How much stores do my bees need for winter?

Should I treat for Varroa and what to use?

This is a bit of controversial question, my aim is not to cover the argument about whether we treat or not but rather to inform you about the varroa mite and what impact it has on our honey bees.

Varroa Destructor is an ectoparasitic arachnid mite; this simply means a parasite that lives on the outside of its host. The adult female mites, which are the most commonly seen within the hive and on the honey bees, have flat, reddish-brown oval bodies that are around 1.6mm wide and 1.1mm long. The female mites enter an open cell just before the cell is about to be capped. Here it will hide under the larva and it will wait for 2-3 days until the brood food has been consumed by the larva. The female mite will then begin reproduction inside the sealed cell by laying her first egg, which is usually male, she will continue to lay at intervals of around 1-2 days. The later eggs are usually all female and she will lay around seven eggs per cell. The eggs hatch into immature mites of which only two to three will reach adult stages.

The mites are trapped in the sealed cell with the pupae and are now feeding off the pupaes’ fat stores. Through the process of feeding they are not only reducing the fat stores of the bee, but they are also transferring viruses to the bee. Both of which will shorten the life span and stunt the pupa’s development. After 21 days, the worker bee emerges (24 days for drones) and any surviving mites in the cell will also be set free. The mites will have attached themselves to the underside of the honey bee where they will travel with the bee until they see a new open cell with a larva in it. They will detach themselves from the bee they are travelling on and enter the open cell and the whole process is repeated. The repeating of this process quickly accelerates the number of varroa within the colony.

Mite populations can also be transferred between colonies in the same apiary through robbing, drifting and swarming.

The Symptoms of Varroosis
Severe infestation of varroa may lead to the following that can be visually seen in the colony:

  • Deformed wings; caused by a virus passed on by varroa
  • Stunted abdomens; caused by varroa feeding of the developing pupae
  • general weakening of the colony; caused by the lifespan of the bee being shortened
  • Patchy/ pepper pot brood patterns; caused by bees removing dead and damaged pupae from cells
  • High levels of infestation can be a direct cause of complete colony loss

Varroa Treatments
In order to keep healthy and productive bees you must control the Varroa levels within our colonies. This can be done through treatments which fall into one of two main categories, each of which have their pros and cons and you can decide which type of treatment suits your method of husbandry.

Varroacides: Most beekeepers will chose this method to control varroa mites in their colonies as they are highly effective at killing and controlling Varroa. There are two classes of varroacides; those that contain chemicals that have been constructed if you like, and those that contain chemicals which are naturally occurring for example formic acid, oxalic acid or essential oils. Whatever treatment you do use, due care must be taken with anything that you introduce into your colony in order to prevent
contamination of honey.

The choice of treatments that are legal in the UK may differ to those in other countries. Listed below is a table of treatments available in the UK, at the time of publication, by beekeeping suppliers along with the active ingredient. It is advisable to alternate your treatments in order to reduce the risk of varroa becoming resistant.

Name of TreatmentActive Ingredient
ApiGuardThymol
ApiLife VarThymol, Camphor Racemic,Eucalyptus Oil,
Menthol Levo,
ApiBioxalOxalic Acid
ApistanTau Fluvalinate
ApivarAmitraz
FormicproFormic Acid
MAQS – Mite Away StripsFormic Acid
ThymovarThymol
OxybeeOxalic Acid
OxuvarOxalic Acid
VarromedOxalic Acid, Formic Acid

Biotechnical Controls: These avoid the use of chemicals totally but still aim to reduce levels of mites in the colony. Some biotechnical methods exploit the fact that mites reproduce in bee brood. The most common method is to remove comb once it is sealed, mites will populate drone cells in favour of worker cells as the drone cell is bigger. The comb is then cut out and destroyed, along with the mites contained within the cells. Generally, these methods are only used during the spring and summer months when drone brood is being reared. This method can be a great way of delaying when treatments are needed. The idea is that you put one super frame in your brood box, the bees will chose to naturally draw the new comb on the bottom as drone comb, so the queen will lay all unfertilised eggs in these cells. Once capped over you simply take the frame out and cut out the drone brood. We personally do not advocate using this method because you are of course removing a big percentage of drone from the colony. This causes a reduction of the drone pool for natural reproduction of the honey bee. This method would certainly have a limit on the amount of times you could do it in a season.

Drone brood can however a useful tool in monitoring your varroa levels. By pulling a small sample of developing drone brood with an uncapping fork you will see how many mites you see on the larvae and this will give you a good indication of your levels.

There are other more effective ways to check on your varroa levels and you should learn to regular check your bees. Varroa levels will build up differently in some years to others and differently in each separate apiary.

Monitoring with an open mesh floor is a very popular method. You simply clean the varroa tray, insert it for 24 hours then go back and count the natural varroa drop. There will be other debris and detritus on the tray so you need to spend time sorting out the varroa to ensure you get a good count. There is a varroa calculator on BeeBase that you can then use to check if your levels are high or not.

Alcohol wash is also an effective way of counting varroa however you do kill the bees using this method. You need to collect around 300 bees from your colony and place them in a vessel that has a mesh separator in it and that has an amount of alcohol in it. This is then shaken vigorously for around 30 seconds to really mix things up and knock the varroa of the bees. The varroa will drop through the mesh and you will be able to count them. You obviously need some specific equipment to carry out this method of counting however, if you have a lot of colonies this may be more a manageable method for you to get an average count by apiary as you can just check a few colonies per site.

You can use icing sugar in place of the alcohol and instead of shaking you roll the vessel, the icing sugar will dislodge the varroa which will fall through the mesh. The bees are unharmed and can be returned to the hive. There is some question as to whether you get the same accuracy as using alcohol.

Another none chemical method of reducing varrao loads on your bees is by sprinkling icing sugar directly onto the bees in your colony. The icing sugar will stimulate the bees to cleanse and this in turn knocks the varrao off them. You will need to cleanse the varroa board after treatment as the mites are not killed and it is said they can climb back up. This is not an affective treatment on its own however can be used as at temporary measure until you can treat them with a proper varroaside. Just a note; do not use this method and then do a varroa count which you put in the calculator on BeeBase as you will have an unnatural mite drop count which will give you obscure results.

When do I treat?

There is no specific time that you should treat for varroa however most beekeepers will treat late Summer once they have removed the honey harvest but before they do their winter preparations. At this time the colony will be reducing in size but varroa infestation will be increasing. The aim of treating at this time is reduce the mite count so that the last few cycles of brood rearing within the colony will be protected and you will have healthy young bees reared ready to take the colony into winter. If you don’t treat at this time you will be in danger of your winter bees life span being reduced which will have a direct impact on the colonies winter survival.

Your choice of treatment may require certain conditions, for example Apiguard and ApiLife Var, which are both thymol based, need warm conditions for maximum efficacy. Oxalic acid treatments have the best efficacy on broodless colonies and are usually used during the winter months or early in the spring. You can however combine this treatment along with confining your queen which will create a broodless situation so that you get the best efficacy. Do ensure that you have a nice strong colony if you do this, no point in caging the queen on a struggling colony in April as you will only add to the stress and possibly cause the colony to totally fail. I know some beekeepers who routinely treat swarms they take in with Oxalic acid treatments as this will target any varroa the swarm has carried before they start to rear brood. If you are shook swarming your bees for any reason then you can treat the for Varroa with this method at the same time.

Most treatments cannot used during a honey flow as there is a danger that the product will contaminate the honey and this would make it unfit for consumption. Always read the instructions and warnings for the product you are using. There are a few treatments that can be used during a honey flow if necessary, MAQ’s is one of these, however this is quite an aggressive treatment and special attention should be given to the advice and instructions on the packet to avoid damage or loss to the colony.

Rotate you treatments to avoid varroa building up resistance, this is especially true of Pyrethroid based treatments. General rule of thumb is use once every three years. You must keep a log of all treatments you put onto your bees, date and batch number, if you are selling your honey.

You can find out even more information about varroa life cycles and the affects on the honey bees plus different techniques to control, resistance build up and much more on BeeBase , see their ‘Managing Varroa’ advisory leaflet, it really is jam packed full of information. Vita Bee Health also has some super information all about varroa.

Happy beekeeping

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 to 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.