Recent Topical News Items

an extract from the Thornes February 2018 newsletter

What do your bees need?

Your bees are very self-sufficient; they only need four things, and will only collect five things… The four things they need are water, propolis, nectar and pollen. Water they use during the summer to cool the hive and during the spring to dissolve old granulated honey, to clean and free up comb into which the Queen can lay and to expand the nest. Propolis is used to fill in cracks and crevices, and to line the inside of the cells prior to the Queen laying eggs. Propolis has antibiotic and anti-microbial properties and is used to clean and protect the nest. Nectar is collected in vast amounts and evaporated down to generate the honey the colony runs on. Honey gives the bees the carbohydrate energy they need to live, fly and make wax. Wax workers consume large amounts of honey, cluster to generate heat, and literally sweat wax from their abdomens. This wax gives them the building material for the nest. Finally pollen. The frame above has a wide strip of pollen, under the honey in the top corners, above the darker brood, giving target like appearance of rings to the nest. If the brood frames lack the pollen arc, or it’s not as thick as this one, I would suggest you give your bees a boost. Brood food is given to the larvae prior to being capped and is made from Honey and Pollen. The Pollen gives the bees protein that they need for growing more bees. The availability of water and pollen is very important to the wellbeing of the colony in early spring. You may consider giving your bees a protein supplement, such as Nektapoll, Apicandy Proteico or Feed Bee, all of these contain extra protein content and aid the spring build-up. A local water source will also aid your bees and reduce the early spring losses. Oh yes – the fifth thing, this is usually a result of weakened colonies… Robbing! The weak will usually be exploited by the strong; in this case the stores (honey) will be stolen by the stronger colonies. Keeping all your colonies at more or less equal strengths, helps to alleviate this behaviour.

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.

Breaking news: member of the High Weald Beekeeping Association wins first prize for their honey at the National Honey Show

Those of you who read my topical tips will be aware that in 2016 Helen Hadley and I took honey up to the National honey show and exhibited our honey there for the very first time. We also took up honey from other members of our association ; in 2016 Helen Searle managed to get a second prize for her lovely Ashdown Forest honey and Helen Hadley managed to get a highly commended for one of her honeys. One of the benefits of showing honey at this level was we were able to ask one of the judges what we should have done to have produced a better entry.
This year I had been as disorganised as usual as I was relying on our chairman, Helen Hadley, to remind me about the National honey show. I had meant to send out an email to everyone at the beginning of September to remind them about the National honey show. When I eventually got online to check about entries I had missed the deadline. However it was possible to make a late entry if one was prepared to pay a fee of £10, which I did. It seemed to me to be important that someone from the Association was entering some of the classes at least.
Armed with the knowledge Helen and I had gleaned last year I decided I would enter class five and several of the other Sussex classes. Class 5 is for honeys from all over the world and the judge tastes and comments on every single entry. This is helpful if you are unsure what it is you should be doing to improve your entry. I had decided to enter runny honey but knew that I would have to use a warming cabinet as my honey in my two buckets had granulated and set hard. I phoned Helen and asked to borrow her warming cabinet. She made this herself and the heat comes from two electric light bulbs.
I took the warming cabinet down to Lesley’s in Saint Leonards and we put my bucket of set honey into the warming cabinet on the Friday night. On the Monday evening we had a look at it and about a quarter of it had started to melt. The rest of the bucket was still fairly solid, so I put it back into the warming cabinet saying to Lesley that I would have to deal with it the next weekend and could she check if it started to melt. The next weekend came and it was still in a fairly solid state. Radical measures were therefore called for. So we took a Pyrex dish and spooned quantities of the honey into that, and then gently microwaved the honey. This made it soft enough (it was still granulated) to put into the settling tank. We were therefore able to get it into jars. Jars, of course, that had been checked for any imperfections. The result certainly wasn’t runny and the granulation was fairly coarse , so I assumed that my entries were going to be a complete fiasco. After all it isn’t very sensible to enter coarsely  granulated honey under the runny honey category! You can imagine the discussion between Lesley and myself: this honey is not runny honey, the granulation is coarse, your honey is cloudy, there are bubbles in the honey, there are fingerprints on the jars and on the lids, have you removed the scum on the top of the honey with clingfilm, is the jar full enough or perhaps is it too full. This is so stressful, why are we bothering to enter the National honey show at all ? However Helen had gone to such trouble last year to get members of the Association to enter, so I felt I really had to at least make the effort of taking my honey up to the show. And at least I had also entered Lesley’s honey so there were going to be at least two members showing their honey in London.
My nine jars and Lesley’s seven jars were put into cardboard boxes and placed into the boot of my car to go back to Crowborough. The warming cabinet also went back to Crowborough as I was unsure when Helen was going to want it next. Once back home in Crowborough I placed the jars on one of the kitchen surfaces and looked despairingly at what we had managed to produce. I thought to myself, to help with this malarkey, I am going to do something really radical. So I placed my nine jars into the warming cabinet and placed them really near the one electric light bulb that was still working. After all by this stage I had nothing to lose. And I went off to work. When I returned that evening the jars were really really warm and the honey had completely cleared. As I said to Lesley over the phone, it now looks like ‘urine’. I knew that this was not going to be sufficient to meet the requirements of the Judge as we had been clearly told that there should be no gap between the honey and the bottom of the lid. This is because this is the only way a judge can guarantee that the right amount of honey has been put into the jar. I could see gaps, so I needed to do something. I opened a jar only to see scum ( a Swedish friend calls this scum the cream as he says it contains more pollen) on the top of my nice runny but warm honey. Of course, I thought to myself, my honey was granulated when it went into the settling tank so any bubbles could not rise to the surface and it was only now that it had been warmed up that the air bubbles had risen to the surface.
So now I also had another problem because I knew that the scum would mark down the honey. This was Tuesday night and I was taking the honey up early on the Thursday morning. So I took a teaspoon and labouriously skimmed off the scum and bubbles and carefully tried to clean the inside edge of the glass. A nightmare! I was sweating by the time I had finished and cursed my rashness in ever having entered the National honey show. Was this going to be a case of hubris before the disastrous nemesis of the actual show? It certainly felt like it! Why is it that I get myself into such scrapes, I muttered to myself?
Now that I had spooned out honey from the top of the jars, they were now even emptier than they had been before. So I carefully spooned three or four teaspoonfuls of honey from one of the jars into the other jars to make sure there was no air gap.  I put an extra jar of coarsely granulated honey into the warming cabinet so that I could have the full number of entries. And the next morning repeated the removal of the bubbles from that extra jar and spooned in some more honey  to top up that jar  to the correct level. I did wonder whether I should put Lesley‘s jars into the warming cabinet but by this stage so much time has been spent titivating my own entries that I just did not have the energy.
The die was cast and the next morning I took the entries up to the National honey show, arriving in Esher at 8:30 in the morning. Judging takes place on Thursday and you know the result sometime during the afternoon. I was most interested by class five because the judge comments on your presentation and on your honey. I took the list and searched for my name among the 48 entries. It took me about 30 seconds to realise that in fact my name was at the top of the list and I had won first prize. It made me inwardly laugh! This particular judge seems to have favoured flavour above everything else because my presentation of the honey was only classed as good and there were several other entries where the presentation was excellent. However the taste was, according to her, beautiful. A lot relies on the tastebuds of an individual judge because I had the same honey entered in several Sussex classes and the honey was not even classed. I did, though, get very highly commended in one of the Sussex classes and, to my satisfaction, beat Harold Cloutt.
Now we have our own honey show on 18 November and it is a much simpler affair. Below are the categories for honey:

  1. CLEAR HONEY    - 1 Jar.   Plain, no labels
  2. SET HONEY         - 1 Jar.   Plain, no labels
  3. CUT COMB         - 1 piece.             Plain pot, no labels
  4. NOVICE CLASS   - 1 Jar of Clear or Set Honey.       Plain, no labels

Novice class is for beekeepers who have never won a 1st or 2nd in a Honey Show.
The Vera Becvar Honey Cup will be presented to the Honey judged to be the overall winner from classes 1, 2 & 3.  To be kept for one year.
If you have honey (congratulations), you should enter. It really is a triumph if you get honey, and it hasn’t been an easy year. If your honey has granulated you can warm it up to get runny honey and that means you will be able to enter one jar of clear honey and one jar of set honey. If you have incipient granulation, a minute or even less in the microwave will get rid of the cloudiness. Or if you prefer, you can warm the honey up carefully in a saucepan surrounded by warm water. Jean Greer does it all completely on taste but smudgy jars and lids and cloudy honey will, I am sure, count against you.
Stuart and Colleen’s husband, Bob, said last year that they were going to enter a honey cake so I have found a recipe that I think may win against them. And of course we no longer have Johannes so anyone who makes candles stands a good chance of winning a prize. Remember also that you can enter the novice class if you have never won a first or second prize in the honey show. We are not even asking for it to be in pound jars. We will be tasting all honeys entered in the novice class. It was such fun last year and I hope you will all enjoy it this year too. Presentation of honey is fairly much like my handling of bees, you never quite know what is going to happen. Look forward to seeing you all!
If in previous years you have been put off by the fact that this is also the AGM, don’t worry. Reports are emailed out to you beforehand and the business of the club only lasts a very short time. This honey show is more like a social event and there is plenty of time to have tea and eat cake.

Malcolm Wilkie - Prize winner!
Malcolm Wilkie - Prize winner!

Malcolm Wilkie 30th October 2017