20 minute beekeeper

by Andy Wattam, Regional Bee Inspector, Eastern England

Andy was brought up on a mixed farm, as was his father, grandfather and great grandfather, quality stockmanship was instilled into him early in life through looking after cattle, pigs and chickens but he decided he would rather try another career so joined the fire service. Introduced to bees at school, he eventually made his hobby his occupation and became the Regional Bee Inspector for Eastern England.

At the start of his beekeeping, he took every swarm he could and quickly built up to 60 – 70 colonies. It then became clear that too many bees liked to greet him 40 yards before he got to the apiary, going straight for the eyes! After putting his back out moving heavy hives for pollination, he decided something had to be done. Three books influenced him – R.O.B. Manley’s “Honey Farming” and Brother Adam’s “Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey” and “In Search of the Best Strains of Bees”. He worked as a guest at Buckfast Abbey with others from Germany and Denmark for short periods in 1988 and 1989 and learned much.

Too many beekeepers use the barest minimum of effort or equipment and hope for good returns; they often waste heaps of money along the way on fancy gadgets and gizmos. To enjoy beekeeping which pays its way you will, like anything else in life, only get out of it what you put in.

Now for the detail. Standardisation is the key. Out of necessity, this he developed through trial and error. Attention to detail is very important. He does no maintenance at all in the active part of the year – that all takes place in October and November. He keeps an average of 40 colonies. Over the past five years, his harvest has been average 108lb/colony or approximately 1,500lb/site. Since 1988, he has lost no colonies!!

This has been achieved using “the umbrella of good stockmanship”:

  • Routine Equipment Maintenance or Replacement
  • Comb Replacement Strategy (Full or Part)
  • Accurate & Timely Record Keeping
  • Production Colony Assessment
  • Effective Varroa Control
  • Varroa Population Monitoring
  • Disease Recognition, Prevention & Control – “Barrier Management”
  • Queen Assessment, Rearing & Replacement
  • Feeding

Good vehicle access right up to the bees is very important. Apiaries are usually of 14 or 16, never more than 20, always laid out in the same way in a double row with stands of two bars across double breezeblocks. There is space in the centre for equipment from either end so roofs and other boxes don’t have to be put on the ground and so saving ‘beekeeper’s back’.

It doesn’t much matter which way entrances face. Incidentally, painting boxes means you have to continue to paint them so it is better not to start.

Varroa is THE problem. Half his colonies are kept on open mesh floors so natural mite drop may be counted. (Check the drop using the table in the NBU/CSL leaflet or the Internet calculator on their website “BeeBase”.) Mesh floors are exchanged for solid ones periodically; solid ones are chalked with their hive number for a later analysis of the debris on them – this will show how “hygienic” those bees are – the less debris the better. Look also for mites on the bees themselves, particularly under their chins. Fork out drone brood. Use one shallow frame in every brood box and aim for three “takes” of drone brood per season. He has used neither Apistan nor Bayvarol since 2003, just Apiguard in spring and autumn, treating early, followed by oxalic acid treatment in December.

Disease recognition. Colonies must be numbered for record purposes. Before moving bees, it is also essential to know if others’ bees will be near yours and who those others are. It is the same when setting up new out-apiaries. Are you confident that it will be a disease free area? What other bees are around? If there isn’t disease, could there be just too many bees in the area – this is thought to have been a major reason for “Isle of Wight Disease” in the early 1900’s. Bee Inspectors will probably be able to tell you.

Collaborate for site information and equipment. Don’t exclude non-association members just because they haven’t joined – they may be anti-organisational people but they still keep bees and could be allies in the fight against disease.

If swarms are taken – hive on foundation and keep separate until brood can be examined and you can assess their temper and housekeeping.

Inspect weekly. So the bees can’t get ahead, keep a spare super over the crownboard, under the roof. “Under-super” is the rule; an empty super is placed beneath a full one. Bees like to have food just above the brood nest so putting an empty super there means a gap which the bees will aim to fill. Although it is said that a cold night means the bees draw down to cover the brood so honey in the supers begins to crystallise, especially with oilseed rape (OSR), this is not a problem if the colony is strong.

Swarm control. The key to swarm control is using, breeding from, or acquiring bees of a less swarmy disposition. If a colony builds loads of queen cells, don’t ever use these to re-queen others or you end up with a whole apiary full of swarmy colonies.

  • Use bees of a less swarming disposition.
  • Use young queens and clip them as an added safeguard.
  • Use large brood boxes for plenty of space for brood.
  • Super early for space and under super.
  • Good ventilation – full entrances, crownboard feed holes open.
  • Keep bees busy with wax to draw.

If any colony shows signs of a continuing desire to swarm, take out a nuc (4 or 5 frames, and shift it to another site) – it can be reunited if desired at the end of the summer.

In brood inspections, look for normality – the three or four frames near the centre of the brood box should tell you most of what you want to know about swarm preparations. There is no need to actually to see the queen, eggs are good enough.

All colonies on a site are re-queened together. All queens reared are run first in nucs for assessment of temper and quality of brood pattern. Colonies are requeened early in the season and the old queens to be kept are caged and returned to the nucs that the new queens came from. When queen rearing starts, those not selected for breeding are either given away or killed.

Equipment. Better quality queens need more space so, after trying double brood Nationals, he settled on Commercial brood chambers (brood frames 16 x 10 inches) but kept his National supers.

Equipment Maintenance. In winter, wax moth is no problem since it can’t actually live on wax but eats pollen and old pupa cocoons. Any super combs with evidence of these are melted down. Any brood comb getting brown is withdrawn and melted down using Thorne’s adapted wallpaper stripper. By using good quality foundation and culling combs regularly, say every other year, there is a good wax return. Old, black, thick combs are not worth any time or energy. Wax from cappings is kept separate. The best value is had by exchanging weight for weight – wax blocks for wired foundation – just pay the manufacturer to wire it for you. Wax is exchanged around Christmas so that when equipment maintenance starts in October, all is to hand.

Bees starting to show a heavy infestation with varroa can be shaken onto clean foundation and fed a gallon or two of syrup. Either put one old frame of uncapped larvae with them to attract the phoretic varroa from the adult bees; when capped, this frame can be withdrawn and destroyed. Or use a knock down agent such as Apiguard after shaking the bees. Properly fed, shaken bees will draw eight frames in a week.

He has around 200 supers, all on castellated runners with nine SN1 frames per box. These are all drawn parallel – he does this by putting the boxes with foundation on in a good flow (as with oilseed rape). All runners in boxes are Vaselined, which helps prevent the propolising of frames to boxes. For supers, the rebate in the top locking bar is also brushed with Vaseline to protect the wood as this tends to become a ‘rot area’. He uses some National brood boxes as supers. Frames are waxed in winter with all the other preparations; there is no trouble with the bees not drawing them!

Supers are not numbered but all go back to their own apiary. He used routinely to sterilise them using glacial acetic acid but no longer; he would again if there was “the slightest whiff of EFB”.

Over winter, queen excluders (all framed wire) are cleaned, Vaselined and bundled in 14’s or however many are required for a particular site. Crown boards and clearer boards are yacht varnished when new which makes them last longer and the bees less likely to propolise them. Rhombus clearer boards (better than Porter which sometimes jam) clear the bees completely overnight. Lino over the estate car floor makes for easy cleaning and boxes slide easily over it for loading and unloading. Supers go onto drip trays (garden centre potting trays) in the extracting room, which is warmed by a fan heater to speed extraction.

New boxes are preserved with Cuprinol Clear inside and out; the outsides only every 3 or 4 years. Empty boxes are preserved in October and November and brought out for use in March / April.

Queens. Early in the year queens are found, marked and clipped.

To maintain vigour, queens are replaced every other year in honey colonies. Some taken out will have been identified as breeders so go into nucs. Requeening is done early in the year (end of March if warm or April) – but this is only achievable using the over-wintered nuc colonies. These are also a useful reserve. Queens taken from production colonies are returned to nucs to keep them ticking over until queen rearing can take place.

Queens are bought in from a good breeder by a group of several beekeepers working together. One or possibly two in forty queens will be excellent and worth keeping for his own queen raising. Queens selected from his own colonies for breeding are assessed for:

  • Good temper
  • Honey gathering
  • Good brood pattern
  • Low swarming
  • Low maintenance (food consumption & propolis deposition)
  • Hygienic traits
  • Acarine and Nosema resistant

Queen raising. He tends to use the Miller or Alley method – cut the lower half of a comb into a zigzag pattern, introduce it to a very strong queenless colony (ie: 2 full brood boxes of bees) and feed a couple of gallons of syrup. Each comb must be examined very carefully for any emergency cells before cell building commences or a very big disappointment later awaits. The best queen rearing book he knows is ‘Queen Rearing Simplified’ by Vince Cook.

His queen raising box is shifted to the mating apiary 3 or 4 days before hatching but sometimes he takes just the frames of cells in a basket with a towel wrapped round them and a hot water bottle in the bottom under another towel.

Drones need to be ready before queens emerge. The mating apiary is away from other bees – this was tested by putting out wet supers and no honeybees came to rob them. He had once to shift this site away from a drone assembly area but there might be more. The area is flooded with the drones of his choice (watching varroa build up in these colonies very closely).

Queen introduction. Standard plastic queen cages with a soft candy stopper (fondant and honey mixed in the palm of the hand until putty-like – match stick hole through the centre to give them a start). Virgins can be run straight into a nuc or colony which has been queenless for a while. With quiet colonies you can introduce a mated queen to a full stock of bees by allowing them to release her from the cage; it is risky with more aggressive colonies. The keys to queen introduction are how the queen acts when the bees release her – hence let them settle and lay in nucs first, and the overall temper of the recipient colony.

Occasionally he has known some dark, flighty colonies of bees which just could not be re-queened – they murdered everything, preferring to rear their own – the solution is to make sure they are queenless and you haven’t missed a virgin and unite the damn things with another quieter, steadier colony.

Records. He finds an A5 size (fits in overall pocket) hardback notebook easier to use than record cards. A new book is started each year with colony details carried forward. Notes are made in pencil; this works in rain as his own bees are often worked when the weather is too bad to inspect other beekeepers’ bees! Information recorded is kept simple and is abbreviated for speed.

  • Colony Number
  • Queen origin & parentage – marked and clipped
  • Date of Inspection and ‘general comments’
  • Honey taken (expressed in number of supers removed)
  • Temper (Good/Average/Bad)
  • Potential for further breeding

Full colonies are recorded in the front of the book and nucs at the back. All colonies are numbered from 1 upward and Nucs with a prefix N1, N2, etc etc.

Where a colony number is taken out of use for any reason, eg a full colony is split for nucs, this is noted in the book and likewise when the number is brought back into use again. Written in pencil the queen information is then reinserted / updated and the number is up and running again.

Feeding. Like many bee farmers, he uses Ambrosia, ready-to-use invert syrup. There are others. This is made using a natural enzyme (the food industry commonly uses acids to invert syrup). Beekeepers in Denmark have found that, if fed a good quality naturally inverted syrup or fondant as part of their integrated pest management (IPM), bees’ health is improved as they do not have the stress of inverting it. This is supported by similar work in Celle, Germany. Ordinary syrup and fondant may adversely affect bees’ fat bodies. Invert syrup seems to increase the production of honey and reduce losses over winter. Whilst expensive, costs are comparable to that of granulated sugar when account is taken of transport, mixing, re-transport and the fact that sugar syrup will mould in the combs if the bees don’t cap it; also, it will go off if left mixed. It was once common to mix some thymol into winter feed syrup but this may contaminate next year’s honey.

The cost of Ambrosia is about £9 for 3 gallons or £575 for a pallet containing 50 buckets – this is enough for 150 colonies at one gallon each pro rata and it stores well. Buckets are better than a tank as no decanting is needed. Ambrosia is now being stocked by one of the main equipment suppliers and there are also franchises in Kent, Scotland and the West Midlands.

Fondant (ready-to-use icing from a supermarket) is convenient for nucs in spring (either 500g or 1 kg block size).

He notes which colonies are greedy ie take more syrup, or eat more. He also notes which colonies break cluster and fly on cold days in winter when other colonies don’t as this uses more food.

Swarms. Any taken are hived well away from his production apiaries on foundation until they can be assessed for disease and temper. Swarms are rarely taken from outside, but if they are the bees will be assessed, probably re-queened, and given to beginner beekeepers.

Given the nature of his job, he is probably far more aware of disease issues than most.

Over-wintering. All colonies winter on a single Commercial brood box of either ten or eleven frames (ten frames in converted National boxes). Boxes are secured to stands with a single strand of cord; there is nothing on roofs in summer. No bricks!

Nucleus Colonies. Nucs are over wintered on 5 Commercial frames. In the summer they have to be watched as they can quickly get too big. He takes a spare brood box of foundation to the nucs’ site and removes a comb of bees and brood from each one, replacing it with foundation until he has another full colony. Steady bees are needed for this but the darker mongrels sometimes fight a bit. The important thing is to smoke them whilst you do it and keep them exposed to the light (put a travelling screen on in between each frame going in). They are then taken to the next site and left there.

This will be a strong stock of bees and you can introduce a queen of your choice to them, leave them to rear one or even build up the stock further to rear queen grafts, or put on a super and leave them to it.

This is Brother Adam’s system, but in a smaller way. His book ‘Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey’ describes it all in more detail but you will see the similarities. The DVD ‘The Monk and the Honeybee’ shows much of it.


This article is courtesy of the Ipswich & East Suffolk BKA and was the subject of the David Little talk for 2008. Notes taken by Jeremy Quinlan.