Malcolm’s Topical Tips

I don’t know if others have noticed, but we have recently experienced the June gap. Colonies in response to the dearth of nectar will have reduced the egg laying rate of the Queen or even put her off lay completely.  Other stronger colonies will have been eating stores from their honey super.

Experienced beekeepers with strong colonies and supers on their hives have nothing to worry about. Even if there is little in the brood box the super of honey will have sustained the bees - that is unless an extraction has already been done. However if swarm control has already been done by the more experienced among you there may now be a box of bees that is extremely light on stores, and this could also be a problem. Even more so with all this wet weather we are having because this is forcing the bees to stay at home instead of getting out and bringing back nectar. And if they stay at home, they munch.

So please check your colonies and the stores that the bees have available to them. If you don’t have a super on your hive yet and there are no frames of stores or at least capped honey around the brood nest, then you should feed.

Beginners often buy a nucleus which they then put into a full sized hive. So they too, more than anyone else, are in the above situation.

Are they feeding these bees? Are the bees being given the food necessary for them to draw wax and to build a full sized brood nest? Of course one cannot continually stimulate by feeding sugar syrup, otherwise your bees will swarm. However some stop start feeding to encourage them to build up sufficiently so that you are then able to put a super on is a good investment of money. Have beginners even noticed that their bees are struggling?

The above colony looks really prosperous. However notice how little honey there is. In fact I cannot see any honey at all! These bees belong to Lesley and are absolutely fantastic and prolific but they do not put honey above the brood nest on their 14*12 frames. Such a colony (and what a colony) could have great difficulty in finding enough food If they have no stores available to them or if we as Beekeepers have stolen the honey from them. Remember large colonies (without stores) are the ones that can starve the quickest as there are just so many mouths to feed.

Ironically things are about to change. The south east has been battered by storms and there is now a good reservoir of moisture in the soil. What does this mean? Once temperatures rise again anything in flower will exude nectar in abundance and there will be a huge nectar flow. Anyone with a large colony will be able to put supers on their hives and collect honey. Sweet chestnut and lime are preparing to flower as we speak.

You may therefore be wondering why I am sending you this topical tip if a nectar flow is just about to start. It is so that you know that each one of you should be looking carefully at the environment around them and what is in flower and how much moisture there is in the soil. I picked up last week that things were difficult for the bees and so I fed any boxes without supers. This will have kept the Queen laying eggs and means that when the sweet chestnut does come into flower these colonies will be sufficiently big for me to then add a super and to collect that nectar so that I get honey.

Bee farmers will no doubt be combining colonies in order to create a huge foraging force under a new queen. Why do they do this? In order to guarantee a good honey crop because it is only when the bees can collect nectar in excess of their own requirements that you get a good honey crop for the beekeeper. A strong foraging force is the key to good honey crops.  It is also, of course, a way of keeping down their colony numbers (those of you who are less squeamish then myself shudder at the thought of what happens to those old Queens).

One of the beginners on my course this year has just shown me his hive records. On it he does not mark the stores available to the two colonies he has. One should fill in this section as it helps you to assess whether any feed needs to be given. Now when I fill in my record sheet I put on my record sheet a number which equates to the number of super frames of honey available to the bees. So if I have a full super on the hive (11 frames) and two full brood frames in the brood box (14*12 so 2 brood frames would be equivalent to 4 super frames) I would write down under the ‘Stores’ section 15.
Such a system enables me to immediately see which are my most prosperous colonies. So one of my colonies at one stage had 44 frames of stores whereas there were others with only 12 or 13. Assessing how much honey a colony makes is information that can then be gathered at a glance.

If you are not already using one of the hive record sheets from our website, the BBKA does a good hive recording system which anyone can download. It is the clearest system I have yet found anywhere.

Malcolm Wilkie - 14th June 2019

A lot of Beekeepers have colonies at present that have been split or have swarmed. A new Queen takes at least three weeks to come into lay and this is a tense time for the beekeeper and for the bees. Many beginners assume they have no Queen and quite often go and purchase one needlessly from a beefarmer.

If you know that your box has swarmed, you will roughly know when this happened and so will know when you can start to look for eggs and young larvae i.e. three weeks after your Virgin has hatched.

A box that has swarmed or has been split and is raising a virgin, should initially be left well alone. You don't want to confuse a virgin returning from a mating flight. If she gets lost due to your 'fiddling', you will then have a Queenless colony. However once those three weeks have passed you do need to start to look.

If you see eggs and larvae, then all is well and you will then need to assess the brood pattern. However more often than not you will find no eggs or larvae. This does not mean that your colony is Queenless however. This is the moment when you need to carefully inspect the brood frames. Blow or smoke the bees out of the way.

A Queenright colony will be preparing a brood nest for their new Queen and everything is alright if you see an area of cells on a couple of frames that have been cleaned out and polished in readiness for the new Queen to start laying. There will probably be pollen above these cells and stores in the corner of the fames. In other words the bees are organising themselves and it is order that you will see within your hive. But if you do not see this order after three weeks and you can still see nectar chucked randomly into cells, then there may well be a problem and you should give them a frame of eggs from your other hive. If they raise Queen cells, then evidently they were Queenless. If they seal the brood without creating Queen cells, then you may have a virgin or you may have cussed bees who have decided they no longer want a Queen.

If you get into this scenario, and still after several weeks you can find nothing, then your only hope is to try and get hold of a failing old Queen from someone and come and ask me how to introduce her. She will have low pheromone levels and could possibly be accepted by your Queenless colony. Once the old lady starts laying it will then be possible to bump her off and introduce a Queen. A scenario to be avoided if at all possible as it is difficult to bring back a colony from the brink.

Malcolm Wilkie - 23rd May 2019 (Resent from June 2017 and May 2018)

Above is a dead queen cell larva removed from one of my hives today. This was the only queen cell I had left in the colony so I will now have to find a queen cell or a virgin queen to bring this colony back from the brink.

This virus is black queen cell virus and only affects queen cells. Worker and drone larvae are not affected.

On the positive side at least I am on the ball and so with this colony I had gone in to check the cell and as it was still sealed (and that was a week after my calculations that it should have hatched), I opened it up and found this dead larva.

I know we tell beginners to leave everything well alone when a virgin is emerging (there is always a danger of squashing ‘her’ if one is unlucky). However, I only gently go into the hive and then go straight to the frame I marked with the drawing pin. Of course, if I have heard a virgin piping (yes, I always do listen) I don’t disturb. So, the positive is I know I need to do something.

We teach beginners about DWV (deformed wing virus). Varroasis (having let varroa get out of control) is a sad sight to behold with dead pupae half emerged from their cells with their tongues hanging out. Varroasis would be the consequence of ignoring DWV.

The worst to behold is chronic bee paralysis virus. This is even more upsetting as the bees all quiver and shake. Usually destruction is recommended although Helen Hadley and Peter Coxon have managed to successfully turn around a colony. But what you have to do is brutal.

There are also many other viruses and they are prevalent because varroa transfers viruses between bees, and so something that would naturally only ever be a background problem can suddenly get out of hand.

We all need to be aware of problems that occur and strive to keep healthy bees. Changing comb, treating against varroa if necessary, shook swarming, giving feed if suddenly there is a dearth of nectar in the environment, making sure in August that the bees emerging are in tip top shape to carry the colony through the winter and of course feeding properly in September.

There are also products which promote bee health such as Hive Alive and these also can be used and, in my experience, seem to boost the number of bees you get in a colony.

Malcolm Wilkie 19th May 2019

Here are a few ideas for anyone who has just started keeping bees or has only been keeping bees for one or two years. It will help you plan for the season ahead. Perhaps also a reminder for those of you who have kept bees for a longer time.


• Apiguard (a type of thymol gel) to treat colonies in August for varroa.
• An eke for each colony (to apply the Apiguard). If you are good with your hands you can make one yourself.
• Super frames and wax foundation (in the hope your bees will make you some honey). Make up the frames but don't add wax until you are ready. Keep the wax indoors in a dry but cool place but not near a heat source. Under a spare room bed is ideal.
• A contact feeder. Everyone should have one. This is the feeder with the fine mesh covering a central hole. To use you need to have an empty super placed on top of the crown board.
• 2 Queen clips. Make sure the spring works really well. If in doubt ask Helen or Keith.
• A spare hive tool. As brightly coloured as possible.

What would be good

• A polystyrene nucleus box. Contact Paynes beforehand so that they put it on their lorry. Specify size i.e. ordinary national, deep national, commercial, WBC. The owner of a nucleus box can get themselves out of so much trouble. Every new beekeeper should have one. They are not that expensive
• A plastic rapid feeder for each colony. Never buy wooden; they leak and that causes robbing. Make sure the feeder you are buying is the right size for your hives!

What I would be cautious about buying

• Bad quality equipment in the auction.
• A honey extractor in the auction that does not work. Why do they allow them to go into the sale?
• A colony of bees without a Queen. How can beekeepers allow a beginner to waste their money in this way?
• A colony of bees on the wrong sized frames for the hive type you have purchased. Only a strong colony can be shook swarmed.
• If you are thinking about buying bees at least check on the Internet what price a colony or nucleus usually is going for. Don't pay a lot more than you need to pay. Don't get carried away by the fact the bees are being auctioned.

As far as equipment to make increase is concerned, far better to wait until October and get the equipment at the national honey show, or wait until one of the autumn sales and buy the equipment at a fraction of the price at that moment (unless you have a strong colony and will have to divide it to stop swarming). But a nucleus box would get you out of this difficulty. Remember most beginners who manage to buy a whole colony at this time of year lose most of them in a swarm about a week after they have bought them. Your choice, but not having the possibility of dividing a colony will get you into trouble. Beginners you are warned.

Paynes 01273 843388
Ben and Maggi Pratt 01323 841249

And finally, some plants for the bees. Or just some plants. Keith always comes up with something quirky.

Malcolm Wilkie 15th May 2019

Comb I have cut up

A frame I have spun and then cut in two to show you how much honey is left in the comb

In my opinion, after having tried to extract 13 supers of the bloody stuff, it is definitely a curse. My bees are right next to 6 or seven fields of oilseed rape and ,of course, they have been busy taking advantage of this bonanza.

Traditionally one waits for the flowers of rape to start to go over before taking the honey and extracting it. However I knew I had a lot of capped frames and so on Tuesday I decided I would have to do an extraction. The disadvantage being that they are still going to collect more of the stuff and I will have to do another extraction in a week or two. Now I knew that the problem with oilseed rape is that it granulates in the frames. What I did not know was that even when granulation hasn’t fully taken place the honey still will not spin out of the frames. Below are two of the frames that have already been spun and ,particularly in the top frame, the honey just won’t come out! Even in the bottom frame about 40 to 50% of the honey would not come out!

The trouble for me is that the honey in those frames is going to set rockhard and that means that those frames won’t be able to be used by the bees later in the season to collect me another crop. That’s what I mean by a curse! We all know how costly it is for the bees to draw out wax and once one has drawn comb that is a real blessing. How annoying to find that all of that has been destroyed by this crop of honey.

The other problem is that I was unable to pass the honey through a double sieve because of the granulation that was present already in the crop that was coming off the frames. This means that I am going to have to put my honey buckets into the warming cabinet and once I have warmed this honey I will then be able to pass it through the finer part of my double sieve. Of course I had no idea about all this until I spoke to our honey Queen. I had also unwisely and in desperation used a spatula to try and pass the honey through my coarse sieve. This means in some buckets there are fine pieces of wax. If only I had been a bit cleverer and when I decided to use a spatula I had then put the sieve over a fresh bucket and then kept back that honey for my own consumption! Easy to be wise after the event!

I asked Helen what I should do with these frames. To be honest smashing them up and warming them gently in the oven just didn’t seem an option. After all there were 13 supers of the bloody stuff! What I have done, and I don’t know if that is a good idea, is that I have cut up some of the worst offending frames and put them in buckets. I intend to give this back to the bees when there is the June gap. Let’s hope they will be able to lick it all out at that stage!

(Combs cut up to put in a bucket to feed back to the bees)
The difficulty for me does not even end there. With rape you really need to soft seed in order to get an acceptable granulation, so I will have to be using my warming cabinet and using some of last year’s soft set heather honey (what a shame! ) to turn this crop into something more acceptable for sale.

A curse or a blessing? Definitely a curse!!! I may have 160lbs worth of honey but I wish I hadn’t got it.

Malcolm Wilkie 9th May 2019