Author Archives: Peter Halford

Well, it may seem a bit strange that I am sending you a topical tip about where and how you should site your beehive. However, January and February are the ideal time to review the best position in your garden or in your out apiary for your hive/s.

Currently we are still very close  to the winter solstice (21st of December 2017) and that means that the sun is not very high in the sky (you will notice this is the case when you are driving because at this time of year it is easy to be blinded by the sunlight pouring into your car at a low angle).

What does this mean for the beekeeper? Winter sunshine playing on the side of your hive plays an important role in keeping the bees alive. For one it heats up the box and encourages the bees to raise brood once the temperatures increase; if you are to stand a chance of a spring crop, it is important that the bees raise brood early. It is only when you have got lots of foragers,  that your colony will be able to collect you excess nectar and make you honey.
It also helps to dry out your hive after rainfall. In some years this is not an issue but currently we are experiencing quite high rainfall. Remember it is not cold that kills bees, but wet! A wet hive encourages fungal infections in the brood box and then the bees just will not prosper.

Why is it, then, I am sending you out this topical tip at such a miserable time of year? Well, it is precisely because it is such a miserable, cold, wet time of year that you are receiving this email. You should currently be checking your apiary once a week (I don’t always) and you will see how much sunshine is hitting the hive. With the sun at a low angle in the sky it may be that a hive placed underneath a tree is, in fact,  receiving a lot of sunshine. That tree may also give shade to the hive in the summer when temperatures are much higher. Only you can know whether this is the case or not, because you are going back to that site or into your garden regularly.

The sun has little strength at this time of year and so it is important, particularly for a small colony, that sun is playing on the box. And not just for an hour! Three or four hours would be ideal. If you have a wooden hive, feel the side of the hive where the bees are, it will feel quite warm, particularly if the sun is out. If you put your ear to the hive wall, you will hear a very gentle buzz. If you hear nothing and are worried, tap on the side of the box and the bees will become louder (however, if you can hear nothing, then perhaps they have died).

If you don’t yet have a colony of bees, deciding on where to place them is something that you should be doing now. It is almost too late in April and May when the sun is so much higher in the sky. In those months you may be lulled into a false sense of security and will be unaware about the sunshine that is around in the depths of winter. In fact, you will be lulled into a false sense of security!

Another position to avoid at all costs is one in a dip. If water collects and there is not good drainage, the wet is going to be very bad for your colony. Just stand in the dip yourself. If it feels damp and cold, then the bees also will find it damp and cold. Sometimes positioning a hive on higher ground is the solution. However, if the site is very exposed and windy this also can be a problem and encourage drift between the colonies. It also makes the colonies colder due to wind chill. Some sort of shelter belt is really useful as it cuts down on the wind and cold.

Many of us, however, still keep bees in less than ideal sites. The secret to keeping bees in such situations is to keep strong colonies. Keith always says that for overwintering the best heating for bees is other bees. Lesley has one hive that is completely in the shade and doesn’t receive any sunshine from the end of December to early February. However she has a young, fertile, vigorous Queen and that is the one hive with pollen going into it. So everything isn’t black and white. However, believe me, sunshine is important.

A solution for such a difficult site, would be either to use poly hives or to have WBCs which have an outer shell. Peter Coxon’s hives are in a shady position but his bees do really well in WBCs. I dislike WBCs for all sorts of reasons but I do understand that for Peter they are the ideal solution and he gets really good honey crops.

In a garden situation, think carefully about shade cast by hedges and by sheds or outbuildings. One’s difficulty is that once the hive is in position it is very difficult to move it. In a very cold winter it is possible to move a hive after a very cold spell. Not the case this winter!

Another very important consideration is the space that you give yourself behind the beehive itself. You must be able to stand behind it easily and there must be room for you to place the roof onto the ground so that you can place any supers on top of that. People talk about having the frames the cold way or the warm way. If space is at a premium, and you are unable to have enough space behind the beehive, then you will have to have the frames the cold way and look through the brood box from the side. Choosing to place the frames the cold way in this situation will make your life much easier. You won’t have to twist each time you examine the frame – a killer for one’s back.

Think also about how close you want each beehive to be to each other. If you crowd them together, this can make them tetchy! And finally do consider how many beehives it is reasonable to keep in any one apiary. If you are in town, there will be other beehives near you and more beehives does not translate into more honey. Quite the opposite! Fewer, stronger colonies will give you more honey. Don’t have so many hives that you can’t even enjoy your own garden.!

I would also recommend not siting the hives too far from where you can park a car in an out apiary (lugging heavy supers over a long distance is not good) or too far from your kitchen if that is where you are going to do your extraction.

I leave you with a final thought. Christophe Gauthier had several hives at the edge of a woodland. His honey crop was not great, and so he decided the next year to move them some 10 foot out into the glade so that the sun hit the hives for longer during the day. It made a difference of about 30 kg of honey per hive over the course of the year. If you are struggling to get a good crop of honey, consider the positioning of your beehive.

Malcolm Wilkie 18th January 2018


January is a time of year when it is difficult to do anything for your bees due to low temperatures. However, it could be worth putting the inspection board in for a week and seeing what sort of ‘dead mite drop’ you are getting. Bad news if you are getting ten or more. That is because those dead varroa you are seeing on your inspection board are what are called a ‘natural dead mite drop’. They are the indication that there are a lot of live phoretic mites on the bees.

What does this mean for your colony?

In early January in mild winters (so far, we have had a very mild winter) colonies start raising brood after a short brood break between mid-December to early January. If you have the inspection board in you will see debris falling out the hive where the bees have been uncapping their honey. They have been doing this in order to raise the temperature in the brood nest. It is the honey that is fuelling this rise in temperature and allowing new young bees to be raised. However, at this time of year the brood nest is a small one and this can be where the problem is. If you have a heavy varroa load on the bees, and the Queen starts to come into lay again, what happens? The female varroa mites have not been able to breed for a month or so, and so when young larvae are about to be capped the female varroa will dive into the cells, perhaps several breeding female varroa mites to each cell. The implication of this is that the feeding site established on the developing pupa will be being used by the offspring of several mites and the consequent damage to the pupa will be detrimental, and she will emerge with damaged wings soon to be removed by her sisters as no better than a piece of expendable debris.

But I can hear Peter Coxon saying to me that he no longer treats for varroa and that the bees are still doing well. Probably if you have a super strong colony, they will cope but you will have fewer bees in the Spring. The danger will be for smaller units which cannot afford to raise damaged bees that cannot contribute to the life of the colony. It may also be that if you go for no treatment over a number of years colonies will just gradually get weaker. Beekeepers who say they are not treating are probably controlling varroa by other methods. Drone brood uncapping for instance. Or as Andrew Vestrini does at Mount Camphill letting the bees swarm, and then collecting the swarms (swarms leave a lot of varroa behind in the brood box). Or as Colin Stocks does, religiously dusting his bees with icing sugar every week in the summer months (icing sugar knocks off varroa mites).Or as Stuart Goddard does, using ‘hive alive’ on the colony and spraying them with it (this damages the varroa and they fall off).

There is, however, another possibility. Norman Beresford, Chris Chandler and some others in the association have for the last couple of year sublimated their bees. Professor Ratnicks at LASI (laboratory of apiculture and social insects at Sussex university) recommends using a vaporiser which you attach to a car battery. In the vaporiser you place oxalic acid crystals and this when heated becomes a cloud of smoke. This is placed underneath the hive (I hope my pictures will show you how this is done) and this cloud of smoke knocks off the phoretic mites on the bees. Boy is it effective. Be warned however. It is nasty stuff and if, perchance, you breathe in any of the smoke you will seriously damage your lungs. It is not difficult to do but hive types vary, and this may make it more complicated for some to do. I have wooden deep nationals i.e. 14*12 brood boxes.

Below is a picture of some of the brood from hives that were treated 3 times with oxalic acid by sublimation. I did this at the trout farm 2 winters ago. The resultant brood frames the following summer were great with few gaps (this particular picture was of a buckfast colony).

brood frame

It seems incredible but sublimating oxalic acid does not seem to harm the bees very much and it is quite possible to do it 3 times with no ill effect (not the case if you use the trickle method). The reason for doing it three times is in order to cover a brood cycle. The smoke cannot penetrate a capped cell and if there are varroa mites breeding within the cells (and there will be) they will emerge to reinfect the bees. Hence sublimating the bees three times. Norman says you do the sublimation at 5-day intervals. Although this does not add up to 21 (a brood cycle) these are the time intervals that need to be respected otherwise it is possible that some female varroa will be able to get into a capped cell without having been dosed with your oxalic acid smoke. And then these mites would reinfect the colony. And this would destroy the whole point of the exercise!


 Steve and mask  back of hive and vaporiser  inspection board and dead mites
Steve with mask Back of hive and vaporiser Inspection board and dead mites

What you need.


  • A car battery
  • A vaporiser
  • Oxalic acid crystals (Apibioxal is the licensed product and costs £10 for a sachet to treat 10 colonies. You can see I used something else but of course I am not telling you about that and you did not hear it from me - cost about 2p per colony)
  • Sponges to block entrances and the backs of the hive
  • A watch to time the process
  • A mask to prevent inhalation of fumes (use your common sense and don’t go near the hive when smoke is emerging)
  • A bucket of water (after each treatment, cool down the vaporiser in the water ; not a good idea to put oxalic acid crystals on a hot vaporiser thereby creating noxious vapour immediately)
  • An inspection board or boards
  • Goggles


IMG_0617  IMG_0582
Oxalic acid crystals Inspection board

How to proceed


  • Introduce wooden inspection board into hive upside down
  • Block front entrance of hive with a sponge
  • Place a sponge in the back of hive as shown in photo
  • Place 1/2 a teaspoon oxalic acid crystals onto vaporiser
  • Introduce vaporiser into gap between inspection board and the open mesh floor
  • Stuff sponge around stem of vaporiser to seal up the back of hive
  • Connect leads of battery to vaporiser
  • Stand back and leave for three minutes (after 2 minutes smoke will start to leak out)
  • Disconnect and leave for a further 1minute
  • Remove vaporiser and dunk in water
  • Leave hive sealed up for 10-15 minutes
  • Remove all sponges
  • Examine inspection board but leave in place to better monitor varroa drop

Malcolm Wilkie 16th January 2018

Please note that, subsequent to the photograph being taken in the January “Topical Tips”, Oxalic Acid is now a product that is now controlled by government licence.
Please be sure to read and follow the instructions carefully before using Apibioxal (or any other licenced product).
Current authorised products (and their “Summary of Product Characteristics) can be found at the following site:

Having said that, treatment is quite straight forward as described in Malcolm’s article. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.