How to prepare a honey bee nucleus for sale

If you are planning to sell a nucleus of honey bees to another Meridian member or elsewhere, you should conform to the following criteria set by the National Bee Unit.

• As it develops, the nucleus (nuc) should be checked regularly for signs of disease. Any person involved in the production and distribution of nuclei should be competent in recognising bee diseases and pests and should have attended recognised bee pests and diseases training courses. Courses are offered by Meridian (and most other Beekeepers’ Associations), county associations like Hampshire and nationally by the BBKA and others.

• Beekeepers raising nucs must immediately report any statutory diseases or pests found in their stocks. This is a legal requirement; Bee Diseases and Pest Control Order 2006. If any statutory disease is suspected, no stock (including nucs for sale) can be moved until they have been inspected by a National Bee Unit (NBU) Bee Inspector.

• The person selling the nuc must keep records of the sale. The record should include; the purchaser’s name, address and contact details. Date of sale and last inspection before sale. This information will need to be provided to the NBU if a statutory pest or disease is found on your premises.

• It’s good practice to provide a comprehensive care and development instruction sheet with all nuclei sold. A template instruction sheet is provided here for your convenience but you will need to add details of any treatments you have applied and the dates these were administered in line with legislation. The instruction sheet should also cover a brief conflict statement in case there is a dispute with the purchaser.

There is more information about buying and selling nucs on Beebase.

Nucleus composition

A nucleus is a well-balanced colony on between three and six combs. It should have bees at all stages of development, food, brood and a young, mated laying queen. The total number of combs should be declared in advance by the seller.

The type and size of the frames should be discussed in advance by the buyer and seller to ensure compatibility. The nucleus colony should be in a position to expand as soon as purchased without risk of starvation.

Combs and frames

The frames should be securely nailed/pinned and be in sound order. They need not be new but should have been thoroughly cleaned before they were used to make up the nuc. Combs should be fully built out, not foundation. The outer combs can be food only, especially on the outside faces. Combs should be free of brace comb and the nuclei should be easy to remove from its container to ensure bees are not crushed in the process.


The nuclei should be headed by an established young, mated, laying queen. She may be marked with the recognised colour for the year. If unclipped, her wings may be clipped at the request of the purchaser and with the agreement of the supplier.

The queen may be transported caged (for safety and proof of delivery) for release at the destination by the beekeeper. In such cases, full instructions should be provided to assist this process and to avoid losses. If requested, the supplier should be able to provide purchasers with records of the source of the queen.


The nuclei should have at least three frames containing brood. Brood at all stages and eggs should occupy at least half the total comb area. At least 30% of the total comb area should be sealed worker brood. No more than 15% of comb should be drone brood. There must be no active queen cells at any stage of development.


It must be accepted that the food requirements of a nucleus can vary considerably. A three frame nuc will require the equivalent of one full frame of honey and half a frame of pollen as stores. A six frame nucleus will require the equivalent of two frames of honey and half a frame of brood as a minimum.

Adult bees.

There should be a good balance of adult bees at different stages of development and three to four frames should be well covered. The bees should have a good temperament when handled competently in suitable conditions. There may be a varying number of drones present, depending on the time of year.


The brood should be healthy with no sign of disease at any stage. A small number of cells showing chalk brood is acceptable as this infection is so common in the UK. In adult bees, there should be no obvious signs of disease.

For example, Acarine which can cause the distinctive ‘K’ wings or crawling bees or Deformed Wing Virus (pictured) which causes damaged wings and is associated with a heavy varroa infestation. Nosema can cause dysentery which is observed at the nuc entrance or on the combs or tops of frames. No wax moth should be visible.

It is acceptable for nucs to vary slightly from the description above due to prevailing conditions and weather at the time of sale. The supplier should discuss the composition of the nuc in advance with the purchaser.

Health benefits of honey

Honey is the substance produced naturally by honey bees from plant nectar. The nectar is processed by bees by regurgitation and evaporation. The dehydration of the natural sugars contained within the nectar prevents fermentation and the enzymes added during regurgitation, results in a change in the chemical composition and pH value of the honey. The process of turning nectar into honey is called inversion.

Once the inversion process is complete, the honey is stored in the honey combs within the bee hive or nest. The bees seal the cells containing honey with a capping of wax to protect it.

Typically, honey will consist of 38% fructose, 31% glucose, 17% water and 7% maltose. The sweetness of honey comes from the simple carbohydrates, fructose and glucose which are produced by the breakdown of sucrose from nectar by the bees’ digestive enzymes. The other 7% consists of amino acids; the building blocks of protein which contribute to growth and body function and a range of vitamins and minerals.

Honey contains B vitamins which have many functions including facilitating the release of energy from food. In terms of minerals, honey contains calcium, iron, potassium and zinc for wound healing and the processing of macronutrients from our food.

Health benefits

There is a wide-range of well-known health benefits of honey. By mouth, it can be taken too ease a cough, hay fever, stomach ulcers and as a rich source of carbohydrates for exercise.

It can also be used topically for burns and wound healing. This has long been recognised by clinicians and it’s not uncommon to find dressings coated with honey in hospitals.


None of this is new, the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides used honey for sun burn and wound healing around AD50 and honey’s healing properties are mentioned in the Bible, Quran and other ancient scriptures.

How is honey taken?

For a cough, 0.5-2 teaspoons taken at bedtime should be sufficient.

For the treatment of burns and wounds, honey is applied directly, on a sterilised gauze covering, or it may come on a factory-produced dressing. Dressings are usually changed every 24-48 hours. Honey used to treat wounds should be medical grade (that is, irradiated) to avoid potentially introducing the the bacterium Clostridium botulinum to the wound even though this is only a theoretical risk.

Honey should not be given to children under 12 months or to people with compromised immunity without medical direction.

It is however perfectly safe to consume during pregnancy or when breast feeding, if taken in normal quantities.

How is honey produced?

From a beekeeping point of view, honey is produced quite simply in the hive. Frames with wax foundation are placed within the hive. The foundation acts as a blueprint for the bees to draw out their characteristic hexagonal-shaped cells.

Once the cells are completed, the bees store pollen (protein for their brood) and nectar (they collect from flowers) in these cells.

This frame’s been used by the bees to exclusively store the brightly-coloured pollen they’ve collected. More typically, a frame will contain a mixture of brood, pollen and nectar/honey.

Bees work very hard. They collect nectar and pollen from flowers within a three mile radius from their hive. As soon as the nectar has been turned into honey, the bees seal the honey within the cell with a wax lid.

A frame of capped honey

Bees don’t make honey for humans, it’s the food source which sees the colony through winter. A good beekeeper will always make sure the bees have sufficient honey to last through winter and only harvests any surplus.

Medical evidence

There is good, long-standing evidence that honey is good for coughs and colds. NHS.

There are some studies, perhaps counter-intuitively, that show daily honey consumption in small quantities can reduce blood sugars and cholesterol and help with weight loss.

Studies in people suffering from a sore mouth as a result of radiation treatment (mucositis) or those prone to ulcers, have shown honey to be very effective.

Meridian beekeepers were very fortunate a few years ago to hear a talk by Dr Rowena Jenkins of Cardiff University. Dr Jenkins was part of a team researching the medicinal uses of honey. Cardiff university. Theirs (and other studies) showed honey-soaked dressings were very effective in reducing infection, inflammation, pain and healing time particularly for post-operative wounds, chronic leg ulcers, abscesses and skin grafts. In fact, honey treatments often worked when all else had failed.

Another published study by Dr Oscar Tellecea MD PhD of the University of Coimbra, Portugal showed that 70% of elderly patients with leg ulcers were completely cured using honey dressings while the other 30% saw a significant reduction in wound size. The doctor concluded that honey dressings are an efficient and easy to use treatment for leg ulcers.

For more information on honey, click here.

Important: Always seek medical advice before trying any new health or medicinal product.

Soft set honey, how to process

This page is based on an article by well-known British beekeeper Ken Basterfield which appeared in the BBKA News in February 2014. The article aimed to clarify the terminology and process of producing fine, soft set honey. Make sure you watch Louise’s practical demonstration too. Honey processing with Louise.

Soft set honey is a version of set honey that’s had its crystalline nature broken-up by mashing, to give a spreadable texture, similar to butter or margarine spreads. It is sometimes referred to as creamed honey. Many customers prefer the smooth, fine texture of soft set honey which cannot be guaranteed with natural setting.


This is an optional process which forces a ‘willing’ honey to granulate (set) with fine crystals and a smooth texture.

Honey marketing

If you want customers to return to your product, it must sell itself by taste, appearance and texture. Naturally set honey is unattractive to some customers for a number of reasons;

• it can be ‘spoon-bendingly’ hard (Dan’s expression) and has to be chipped out of the jar #

• On setting (granulating) in the jar, the honey sometimes shrinks in volume and retreats from the wall of the jar, leaving frosted areas which do not encourage confidence in the wholesomeness of the product.

• The granulated texture is usually uncontrolled and can be coarse and irregular rather than fine and smooth in texture.

Soft set honey is smooth and fine and can be spread thickly and easily with a knife. That means it’ll be eaten quickly and a re-order should soon follow!

Granulation, a natural process

Honey is produced by bees from nectar by, among other things, reducing the water content to less than 20%. This is done in the hive at about 35c. The bees remove excess water content to preserve the honey and to prevent fermentation. There should be no surplus of water in fully ripened honey, just enough to keep the sugars in solution. That’s why it’s strongly recommended to harvest only fully capped honey; uncapped honey may not be fully ripened.

The solution of sugars in water in fully ripened honey is near to full saturation with no spare water, hence no yeast spoilage. Clever little bees!

As honey cools, when taken from the hive, whether on the comb or in your settling tank or jars, it becomes fully saturated. That means there’s not enough water to keep the sugars in solution. It becomes physically unstable. The honey stabilises itself by crystallising some or all of the sugars. Other terms for crystallising are granulating or setting.

The principal sugars in honey are fructose and glucose and glucose is less soluble than fructose. Therefore, honeys that are higher in glucose will crystallise rapidly to a granular nature. Anyone living near Oil Seed Rape who’s been beekeeping for more than a year, can easily guess which sugar predominates in that crop!

The formation of crystals is like the construction of a builder’s scaffold; all the crystals link to form a rigid crystalline structure which is why naturally set honey becomes so hard.

With soft set honey the crystals still remain, but the rigid crystal-to-crystal linkage is broken by stirring. To be able to stir the set honey, you need to warm it enough to soften the linking.

The soft set process

The soft set process is easy to master. To convince yourself of this, try the following experiment.

• Leave the metal lid on and place a jar of naturally set honey in your microwave. Leaving the lid on forces the microwaves down the middle of the jar rather than just heating the top of it. And dismiss the myth instantly, you won’t get flashes or sparks on the metal lid!

• Heat on full power for twenty seconds to soften the contents. Twenty seconds is not long enough to dissolve it to liquid honey.

• Stir the honey with a spoon to break-up the crystalline structure. You may need to microwave for a further twenty seconds and stir again.

What you have produced is soft set honey. It may be coarse crystalline or it may be fine but it will remain soft. If you haven’t already done so, watch Louise’s video on Processing honey.

Seeding honey

This is an optional process which ensures your soft set honey has a fine, smooth texture. It’s only necessary to correct a naturally coarse textured set honey. Seeding does not force the honey to granulate, it merely determines the crystal size if the honey is high in glucose and would naturally be inclined to granulate.

3lbs (1.36 kg) of fine grained, set honey will seed a 30lb (13.6 kg) bucket of liquified honey, a 10% ratio.

How can you tell if your honey is likely to granulate?

It’s easy to determine whether or not your honey is likely to granulate. Put it into 30lb buckets after extraction, wait for three months and see which buckets have granulated. If it has not granulated, or has only partially granulated, process it as clear honey.

If your honey has granulated with fine crystals, seeding is unnecessary. It’s ready for the soft set process; the left-hand process shown below. If however, it has granulated with large, coarse crystals, it will need to be reliquified and seeded with fine crystal honey as shown below in the right-hand pathway.

Is your bucket of honey finely or coarsely granulated?

Finely granulated

Proceed to soft set processing as described below.

Cut the warmed, softened honey with a pallet knife prior to mashing with the tool above. Watch Louise doing it in our honey processing video.
Coarsely granulated

Start with the seeding process

* liquefaction

* seeding (photo below)

Approximately 3lbs of fine grained honey is mixed into the liquified honey in a 30lb bucket. Once thoroughly mixed, the honey should be allowed to re-set.

* resetting, then check consistency

The seeding process

• Reliquify the 30lb bucket of honey in a warming cabinet if you have one. The ideal temperature to liquify is 60c. The process should take approximately 5 hours. You can also warm honey in food grade plastic buckets overnight in your domestic oven. The ideal temperature is 50c.

Warming cabinet

If you opt to use your oven, check the temperature with a thermometer beforehand. The type of thermometer used for tropical fish tanks is ideal and these can be acquired easily and cheaply. Whichever way you do it, check the honey regularly, as you don’t want to heat your honey longer than necessary.

• Allow the bucket to cool to 30c.

• Warm 3lbs (1.36kg) of fine set honey in your microwave as the seed. Leave the metal lid on and warm just enough to soften (but not liquify) the honey.

• Thoroughly mix the soft set honey into the bucket. There are special tools available for this purpose (see photos) or you can use a large catering-size potato masher. Again, watch Louise’s video which shows a practical demonstration of the tools available.

• Allow the honey to reset. This usually takes about three weeks and gives a hard-set, fine grained honey.

• Continue with the soft set process.

30lb bucket-scale soft set processing

• Warm the bucket of fine set honey at 40c for approximately eight hours or until it’s soft but not runny. You can test this by gently squeezing the bucket sides.

• cut the honey with a pallet knife to ease mashing.

• Macerate with honey creamer or a large, catering-size potato masher to break-up lumps.

• Put into jars immediately.

Job done!

# Naturally set honey which has granulated can be returned to its liquid form by loosening the lid and standing the jar in hot water. Alternatively, warm gently in short bursts using a microwave oven set to the lowest power.

Meridian’s first meeting of 2023

Richard describes the productivity and fun of Meridian’s first meeting of the year.

Meridian’s first meeting of the year went off with a bang, literally, with nine of us putting frames together and adding the wax, there was certainly a lot of banging going on! There was also a lot of coffee and tea drinking and of course, with extra thick chocolate biscuits, the day went well.

Chocolate biscuits, just one more reason for attending meetings!

We managed in the two hours that we had set aside, to put together thirty frames with wax foundation. The workshop proved to be very useful with two or three of us putting the frames together then pushing these along the conveyor belt to others who finished them off with foundation.

A hive of activity, excuse the pun!

Several items were sold from the newly formed Meridian shop. We all had a great laugh when we realised that this year’s colour for marking the queen is red and we had just purchased five yellow pens for the store, oh well, we only have to wait four years! 😜

We would like to thank the following people for their attendance and we hope to see you at the next apiary meeting Saturday 15 April at 10.00 at the West End Apiary where we will be doing full inspections and possibly preparing for Bailey comb changes or shook swarms.

Special thanks to Denise Smith, Phil Smith, Chris Parker, Louise Evans, Nicky Kakkar, Cat White, Peter Berkin & Jane Reidy for all your help on preparation day.

Queen rearing, a simple method

Charged queen cells started using plastic cups

Most beekeepers think queen rearing is difficult or fiddly and don’t combine it with their usual beekeeping practices. This page is based on an article by Dutch beekeeper Jeroen Vorstman published in BBKA news in March 2017.

The method described is based on the standard hive and doesn’t require any specialist equipment other than inexpensive plastic cell cups obtainable from beekeeping suppliers. The main limitation to the number of queens you can raise is your stock of spare equipment; either full-sized hives or nuc boxes. The method described below has the following advantages;

• You can use the same sized frames as you use in your other hives

• There is no need for mating hives, saving time and money

• It’s easier and safer to introduce a queen once she has mated by uniting rather than introducing her using a queen cage

• More bees means better queens

• On standard frames, it’s easier to tell if the queen is of good quality. If you use, for example, an Apidea mating nucleus which only has three small frames, even a poor quality queen is capable of filling them.

Another disadvantage of using mating nuclei is their size; a tiny colony can struggle to survive. It’s recommended to put one cupful of young bees into an Apidea. You are therefore relying on a cupful of inexperienced bees to care for a virgin queen and the beekeeper has to watch over the nucleus almost every day. The bees are too young to gather their own food so they rely on the beekeeper to feed them and sugar is not the most nutritious food for a young queen.

Bees in an Apidea are also vulnerable to robbing and wasp attacks. Also, if the colony starts to grow, the Apidea is too small for much expansion. Therefore, the question arises, how can you expect such a small colony to raise a good quality queen?

Jeroen Vorstman reports that he has rejected all such small mating nuclei on his bee farm. He raises all his queens on standard-sized frames and since doing so, has eliminated all losses during the mating period. He replaces all queens every year in his production colonies and believes queen rearing is the key to successful beekeeping.

What is queen rearing all about?

Queen rearing is all about raising the best quality queens. That is, physically perfect queens that produce bees with desirable characteristics like gentleness, resilience to pests and diseases, and productivity.

Breeder colony

The colony you wish to replicate should have good characteristics. If you have a colony that excels in honey crop, has a low propensity to swarming or any other trait you like, then breed from that colony. The larvae from your best colony are therefore destined to become queens.

Starter-finisher colony

To produce good quality queens, the larvae from your best colony will need the best care in a colony with plenty of nurse bees. Jeroen calls this colony (which you will make up) the starter-finisher because this is the colony that starts and finishes queen cell building.

The best time to create a starter-finisher colony is when the apple trees are flowering, perhaps in April or at the beginning of May, depending on the weather. To create the starter-finisher colony, you will need frames with brood and bees from your ordinary hives. If you only take one or two frames from each strong colony you will not deplete them too much or notice any reduction in honey production.

Breeding timetable

It is essential to stick to a timetable. The day you graft one day old larvae is day zero. Don’t worry, the grafting process is described below and the timetable is as follows;

• Seven to nine days before grafting, create your starter/finisher colony.

• Day zero: graft one day old larvae

• Exactly ten days after grafting, cage ripe queen cells

• Twelve days after grafting, create nucleus/nuclei hives

• Thirty days after grafting; young queens are laying eggs

Queen rearing in five steps

You will have noticed, there are five steps which are described below in more detail;

Step 1

On a warm day in April or the beginning of May, you start your preparations. Assembly a standard hive (floor, brood box, two full frames of stores (or equivalent), frames of drawn comb or foundation, crown board and roof. You’ll also need frames of drawn comb or foundation to replace the frames you will take from your other hives.

Open one of your other colonies and take one or two frames containing mainly sealed worker brood with attendant bees. There may be some eggs or very young larvae too. Put these two frames into your starter-finisher hive.

Shake in some additional bees from a further two frames then put these frames back into the parent colony.

Be very careful that the queen is not on any of the frames. If she is, just pop her back into the parent hive. Place the frames with honey either side of the frame(s) with brood and bees and complete the box with frames of drawn comb or foundation. The entrance should be closed.

Move the starter-finisher hive out of range (three miles away) of the donor colony/ies and open the entrance. Leave the starter-finisher hive alone for five to seven days.

Although you selected frames with mainly sealed brood, the bees will start emergency cells (Queen cells) using any young larvae or eggs you put in.

Step 2, Grafting (day zero)

When you return to your starter-finisher colony, five to seven days later, you must destroy all the emergency cells. There will probably be three or less, but don’t take this for granted. Shake the bees from the frame(s) and be certain that no queen cell has been missed.

Make a space in the middle of the starter-finisher hive by removing one of the unused frames from the hive. In this space, add the frame with one day old larvae from your breeder colony.

How do I know larvae is one day old? Jeroen provides this tip: four days before grafting, put a frame with empty drawn comb in the middle of the brood nest of the breeder colony; i.e. your best colony, the one you wish to replicate. The queen will soon start laying in the empty cells and three days later, the eggs will hatch. One day after they have hatched, they are the correct age for grafting. You can create as few or as many queen cells as you like up to twenty or thirty.

Grafting technique

Grafting is the action of transferring a larva from a brood cell into a manufactured cell cup. This technique allows beekeepers to create any number of queen cells. The common grafting technique is described below as well as the equipment needed for producing queen cells in moveable cell cups.

Before grafting

Before grafting, your starter-finisher colony must be available as described above. You will have already selected your breeder colony (as described above) and it’s from this colony you will obtain your frame containing one day old larvae.

One day old larvae (number 1 in the photo) are very small with a slight comma-shaped curvature, while older larvae (2, 3 and 4) are larger with a more defined C-shape.

Gently brush all bees from the selected frame, being careful not to damage the delicate larvae. The larvae must be grafted quickly upon their removal from the colony, as they are vulnerable to chilling, desiccation or starvation without nurse bees to regulate the temperature and humidity, or to provide feeding visits.

A damp towel draped over the frame will keep the humidity high and should be used to cover the part of the frame that you are not working on. Grafting should be carried out in a warm, draft-free room. For grafting, the donor frame is often placed on an incline and a torch or bright light is used to identify the best larval candidates.

Many beekeepers graft into plastic cell cups, while others make their own from wax. When starting out, it’s easier to buy the plastic cups which are inexpensive and easy to obtain.

In this technique, the cell cups are pressed directly into the frame. The natural place is near the bottom of the frame but you can place the cups anywhere. Before grafting, prime the cell cups with a droplet of water. Priming prevents larvae from drying out but too much liquid can drown the larvae. Nurse bees will remove the priming liquid and replace it with royal jelly in the starter-finisher colony.

A variety of commercial grafting tools are available for this delicate work. Tool choice is subject to individual preference and some beekeepers create their own tools from materials such as wire, paper clips or other common household items.

Purchased grafting tool are often made of stainless steel and looks similar to a dental instrument. About the length of a pencil, these tools are easy to grasp and offers the beekeeper a great deal of control and visibility inside the cells.

Grafting technique

Grafting is delicate work and requires patience, a steady hand and excellent vision. To graft, lower the tool behind the curve of the larva, maneuver the tool under the larva and the small pool of royal jelly, and gently lift and transfer the larva to the centre of the cell cup Mastering the technique does take practice and repetition. Damaged, submerged, or poorly positioned larvae will not survive.

When grafting, be sure to cover the rest of the frame with a damp cloth to prevent dessication. After the desired number of grafts has been made, place the frame in the centre of the starter-finisher colony.

Step 3; cage ripe queen cells (ten days after grafting)

Exactly ten days later, the queen cells are ready to be caged. Put five young nurse bees into each cage to care for the queen when she emerges. There are different types of queen cage to choose from, remember to space your plastic cell cups to suit the type of queen cage you have selected. The spacing of the cups and where you place them on the frame will to a large extent, depend on how many queens you intend to raise.

Step 4: Making up a mating nucleus

Two days after you caged the queen cells, the queen will emerge. Put together as many nucleus colonies as there are queens or as many as you have equipment for and resources from other hives.

In every nucleus, place one frame with bees from the starter-finisher colony and one frame filled with honey. A frame from a super with capped honey will suffice.

After making up the nucs, leave for a couple of hours before introducing a virgin queen (with attendants) in an introduction cage. Place the nucleus colonies out of range of the starter-finisher’s former location and do not disturb for two weeks.

If you need more frames than are available from the starter-finisher colony, take frames with sealed worker brood from other strong colonies. Before moving the nucleus/nuclei out of range, leave time (30 minutes should do) to let the older bees fly off. This reduces the risk of harm to the young queen.

Step 5: inspect the mating nuclei (thirty days after grafting)

Two weeks after you made up your mating nuclei, most young queens will be laying eggs. Nucleus colonies without eggs can be checked again a week or so later. If there’s still no brood, they’re probably lost, shake the bees from the frames and take the nucleus hive away.

Nucleus colonies with brood must be fed with an intermediate strength syrup (1kg sugar to 1 litre water). Feed the bees until they have drawn out all the foundation and give them room as soon as they need it. By the end of a typical summer, the nucleus should have grown to a full-sized hive.

Small top feeder for use in a nucleus hive

One use for your new queens is to re-queen colonies with old or failing queens. Simply, remove the old queen and leave the colony for a couple of hours. Then combine the now queenless colony with the nucleus colony (containing the young queen) using the newspaper method.

How to unite two colonies

The newspaper can be placed directly on top of the frames (brush or smoke bees down first) or on top of a queen excluder. The queen excluder is important, it means you’ll know where the queen is!!

If you have a small or weak colony or perhaps, a colony in need of a new queen, you may consider uniting it with another colony, particularly before winter, to optimise its chance of survival.

Uniting is the term used by beekeepers to describe the process of putting two groups of bees together. This can refer to full colonies, nucleus hives or swarms. The end result is that the beekeeper will have fewer but stronger colonies.

It’s not possible just to place one hive on top of another as the bees from the two colonies will fight. This page describes the methods you can use to unite colonies safely. There are various reasons for uniting colonies; it may be that the beekeeper has decided to manage fewer colonies or s/he has run out of equipment or space. Many beekeepers unite smaller or weaker colonies prior to winter to give them the best chance of survival.

Most beekeepers have tried unsuccessfully at one time or another to take small colonies through winter. If you want to make increase, far better to unite small colonies prior to winter and then split them again in spring.

Uniting colonies prior to the main nectar flow is also common as it increases the foraging force. Sometimes, beekeepers who have controlled swarming, perhaps using the artificial swarm technique, may reunited the two halves of the split later in the season. Uniting colonies may also be used to introduce a new queen or to merge a queenless colony with a queenright one.


Before uniting, the most important point to consider is the disease status of both colonies. Both colonies should be carefully inspected prior to uniting to ensure both are healthy. It’s a good idea to conduct an inspection which is as detailed as your first inspection of spring.. If a colony is weak, try to establish the reason for the weakness before uniting as the weakness may be the result of disease.

Similarly, if both colonies have an old or failing queen, uniting alone will not be enough to solve the problem. The united colony will require requeening once the unification process has been completed.

Bees unite more successfully if there’s a good nectar flow on. If that’s not the case (for example, if you’re uniting in the autumn), feed both colonies for a few days prior conducting the procedure.

There are various ways to unite colonies. Perhaps the most popular technique is the newspaper method which is generally successful. This method can be used to unite two full-sized colonies, two nucleus colonies or a full-sized colony with a nuc.

Process before uniting

The two colonies need to be brought together with their entrances facing the same way. This is because both sets of foragers will need to be able to navigate back to the entrance of their new joint hive. If the two hives are in the same apiary, the beekeeper can progressively move the two hives closer together; three feet per hive per day is ideal.

If this isn’t possible or is too inconvenient, move one of the colonies to an out apiary more than three miles away and leave it there for about three weeks. After three weeks, the hive can be moved back to its home apiary and placed next to the hive with which it’s to be merged. The three week stay in the out apiary will ensure no forager remembers the original position of the hive.

Having now brought the two hives together, it’s time to decide which of the two queens to keep. This is where your notes will be helpful. Review the recent performance of both colonies, then make a decision as to which queen in stronger. You will need to find and kill the weaker queen or if it’s earlier in the season and you have sufficient equipment and resources in other colonies, you may decide to make up a nucleus colony in which to house the spare queen as an insurance policy. Only do this though, if the queen isn’t failing.

Uniting the colonies

It’s best to undertake the procedure in the evening when the bees have finished foraging for the day. This is to reduce the possibility of returning bees meeting guard bees from the other colony and fighting.

Quietly open one of the colonies and place a sheet of newspaper paper over the top of the brood frames. If there is a queen excluder already on the hive, it’s easier to place the newspaper on top of that.

Prick a few holes in the newspaper with a pin or similar but don’t make the holes any bigger. You don’t want the bees uniting too quickly as this may result in fighting.

If there was no queen excluder on the hive, one can be placed on top of the newspaper. This has the advantage that it stops the newspaper blowing away but it’s also important to keep the queen in her original box so you know where she is. On the subject of the newspaper blowing around, this manipulation is much easier if there’s two of you. If however, you’re working alone and there’s a breeze, you may need some means of holding the paper temporarily in place or you can use drawing pins.

Next, the other brood chamber (with its crown board in place) can be gently lifted and placed on top. The roof can now be placed on top of the double brood box. The process can be helped if during a previous inspection, brace comb is removed from both boxes as this will help to ensure a snug fit. Over the next few days, the bees will nibble through the paper and unite without fighting. You may notice shreds of newspaper at the front of the hive which is evidence of their activity.

Image: Dave Cushman

If there are supers

If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer board the day before to empty the supers of bees prior tto uniting the colonies. Once the bees have united, you can add back the supers you want, placing any surplus frames with stores in a super above the crown board. The bees will bring down the stores.

After a week or so, you can lift off the top box, place it on your upturned roof or a floor, then consolidate the brood frames into one box. Make sure it’s the box with the queen in!

If there’s still some stores in the other brood box, place it above the crown board; the bees will move the stores down. Remember if you do this, place another crown board on the top box too.

Direct merge

There’s another technique for merging colonies which is quick and useful for uniting nucleus colonies into one full-sized brood chamber.

1. Bring the colonies together as described above with their entrances facing in the same direction.

2. Move your nucs to one side and place your full-sized box on its stand and floor exactly on the site previously occupied by the two nucs.

3. Find the queen you wish to keep and either cage her using fondant as a plug or place the frame she is on into the full- sized box after first spraying the frame and bees with a very light syrup or water.

4. Then, spray another frame from the queen’s original colony and place it next to her so she is surrounded by bees from her own colony.

5. One-by-one, take alternate frames from the two colonies, lightly spray and place in your brood box so the bees become mixed-up.

6. Repeat, spraying and placing alternate frames until the brood chamber is complete.

When constructing the new brood nest, keep frames with brood together, place frames with stores on the edges of the brood nest and any empty frame on the outside.

Uniting swarms

If you happen to collect two or more swarms on the same day, these can be united by simply shaking the bees from both swarms into a brood chamber at the same time. Or you can walk the bees in (See hiving a swarm). This technique is useful when the swarms collected are small, perhaps cast swarms. As the bees have swarmed and have no brood or food to defend, they will not fight.

The sting


I’d never been stung by anything until I started beekeeping but like most beginners, I soon became familiar with the sting a worker honey bee can inflict.

The first time I was stung, I was surprised how painful it was but as time goes on, and as I received more stings, the pain seemed to diminish. Perhaps because I know what to expect or maybe my pain threshold has increased but it also depends on where one is stung. On the tips of your fingers is more painful than the back of the hands and if you’re stung on the ankles it can be itchy for days and anywhere on the face can be particularly unpleasant. NHS: first aid for stings.

For most people however, the sting is ultimately harmless. Just because the area around it swells up doesn’t mean you’re allergic, this is the normal reaction to a sting.

A very few people are allergic however and in most cases, they probably already know this but should you ever be with somebody who has an allergic reaction, you should follow the advice here. Anaphylaxis

The first time I was stung, it felt like a red hot wire being stuck into my thumb but a few moments later, the pain was gone and I forgot about it.

Wear your bee suit

Nearly all the stings I’ve received have been because I wasn’t wearing my bee suit. Sometimes, when you’re just popping in to put on some feed or making a change to an entrance block, it doesn’t seem worth the effort of pulling on a bee suit. These are the occasions when I’ve been stung, including one time I was stung on the forehead and had to walk around for the next couple of days looking like a Klingon!

Photo of me shortly after I was stung on the forehead.

These days, I compromise by wearing the veil I was given one Christmas and plan soon to buy a half suit which is also more convenient. If however, you’re new to beekeeping or are conducting a full inspection, it’s probably better to wear full protection; a suit with all the zips properly secured and checked, wellies to protect your ankles and gloves. Bees seem to delight in finding the tiniest chink in your armour so make sure there are no gaps.

Make sure too that your suit is tucked into your wellies and your gloves are pulled over the cuffs of your suit. You can also buy or make cuffs to go over the gloves and suit to give even more protection.

If you are stung, calmly step away from the hive for a moment after covering the open hive if possible. Remove the sting. The worker bee sting has a number of barbs on it which anchor the sting in your skin. Unfortunately for the bee, it also tears the lower portion of the her body away from her and she dies.

The sting continues to pulsate even after the bee falls away pumping more venom into your flesh for up to eight minutes.

Therefore, the longer you leave a sting in the skin, the more poison is injected and the greater the reaction.

Cross-section of a bee sting left in human skin. It’s easy to see how the lower portion of the bee’s body is ripped away as she withdraws.

The other reason for stepping away is the alert pheromone. In forager (older) worker honey bees, Mandibular gland secretions produce an odorous compound, 2-heptanone, which acts to recruit other workers to attack (or as the bees see it, defend) the same target. Beekeepers with a very keen sense of smell report that this pheromone smells like bananas, although I’ve never noticed it. If you are stung, remember smoke disrupts the dispersal of pheromones so puff out some smoke near the area of the sting on your body and re-smoke the hive before continuing.

Protective equipment

Once you’re sure beekeeping is for you, buy the best suit you can afford. More expensive suits are almost made to measure; the manufacturer will ask for your body dimensions including height, shoulder measurements, waist and even back length to ensure the best possible fit. Better suits often come with lengthy guarantees (up to ten years) and wash very well. Cheap bee suits may seem attractive but often only last a season or two. The zips go and it’s often difficult to completely remove stains like propolis.

A pair of stout wellies is also advisable even though they may feel a bit uncomfortable in warmer weather. One year I decided not to bother with wellies and received multiple stings on my ankles; if you drop bees on the grass, their instinct is to climb and once they reach your skin, they sting, resulting in itchy ankles for days. I always wear my wellies now!

When it comes to gloves you have choices. If you buy a beekeeping starter kit, it often comes with a pair of beekeeping gloves. These are usually made from soft leather and are very comfortable but they quickly become covered in propolis and are impossible to clean. The danger here is your gloves may be spreading pathogens between your hives.

You could try latex gloves which are disposable and are therefore very hygienic but they can be difficult to put on and tear easily. Bees can sometimes sting through them too. Then there’s the marigold type of glove. These are thicker and offer full protection and because they are relatively cheap, can be replaced regularly too. Try to find gloves that are long enough in the cuff to pull securely over your bee suit. The only downside I have discovered, is your hands become very hot and cannot breath so you end up with a glove full of sweat!

Some beekeepers wear the leather gloves for comfort with a latex pair on top. This seems like a good idea provided you still have sufficient dexterity. After a while, when working with a colony you know to be gentle, you may decide not to wear gloves at all. It does make handling the frames easier especially if you have a more intricate task to complete. If you do go in, bare-handed, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly between colonies and rinse well to remove soap residues.

Most beekeepers do eventually come to terms with the sting. These days, I sometimes don’t even notice that I’ve been stung until later on, I find the characteristic red area on my arm or leg. It seems the fear of the sting is often worse than the sting itself; a bit like life really!

Granulation of honey in the comb

When we’re first confronted with granulated honey on the comb, we’re usually unsure of what to do. Often these frames are put in a plastic box and left forgotten at the back of the shed (I know I’ve done it) or worse, discarded as worthless.

Often, the granulated honey will first be seen when uncapping the comb prior to extraction. It usually affects the whole frame consistently or one side of a frame but sometimes, it’s seen in smaller patches where there’s been over-lapping flows from different flowers.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can just warm the comb prior to extraction. By the time the honey has liquified, the wax will have softened so much, that it will just collapse as soon as you crank the extractor.

Drawn comb is valuable. It’s taken the bees much effort and energy to create it so re-use super comb from year to year.

Granulation can be taken care of in two ways, depending on whether it’s the whole comb or just patches of it.

Whole comb granulation

Usually, in theses circumstances, the comb cannot be saved but recovery of the honey is still worth the effort. Remove the top bar and cut the granulated comb from the frame. Break or cut it into lengths that will fit into a 30lb food-grade bucket. Put your bucket into a warming cabinet or electric oven and set the temperature to no more than 55c. Needless to say, don’t try this at home with gas!

Before you start, check your electric oven is capable of being controlled down to 55c and that it will accommodate a 30lb bucket. Make sure your bucket is scrupulously clean both inside and out. Remember, the outside of the bucket will come into contact with surfaces that cook your food.

Approximately twelve hours should do for the heat to permeate through and liquify the contents of the bucket.

At 55c, the wax will break down into gloopy mush floating on top of the honey but it will not melt. Don’t worry about HMF, this process is not going to push it beyond 40ppm; the acceptable limit under the Honey Regulations for England, 2003.

Oven temperatures are not particularly accurate so check with your thermometer before you start. If the temperature rises above 60c, you risk overheating the honey and melting the wax which will just make a terrible mess inside your bucket. If you have lots of granulated comb, and you’re near a local bee farmer, you can ask to put your combs through their Apimelter; a tool specifically designed for this job and capable of taking several supers at a time.

Let it all cool to about 30c (use an electric thermometer to measure that, the sort that are used for tropical fish tanks are ideal as they have a remote probe. They cost about £10) then pour it through coarse and fine filters to separate the wax. Allow the honey to settle for twenty-four hours in your settling tank then jar it as soon as you can.

Partial granulation

In this situation, it should be possible to extract some honey and retain the wax for reuse. Extract as normal to remove the liquid honey; being careful to balance the combs in the extractor to prevent comb breakage.

When you uncapped the combs it would have become apparent how much granulation there was on each comb. Try to match combs in the extractor so that combs of equal approximate weight are placed opposite to each other.

After extraction, spray combs liberally with water so that both the granulated honey and adjacent cells are wet. This will start to dissolve the granulated honey and provides a reserve of water in the comb. The bees are then able to fully clear out the comb when it is placed back on the hive. Monitor the comb, after a week or so and repeat the water spray if necessary to ensure all the granulation is cleared.

Learning to love wasps

Since the arrival on our shores of the dreaded Asian hornet, most beekeepers have been more vigilant around their apiaries but some are using traps which indiscriminately kill all wasps including our beneficial native hornet, Vespa Crabro.

Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp

Wasps generally get a bad press. Nobody (including beekeepers) enjoys them hovering over our barbecues and picnics. Most people see them at best, as a nuisance and at worse, as nasty, aggressive creatures intent on stinging everything in range.

However, to put this into perspective, wasps are really only a nuisance towards the end of summer and they’re certainly not aggressive. Hopefully this page will give you a new understanding of wasps; you never know, you may even grow to love them!

In the UK, we have seven species of social wasps, one of which is a cuckoo which means it’s actually a social parasite.

Then there’s the European hornet (Vespa Crabro) which is really just a big wasp. It has a yellow head with a reddish brown thorax (the middle bit) and it’s abdomen has yellow and black stripes similar to its smaller cousin, the common wasp. It also has reddish-brown legs. Know your hornets

Although she may look a bit scary at 3.3cm long, our native hornet is the gardeners’ friend. She pollinates our plants and preys on pests like black fly and aphids. The European hornet is much less likely to sting you than the common wasp.

To fully understand these fascinating and clever insects, which are so closely related to our bees, we must first understand their life cycle.

• A wasp nest starts each season with a single queen who has hibernated over winter. Sometimes, beekeepers find them under hive roofs or a wasp queen will find a cosy place in or around our homes. Natural History Museum, why do wasps build nests?

• These queens are intent on finding a nesting place, they’re certainly not interested in us or our bees.

• Once they’ve found a suitable place, the queen builds a small nest and starts laying eggs which will develop into workers. It must be very hard work, the queen takes care of this brood entirely on her own.

• Once the workers start hatching, the queen restricts herself to laying eggs and the workers do everything else.

• During the spring and summer, as the wasp nest builds, the workers go out and capture live prey (black fly, aphids and caterpillars). They chew it into a sort of gruel to feed to the larvae, which, unlike our honey bees, are carnivorous.

• At this stage, the nest comprises one queen and many female workers. The workers also visit flowers for nectar, pollinating as they go.

• Some plants, like the Common Figwort are pollinated exclusively by wasps and you’ll often see them on Ivy late in the season.

Common Figwort

• The wasp larvae, in exchange for their meaty gruel, exude a drop of sweet saliva which gives the workers their sugar fix!

• Later in the season, the nest will also produce males and fully-functioning females (queens) which will leave the nest to mate.

• After this, from August onwards, the queen stops laying. With no more larvae to feed, there’s no more sugar fixes for the workers and that’s when they start investigating our sweet treats and fizzy drinks. As beekeepers know only too well, wasps can be bothersome to our bees too, attracted by their sweet smelling honey. This is really only a problem for weaker colonies which can be wiped out by wasps. Autumn in the apiary , this page contains a video showing robbing.

• The young queens now mated, go into hibernation ready for next year. The rest of the nest dies. Wasps will not use that nest again.

Wasps construct beautiful nests from wood. They scrape wood from trees using their mandibles, then mix it with saliva to form a type of paper mache. The cells are perfect hexagons which hang upside down inside an envelope which sometimes has to be re-made as the nest expands.

Keep calm and carry on

Wasps are very inquisitive, they test everything in their environment to see if it’s food. Wasp’s dislike sudden movements which is why waving your arms around trying to bat them away is a bad idea. Trying to make a hasty exit (possibly screaming) is also more likely to provoke a stinging reaction. Stay still and let the wasp investigate you; they’ll very quickly decide you’re not a suitable food source for their larvae and leave you alone.

Wasps are attracted to over-ripe or rotten fruit

It’s also important not to vibrate a wasp nest as they will interpret that as an attack. Be careful when using garden machinery near a wasps nest.

Although wasps help with pollination, their main benefit to us is pest control. They are prolific eaters of aphids and many other garden pests. Watch them working on your cabbages and other vegetables. Learn a bit about them and appreciate what these wonderful creatures actually do.

As beekeepers, we can protect our hives against the Asian hornet by using live traps and inspecting regularly. With these, we can release our native species so they can carry on their good work. There’s a YouTube video and some notes explaining how to make a live trap here or you can buy traps from your usual beekeeping supplier.

This page is based on an article by Celia Davis which first appeared in BBKA News in August 2017

Honey labelling petition

The British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) is asking local associations and their members to support their new honey petition calling on Government to change the Honey labelling rules so that UK consumers can easily recognise all countries of origin of the honey sold here.

BBKA video explaining the honey labelling issue

This is the second honey petition in the BBKA’s efforts to maintain pressure on the government to address this important issue. If you signed the first petition, please be sure to sign this one too.

Link to petition: Honey labelling petition

The important underlying issue here is funny honey, that’s honey that has not necessarily involved a honeybee collecting nectar, processing it and storing it in the hive.

Supermarket own-label honey can be bought for as little as 69p a jar. Although supermarkets say every jar of honey is “100% pure” and can be traced back to the beekeeper, there is no requirement to identify the countries of origin of honey blended from more than one country. One supermarket was even prosecuted for selling fake honey. Every little helps!

The BBKA wants consumers to start looking at the labels when buying honey – does it clearly state the country of origin? If it seems cheap compared to the other honeys on the shelf, ask themselves why?

The BBKA is asking members to share the petition link with family and friends and on social media to help reach the target of 100,000 signatures which means the Government must consider the issue for debate in Parliament.

The support of the general public and not just the beekeeping community, is essential to achieve this result so please share the petition as widely as possible. If you use social media you can share the BBKA’s social media pages to create awareness and to share the link.

Link to petition: Honey labelling petition