Malcolm’s Topical Tips

You should be aware that this is shaping up to be a bad year for colony losses, seemingly due to very levels of varroa. No doubt the odd weather this year has had an influence.

There has been much correspondence on the HWBKA WhatsApp group about losses. Our own Honey Queen Helen Hadley posted she had lost 3 and now reckons it is 9 so far. John Miller has lost one …the only one he forgot to treat. As a result, I (PC) inspected my own colonies a couple of days ago and discovered to my dismay I have lost 7 out of 12 so far.

There had been some talk of absconding on WhatsApp and indeed some of my deceased colonies which were previously very strong had just a few 10’s of bees left and loads of untouched stores, which puzzled me.

I decided to contact the Regional Bee Inspector Dan Etheridge, sent him some notes and had very long and very interesting conversation with him. His first impression is that I experienced a 'varroa bomb' as Randy Oliver calls them. Apparently, he reckons we are having the worst year ever for varroa induced colony collapses especially in the south; quote ...’my phone has not stopped ringing since the Christmas break’. For those of you who have been very rigorous in your varroa treatments it may not be such a problem.

As some of you know I have for more than a decade now tried to practice a policy of minimum intervention in the hope that by not treating quite so vigorously and supporting strains unable to tolerate varroa we might expect natural selection to do what it should and establish a new equilibrium with more tolerant bees, plus there is much published literature that bees are adapting. It had been working out. After 10+ years with very few losses I suppose I had been lulled into a false sense of security. However, this time I have been caught out.    

Dan was at great pains to point out that he is not against 'natural beekeeping' in the slightest and indeed tried himself for many years.  However, he was also at great pains to point out, and this is the very important salutary lesson I will take away from this experience, that one must monitor varroa very regularly and accurately. At least once a month and preferably using the alcohol or sugar wash technique rather than relying on the sticky board which he has found unreliable, otherwise, given the right conditions the varroa numbers can explode ‘exponentially’. Had I done this more conscientiously I would not have been caught out as I have been. It's not necessary to treat with varroacides religiously, regularly, needlessly or prophylactically. But it is essential to treat when really needed.

So, I’ll be going out to treat my remaining 5 colonies with the vaporiser tomorrow, 3 times 5 days apart as I’ve missed the brood break …not there would have been one in this record-breaking warm winter.

The completely empty ‘Marie Celeste’ colonies you’ll see in the photograph, and which one might think have absconded are not so unusual apparently as in some colonies most of the ailing bees have the decency to do a Captain Oates and take themselves off to die elsewhere.

Malcolm has been in touch with many members and is finding that losses are mounting. Such losses are more typically seen in February / March … this not looking like a ‘normal’ year

So, the message is check your hives now, and if concerned, it might not be too late to rescue them with an Oxalic acid sublimation …using ApiBioxal the approved product of course!

Stores a plenty
No bees

Not a good start to the year!

High Weald beekeepers make a clean sweep in all Sussex classes at the National Honey Show and win all 5 trophies

This is an outstanding achievement for the High Weald. Only a few years ago it seemed nigh on impossible that I would even be able to present my honey well enough for it to be judged.

However, Helen Hadley and I persevered and after a couple of years of attending the National Honey Show, we worked out what was required. That is to say, no black specs in your honey, a jar filled up so no air gap can be seen between the lid and the rim of the jar and a clean top. Incipient granulation is the top sin if you are presenting a runny honey and if you enter the soft set category, the honey does actually need to be set.

All quite obvious really and not so very difficult to achieve if you are a beekeeper who gets a good quantity of honey and can choose from different batches. One of the most straight forward categories is honey that is naturally crystallised. Even a little bit of frosting does not seem to count against you. It’s simply what your bees collected at a particular point in time and that is encapsulated in your jar. The texture can even be crunchy but if the judge likes what he is tasting, you are on to a winner. Surprisingly even the top does not have to be perfect!

One of the most interesting points that came out of this year’s show was what a poor season it had been. A lot of honeys had a high moisture content and where judges did make comments these honeys were said to be ‘thin, typical of a poor season’. Some judges even used a refractometer, and the moisture content was recorded in the comments section. I have never seen this done before.

Dave Rudland of East Surrey Bees told me that this year he had extracted capped honey and its moisture content was 22%. Usually, capped honey is a guarantee that the moisture content will be below 18%. So, this year the yeasts in a lot of honeys will probably turn them alcoholic after 2-3months.

However, despite the difficult season several of us did enter what we could. There is a certain palaver in showcasing your honey (refer to my previous articles) but a group of us did put ourselves through the process.

For me personally it did turn into somewhat of a saga as when I was taking up my honey and Lesley’s honey to Sandown Park on the Wednesday part of my exhaust fell off. The boxes of honey were in the boot and, as the AA man jacked up the car on one side to do his repair, I had visions of all our ‘runny’ entries being spoiled as the honey touched the lids of the jars! In the end, no damage done fortunately.

COVID of course had had an effect and there were fewer entries. Judges, however, don’t award a prize if the honey does not meet their requirements. In the soft set section of the Sussex classes for example I was awarded a second, but no first prize was awarded. Cups are awarded based on the number of points you have obtained so entering more Sussex classes definitely gives you an edge. Lesley entered more honey and pipped me to the post. Rob entered both honey and wax and deservedly clocked up the most points, just gaining one more point than Lesley herself. Although I had put down on my form that I was entering wax blocks, I just ran out of time and didn’t make them. No use crying over spilt milk, but those wax blocks might have made the difference … The three of us all had a good laugh about it.

Phil Edwards definitely had the right competitive spirit and seemed to be entering loads of classes including the Sussex classes. He deservedly won the Berry cup for the best novice in Sussex and he also won the PJ cup for his mead. Phil only learnt to keep bees three years ago so a great achievement. Sandy Infield, a beginner last year, won a first prize for her medium honey beating me, Rob, Lesley and Phil. Her apiary site is on the edge of the Ashdown Forest so her honey will be similar to Helen Searle’s who often wins with her honey at our shows. It’s the addition of heather that gives it such a characteristic taste.

Now our own honey show is coming up on Sunday 28th of November. It has been a poor year for a lot of people so if you have any honey at all it is worth entering it. Check you have a clean top. Apart from the judge I don’t think anyone will be tasting honey due to COVID. Wax products and even bee equipment can be entered. Check the schedule.

You will also find out about the queen rearing that is going to be taking place next year. It would be helpful to see you if you want to be involved or even if you think you might need a mated queen if your swarm control goes awry.  As training officer for the association, I want every member to learn about getting spare queens as once you have worked it out your beekeeping improves by leaps and bounds.

We are also exploring how the association apiaries can be used more by members. Helping out at the club apiaries is also a way individuals can progress their beekeeping- so easy to plateau after one or two years and this may be a way forward for some.

So, there is a lot that will be discussed, come and join in and enter your honey. Finally, I need to say one’s own honey is the best, whatever an individual judge may tell you - just remember that and bring it along.


Rob Gore with the Lady Denman Cup, Lesley Francis with the Crawley Cup, Malcolm Wilkie with the Mrs Matthews Cup.

Phil Edwards receiving the Berry Cup (he also won the PJ Cup for mead)

A Close Shave for runny honey

Rob's super frame of honey

Rob's Wax Blocks

Phil's block of beeswax

Jo Gore's honey biscuits

Sandy Infield's win

Some of the Winners!

Malcolm Wilkie – 29th October 2021

Look at these previous articles to get some insight on how to present your honey and other products:

Finally, the weather has settled. The majority of my colonies have had the queen taken out on a nucleus. The parent hives have requeened themselves and as some of the colonies are very populous, nectar is pouring into the colonies.

Some have only one super, others two and yet others three. Lesley has two colonies with four supers on. Nothing like the Honey Queen who has had eight supers on a hive in the past, but I am quite happy with what I have.

Here in St. Leonards and at the out apiary at Kent Street the flow is tremendous. If you shake bees off a frame nectar wets everything including the bees.

So now it becomes a management issue. Bees need space to put all that ingress of nectar somewhere and so one needs to check they still have room to put it somewhere or otherwise they will chuck that excess nectar into the brood nest and stop the queen laying. And worst-case scenario, that could trigger swarming for a second time. They need warmth (good that there are high temperatures at the moment), and they need good air flow around the super frames so that they can more easily ripen the nectar into honey.

So, make sure there is no vegetation under the hive, that the entrance block is on a larger setting and look carefully at your super frames.

Helen advises one to remove the two outside frames to allow a good airflow. I also separate the frames a little to help this process as well. If I have two or more supers on a hive I am thinking about the contents of each frame. If I want the honey capped, I place it right above the brood ( the warmest place). Then once it is capped, I may move those frames up into a top super and move others that I want to be capped down just above the brood nest.

Adding another super or not is a fine judgement call. Too many supers and they chimney the honey and you don’t get the outer frames filled. But you always have the option of course of removing a super with only three frames of nectar and exchanging those frames for empty ones in the super below.

In many areas in the High Weald the summer flow goes on until the end of July and then that’s it! So, decisions made in the next two weeks are crucial. We need to help the bees to cap that honey ASAP so that it can then be extracted, enabling us all to then get on those summer treatments : thereby ensuring we get healthy winter bees with minimal levels of varroa.

So, my final tip is to order your treatments NOW. A lot of you use thymol products and these are brilliant if used when the temperatures are high. But using them in September when night temperatures start to drop is much less effective. So, if at all possible, get those treatments on in August ( supers removed of course). By doing so you will have strong colonies that will overwinter better and will romp away in the Spring.

What an odd season this has been. One or two of Lesley’s colonies have wanted to swarm twice. Boxes of bees are mushrooming all over the place in her garden and in the out apiary. We have had to contend with rape honey (but at least I was on the ball, and we did two early extractions using the refractometer on uncapped honey).The honey set in the jars overnight but it is absolutely delicious and naturally soft set.

We are now getting really high temperatures and colonies could overheat so do shade roofs. But for the moment it’s all about the honey ….

Malcolm Wilkie – 19th July 2021

Finally, the cold weather seems to have come to an end. Over the last month there has been heavy rainfall and the ground is moist. Temperatures have jumped and horse chestnuts and hawthorn are in flower. In consequence the bees are going crazy, and the nectar is flowing into the hives in great quantity.

Somebody once said to me that the difference between a good gardener and a bad gardener was one week. The same is true of beekeeping. Most of us more experienced Beekeepers are aware of what is going on in the environment and with this current flow we are sticking supers of drawn comb onto our hives. Personally, I expect this flow to continue for quite a while. This is because we have had such a rainy time recently and the moisture has gone deep down into the soil. Brood boxes are going to become nectar bound very very quickly. You may have to remove pollen banks or frames of stores and replace with foundation to keep the bees working and busy. You may also need to put your empty super just above your brood box. Or of course if your Bees have not swarmed this is an ideal time to put a super of foundation above the brood  box as it will be drawn out very quickly. Consider not putting the queen excluder on for three days to encourage them up if this is the first super of the season for that colony. Then go back after three days and put the queen excluder in between the super and the brood box.

For those of you who are just weekend Beekeepers please be aware that if you do nothing about this flow the brood box will soon become congested, and of course this will trigger the bees to divide, and you will find swarm cells in your colonies in next to no time.

Get those supers on NOW


Malcolm Wilkie – 29th May 2021

I have been hearing from a lot of people in the Association saying that their colonies are really low on stores. Colonies with supers on them will be fine but a lot of you will have colonies either that have not grown sufficiently to have had supers put on them, or colonies that have been split. If your bees have already gone into Swarming mode and you have taken the Queen out on a nucleus, then your old queen and that nucleus box may well need feeding. The same applies if you have done a Pagden split. The parent colony with a virgin hatching will probably have your supers on them and that will not be a concern, but your original Queen on the old site will definitely need to be fed. I always feed the old queen because she has a box of foundation but others sometimes just let them build up on the nectar flow with a super of honey (I have never got this to work myself). With the latter scenario, if you are not feeding, that could well be a disaster.

The irony is that we have now had a huge dump of rain. To be honest I have never seen anything quite like it. When driving back via Wadhurst the other day there were rivers of brown water pouring down the road carrying with it run-off from the fields. You will all be aware that the horse chestnut are now in flower and the bees avidly collect nectar from these trees. However temperatures are not great and the bees are not able to get out as much as they should. It’s not until the middle of next week that things are warming up and the bees will then be able to collect what is,in fact,  an abundance of nectar in the environment.

So if you have a nucleus box or a hive with only three or four frames of brood and no super, then you should think about feeding.

I am also concerned about any new Queens and whether temperatures are adequate for them to get well mated. People consider good matings happen when temperatures exceed 20°. I already know I have one partial drone layer :they are already building Queen cells to replace her but I may well just chuck them in the hedge. I have the old queen as an insurance policy anyway  so with all these boxes mushrooming around my apiary I am not that concerned! Let’s all pray for some better temperatures soon! Yet again we are having an exceptionally different and difficult year and a different set of challenges to cope with from any previous year I have known.


Malcolm Wilkie – 21st May 2021