Early April inspection update (2017)

Spring has sprung, the weather has started to become reliably warmer and it seems as if we’re free of frosts in Southern England for 2017.  You never can tell, of course, but we’ve already had temperatures of 20C+ and the nights are comfortably 5C+.

My update on the troublesome ‘brood in the wrong place’ hive is here, and to log the rest of the hives we’ll run through them here.

The Flow Hive in my garden apiary is starting to come to life. Bees are hatching, brood is growing and now comfortably on 4 frames. They’re not yet touching the super that I placed there as a brood and 1/2 setup, so I’ve fed with sugar syrup to kick start them a little. They seem really well behaved and calm – certainly my calmest colony and if I can get them to build up some more I’ll be looking to use these guys as a queen rearing colony in future. That, of course, depends on them being able to build fast and show me they can perform. They have competition now as at least two of my out apiary colonies are massively outperforming them.

In the Windlesham apiary, N3 now has brood on 7 frames, and N4 on 6. These guys are building rapidly and already have two supers on them! N3 is filling the second super and N4 looks about to start!  These hives are so busy at the moment that I’ve still not had sight of the queens. No need to worry though as they are definitely both queen right – fantastic brood patterns and visible eggs in both hives. Big thumbs up to Q4 and Q5 !

I’ve added an eke to N4 to convert them to 14 x 12 ( bigger brood box for a larger colony).  As with N1 in the Garden apiary, about half of the frames (in this case, everything without brood on it) has been replaced with 14 x 12 frames giving them plenty of space to build and fresh foundation to work with.  They’re a little aggressive, but it was starting to cool and most of the flyers were home so it may just be a consequence of that. (Wait and see again – no reason to worry too much).

N2, however is looking slow to get moving. Q3 has expanded from 3 to 4 frames of brood, but barely.  I have been able to mark her though.  Not knowing the exact ages of these queens I’ll be marking them all green for now with the intent of replacing them before green gets confusing in 2019.  For now, green just identifies them as queens purchased with colonies in 2017  (I  know it’s not best practice, but I can’t see it causing challenges at the moment).  I’m a little worried about these guys to be honest, but there are no obvious issues other than slower build up so I’ll just keep an eye for now.

I’ve put a bait hive in Windlesham as well, with some slumgum from melting down old comb as swarm attractant. Who knows, I may be able to expand by picking up feral swarms.  Fingers crossed.


Straightening out a poorly managed beehive.

National 1 is one of my new colonies. The previous owner had, rather unwisely, left two full supers over the top of the brood box without a queen excluder.  My first initial inspection a couple of weeks ago confirmed the fear I’d had when I got this hive – Queenie (Q2) had decided to move upstairs and start laying brood in the supers.   As the brood was confined exclusively to the supers, this seemed fairly straightforward to fix and they were moved below the brood box so Queenie would move upstairs, out of the supers and into the brood box where she should have been in the first place.  This could have gone badly – the bottom of the hive will have been colder than the top, after all. The brood could have been chilled or the queen might not have moved up anyway. Luckily todays inspection showed she had moved up and started laying (and after that pleasing revelation I neglected to check further). The plan for this hive today (always have a plan – things go more smoothly!) was fourfold.

  • Ensure the brood was in the brood box,
  • remove the under supers,
  • replace the brood box to 14 x 12 and in doing so,
  • refresh some of the frames with new 14 x 12 foundation.

With a new 14 x 12 box (actually a regular national box with a 14 x 12 expansion eke) at the ready, I started the check.  Taking frames from the old box and replacing in the new box. Frames not being used for brood were interspersed with 14 x 12 frame, and the original brood frames now have space below for the bees to build brood comb, but SHOULD still stay straight as they have foundation frames either side.   The bigger challenge is the space below the brood nest, which is currently 4 frames wide. If they start cross combing that I may have a problem. Fingers crossed on this one – I’ll let you know how it works out.

Plan departure #1 – On the first frame with brood, the queen scuttled under the frame and over to the other side, As it was the first time I’d seen the queen (and a lovely specimen she appears to be – big, glossy, and very quick!) I decided to mark her. Using a crown of thorns she was trapped and marked pretty quickly, and left trapped while I finished the inspection, giving the paint a chance to dry a little. As I don’t know her exact age she was marked green (as Q3,4 and 5 will be) as a 2014 queen (as per THIS post), but I don’t really know her correct age so will just have to see how she carries on.

It was about this point that the bees started getting a little feisty. My first hive (Flow1) has always been pretty passive, so I’m hoping that this isn’t a portent of things to come. Maybe they didn’t like the paint, or maybe just didn’t like their queen being trapped or something about how I was working them. One things for sure, I definitely need to work on keeping my smoker lit (or maybe just lighting it properly – will have to post about this sometime).

Plan departure #2 – I should have checked first – this was a mistake. Even though the queen had moved up to the brood box, she hadn’t stopped laying in the supers below. Rightly or wrongly, my hastily considered modification to the plan as follows.

  • New brood box (with brood and queen) on the hive floor
  • QE over this
  • Supers with brood over this.

My hope is that even though I split the brood nest, there are now enough bees to nurse them through. If not, some of the brood in this part may be lost, but hopefully nothing worse.

At this point, they need feeding. There’s some new foundation in the brood box and brood that needs feeding. The weather is getting better but there are no guarantees it’ll stay good, and similar with forage. A cold snap could knock back some of the current blossoming. Two options – sugar syrup or their own old stores.  I went with their own old stores, in the original brood box on top, with just a small gap through a hole in the crown board (mainly covered with a piece of cardboard) to their supers. Hopefully they’ll rob this out and store it and if they need more feed in a few days I’ll put some sugar syrup over the top.

Possible problem – DWV (Deformed Wing Virus) visible on a few bees in National 1 – need to read up on this and take action.

Flow 1 went smoothly. Plan add super for brood and a half set up. Accomplished simply after a quick inspection to confirm queen, brood and stores are adequate – they are.

In other news, before all this I did a tandem skydive with my son today for his 16th birthday.  Very, very cool – big smiles all round.

Spring is here!

Spring is here!  The birds are tweeting, the bees are flying, the sunshine warms your body and everything is good and right with the world again.  Hang on – that was last week. It’s a lot bloody colder now!

The first day of spring for the Northern hemisphere in 2017 was officially Monday March 20th. Also known as the vernal equinox, spring equinox or March equinox, this is the date in which the sun crosses a line in the sky known as the celestial equator – effectively an imaginary line drawn above the Earth’s real equator. We’d like to hope that the day would be marked by a sudden improvement in the weather and temperature signifying the end of winter and the onset of spring. Unfortunately this seemed to happen the wrong way around this year and temperatures have dropped a good few degrees and feel even worse due to wind chill.

THIS is why I’ve not been messing around with my bees just yet. I’ve been watching videos on YouTube of people ‘taking advantage of the warm weather’ and doing shook swarms or Bailey comb changes. These are big, disruptive manipulations and I’m asking myself if there is any necessity for them this early in the season. For me, the weather is not yet reliably warm enough to be putting my bees in a stressful and difficult situation that may make it hard for them to survive. A week or so of warm weather in March does not mean that we won’t see frosts, or even snow, in late March or early April. Most of us know that snow, even as late as Easter is not unheard of.

As a gardener as well as a beekeeper I’ve learned the hard way that early sowings are prone to loss.  It’s very easy to get overly optimistic and plant seeds too early. Sometimes they’ll start to sprout. Sometimes they get lucky and the weather stays warm enough for them to survive. More often than not it turns and seedlings die or get super stressed and ‘leggy’. I’ve made this mistake myself on many an occasion in the past and am trying hard to do better. With seedlings though, there is always an option to replant and start again when the weather is actually warm enough.  We may not always get this option with bees. If they die, it’s not so easy to start again.

Any beekeeper (or aspiring beekeeper) would do well to remember that bees are fundamentally wild and, given the right circumstances, they will survive without any help from us. All we are doing is hoping to provide a better standard of lodging for them in return for a little honey and some pollination services. We are landlords not keepers, and should be respectful of our tenants homes.  I’m pretty sure that if my landlord lifted off the roof, took all the furniture and expected me to rebuild everything from scratch, AND did it while the weather was likely to make things freezing cold in the kids nursery, I’d be moving out.

Thank I’ll wait another couple of weeks before doing anything major.

Flow Hives

This article was originally written for Surrey Bees newsletter and is a general summary of my first year with a Flow Hive.

Imagine, honey flowing directly from hive frames into a jar. No uncapping, spinning and cleaning up required, just fresh, clean fabulously tasty honey.  What makes it even better?  It’s not a marketing gimmick on a video but my own hive, in my own back garden, and I’m having fresh honey on toast before it’s even hit the jar!

It’s felt like a long road getting here though.  The Flow Frames are made out of plastic, partially prebuilt honeycomb that can be ‘split’ open when the honey is ready to harvest and allows the honey to flow down through the frame and out of a tube in the back of the hive. Having seen this fantastic looking contraption on a crowdfunding site and been intrigued enough to go back and have a look more than a few times I decided to invest in a hive back in March 2015.  For those not familiar, crowdfunding is a way of raising capital for startup businesses before they’re established.  The Flow Frames themselves had been developed and tested by the Anderson family in Australia over a period of about 10 years and the Andersons now needed capital to set up production. Initially looking for $75,000 the campaign clearly appealed to a lot of people. The target was hit in less than 5 minutes and ran into the millions shortly after. With this amount of interest, the Andersons had their work cut out for them getting hives and the Flow Frames built and shipped.
In the meantime, it was time for me to start learning about bees.  A quick investigation online told me it was going to be best to start my hive in the spring – a good thing as the hive only arrived in January.  My lovely girlfriend got in touch with Surrey Bees and bought me the beginners theory course as a gift for Christmas. What a great gift that was – having a basic understanding of bees and how to keep them before you start is probably the best recommendation I could make to anyone interested. Every week taught me more, and every week I left realising how much more there was to learn. I’m sure it will take me a lifetime and then some!
Within the first week or so I’d signed myself up for the practical beginners course and was eagerly looking forward to handling bees for the first time.
Having joined a number of beekeeping groups on Facebook it was clear that the Flow hives were somewhat controversial.  Lots of people were sceptical about them working and how practical they would be and some strong opinions were being thrown around. Whilst on the theory course I’d kept quiet as I didn’t want to get into discussions I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have. Once the practical started though, my hive was obviously different as it’s based around an 8 frame Langstroth rather than the more usual 10 frame size. It also has ‘Founding Supporter of the Flow Hive’ etched on the side of it – there was no hiding from that!  Sure enough, opinions from established beekeepers ranged from “it’s a load of bollocks” to “it’ll be interesting to see if it works”. My hive went home with me as soon as the nuc had been installed. As a keen gardener with space it will certainly help with pollination in the local area, and give the kids an exposure to bees that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In the brood box, nothing changes with the flow hive. We still check through regularly making sure the hive is Queenright, that brood is Building Up, that there’s Room, no Disease and that the colony has Stores (QBURDS – a very useful mnemonic). Long story short, the brood built up nicely and it was soon time to put a super on. Or not. The weather was awful and it was tricky to tell what the right time was to add the super and when I did, the bees didn’t seem to want to touch it. Was the Flow a failure?
A few weeks later and the brood had built up further, still weren’t using the super and were building queen cells!  A worrying moment, but my theory course had shown me the Pagden Method of swarm control and I went with that (having bought spare equipment knowing I’d need it at some point). 3 weeks later again and it was clear both queen cells had failed and only one hive was queenright so I had to recombine (paper method). This worked a treat and the combined colonies were clearly desperate to store nectar from what was now a strong flow. They were building up the cells in the Flow super the week after recombining – success was almost certain!
Once they’d started building it was business as usual until the frames were ready. One of the potential challenges of the Flow Frames is honey crystallising in them. Oil Seed Rape at the beginning of the season and Ivy at the end are the most likely to cause this so at the beginning of August I decided to harvest and then store the Flow Frames over winter. I’ve now added a ‘regular’ super so the bees can continue to make stores for the winter and I’ve no plans to take this from them.
That brings us right back to the start, on a sunny Saturday in August, watching honey flowing directly from my hive into jars. The bees undisturbed and still foraging at the front of the hive while I held a bit of buttered toast under the flow and tasted the best honey I have ever had.  Lovely.
I only took about 10Lbs of honey this year, but as a first year and the bees having to build everything from scratch I personally don’t think that’s bad as I know some keepers who haven’t had any harvest this year.
Pros and cons in a nutshell?
Pros – No mess, simple easy extraction, no bother to the bees
          No additional extraction equipment required
          It got me, and hundreds of other beekeepers around the world, started in keeping bees
          It’s a great discussion point
Cons – It’s costly (about £500 for the whole hive)
           Crystalising honey needs to be avoided so different supers and a different method of extracting is still required if you want to take these harvests
            Some of the discussions can get quite heated as people write off ‘the new fangled technology stuff’

In the beginning

P1150092In the beginning, there was Flow.

By Flow I mean the Flow Hive. Like many others I saw the videos advertising the Flow Hive and was entranced by it’s message. Honey on tap. Amazing! Bees. Amazing! and bees are on the decline so it’d be good if I helped, and I’m a gardener, so pollination and all that. The button had been pressed an I’d ordered a full Flow Hive.

Knowing it was going to be a while before it was delivered, I told a few people and started looking forward to it. In fact I was looking forward so much I’d almost forgotten about it by the time Christmas came around and I was gifted a beginners beekeeping course by my girlfriend.    That course was fascinating. Every week I went along and learned that there was more to learn and that I really didn’t know anything. Not just about bees, but about how much they do and how their societies reflect a somewhat idealistic (in some ways), nihilistic (in other ways), and communistic (in many ways) version of our own.

The Surrey Beekeeping Society also gave me an opportunity to purchase my first bee colony. (Before that I had no clue how bees were even acquired and had visions of a package being posted through my letterbox by a terrified postman.) It was only when my bees were ready (around May) and my hive was populated with a nucleus of bees at the club apiary, that I realised how much anti Flow Hive sentiment was to shape my early beekeeping activities.  Beginners were interested, and often fascinated. Longtime beekeepers were generally extremely sceptical, very opinionated and very vocal about how their new way would never work. Sometimes so much so that the Flow Hives would not only not work, but they might actually bring about beemageddon itself. The Dark Bee (or Bee Who Shall Not Bee Named) would arrive and destroy all the honey, making breakfast everywhere a bleak and hopeless meal.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by that much. The strong and very vocal opinions  that the internet makes so easy to shout about seemed to be getting into the real world, leaving me with only one option… Take my bees home.

So my bees arrived in my back garden and have remained there ever since. It saves me a 45 minute drive to the training apiary, but also means that I have to work a lot of stuff out myself so I read a lot, online and in print, and do my best to understand rather than just taking an answer as gospel.

The old adage of ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers doesn’t really apply to beekeepers. Often you only have to ask one beekeeper to get ten different answers.


The expansion

At the beginning of 2017 I was presented with an opportunity.  A (relatively) local beekeeper was relocating from the UK to Italy and needed to find new homes for all of his kit.

All of the hives were BS Nationals, all fully populated with 2 year old colonies and all seemed pretty strong. It was too cold to do a full inspection on the hives so I had to take a leap of faith and bought four full hives and a whole bunch of spare parts. Frames, an extractor, loads of supers etc.  A deal was made and I had to make a couple of trips to get all of this kit back to my place. (BTW – Moving beehives in the car is a nerve-wracking experience.)  Once back at mine, the reality of what I’d got myself into kicked in. My garden was fine for a hive or two, but five??  That just wasn’t practical. The space is there, but working in my vegetable beds could have got a lot more exciting than relaxing. They needed a new home.

An exercise ensued whereby I racked my brains as to where might have space locally. Emails were sent to hotels, golf clubs, bee clubs and Facebook groups. There weren’t as many responses as I thought there might be but luckily a local golf club came back to me and after a quick exploratory visit we established what seems to be a pretty great location. It’s a little windy on a ridge but there’s a growing hawthorne hedge on one side and a beech tree which should provide some shelter from the worst of the wind.  Over time I can add some other screening if required. As Storm Doris has whipped through since the hives have been there and hasn’t caused any problems, all seems OK so far.

A bit of gardening – making a hole in the hedge, clearing some weeds etc – and adding a few breeze blocks for hive stands, and the site was ready. Two trips and three hives were in place. Five Hives (two in my garden and three at the golf club) new apiary was up and running.  Exciting times 🙂

Naming hives, apiaries and queens

At the beginning of 2017 I have five hives.  Two in the garden, and three at an out apiary at a local golf club. A naming convention is required so I can keep records effectively and know what’s going on with each hive. To keep it simple (at least at the beginning), it will start off with the apiaries being ‘Garden’ and ‘Windlesham’, respectively. The Flow hives will be Flow 1 and Flow 2.  The National hives will be National 1, 2, 3. The queens should probably also be tracked so good performing lineage can be taken advantage of, so from now I’ll have Q1,2,3 etc.  The current queens are in hives, but the naming will not be linked to hives.   That leaves us with.

Garden – Flow 1 – Q1

Garden – National 1 – Q2

Windlesham – National 2 – Q3

Windlesham – National 3 – Q4

Windlesham – National 4 – Q5

For expansion requirements I have an additional Langstroth hive which will become Flow 2, and an additional National hive. All of the National hives will be used with traditional supers, of which I have about 10. The Langstroth hives will be flow supered for the main harvest, but for anything near Oil Seed Rape (OSR) (none of mine right now), or heather (all of mine right now), the Flow supers will be replaced with regular supers to avoid complications with thick set honey.

Hive records will be kept with each hive, and additional notes will be made here.