of colonies to raise drones the strongest/healthiest/best adapted cannot prevail. Culling or restricting drones levels the playing field reducing the margin the wouldbe successful drones with have otherwise. I really struggled in my first few years with queens failing to mate. I now have four different queen lines in my apiary all producing drones and the queens are laying like billy-o. Oh ..and the importing of genetically “pure” queens! don’t get me started 😦

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For the Love of Joe

On the back of the hive startup malachy (and my all round generousness) I have been helping out Joe and Susie. Joe and Susie have been wanting to get into beekeeping for some years but had decided it was something out of their reach. They live in a village not far from my own and keep chickens (about 35), bake cakes, and make preserves. Bees would be a wonderful way to round out their country lifestyle. The barriers to getting there though had become in their minds insurmountable. The initial cost/outlay with no guarantee of success, the step from wanting to doing without learning seemed too difficult. As such, I handed Joe and Susie two warré bait hives. These are made up of a solid floor with entrance, two warré boxes (with windows), a warré quilt, and an insulated roof (as below X2).


baited up and ready to ride.


I also provided old brood comb already hung on the top bars in one box of each warré. A ziplock bag and lemon grass oil. I threw into the equation a long lecture on swarms and swarming, and the best location and orientation of the hives.

That night, Joe was seen on the roof of his garage with a bait hive, a torch, and a compass. He was VERY keen. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that mid-march was a little early for swarms and he needn’t of rushed.

Mid-may came and there were excited texts about scout bee activity and this triggering bee-related dancing in Joe and Susie’s household.


I can only assume the blurring is due to the vigorousness of the dance.


Then on the 4th June we had a blindingly hot day after a whole week of rain. We celebrated with a BBQ and bouncy castle party for us and friends (that lasted 10 1/2 hours), and Joe and Susie celebrated with the arrival of their first swarm (though I am still put out they didn’t come to our party).

Two weeks later I popped round to check on progress. The bees had nearly built out the entire top box already. I discussed with Joe what needed doing (mostly watching through the windows). The great thing about using two warré boxes as a bait hive in this way is that the bees are already where you want them. The only downside can be that they are quite cumbersome to move and need attaching together securely. Whilst there I helped Joe site the second bait hive on the off-chance. I have since had worried messages from Susie saying Joe has been seen leaving the television during football matches to watch the bees. Joe insists this was just pre-match or during halftime but we are unsure. It was during one such “halftime” excursion on Monday that Joe noted bait hive number two was populated. I am almost as happy for them as they are for themselves. Joe has some box building to do now but he has a good start and I will be there to support them as and when they need it.

I will add some pictures to this post at some point.

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Too much for one post

Well where to start. Not sure what has taken longest on this one. Writing the blog a post, deciding what to include, or trying to think of a pithy name (gave up). Let’s just go through the hives and have an AOB section at the end.
(AOB is any other business for those who don’t spend as much time in meetings as me).

Wonderwoman is the queen of a swarm caught in Kyle’s bait hive last year this colony has built up extremely well this year. Using the drawing pin (US:push pin) hive note approach I shamelessly stole from Julie at happy hour at the topbar hive you can see this hive is doing WELL.
white – new bar, green – worker brood, blue – drone brood, yellow – honey, red – queen (top=cup, middle=cup+egg, bottom=cell capped).


I therefore took the decision to pull a few combs of young brood and create a split. I have someone interested in a topbar colony and with how well this colony is doing I thought it a good time. So on Sunday 19th June I pulled 3 frames of young brood and shook in bees from another 3 combs to account for foragers returning to the mother hive. Fast forward to today (thursday 23rd June). Having worked more hours than they are willing to pay me for at the hospital I decided to take the morning off. I could take my daughter to school and give the dog a good walking. On the walk I swung by the bees, my bait hives, and went even further (much to the mixed feelings of my panting Labrador). Towards the end of my walk what should I see but a small swarm hanging out of a fence post! I ran back to my house (much to the dismay of my Labrador) and collected the minimum of equipment and cycled back only to find they had already gone …doh! I continued back around on the bike and checked my bait hives again, which were still defiantly empty.  The split I had made on the 19th was very quiet…almost guiltily so! Hang on…19th – 23rd is 4 days, starting on a 4 day larva would give 8-9 days, doh again! I obviously shook in more bees than they needed and they felt a swarm was viable. I am not sure what I more upset about, the fact that I missed collecting them by mere minutes, or that they didn’t choose one of my lovely bait hives all within half a mile of them…. yes I do…it the bait hive rejection 😦

I don’t want to talk about it.

These girls have also been doing well. This queen is the daughter of poppy and is several years on natural comb and treatment-free. I have a cross-comb legacy in the hive I have been trying to deal with. They are now in two national brood boxes, both built out with comb. Being so cross-combed (in the top box now) I cannot easy inspect to find the queen. The box underneath is now built out with lovely straight and new natural comb. On Sat 19th June I lightly drummed the top box and then smoked the top box to force bees into the lower box. I then inserted a queen excluder (gasp and shudder, I have never used these before) between the two boxes. Sometime in the next few day I will check for eggs. If they are in the bottom box woo-hoo I let them fill the top with honey and finally remove that cross-combed mess. If they are in the top box the excluder comes out and I try again. If that is the case then the queen will be presented with nearly a whole box of cleaned comb ready for her to lay in.

This queen was purchased last year with just a few frames and has laid like a boss this year. Having no equipment to match the 8 frame nuc I had built I supered a warré box onto it. Did this keep her down.. did it heck! The bees rapidly filled this box too. When I checked on Wed 15th I was thinking I would be adding another box but spotted queen cells being built on the trailing edge on the warré comb. I took the easy option and just picked up the warré box and put it on top of a warré stack I had ready to go. They got a free box of comb in the bargain. I removed the dummy board from the 8 frames nuc and sent emails out to beekeeping association committee is a request for a full national box. Luckily, I got a response and the friday evening the colony got a full 12 frame national brood box. It was clear at that point that this was the queenless side so Queen Hunmanbee has moved from a frames to natural warré combs. There have been a LOT of drone pupa chucked out, this colony is nothing if not efficient. The front of the hive looks a little like a slaughter ground.

NEW NATIONAL (from above)
busy busy busy with no queen all they have to do is forage. It is possible that this is the colony that swarmed today and not the top bar nuc only an inspection will tell. I have no intention of inspecting right now as this would be entirely to satisfy my own curiosity and would be of no benefit to the bees. Virgin queens can also be quite flighty and opening the hive when you know they may be emerging risks losing them. Reduction in activity alone is not enough for a colony that had this many bees free’d up from the split. New bees emerge each day and no brood is being laid so the activity can sometimes appears greater.

Queen Alan arrived as a cast swarm from someone in my association (guess his name).  On Sunday the colony had already built out and queen laid 6 brood combs (though I did give them two to start with) and a further 3 honey combs. Not at all bad for 3 weeks work with no feeding.


These have come from framed hives and conventional beekeeping so this is their first foray into the top bar hives. They have obviously taken to it extremely well and are a very gentle colony. Being thrown into a large empty space (even with a two comb head-start) there was a danger of cross-combing. As it happens they have mostly stuck to the comb guides. I have had to realign just the ends of a few combs where a wave had started in. You might be able to see a shim on the right-hand side where I noted the comb was too deep for them to build straight on the next bar. This is a possible issue with honey combs as they have no set depth.

20160619_150059 You can see the lovely black poppy pollen joining the oranges and yellows. This will soon be accompanied by the grey of brambles.

Actually I think I have rambled though most of what I was going to say. Though I would like to share with you a find and some news.

The find was during a walk in a local village after their annual dog show (our lab got 1st in best veteran, and 3rd in best in show, my daughter also got a 3rd for young handler). Below you can see what I found:


This is chicken of the woods. I have never seen so much in one place as it is usually snaffled up by a wiley forager (hedgerow forager, not bee forager). This was just one clump I found. Sliced and lightly fried on its own or in breadcrumb it looks and tastes almost exactly like chicken. I collected a small amount for the vegetarians coming to our BBQ/pizza oven party later that day.

The news is that I have been asked if I would be interested in running/teaching a beekeeping course at a local outdoor education centre. They have bees there already in conventional hives and are looking to expand their school courses to include adult weekend courses built around country living. Although they have the location and facilities they do not have someone to teach the beekeeping course. I said I would prefer to do natural/top bar beekeeping courses and they said fine. Guess I have another hive to build then! …. oh and do I need a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches?

Posted in Beekeeping, Country life, mistakes to learn from, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Underwear teaches us Change is Good

“Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” – George Bernard Shaw

Now I have tried to make this blog article all high and mighty I have to disappoint and say it is just about how to get colonies for conventional hives (like Nationals and Langstroths) over to top bar hives (specifically kenyan top bar hives). This is definitely a perennial question on the forums I frequent and I am a little embarrassed to admit that I just copy and paste the last time I answered it now. I thought I could at least write a slightly more complete appreciation on the topic in a blog post.

Just to get it out of the way first and foremost if you are new to beekeeping the best way to get bees into a top bar hive is ……. COLLECT/CATCH A SWARM….. that’s better.

For those already beekeeping using conventional equipment and interested in giving kTBHs a go here are some options.

1) – Shook swarm into the topbar hive.
Transfer all flying bees, by substituting hive location, some or all comb bees and the queen to the top bar hive. At the end of spring is the ideal time for this as there is little or no brood. Doing this later in the year would require either ditching all the brood (poor bees) or maintaining the nuc to raise an emergency queen. Many conventional beekeepers will do this at the beginning of the year for a Bailey comb change to cycle out old comb.

2) – Comb Substitution.
The top bars you are using should be the same length as the frames so you insert empty bars between brood frames and they will draw them out. As the current frames are capped moved them to the outside so they are only filled with honey, perhaps behind a vertical queen excluder. When the frame is empty of brood remove it and add another top bar. You must take care not to let the natural comb extend beyond the dimensions of the topbar hive but a little trimming is fine.

3) – Chop and Crop.
An extreme and immediate approach and not to be attempted alone. You cut the frame from around the outside and trim the comb to the dimensions of the top bar hive using a follower board as a template and a bread knife to cut. You then screw a full top bar onto the frame top bar and put it in the hive. Many people have found this to be a “tearing of the sticking plaster” approach. Hard on the bees and the keeper but over and done with fairly quickly. At the right time of year they can recover fast and the “leftover” bits of comb can be put in the hive at one side so the bees can empty them.
Chop and Crop by Phil Chandler
American Version (the same but with power tools)

4) – Growing Into.
Growing the colony down or up through nadirring or supering. This works on the idea that you produce another box for the bees to expand into. This almost never works and you end up tying up equipment and messing the bees about for a long time.
growing down by Phil Chandler

5) – Converter Hive.
Build a hive that is half national half topbar. Allow them to grow horizontally into the topbar hive and when the queen crosses over to lay on the natural comb slot a queen excluder between the two. Remove the frames as the brood emerges. Once on the top bars transfer to top bar hive, placing the hive in the same location to allow flying to orientate more easily.

I am currently doing 5) and it is working well. I would say that you should try to get them on natural comb a bit first or giving them top bars this time of year will just give you drone comb-a-plenty. Below are pics of the converter hive I made using a national brood box. This is just a standard national brood box with some sloped sides inserted to the top bar profile. This takes 6X frames, and 6X 36mm top bars and a 5 mm spacer.


You could make your converter hive by joining a national and kTBH nuc together if you wish by cutting big enough holes in the side. Logistically I think this would be more difficult because of roofs etc but it is certainly possible.

A video of the converter hive after a few weeks in use.

The inserts I have made here were a quick and dirty job I am afraid. The bees inevitably build comb under the inserts because they aren’t solid or boxed off. I will at some point make a boxed off insert with floor. I don’t mind in this case as I will be using this as a “hybrid” hive where I can maintain bees on frames and top bars in case I need to rescue another colony in either (and vice versa).

Hope this helps those wanting to give kTBHs a try. Please do feedback on your experiences.

Posted in Beekeeping, Builds, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Happy day

Leaving work today I spotted a woodpecker!.. Not so amazing I know but I had had an awful week and chose to believe this was a good omen. When I returned home I checked in on the chickens and all of them had laid! Not a bad start, small but in the right direction. Then the phone rang. It was my bee association chairman Alan. One of his hives had swarmed and would I like them. would I?… WOULD I! … I feel a long post coming on 🙂


He had collected them in a straw skep and it was a simple shake in and go. I had two full top bar combs to offer them as a house warming gift and thus far they’ve stayed put. I have decided this queen and her progeny will be named for members in my bee association. Welcome to the apiary Queen Alan.

Queen Wonderwoman
This hive so far should a poster child for top bar hives. They recovered quickly after winter, having had no feed. They have built up steadily and fly even on poor weather days. Other than some drone brood and a few queen cups they show no signs of preparing to swarm (I am going to regret saying that aren’t I!).

When inspecting a top bar hive in spring and summer, if there are enough bees and the queen is laying, I will gap the brood nest. This involves inserting an empty top bar every 2-3 brood combs. I will also ensure there is an empty bar on the leading edge of the nest. Adding an empty bar next to comb that may be used for honey can result in the bees building that comb out further rather than building a new one. The next comb they build will then be on the join of two top bars instead of on a comb guide. This isn’t ideal… If you know they have done it, it is awkward. If you don’t know they have done it, it can be catastrophic.

After gapping the brood nest on Sunday they had 20X 38mm (1 1/2″) bars. 20 bars in this hive equates to a volume of ~58L, as a benchmark a national brood box is 35L and a langstroth is 42L and some of that space is taken with frames.

Queen Bramble
This hive is building up well. The colony has been on a mess of comb across 5 frames for a while now and resisting all attempts to get them off and on to straight comb….bless them….They are second generation on this jumbled mess as my previous attempts just lead them to swarm.

Last year I knocked up a “converter hive” for someone in my bee association but they never used it so I thought I might give it a try. It has worked a treat so far. My plan isn’t actually to get these off of frames completely but to have a half-and-half brood box so I have backup for my national and top bar hives.

Now the top bars are built out and have brood on I will move the tangled mess frame up into a top brood box and place frames with comb guides underneath. Hopefully this will encourage them to build down and across onto these new frame with lovely straight comb…possibly…maybe…perhaps. Once the queen in laying in the bottom box I will put a queen excluder (normally something I avoid) in between allowing the messy top frames to be cleared of brood. Depending on how long that takes I can then either harvest the top combs with honey OR take them out and feed back to the bees any nectar on them.

Queen Hunmanbee
Considering how weak these girls were at the end of last year it is hard believe they are the same hive. My plans were to leave this colony in the 8 frame nuc they are in to encourage them to swarm. This is their first year of no treatment and a brood break would help the bees deal with any varroa. I still intend to let them swarm but they were going so well I thought I would give them another box. Unfortunately being a nonstandard size I didn’t have a super to fit. What I do have in abundance are warré boxes. I quickly knocked up a converter board and threw it on. It is important when supering with a warré box to ensure there are comb or foundation ladders to allow the bees to move up to the top bars and build down. Without the ladders there is a danger the bees will build up instead and make a real mess as a result. So far this is going well to and I have even spotted the queen in the top box. I even considered a cheeky walk-away split…. hmm…..may be another day.


Posted in Beekeeping, Uncategorized, Warré | Tagged , | 4 Comments