Blog

Season Update: We’re Open For You!

Hello all, another quick season update to let all of our valued customers know that we are still trading as usual and we do not foresee any government advice affecting us though this is all subject to change and much like everyone else we are taking each day as it comes.

Changes to the Way We Work

As we have a duty of care to our bees, we will continue to manage them as usual with slight changes. Many of our customers know that we are a very small team of four which has kind of worked in our benefit as we are able to enforce strict measures in order to keep every member of the team safe and completely minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus between households. Our protocol, which we set in place immediately, is working in separate areas, with me based in the office, Gabriel at the yard, then Sian and Rob are shouldering most of the bee work.

Where it is necessary for beekeeping to be done together, we enforce at least the 2m social distancing advice, though more often than not we don’t have to be anywhere near each other at an apiary. We also travel with our own vehicles, or one member has to sit on the back of the truck.

Ordinarily, Sian will do a few hours of work in the office in the morning to help deal with the inevitable increased frequency of orders as the days get warmer. However, due to our measures, this is not possible so my workload has increased tenfold! Therefore, it may take a while longer for me to get back to you regarding questions about orders or advice about your bees, please keep this in mind before following up with another email or calling the office as there is just me handling the office work, just over the weekend I had 77 emails to reply to.

Collections with Social Distancing in Mind

We are working with a closed door collection service for those who wish to carry on collecting from us. Your invoice will be with your order so that you can identify the order as yours. As usual we all notify when the order is ready so you can tell us when to expect you. You will not have to interact with me or any one else on the collection.

Deliveries As it Stands (General Stock)

For our general stock orders (frames, wax – not live bees) we mainly use the couriers FedEx and DHL. For smaller and lighter packages, we send via Royal Mail. We’re acutely aware of the pressure all delivery services are under. Right now the courier services remain at the standards we are used to, and we haven’t heard from their end about any possible restrictions in the near future. The Royal Mail has been hit greatly, and currently a 1st class letter can sometimes take 4 days.

This is an ever-changing situation and we have to tackle anything head on as it arises. But we cannot predict what may happen. There is a caveat on many courier sites that services may be affected due to the demand and we must always keep that in the back of our minds. So please be patient with our couriers, they are all doing an amazing job.

Supply Chains

As a provider of beekeeping equipment many are worried about our ability to continue to supply particular items. Although supply will not be an issue, there may be a delay receiving high demand items, such as gloves as there is such a huge amount of orders backed up with the wholesale suppliers.

All manufacturers of equipment will be behind on production and therefore fulfilling orders because of the nature of their workers being in close proximity. We ask for patience and understanding if you are waiting for a particular item.

Queens, Packages & Live Bee Imports

We are crossing everything that live bee imports will not be affected. Imports themselves are not affected, however we’ve not had much guidance or advice from the government in relation to movement across certain borders in Europe. This is the same case with our breeders abroad. This makes things very vague, and we can understand how this is very frustrating for our customers who are relying on these packages and queens. We can only ask you to be patient. Queen bee imports are relied on for all bee farmers so whilst imports are allowed it is courier services we use that may be the problem. So, whislt we are hope it will be business as usual we’re stuck with a slight feeling of uncertainty. Again, we will keep you updated when things become clearer.

Website Issues

A few months ago we changed our website host and have encountered quite a few issues along the way, in stock items showing as out of stock, delivery instructions not being saved on packing notes being some of the issues. So if you have not been on the website in a while, please try emptying your ‘cache’ before contacting us about a problem with our website as it may be fixed this way. Otherwise, we do welcome emails about any recurring problems you may have, and it would be great if you could take screenshots to demonstrate the problem so we can forward that on to our developer. The shop only allows you to order items that are in stock so there is no need to call us in advance to ask if we do have something in stock.

Thank You

We would like to send a massive thank you for your continued support and understanding in what is a tough time for everyone around the world. We want you to know that we are doing everything we can to continue to look after our wondrous bees and supply our customers with what they need to do the same. I would also like to thank all my lovely customers who have sent well wishes to me and my family and my fantasic team here.

All of us want you to feel safe, and we want you to know that we are going beyond all necessary precautions to minimize handling of anything that will end up in your home. Thank you for your patience and again, please, first and foremost keep yourself safe.

Beginner’s FAQ: What Size Kit Should I Use?

One of the main pros of going on a beekeeping course is that you are able to handle fully pulled frames with brood, pollen and or honey. This gives you a better idea of the weight of the frames and how easily you can manipulate them during a hive inspection. We’re not covering all of the possible frames out there, but the most widely used options for beginners, each of the frame sizes have pros and cons which will go through below.

British National Standard 

This is the most widely available and popular size kit on the UK market. Very easy to handle with reasonably long lugs making it easier to hold when going through your hive. A full frame of honey on a national deep frame would be the lightest in comparison to the other sizes, so it is suitable for beekeepers of various strength capabilities.

The National is the smallest size out of all the available kit and this can cause some issues in relation to how prolific your queen is, as she has considerably less space to lay. This issue can be alleviated by working on a double brooded hive (A colony that has two brood boxes to lay in instead of one) but this does mean another brood box of frames to check through. Therefore you must keep in mind how often you are free to do your hive inspections, if you’re on the ball with your swarm control then using the national kit may not be an issue for you.

A national frame full of brood and ivy pollen

Commercial

Commercial kit is compatible with National floors, roofs, crownboards and queen excluders, the length of the top bar is identical to the British National Standard, however the lugs are shorter and the side bars longer to give a lot more cell space for your queen to lay. You can also get commercial supers, allowing for more honey to be collected.

With shorter lugs it can be harder to handle the frames for some, especially those who need to wear thick gloves. As you become more proficient handling bees, the length of the lugs may be inconsequential, but sometimes it is difficult moving from the comfort of National frames to Commercial!

14 x 12

This is a dramatically deeper version of the British National Standard, the top bars are the same length and the same size lugs as the National. Some beekeepers find handling the brood frames harder due to their size and a full brood box will be too heavy for some. However you will get a lot more total cell space in comparison and often there is not much need for strict swarm control.

When the bees are pulling these frames you may find it necessary to feed syrup. 14 x 12 in particular can sometimes cause the bees a little trouble as they may not draw the frames out completely (see below on the left side). Although this can happen with any frame size, it is the sheer size of the frame that causes issues as a top/middle heavy brood space can often topple and tear if you’re not careful when handling.

The 14 x 12 don’t have their own version of supers, instead they are interchangeable with the rest of the National kit, for example their floors, roofs and queen excluders.

14 x 12, note how the bees had chewed away the foundation on the left side and in the end did not draw it out completely.

Langstroth

Langstroth is the most popular hive in a lot of the world and it is becoming ever more popular in the UK with the spread of the famous Flow Hive.  The Langstroth hive is rectangular in shape rather than square like the national and commercial and its frames are longer in length  but the boxes hold less of them.  The frames have a shorter lug similar to the commercial. 

A plastic langstroth frame with an amazing distribution of honey, pollen and brood

In Summary

There are two main considerations when deciding on what size kit that you eventually will want to run with. Firstly, it will be your physical capabilities and secondly how often you are able to check your colony for any potential swarming activity.

If you react badly to stings and wear thicker leather gloves then you may want the comfort of the longer lugs of the National or 14 x 12. If you worry about the weight of a full brood/super box then opting for the lightest kit, the National is also preferable.

Most beekeepers will know how often they will check their colony throughout the season, if you’re a little more restricted in your time then it is best to buy kit with a greater total cell space as you can normally rest assured that your colony is unlikely to swarm. Please note though, that if you have a particularly swarm prone colony then they will probably swarm no matter if you’re on National or Langstroth.

If you want a bigger cell space but not the weight that comes with the supers then as said before the National, 14 x 12 and Commercial kit is interchangeable. So you can enjoy the cell space of the Commercial or 14 x 12 for your brood box and then top that with the lighter National supers. We often think that this is in fact the best option for most, a brood box of greater cell space combined with National supers. All in all getting a feel for all of the different frames is pretty important before investing your money in the equipment, but if you have a colony with a low swarming tendency then the size of the kit may not matter in the long run.

Season Update: Coronavirus, Losses and BeeTradeX

Hello all, here we are with another update on our season. Firstly, many of our regular customers will know that we recently moved website hosts, and we’re having teething problems, might have to pull some out at this point. We’re really sorry for anyone that has encountered a problem with our new website, it continues to be a bit buggy but our web developers are putting a lot of effort in to amend any issues. If you continue to find anything wrong whilst browsing or checking out, we would really appreciate it if you could take a screenshot and send it in an email to us so we can forward it on to our developers.

Does this make my bum look big?

Things are heating up, marginally, and the girls are feeling it too! We’ve had some pleasant days out in the apiaries with the sun shining on us. Sian was super excited as she was able to go through a few nucs whilst the sun was out, we’ve seen from other bee farmers and customers that some have started doing their first inspections, we’ve always been a bit on the cautious side, constantly checking the weather to ensure that we actually have a few days of steady temperatures. This is because you will inevitably disturb the cluster, then if it suddenly gets cold they may settle away from the food source increasing the risk of isolation starvation.

Lots of bees 😀

Our bees have been flying, bringing both pollen and a small amount of nectar in. Some of our nucs are looking very strong with bees but not as much brood in there as we’d like so we do believe we’re a bit behind on our nuc production – perhaps by two weeks. We’re really hoping that our winter losses are not as high as last year (25% across the board), however there are some reports that losses are as high as 50% across the nation, possibly due to damp in the hives. We’re currently at 5.2% for hives and 10.7% for nucs, we are expecting that figure to go up, especially with our hives which are not looking very active. As we all know just because its getting warmer doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet. To add to that, even if they survive through the winter, it does not make them a viable colony in the spring as they may be too weak, or the queen has been lost.

Dead queen with a smiley face mould growth!

What is the most mysterious colony loss you’ve experienced? Sian found most of the colony dead and then this giant mouldy bumblebee!

Unknown if it had anything to do with the death of the colony

We’ve also had a wasp colony inside our nuc a year ago, that one was a surprise!

One of the most upsetting things that we experienced in the last fortnight was Sian and Rob finding one of our sheep’s dying in the field as it had fallen onto its back. Despite their efforts to save the sheep, it passed away – the vet actually believed it was due to poisoning. That sheep left two little lambs behind so after gathering the whole team (minus Gabriel who was away on block training, but plus Noel who was helping Rob that day with his cattle) we bumbled our way around the paddock trying to catch these two adorable lambs. As you can see, I was ridiculously excited to hold one of them. I was so scared that I would drop it by accident and have to catch it again!!

Noel is chuffed
The excitement!!

We (Rob and I) attended the annual BeeTradeX show, and it was so lovely to meet many of our customers who already have their nucs on order with us. Despite the current situation with COVID-19, it all went well. Plenty of people but less footfall as to be expected. Some of the big companies weren’t able to be there which was a real shame (we missed you Swienty and Thomas!!). We also had a very enjoyable evening spent at Woodside Hotel with the other Beefarmers across the nation, no hand shaking but plenty of elbow knocking into the night.

Rob is salesman of the year

We do hope everyone is taking the necessary precautions to keep themselves and the vulnerable people around them safe.

Beginner’s FAQ: What Are the Castes? (In Brief)

There are three different castes of bees in the hive. It is important to distinguish and understand the purpose of each of the castes as it will help you indicate issues in the hive whilst doing your hive inspections. In this post we will explore the different castes, their brood and life cycle and their importance in the colony. I’m going to try to be brief and avoid going into too much detail about the anatomy, we might have to do an advanced caste class later on!

The Queen

Bee-utiful and Dreamy Queen

The queen is the largest bee in the colony and her purpose is to lay eggs to increase population size and consequently productivity and strength. A queen is produced using initially the same egg as a worker bee but during the larval stage the workers start to be fed bee bread, whilst the future queen is fed royal jelly until her cell is capped over at 9 days.

Once the virgin queen hatches and establishes herself in the colony she is encouraged by the workers to swiftly get mated. A queen can fly out multiple times to mate, but she should mate with about 8-10 drones before settling in the hive and ‘plumping’ up.

When a queen starts laying eggs, the brood pattern can look a little erratic. She can also sometimes lay multiple eggs in a cell before she gets into the rhythm of her work. The queen does not feed herself and instead relies on nurse bees to feed and care for her in a process called trophallaxis – the interchange of food between the bees which in turn stimulates the spread of her pheromones (mandibular pheromones) throughout the hive.

The queen is extremely important to the colony, as she is the one who ultimately controls the population. You may have as many as 60,000 workers and perhaps 700 drones. In response to the amount of forage, stores and nurse bees within the colony she will slow down or increase her laying, though that being said modern queens bred for prolificness can sometimes ignore these natural instincts. Without the queen, the workers can change behaviourally, becoming a little more irritable (roaring) and putting honey into what would usually be a space reserved for brood.

Queens however are not seen as irreplaceable in the eyes of the workers. When the queen gets older her laying becomes slower, or she starts laying more drone (indicating that she is running out of sperm stores) then the workers will supersede her by making a queen cup for the queen to lay in. In supersedure cases the queens can live side by side for a while until the new queen becomes more established in the colony and eventually the workers will kill the old queen.

The Worker

Isn’t she lovely?

The worker bee is just that, a bee that works. And depending on her age, she has many different roles in the hive. When she first hatches out of her cell, which she does by biting around the capping, she is lighter in colour and more hairy (a ball of fuzzy cuteness) than her older sisters.  Initially workers cannot sting and her glands are not working so the only job she can do is the cleaning up and this will be her first job for the first 3 to 4 days of her life.

During this time she is fed by the other bees and her body develops fully. Her exoskeleton hardens and her hypopharyngeal glands begin secreting a substance that is important to the composition of royal jelly fed to the young larvae. Around day 5 she will take her first flights outside of the hive to orientate herself. Once the worker is mature she will then do a variety of duties within the colony; cleaning, feeding larvae, processing incoming nectar, wax building and guard duty. She can do any of these jobs at any time and simply responds to the demands of the colony.  When the worker bee carries out these indoor duties for the first 3 weeks of her life, we refer to her as a nurse bee or house bee during this period.

Beyond the first 3 weeks of her life she becomes what we call a forager or flying bee.  She will leave the hive to collect the necessary resources that the colony needs to survive. They have a dangerous and tiring job and work from the time the sun is up until sunset.  The forager will collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Most adult bees at the end of their life will die whilst out foraging rather than in the hive.

The Drone

Drones and workers

Drones are the larger and rounded bees hanging around hives. You see them from spring through to summer and they hang out at Drone Congregation Areas hoping to catch a queen on her mating flight.

A primary focus for a drone is to mate with a queen. He waits high above the ground in a drone congregating area waiting for a queen.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of male bees all hanging around ready to compete to mate with a queen. They don’t fight to compete, they don’t even have stingers, they simply see who can fly closest to successfully mate.

The mating is carried out high up the air and once complete the drone will do a rather spectacular back flip off the queen.  The drone leaves part of himself in the queen and therefore this is the end of the drones life.

Drone brood is normally laid at the bottom frames, where there is slightly more space for bigger cells and is often domed making it very different from the flat worker brood.

Drones are often referred to as lazy when it comes to work around the hive. However, if temperatures rise really high inside the hive all bees, including drones, may help with the cooling effort by flapping their wings.

At the end of the summer months any drones left in the colony will be kicked out by the workers and not allowed to return.  They do this so that the drones don’t eat their winter stores instead of the more important worker bees. You may find that the drones will sneak into weaker colonies at this time of the year. Drones also serve another purpose us beekeepers.  When we start seeing them in the early spring we know the swarm season has begun. Some also uncap the drones as a varroa check.

Brood Cycle

From left to right, worker, queen and drone
source: blogs.evergreen.edu

One of the essential reasons beekeepers know the brood cycle is because of the three day rule. This refers to the ‘egg’ stage of the brood cycle, as you can see above all three castes remain in the egg stage for three days. The implication is that if you see eggs (that are laid properly) you can guarantee that your queen was alive and laying at least three days ago. It is therefore not a necessity to actually see your queen (as long as she is not on the frame you’ve left outside the hive whilst doing your inspections). In the same vein, it can also help you determine how long your colony has been queenless for, have you only got sealed worker brood in the hive? You’ve been queenless for at least 9 days but can be a up to 20 days!

Knowing the brood cycle also allows you to have a good picture in your mind how close your worker brood is to hatching and expanding your colony by the thousands. Queens tend to lay in a regular pattern, from the middle of the hive, the middle of the frame outwards in circles. There are some incredible photos out there that help identify the age of capped larvae/pupae, namely the colouring of the eyes and the body if you’re really curious how close your brood is to hatching.

If you’re into your queen rearing some only think about the relevance of the queen’s brood cycle because of their grafting schedule, but really it is also helpful to know and observe the drone’s cycle, as you can coincide your rearing by calculating the time it takes for your drones to mature after your drone cells have been laid in. This will help to ensure the Virgin’s mating flights when there is a good proportion of mature drones in the area. This is definitely a bit more of an advanced beekeeping practice though!

In Summary

That’s only scratching the surface of the amazing differences and roles of the honeybee castes. There is an incredible amount of literature regarding the more technical and anatomical aspects of castes but I certainly don’t think they are that relevant to beginner beekeepers. This should give you a good basis of knowledge to build upon, and you should be able to confidently identify the castes when you are going through your colonies.

Most beginners and non-beekeepers mistake drones for queens quite often, this is pretty normal and once you have been beekeeping for a while you do wonder how you ever made that mistake to begin with since they look so incredibly different!!

Season Update: ‘Zombees’ and Adventures in the Yard

So we’ve got a slightly funny story to tell you about bees coming back from the dead, which Sian has coined as ‘zombeegate’. When checking our nuc’s feed Sian had noticed a nuc where the bees were dead (but were actually in a state of suspended animation as a we later found out). Upon close inspection she could see through our clear plastic crown board, the bees weren’t moving and had their proboscis stuck out – an indication of starvation. Removing the fondant revealed that unfortunately it wasn’t placed on correctly, meaning the bees didn’t have access to the fondant at all. With a heavy heart and a few tears, she carried the lone nuc back to the yard.

Now, ordinarily when we are clearing our boxes of our losses, they normally go into a box, later to be thrown away but we had a very unique situation on our hands. An artist from London had contacted us asking for a tub of dead bees, definitely not a request we have very often! Knowing this, Sian decided to gently remove the dead bees with a brush, she even found the curled up queen, which she cleaned up a bit. But, as we were worried about the damp state they were in encouraging mould growth, she spread them over cardboard and left in the work room to dry as we had the heater on to help dry the painted honey room floor. Well, I came in the very next day and it took me a while to realise that some of the bees had come back alive, INCLUDING THE CURLED UP QUEEN!

Zombee Queen

It was impossible to sift through the horde of dead bees to identify the slowly moving live bees so I had to place them all in a box with syrup and fondant. As soon as we could, Sian and Rob popped them into a small mating nuc with drawn comb as they had separated into a cluster. Honestly, we were shocked and wonder how many cases have occurred before, after all the bodies normally go straight into a box.

We’re doing our best to nurse the little cluster, which was honestly less than a handful of bees. But we’d hate to lose it. Sian spoke about it with an old employer who aptly told her ‘bees are only dead when they’re warm and dead!’ So even us beefarmers get it wrong but if Sian had not noticed they were dying, they most certainly would all be dead within a few days, so please do check your bees have proper access to their feed even if you know how resilient they can be!

Sian feeling a bit ‘warm and dead’ now

Aside from that extraordinary moment, we’re being rather positive by describing our work at the yard as ‘adventures’, honestly it is quite good to finally get things organised. We had been wracking our brains trying to figure out a way to stop the double handling of our equipment at the lean to, this is because we are so busy during the height of the season we store equipment that is cleaned but not filled and then when it comes to winter and we start filling boxes that get stacked in front of the unfilled and basically it just causes a lot of confusion. Even just writing that was laborious!

Nice and neat lean to

Gabe and I went to the lean to and moved all the commercial and 14 x 12 boxes to the front of the yard, then we went through every National brood box, with chalk and we marked an ‘F’ to indicate that it was a filled box, and ‘FD’ to indicate boxes with filled and drawn frames. It is looking extremely organised, however the empty poly boxes easily get blown over in the wind, we’re hoping that once the boxes are filled with frames they’ll be a little more stable.

We’re hoping that most of this equipment will actually have bees in them over the winter, meaning we’ll actually have plenty of space next season. However, because we’re trying to reduce the amount of nucs we manage, we’re going to need a lot of space for our empty nuc boxes, so I guess you can say that it swings in roundabouts.

Even in the yard we’re starting to be able to move our extraction kit slowly back into our honey room, that’s given us enough space to manoeuvre our pallet of flatpack correx boxes upstairs so that we can get more made up before the overwintered nuc rush!

Gabe and Rob moving our pallet of flatpack correx boxes

As you can tell by now, our Gabe is back home from a fantastic time in New Zealand! He really enjoyed the fast-paced and strenuous honey farm that he was palmed off too (as well as being able to use the amazing natural spa facilities at nearby Hanmer Springs). He was able to learn a few different techniques that we’re hoping to utilise this year as well, although we do not have the capacity to have nearly 1000 hives like his boss in NZ, one can certainly dream though.

But just as soon as he is back in the fold, he’ll soon be off to his block training for a week so we’re getting him to help us as much as possible with the amazing amount of frames left still to make as it’s the only thing we have left to do for our spring preparation. He made one super frame in just 29 seconds! However, Chris Manton of @ElmTreeBees decided he’d be disqualified due to misaligned bottom bars (I agree!! – Sian).

29 seconds to make 1 frame!

Things were looking pretty positive weather wise, but then obviously with all the storms we had a bit of a disaster, and now we’ve been having some snow too! Despite this, our customers seem to be getting excited with orders coming in for nucs, queens and equipment. We love it when it starts buzzing here, unless it’s ZOMBEES!

Take a moment to adore a set of twins, lambing season almost over for Rob!

P.S We also have a lovely new sign outside of our office!

Hand painted with a shaky hand