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Where Should I Put My Hives?

A lot of our customers ask for advice on where to put their bees. You can have a home apiary, if you have the space, or an out apiary. There are many considerations when deciding where to site your bees. Once you have your colony up and let them fly you cannot just easily move them to another location because once let out to fly your bees will immediately start their orientation flights. On these flights they map out the area of where their home is so when they are on their way back from foraging they pick up their return flight path and head right back to their front door. If, for example, you move the hive across the other side of your garden or field, because you realise you have put them in the wrong place, your flying bees will head out on their foraging flights and on their return they will pick up their old flight path and fly right back to where the hive was and not to where the hive now is!

There are many other important considerations to take into account so I have set out below good advice to follow when deciding where you will set up your apiary.

  1. The first and most important thing to decide is “Home Apiary” or “Out Apiary”. Having your bees close to home seems ideal but you must be sure your home garden is big enough. Don’t locate your hives where people have to walk close to them. Consider your neighbours if you are going to have a home apiary. Some neighbours will be excited about having bees next door, not to mention receiving the odd jar of honey from you and perhaps a chance to look in your hives, but some will be scared about the prospect of being stung and they may be concerned about the safety of their children/grandchildren. You also need to consider that no matter how friendly your bees are now there will be a time, despite best efforts with breed, when they are not so keen for you to open up their home and they may attack anyone close by during and after an inspection. In this situation you may need to move the bees to a location over 3 miles away until you can re-queen them.
  2. The above advice applies to public spaces too. Bees should not be located near footpaths, a good rule of thumb is 15 meters or more away and ideally separated by a fence or wall. Its worth noting that hives do get stolen or vandalised so I always suggest they are out of public view.
  3. If you decide on an “Out Apiary” then it should go without saying that you need permission to use the land if you don’t own it. You also need easy access with your vehicle. Supers full of honey are heavy so ideally you don’t want to have to carry them over long distances.
  4. Forage is something that often gets overlooked. Honeybees need to be able to forage on nectar flowing plants, not all plants yield nectar. They will not survive in the middle of desert for example! Do check out what forage is around for your bees and also check out who else has bees in that area. If there are already a lot of hives in the area that you are considering putting your hives, make sure there is enough forage to support more bees being put there.
  5. Consider livestock when deciding where you locate your colonies. Sheep don’t tend to interfere with bees too much but cattle can topple hives over so some sort of fencing or barrier would be needed. Bees and horses is a definate no no. The general rule of thumb with horses is one full field away for the bees.
  6. Arrangement of hives. Drifting can be an issue if you are siting a lot of colonies on one site. There is no rule for how you arrange your colonies but by staggering them or arranging them with entrances in different directions it will help with drifting . If you arrange them in one long line with just a foot between them, you may find that the colonies at one end seem bigger and are doing better. This will be down to drifting, and if you were unlucky enough that the drifting bees are carrying a disease, there is a high chance that they will spread it!
  7. Water is something to take into consideration. Your bees will find water but ensuring there is some sort of water source near by will help.
  8. Ideally our bees need the early morning sun and then shade in the heat of the day. This is not always possible and your bees most likely will survive no matter where you locate them but they may struggle a little and not do as well as they could. Avoid areas that are damp or in shade all day. Next to streams or rivers is not a good idea especially if they are prone to flooding. Protection from the wind should be taken into consideration, if this cannot be avoided make sure you site the entrance away from the direction of the wind. If your location is very exposed you may want to consider strapping your hives down or using a weight on them so ensure the roof is not blown off.

Below are some examples of apiary sites. All of these are good examples however I would mention that you do need to keep the weeds down from the entrances; last picture on top row. The last picture shows how they have used fencing to protect from livestock.

Should I Register My Hives?

I get asked a lot about registering bee hives. The main question being “What do I benefit from registering if its not a legal requirement“. Well, read on and you will see all the benefits of registering your colonies on BeeBase.

By registering your colonies on BeeBase you will have access to lots of useful information. You will also be alerted if there is any disease found within your area. If you have concerns about disease you can contact your Seasonal or Regional Bee-Inspector and they will arrange to visit your hives. There is no charge for this service and you will be visited by a fully qualified Bee-Inspector. The inspector will check your bees for signs of disease or pests, and they will be able to provide you with help and advice on good husbandry.

By being registered on BeeBase it also allows the NBU (National Bee Unit) to see the distribution of honey bee colonies across the England and this enables them to effectively monitor and control the spread of serious and fatal honey bees diseases and pests. BeeBase is for England only, please do not sign up if you are in Scotland or Wales.

Summary of information found on BeeBase for those registered:

  • Advice for Beekeepers
  • Apiary Inspections & Training
  • Bee Pests, Diseases & Maps
  • Consumer & Environmental Protection
  • Leaflets & Training Manuals
  • Hive Count
  • Beekeeping News – Asian Hornet updates
  • Legislation, Imports and Exports
  • Medicines
  • Dealing with Swarms
  • Research and Development
  • Healthy Bees Plan
  • Varroa calculator┬áto work out if you need to treat for varroa

Sign up here for free

BeeBase Home Page

Beginner’s FAQ: Smoker Fuel 101

There is quite an art to keeping you smoker lit properly and ensuring that you’re producing the right kind of smoke – the cool kind. There are many different types of smoker fuel out on the market and also quite a few that you can forage/gather on your own and we’ll also be going through these briefly.

How Does a Smoker Work?

The smoker has a barrel that needs to be filled with fuel, it is ignited and slowly smoulders. When idle, you will see a constant stream of smoke escaping through the pointed funnel at the top. The funnelled lid also often has a hook to make it easier to open (especially so after your smoker has had a lot of use). The bellows are squeezed to provide a burst of air through the barrel via the air conducting tube at the external base of the barrel, this allows the beekeeper to direct a stream of smoke onto or across the top of their bees and also to provide more oxygen to the fuel, helping to keep it ignited. Within the smoker is a fuel grid, this prevents fuel completely blocking air access through the air conducting tube.

Most smokers now also have a protective cage to ensure the beekeeper doesn’t get burnt when handling their smoker (ordinarily your smoke shouldn’t be hot enough to harm you but we’ll get into that later). This often encompasses a hook directly underneath the spout so that you can hang your smoker on your brood box whilst inspecting.

There are a lot of different smokers out on the market, we personally use the Rauchboy Smokers, which have a removable internal chamber which not only ensures a constant circulation of oxygen but eases the filling of the fuel chamber making it a much safer process.

How Do Bees Respond to Smoke?

Appropriate use of smoke will make your honeybees react in quite a predictable way. For countless decades beekeepers have used smoke in various forms to placate their bees, but why do they respond in such a methodical manner?

The use of smoke is theorised to mimic a forest fire that they may encounter in the wild. Although we now keep our bees housed and comfortable, they continue to have the evolutionary instinct to survive. This stimulates the bees to gorge on their stores, in preparation to leave and make a new home (they will need to be well fed to produce enough wax). This allows the beekeeper to inspect the hive whilst the bees are sufficiently distracted.

Another benefit of using smoke is that is masks pheromones. In some colonies when the hive is being disturbed by the beekeeper, guard bees will emit isopentyl acetate (from the stinger shaft) and 2-heptanone (from mandibular glands). These are strong smelling pheromones, even detectable to the beekeeper, who often mistakes the acidic, lemony smells as venom (which is actually odourless). The release of these pheromones produces a domino effect throughout the hive, each bee exposed will soon be releasing these pheromones and before you know it, they’re pinging off your veil and stinging at your ankles. Smoke temporarily blunts their awareness giving the beekeeper a much more pleasant experience.

A worker showing their stinger

Lighting and Using Your Smoker

When you are first lighting your smoker you want to get an actual fire going with an initial very flammable fuel, a lot of beekeepers choose to use old newspaper lying about. Loosely compact it and place into the chamber carefully, softly squeezing the bellows to keep the fire alight. This is the most dangerous part of lighting your smoker, if you don’t have a removable internal chamber ensure you stand downwind so the flames do not catch you.

Whilst the fire is still going start adding your smoker fuel, a little bit at first and strongly pump the bellows to ensure the fuel is catching. You’ll start to have a thick plume of greyish white smoke, an encouraging sign, keep adding more fuel, ensuring that the smoke is still being produced. Adding too much at once will completely snuff out the initial flame, you want embers to be continuing to smoulder at the bottom, but releasing cool white smoke, dampened by the density of the fuel. Once you have filled the barrel, allow a a minute or so to ensure that your fuel is still burning before closing the lid (and therefore restricting a lot of oxygen).

A very common mistake is that you heat your fuel far too much, if flames are coming out of your smoker the bees are certainly not going to be happy! Puff some smoke onto your hands, the smoke should be densely white and cool in temperature (well, at least not very warm).

When you’re prepared to do your inspection, it may be a good idea to give a few strong puffs at the entrance so that the smoke can be distributed throughout the hive. Then as you open your hive, gently puff the smoke under the crown board, and then directly on the top bars to encourage groups of bees away to make your manipulations easier and less likely to crush one of your bees.

Keeping Your Smoker Lit

You may not need to have your smoker last hours like a commercial bee farmer, but it is a little bit annoying when your bees aren’t having a good day and you find that your smoker has completely gone out despite still having lots of fuel in the barrel.

If you use your smoker infrequently (or have it lit for standby emergencies) you will still have to pump the bellows every now and then to ensure that oxygen gets to the embers to facilitate the burning. Lack of oxygen will eventually kill the flame.

Sometimes Less is More

Most bees these days are bred to be very pleasant in temperament making them much easier to handle. When using smoke it should be used sparingly to move the bees off the top bars, minimizing any risk to your bees or triggering more pheromones to be released.

An excess use of smoke can be detrimental to the bees, especially if you’re nearing the end of your fuel and you’re really just puffing ash onto the bees. Some beekeepers have also mentioned that excessive smoke can affect the taste of any unsealed honey, though ‘honey barbecue’ is quite a nice combo, we’ve never actually experienced this ourselves!

With time and experience you’ll come to know how much smoke is appropriate during your manipulations.

Smoker Fuels

Now there are a lot of possible smoker fuels out there, essentially you want something that burns slowly and doesn’t produce too much tar. Remember, you’ll also be inhaling the smoke of what you’re burning, so perhaps don’t go burning anything imbued with chemicals. Some fuels burn a lot quicker than others, so it may be that you need a mix of fuel to keep your smoker lit for a good amount of time, for example wood chips will burn hot, so it will be advised to dampen with partially dried grass trimmings and pine needles. Some people find that certain fuels also sting their eyes and produce an awful scent, so you may have to go through a few before finding what suits you.

  • Corrugated Cardboard (be careful, some are fire retardant now)
  • Egg Boxes
  • Burlap sacks
  • Dried Pine Needles
  • Wood pellets
  • Twine
  • Pet Bedding (wood shavings)
  • Grass/Hedge trimmings
  • Dried Mulch
  • Dried Citrus Peel
  • Dried Aromatics
  • Hay
  • Dried Cow Poo (not tried and tested by us)

If you are using a fuel that is very loose such as wood shavings, before closing your smoker you should put another loosely scrunched up piece of newspaper on the top to prevent shavings/sawdust flying out of your smoker. Of course you can also purchase these commercially prepared smoker fuel.

Playing with Fire

Now just a short note on health and safety. Here in the UK, we’re very unlikely to have the extreme dry conditions that increase the likelihood of the devastating fires we’ve seen in the US and Australia. However, that doesn’t mean that we can play it fast and loose with smokers. Before leaving your apiary you must ensure that your smoker is no longer lit, preferably this can be done by stuffing fresh grass into the spout of the smoker to cut off the oxygen supply.

You must always be careful what you are burning too, if you are using man made materials for example, you need to make sure that you’re not inhaling any chemicals used in the production of those materials. Some beekeepers often travel in their car with their recently lit smoker rocking around in the backseat, inhaling smoke of any kind is not good for your health so be wary and think about getting a smoker box.

Propolis sometimes can appear very flamelike

In Summary

Smokers are an ingenious tool to be used with caution and knowledge. Some people prefer not to use smoke at all which is fine, but most beginners may want to start of with using smoke initially. Once you are more experienced you may start using less and less smoke as you become confident. Smoke is also a tool that benefits the bees, it lets you move them without physically using your hands (especially when your hive is very populous and make it very difficult to maneuver around groups of bees gathered on the top bars), therefore it is much safer and less likely for an accidental crush to occur.

Beginner’s FAQ: Beekeeper Starter Kit Visual Guide

So what do you need to get started with beekeeping? Here is our visual guide!

The Physical

  1. Smoker
  2. Complete Hive and Stand
  3. Hive Tool (hatched queen cells not recommended :))
  4. Nuc of bees
  5. Beesuit & Gloves
  6. Feed
  7. Varroa Treatment

The Mental?

  1. Books
  2. Join your local association
  3. Do a beekeeping course

Last year we broke down the everything you need to get started with beekeeping and their related costs so we highly recommend that you take a look here.

Beginner’s FAQ: Honey 101

It’s what many beekeepers are looking for, the exciting feeling to crack open your hive to see your supers filled to the brim with honey. Your bees have brought in the liquid gold – Honey. But what is honey exactly and how is it even made by the bees? This is Honey 101.

A queen looking for more space amongst the stores

80% to 18%

As a beginner you may have already come across the distinction between nectar and honey, one is starkly more desirable than the other if you are thinking of beekeeping to harvest the fruits of your bee’s labour (and your own labour too).

But all honey starts off as nectar, a sweet watery solution produced by flowers surrounding your apiary. Nectar is usually colourless and contains approximately 80% water and 20% of the complex sugar, sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose with a glycosidic bond.

A single worker bee travels from flower to flower, pausing momentarily just to gather nectar through their proboscis, their naturally engineered straw-like tongue. The nectar is then stored in the ‘honey gut’ or the crop, where it is safe from being directly ingested by the foraging bee itself. Unsurprisingly, it is in the honey gut that the nectar starts it’s journey to becoming honey, the viscose solution we all know that contains around only 18% water.

A good view of the proboscis

Nature’s Chemists

The forager bee comes back to the hive once their honey gut is full of nectar, ready to be processed by their sisters. The nectar gets regurgitated over and over between the house bees. You may hear beekeepers exclaiming that honey is ‘bee vomit’ which although is quite true, it is also the essential process to chemically break down the nectar. Each time the nectar is passed between one bee to another, they add an enzyme called ‘invertase’ that is produced by the salivary glands to facilitate the break down of sucrose into the two simple monosaccharide sugars that it is molecularly composed of, fructose and glucose. This process is called ‘hydrolysis’.

Why would bees go through the process of hydrolysis? Well, by breaking down the sucrose into a blend of fructose and glucose makes it much easier to consume, it contains much more sugar than nectar therefore giving more energy to the bees (but taking up vastly less space in a cell) and of course, the reduction of water content allows the resulting honey to be stored without being spoiled, indefinitely if left undisturbed.

When the nectar has reached about 20% water content, the house bee will deposit the ‘almost honey’ into the cells. The bees will then fan their wings around the cells in order to evaporate more water from the nectar. Once the honey has ripened (at around 18% water content), the bees will put an air tight wax seal on the cell, stored for future use or to be extracted by the beekeeper.

Due to the lack of water in honey, no bacteria, fungi or even microbes could contaminate it. However, honey left out in the open, unsealed will draw in moisture from the air, making it susceptible to unwanted contaminants!

A brood frame with ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cappings – both perfectly normal

Crytallized Honey

Now that we understand the molecular structure of honey (a mix of fructose, glucose and water) we can better understand why the crystallization process occurs. Natural honey in its simplest description is over saturated sugar water. This means it contains far more sugar than the water can hold, making it an ‘unstable’ solution. The crystallization process is actually a great indicator that your honey is a natural product that hasn’t been adulterated. 

The exact percentages of fructose and glucose will differ according to nectar source. It is the glucose in honey that causes crystallization due to its lower solubility, it separates from the water in honey and forms tiny crystals that sets off a kind of domino effect of slow crystallization. If you have more glucose in your honey then it will set faster than if you have a higher percentage of fructose. Crystallization occurs even on the comb, making it almost impossible to extract without melting down the whole frame.

Beekeepers have incredibly learnt to harness the crystallization process to produce ‘soft set’ honey. A process that uses a honey with a high glucose content (such as oilseed rape honey) as a seed which is then mixed with another honey for a long duration, resulting in a smooth, creamy honey (the presence of the fine crystals is practically undetectable). This also means that the larger crystals will not form in the honey, because the process of controlled crystallization has already occurred.

Honey in the process of being creamed

In Summary

Just like how the crystallization process varies because of the foraged nectar, so does the the taste, colour and even texture. It is amazing to see your honey side by side, it gives you such an amazing insight into the variation out there. Being a beekeeper gives us many delights and being able to harvest honey is just one aspect of this amazing hobby.

We hope that you have started to feel excited about what this year will bring to you, hopefully a few jars of honey will be on the cards.