Dusting bees with icing sugar

It’s widely believed that high varroa levels and the associated viruses (deformed wing virus and bee paralysis virus) are the main causes of winter colony loss. Some of the authorised chemical treatments for varroa are themselves harmful to bees and potentially to the beekeeper too.

Sugar dusting has for sometime been recommended as part of integrated varroa management. Beebase recommends sugar dusting when used together with other biotechnical methods (for example, drone culling, shook swarm, queen trapping) with chemical treatments used as a last resort.

This page is a summary of information on sugar dusting gathered scientifically by Randy Oliver. If you wish to read the original detailed information, you can find it here:

Randy Oliver, scientific beekeeping .com

Randy found that dusting removed between 30% to 50% of phoretic mites (ie: those clinging to adult bees.) sugar dusting has no effect on mites contained within brood cells. Randy also found that 80% of the mites that fell dropped off the bees within one hour of dusting and that powered sugar dusting gave a more accurate measure of varroa levels than natural mite fall or washing bees in alcohol.

A phoretic stage mite clinging to a worker as it feeds

Effect of regular dusting on a varroa mite population

According to Randy’s data, a weekly dusting would result in a decrease in the mite population and both monthly and twice monthly dustings are beneficial.

Effects of different dusting regimes on a varroa mite population. Chart and data taken from scientificbeekeeping.com

Why does sugar dusting work?

The powered sugar causes the mites to lose their grip. It also encourages grooming behaviour between the bees which causes more mites to drop off.

How to apply the sugar

Dust the icing sugar over the top bars using a sugar shaker or sieve. Use 125g (1/4lb) icing sugar per full brood box. You don’t need to dust the supers. Then brush any sugar on the top bars into the seams. Check out Randy Oliver’s website (link above) which has some good pictures of this. There is no need to take out each frame to dust them individually. Research has shown dusting across the top is just as effective and doesn’t disturb your bees. Also, you don’t really want sugar entering the brood cells.

A flour sieve is ideal

When to apply

Sugar dusting can be carried out at any time of the year including during a nectar flow and in late autumn. You can even do it in winter on days where the temperature is above 8c and the bees are flying.

Sugar dusting is most effective during a brood break or when brood-rearing is at a low. That’s because sugar dusting only affects the phoretic mites which increase in numbers when brood-rearing is low. It’s also very useful to treat a swarm or artificial swarm with icing sugar as there will only be phoretic mites present and they are at their most vulnerable to sugar dusting at this time.

Dusting in October is also very effective. Four to six treatments at five to seven day intervals should bring your varroa count down into single figures. This would mean there is no need for chemicals at all. A dusting session in March, if needed, knocks the mites back again and sets colonies off to a good start.

Why not sugar dust at the end of your first Spring inspection? Before you do, put in a clean monitoring board and come back after an hour to see how many mites are knocked off. Check again after 24 hours.

Dusting in the spring and autumn is advantageous for another reason. You won’t have any/many supers on at this time and so the dusting is much easier to manage. Randy Oliver recommends two or three dusts in the spring and two or three in the autumn to keep on top of mites. His research shows that dusting when brood is present in quantity, only has a small and temporary affect on mite numbers but dusting when brood levels are low is highly effective.

Health hazards

There are no health hazards to bees. Research has shown sugar dust does not enter their trachea or spiracles. There are no health hazards for humans either.

Type of sugar

Use pure icing sugar with no additives such as dicalcium phosphate, silicon dioxide or glycerine as these may be toxic to bees. Avoid fondant icing and make sure the sugar is dry. Icing sugar cost about £1.55 for 500g; much cheaper than chemical treatments. The application of sugar takes about two minutes per hive.


If you have applied sufficient sugar, it will come through your mesh floor onto the monitoring board. The debris on the monitoring board needs to be washed off well away from your bees. Avoid dusting on windy days or wet days as the powder will clog. If you don’t clean the monitoring board promptly it can attract ants and wasps and promote robbing during a nectar dearth. Try not to spill sugar near your hive.

Disturbance to the bees

Sugar dusting causes minimal disturbance to the bees when dusting over the frames. It is also very effective when you only have a queen cell or virgin in your colony as most of the mites will be phoretic. If you’re only opening the hive to dust, do it as soon as you’ve lifted the crown board. Have your smoker ready just in case but you shouldn’t need it as the sugar settles the bees. Have your sieve or shaker ready to dust as soon as the crown board is removed.

Always keep your top bars clear of burr comb. It makes brushing surplus sugar off the top bars easier. Brace comb between frames also reduces effectiveness, so make sure all the frames are clear of it.

Improving effectiveness

There’s no need to dust supers, only boxes with brood in. If you’re running brood and a half or double brood, dust each box separately as the sugar is unlikely to make it all the way down. Dust the top box first, wait a couple of minutes then lift it off; the sugar should be enough to settle the bees.

In autumn/winter dust at the warmest time on a calm sunny day. Flying bees may congregate at the entrance, grooming themselves before going inside. You wouldn’t want them flying out when it’s cold as they may chill and be unable to return to the hive.

The value of nuclei

A well populated nucleus, ready for transfer to a full-sized hive.

There used to be a British Standard for nuclei. This is no longer in use but the requirements set out in that standard are still relevant today. A nucleus colony should:

• have a young, good quality, laying queen. She may be marked and/or clipped

• have all stages of brood present

• be free of signs of disease

• have at least three frames with brood

• have four frames or more fully covered with honey bees

• have at least one full comb of honey (or equivalent) and half a frame of pollen

• contain comb which is in a good, clean condition, preferably being less than one season old

There are many uses for a nucleus colony (beekeepers call it a ‘nuc’ for short):

• For making increase. In this case, the nuc may have a queen cell instead of a laying queen.

• For queen introduction when re-queening. This could be a mini-nuc.

• For housing a swarm

• For storing a surplus queen

• Testing a new queen

• Drawing foundation

• An observation hive is also considered to be a nuc.

A nucleus for sale or increase should consist of three or four frames of brood at all stages with attendant bees. Ideally, one frame of sealed honey but the equivalent nectar will suffice. When transporting, the queen should be caged for safety.

A queen cage is plugged with fondant. By the time the bees have nibbled through, the queen’s pheromone will have been accepted.

The attendant house bees come from the brood nest of the parent colony and are shaken from frames into the nucleus. You need a sufficient number of house bees to cover three or four frames. If the nuc is to remain in the same apiary as the parent colony, any older foragers shaken in to the nuc will quickly return to the parent colony, leaving only the younger house bees.

Occasionally, foragers from the parent colony will start robbing the nuc, so it’s a good idea to complete the creation of the nuc before placing it in its final location. Keep an eye on it too.

If the nucleus is to be moved immediately to another site, all the bees shaken in, will stay with the nucleus. When creating a nucleus, make sure the entrance is closed until the nuc has been placed in its final location. Some beekeepers block the entrance with grass which will wither, releasing the bees over time. This gives the bees time to form a functioning unit.

Don’t disturb your bees for at least a week but watch the hive entrance for signs of pollen going in.

If the nuc is remaining in the home apiary, don’t feed for at least three days. This is so as not to encourage robbing.

When bees in the nucleus are occupying all frames and stores can be found on the frames nearest the sides of the nuc, it’s time to move the frames and bees into a full-sized brood box. Place the frames from the nuc in the middle of the brood box (in exactly the same order) and complete the brood box with frames of foundation or drawn comb. Be careful not to split the brood nest and after three days, feed with an intermediate strength syrup; 1kg of sugar to 1 litre of water. You can use a frame feeder, contact feeder or a small tray feeder. Feeders; the different types and their uses. Continue to feed until all the frames are drawn. You may even be able to add a queen excluder and super for the bees to store honey!

A poly-nuc fitted with a super. I have several of these and find them the best and easiest nucs to use. The only drawback is cleaning, so I paint them each year, inside and out with masonry paint.

Advice to a prospective purchaser

Once at the permanent site, let your bees fly. In a day or two, you can transfer them to a full-sized hive.

A nucleus for swarm control

A nucleus hive can be a useful tool in swarm control. If a colony is showing signs of making queen cells, removing the queen to a nuc will prevent the swarm. In the parent colony, reduce the number of queen cells to one or two. If things go wrong, for example, the virgin queen in the parent colony fails to mate or is lost, the queen in the nuc can be reunited with the parent colony.

A nucleus for introducing a new queen

This typically comprises:

• One or two frames of brood and young bees from the colony to be re-queened. Take extra care not to include the resident queen.

• One frame of food

• Two frames of young bees to be shaken in

• The new queen in a queen cage, remember to remove the plastic tab so the bees can eat through the fondant to release the queen

Close the entrance with grass. It’s best to make up the nuc a couple of days before the arrival of the queen. Check the nucleus before introducing the queen and remove any started emergency cells before putting her in.

Re-queening a full-sized colony using the nucleus described above. Method one

• place the old queen from the receiving colony in a queen cage. She can be added to the nucleus later as an insurance

• Check the queen in the nucleus has been released and is laying

• Re-cage her in the queen cage with fresh fondant. Place this cage firmly between two frames in the receiving colony

• Spray the frames with water or very diluted syrup in both the nucleus and receiving colony

• Leave for at least a week, then check the new queen is laying

Method two, using newspaper

This is perhaps a bit easier but does involve killing the old queen unless you have somewhere else to put her.

• Move the nucleus into a full sized box. Add a frame either side of the brood nest (ideally drawn comb) and flank with dummy boards.

• Remove the queen from the receiving colony

• Place a sheet of newspaper over the frames of the receiving colony. Add a queen excluder to stop the paper blowing away.

• Make a few small holes in the paper, ideally with a pin

• Place the nucleus in its new box on top of the queen excluder

• If there were supers on the receiving colony, place another queen excluder on top of the box contains the nuc, then add the supers on top of that.

• Add the crown board and roof and leave for at least a week

• Shredded newspaper at the entrance is a good sign. Check all is well, then rearrange the frames into one box. If you have surplus frames containing stores, scrape off the cappings and place on top of the crownboard under the roof. In most cases, the bees will retrieve the honey and re-store below.

• If, in the unlikely event, there are more than eleven frames containing brood, place the frames with mainly capped brood on top of the crown board under the roof. Remove any queen cells. These frames can be removed when the brood has emerged.

• Fumigate any spare frames of drawn comb with acetic acid or burn them. Fumigating Comb with Acetic Acid.

A wooden nucleus like this is easy to clean and looks nice. The disadvantage I’ve found is, the various parts (particularly the floor and brood box) slip and are easily dislodged.

Full-sized frame mating nucleus

The following guidance on mating nuclei is taken from Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey.

The nucleus needs:

• One or two frames of brood and young bees

• Additional two or three frames of bees shaken in

• A sealed queen cell. Remove any cells the nuc has constructed

• Close the entrance with grass

• Leave the nuc alone for three weeks if you can bear it!

• After three weeks, check the queen is present and laying worker brood.

• Once the queen is laying normally, the nuc can be built up by gradually adding foundation and feeding. A five frame nuc with this season’s queen can be sold.

Mini-nuclei for mating

The advantage of a mini-nuc is you don’t need many bees and they are cheap and fun to play with. The disadvantage is that they need regular maintenance as they quickly become over-filled with bees or stores. Bees abscond readily and queen cells will not be raised as too many bees have been lost.

A polystyrene mini nuc

Housing a swarm

A small swarm is best housed in a nucleus as it’s easier to keep the cluster warm and aids the drawing out of comb. After three days, the swarm will need feeding with a frame or contact feeder. Swarm collection and hiving.

Storing a spare queen

A nucleus makes a good home for a spare queen. A spare virgin can sometimes be found if your inspection has been delayed during swarm season. In some situations, bees prevent virgins emerging but they may be released when you disturb the colony during an inspection.

A retirement home

Keeping a productive queen confined in a nuc can extend her life by a number of years. Regularly removing sealed brood results in fewer nurse bees to feed the queen and encourages her to lay. It’s a balance between keeping enough brood to sustain the small colony but not allowing them to get too strong.

Nuclei can be used to draw foundation

Bees in a nucleus will draw foundation equally from corner to corner if fed. Use intermediate strength feed; 1kg sugar to 1 litre of water.

Boosting a colony for a specific crop

A strong nucleus with a young queen can be united with a colony that needs additional bees for specific crops such as taking them to the heather. Remember to first remove the resident queen. Taking bees to the heather.

Pitfalls and problems

• New queens may be rejected, especially if you’ve missed a queen cell.

• Ventilation is important in nucs but not a through-draft

• Drifting can be a problem with nucs so make sure they are positioned away from other hives or orientated in a different direction.

• The nucleus need to be a viable size to over-winter with adequate stores

• A nucleus is easily robbed, so keep the entrance small. Restrict to one or two ‘bee ways’ until the colony builds up

• A nucleus can easily starve. Keep a close eye on stores and feed as necessary

• A strong nucleus builds up quickly so be alert and move to a full-sized hive when necessary.

Keep a close eye on bees over-wintering in nucs as they can easily starve. Feed fondant as necessary.

If you’re starting out in beekeeping and require a nucleus colony, click here.

The page is based on an article by Margaret Thomas which first appeared in BBKA News in March 2015.

Reading your bees

Whether you’re conducting a hive inspection or just sitting in front of your bees with a cup of tea, studying them carefully will tell you a lot about the health and well-being of your colony. This page aims to suggest what you might look out for.

Inside the hive

It’s best not to disturb your bees unless you have a really good reason, especially as much can be learnt by studying the hive entrance.

If you take time to watch your bees in August, you’ll probably see

• Intensive, busy flights at the entrance

• A clean landing board and ground in front of the hive. If you see lots of dead bees at this time of year it almost certainly indicates disease or insecticide poisoning.

• No signs of robbing or fighting with bees from other colonies or other insects such as wasps

• No crawling bees, chalk brood mummies

• A few healthy drones on the landing board

During a nectar flow, you may also detect a delicate floral odour in the air.

Limited activity

If on the other hand, there’s only limited flight at the hive entrance on a warm day, that’s not good. In August, bees should be everywhere. If there is only limited activity, you will need to open the hive to determine what’s gone wrong. Queen loss, laying workers, pesticide exposure or disease are the most common reasons for a colony to fail. Opening a hive under these circumstances is an easy call, the colony needs help if it’s to have any chance of survival.

Swarm-like activity at the entrance

Sometimes in August, when the weather’s hot and possibly thundery you’ll see bees pouring out from the hive. Although you may not be able to detect it, drones will be in the mix. If it were spring, you might think a swarm was about to issue. Whilst it’s not impossible for a colony to swarm in August, this activity is probably not that. In an hour or so, all returns to normal. We don’t actually know what the bees are doing (perhaps they’re too hot) but the key thing is not to panic.

Chalk brood mummies in front of the hive

Colonies with Chalk Brood are unlikely to thrive and re-queening at some point should be considered. Don’t panic though, there’s no real hurry. Chalk brood is a fungal disease and colonies seem to be more susceptible in season’s when its rained a lot. There are no approved chemical treatments for the disease and re-queening is the best option.

Chalk brood mummies on the landing board

Hive rubbish

Some colonies seem to make a great effort to dump their rubbish well away from the hive, others dump it directly outside, even on the landing board! The rubbish will consist of old cappings, wax moth litter and even dead bees. If all is otherwise well, it’s really nothing to worry about. There may be an increase in hive debris when you have spun out honey and returned the empty supers to the hive. The bees go over the returned supers and repair the damage we cause. They use or re-store the residue honey then repair the comb as space is required. This remodelling results in extra hive debris.


If you see frenzied activity in front or around the hive or bees fighting, this is almost certainly a sign of robbing. Small or weaker colonies are particularly susceptible in the late summer or autumn. Once the robbers have overcome the defences of the weaker colony, they will loot the hive’s honey reserves resulting in a significant pile of cappings at the entrance.

Denise made this short video to show robbing at the West End apiary. In this instance, she solved the problem by reducing the entrance and replacing a leaky roof.

Make sure all your boxes are tight with no gaps and reduce the entrance to make it easier to defend. If the bees still cannot defend themselves, the hive can be moved as a last resort.

Bee colour

If you’re observant and notice a change in the colour of your bees, it may mean your queen has been superseded. When you next open the hive, you may be able to confirm this; there may be the remnants of queen cells, if your queen was marked and now she isn’t, that’s a sure sign or you may find two queens (mother and daughter) working happily together in the hive.

Ventilating bees on the landing board or side of hive

During hot weather, a few bees will commonly ventilate at the hive entrance or on the landing board. Ventilating bees put their bums in the air and furiously fan their wings. Although to us it looks the same, this is not the signalling behaviour bees do using their Nasonov glands; it’s air conditioning for bees!

A hot hive

You may see masses of bees clinging to the front of the hive. This ‘bearding’ on the outside is a clear indication that conditions within the hive are either too hot or too crowded or both. It’s also a cue to you to give your bees more space by adding a super. If it’s early in the season or there’s a nectar flow on, you may consider adding more than one. If the reason for the bearding is over-heating however, the bees may continue with this behaviour even after you’ve added the super.

Bearding is quite a common occurrence and is generally harmless. Not sure what would happen in sudden rainfall and it can be a worrying site for neighbours.

Wash-boarding behaviour

If you watch your bees carefully and you’re lucky, you may witness the mysterious ‘wash-boarding’ behaviour. This is where dozens of bees, move their bodies rhythmically backwards and forwards whilst clinging to the outside of the hive. They may also fan their wings. Some beekeepers think propolis is being applied, scientists think it may be to do with the application of pheromones. Nobody knows, but its a sign of a healthy and productive colony.

Landscaping bees

Generally, only a handful of bees (six to eight) are assigned this duty. They seem committed to clearing grass and litter from the front of the hive. These are not the same bees that remove dead bees or do the cleaning, it seems to be a completely separate task.

Propolis workers

Commonly, workers can be seen manipulating propolis as though they were working with wet cement! Sometimes, they work in groups and at other times, they work alone on some self-assigned project. They’re a particularly hardworking lot!

Richard took this photo clearly showing a worker carrying propolis on her legs.

Apiary odours

On still warm days (when there’s no wind), take a deep breath whilst in the apiary. You will almost certainly be able to detect the ‘essence of beehive’. Bees use propolis at the entrance to disguise the smell of the colony but despite these efforts, a healthy hive has a distinctive and very pleasant odour. If there’s a deviation from this, it could be a sign of disease.

Inside the hive

Hungry bees

If you notice your bees are moving more slowly than usual, check the stores. In winter, it’s usually too cold to open the hive so ‘hefting’ is the best way to check stores. Hefting is a matter of practice but you can learn how to do it at an apiary meeting. If the hive seems light in winter or early spring, you can place a pack of fondant over the feed hole on the crownboard. Go back and lift the lid a week later, if your bees are hungry you’ll see them in the fondant. If you determine stores are light in summer (due perhaps to poor weather), you can feed your bees using a contact or tray feeder and syrup made to a strength of 1kg sugar to 1 litre of water.

An unhealthy colony

There are many clues to Ill-health in your colony. The bees may be slow to build-up in Spring or the colony may shrink in numbers (spring dwindling), this could be a sign of Nosema. There may be physical evidence such as Chalk Brood, fouling of the combs or entrance, Sac brood or the bees have poorly formed wings. There maybe shiny, black looking bees that are motionless or shaking.

Sacbrood virus is an infectious disease caused by a virus that affects the larvae. When sick, the colony declines gradually with few or no replacement workers. The larvae die at the pupa stage and are characterised by a small transparent water bag at their tip.

Then there are the non-visible signs like an unpleasant smell. If you encounter any of these symptoms and would welcome help, contact Meridian. Remember, an unpleasant smell may be a sign of foulbrood which is notifiable by law.

Thirsty colony

One of the reasons bees sometimes become aggressive is they don’t have a reliable supply of water. Always make sure there’s a water supply nearby but don’t put it too close to the hive as the bees won’t be able to describe the water’s location in a dance.

A shallow tray arranged with stones and gravel will allow bees to drink safely. Make sure you place it away from the hive and keep it topped up.

Old bees

You’ve all come across people who proudly tell you they’ve rescued a bee by giving her sugar water. You probably said well done but in reality, it was likely to have been a waste of time. Workers spend the last portion of their lives as foragers carrying nectar and heavy loads of pollen. They literally work themselves to death. Bees tend to die away from the hive and the ‘rescued bee’ was probably trying to do that.

Young bees

The first half of a worker’s short life is spent in the hive. Have a good look at them the next time you open up. They tend to be paler in colour and have more hair than the older foragers. Treat them with care, they are the future of the colony.

Frightened bees

If you see bees lined up at the entrance, that’ll be your guard bees on full alert. Watch to see if the colony is being attacked by bees from other colonies or wasps. If you suspect an attack, you can help your bees by reducing the entrance so they can protect it more easily. It’s also interesting to watch them ‘checking IDs’; deciding who can come in and who can’t!

Stinging is also a sign of frightened bees. That’s why your movements should always be slow and deliberate. Be gentle, and always make sure you’ve removed enough frames to make plenty of space to work. Avoid crushing and rolling your bees at all costs.

Angry bees

If bees come buzzing around your veil even after they’ve been smoked, or they chase you or others away from the hive, stinging indiscriminately, you know something’s wrong. It could be that a good nectar flow has stopped and they’re worried where the next meal’s coming from. It could be they don’t have water. It could be they’ve gone queenless or you didn’t treat them properly the last time you opened the hive. If the behaviour persists however, you should seriously consider re-queening the colony, particularly if it’s sited near other people.

Sometimes the bees agitation is a reaction to a nervous beekeeper. Relax and they will too!

Busy bees

If you open up when the bees are busy (for example during a nectar flow), they will take absolutely no interest in you. This is the best time for a beekeeper; not only does it mean you have a thriving colony but you can complete your hive inspection with no distractions. This is the time to take photographs or just watch their fascinating behaviours.

Busy bees are happy bees; they won’t give you a second thought during hive inspections.

A weak colony

If you see Chalk brood or signs of dysentery you can assume the colony isn’t strong enough to deal with the disease itself. Assess the levels of capped and uncapped brood; it might be there are plenty of bees in the pipeline and that adding a frame of brood from another, healthy colony (and feed) will tide them over, or you may need to re-queen. The colony may also benefit from a Bailey comb change.

Crowded bees

if you see developing queen cells in Spring and the hive is crowded, your bees are almost certainly preparing to swarm. Don’t panic, but look through the colony carefully. You’re looking out for two things; the queen and the presence of a sealed queen cell. Fact is, if you find even one sealed cell, the swarm has probably already departed. It’s still worth checking though. Once you have examined each frame for the queen, carefully brush the bees from the frame into the brood box. In this situation avoid shaking the bees from the frame, you don’t want to risk damaging unsealed queen cells you may later rely on.

After brushing, you will have a clear view of the frame. Take time to examine it, you’re looking for queen cells. They’re likely to be at the bottom of the frame but can also be tucked into nooks and crannies, especially at the side between the comb and frame. It’s a good idea to mark the frames on which you find cells in some way; you’ll need to find them quickly again in a minute. Most beekeepers stick a drawing pin into the top of the frame.

Sealed: the queen and swarm has almost certainly gone!

When you’re sure you know the situation in the colony, you can decide what to do. If the queen’s still present, you may decide to perform an artificial swarm or some other kind of split. If she’s gone and the colony is still strong, you might decide to utilise one or more of the queen cells by splitting the colony. Much depends on other factors like how well provisioned the parent colony is. Queen cells and how to identify the different types

If you decide on an artificial swarm and you transfer the queen to the new box on the frame on which you found her, be absolutely certain there’s no queen cells on that frame. If there is one or more, you must destroy them. The best way to learn how to perform an artificial swarm is at an apiary meeting.

Old or failing queen

If you see queen cells in the autumn and possibly patchy, dwindling brood or one to three queen cells in the middle of the frame at any time, your bees are superseding or it’s an emergency situation in which the queen has been lost. Close the hive and leave well alone for at least four weeks. Queen cells, the different types and what to do.

Emergency cells will be found in the middle of the frame within a patch of worker brood. There’s usually fewer than three.

Based on articles by Dr James Tew (Auburn University, Alabama) and Sue Carter (Buckinghamshire BKA) which appeared in BBKA News. The first Spring inspection.

Feeders; the different types and their uses

Whether you search online or look through a beekeeping catalogue there’s a bewildering array of feeders available in different shapes and sizes. Making sense of all this can be difficult. This page describes the different types of feeder and explains when and how to use them and also looks at the different feed mixes and when to use them.

An Ashforth type feeder is a good way to feed quickly and in larger quantities.

There are three basic types of feeder:

• Contact feeders

• Tray feeders

• Frame feeders

Contact feeders

These are by far the most common type of feeder used by beekeepers. They consist of plastic tubs with well fitting lids in which there are feed holes, either in the form of gauze or small drilled holes. The beekeeper fills the tub with syrup then quickly inverts it. The liquid creates a vacuum and the tub can then be placed over the feed hole in the crownboard allowing the bees to feed from the gauze or holes.

As the quantity of syrup decreases bubbles of air are sucked in, replacing the syrup taken and maintaining the vacuum. Commercially produced feeders come in standard sizes; 1/4 gallon (1.1l), 1/2 gallon (2.24l) and 1 gallon (4.5l).

You could also make your own from any plastic tub with a well-fitting lid, ice cream tubs are a favourite with beekeepers as they are flat enough to fit easily under most roofs. A 1.5mm (1/16 inch) drill produces the right size holes. If you purchase or make a contact feeder which is too deep to fit under the roof, a super can be added above the crownboard to accommodate it. It’s very important the roof fits properly with no gaps, otherwise you risk encouraging robbing.

Tray feeders

Tray feeders can be round or square. They range in capacity from 4 pints (1/2 gallon) to 3 1/2 gallons. The smaller sizes are placed over the feed hole and if necessary, can be accommodated inside an eke or super placed above the crownboard.

An ‘English’ tray feeder accommodated in an eke

The larger ones (usually made of wood) have the same dimensions as the type of hive they are designed to be used with. They are placed on top of the hive just like an extra super and the roof is put on top of that. The bees gain access to the syrup via a controlled route which allows them to feed without drowning. These large tray feeders are what commercial beekeepers use. Nearly all tray feeders are sold under the name of ‘rapid feeders’ which is somewhat misleading when applied to the smaller ones like the English as bees are only able to feed at about the same rate as a contact feeder.

The Miller feeder being well-utilised by the bees!

The rate at which feed can be taken from any type of feeder is determined by the number of bees that can gain access to the syrup (gather round the trough) at any one time. Most tray feeders have one or two round access points and the number of bees that can feed at the same time is determined by the combined circumferences.

A Miller type feeder for use on a poly-hive

The traditional hive-size feeders such as the Miller or Ashforth have a substantial length over which bees can reach the syrup. In the case of the side-access Ashforth feeder this is approximately seventeen inches but the centre access Miller feeder has an impressive thirty-four inches. These really are rapid feeders.

Frame feeders

These are not as widely used in the UK as other types but they do have a useful, more specialised role to play. As the name suggests, they take the form of a syrup holding container, the same width as a drawn frame. It has lugs like a frame so that it can be fitted within the hive in place of a frame.

A frame feeder in Red Cedar fitted within a standard National brood box

Frame feeders have a capacity of four pints (half a gallon) and come supplied with a wooden float on which bees sit and drink the syrup. In New Zealand, where frame feeders are widely used, beekeepers stuff the tank with dried vegetation to provide access to and escape from the syrup.

Choice of feeder type

There are two main considerations when it comes to the choice of feeder:

Capacity; how much feed can be supplied in a single fill

Rate of feeding; do you want the bees to get the feed quickly or slowly?


This largely depends on how much you want to feed. If it’s a large amount (two to four gallons) for example, if you’re topping up stores in preparation for winter, then a large capacity feeder is an advantage because a single fill may be sufficient. Large capacity feeders are also an advantage in an out apiary where it’s more difficult to get to your bees.

Miller feeder in Red Cedar

At the other extreme, when feeding a nucleus, a capacity of one pint may be plenty. Frame feeders may also have a place in a nucleus but of course, it does involve the removal of a frame. In a six frame nucleus the loss of a frame is probably of little importance but it may be more of an issue with a five frame nuc.

Small tray feeder. Very useful for use in a nuc

Tray feeders have the advance that you don’t have to disturb the bees to refill them but contact and frame feeders have to be removed from the hive to refill them.

The capacity of the feeder is not critical. A larger feeder can be partially filled if a smaller quantity is required. Please note, if feed is not taken, it will quickly go mouldy so keep an eye on it. Mouldy feed should be removed as soon as possible.

Rate of feeding

The choices here are more tricky. Beekeeping books will tell you that feeding in preparation for winter is best done using a rapid feeder however, slower feeding from say, a contact feeder more closely replicates an autumnal nectar flow. Slower feeding will encourage the colony to raise brood whereas feed delivered rapidly will more likely be stored. It’s a question of what it is you’re trying to achieve.

The well-known beekeeper-writer Wally Shaw thinks the advice to feed fast to limit brood production is based on the use of more prolific strains (for example Italian bees) that need no excuse to over-produce brood. He says these prolific stains are probably not best adapted to our climatic conditions. We tend to have a type of bee (sometimes referred to as ‘thrifty bees’) that over-winter in smaller colonies.

Therefore, for less prolific stains, it may be better to encourage them to continue to raise brood for as long as possible in the autumn to provide a good head of winter bees. Therefore, slower feeding would be better. Wally also points out that there must still be a good supply of pollen around for the bees to raise brood and at the end of the day, the bees know their own business best!

Other reasons for feeding

• to rescue or help a colony short of stores in the late winter or spring.

• To help colonies through the June gap; probably unnecessary with well-adapted bees.

• To stimulate spring build-up ahead of a nectar flow when there’s been good weather early in the season.

• To help hived swarms produce brood combs quickly. Feeding should not commence until three days have elapsed since hiving to allow the bees to use-up stores they brought with them in their crops to prevent the possible storage of diseased honey.

• To ensure colonies raising queen cells are nourished.

• To feed nucleus colonies so there is no hinderance to their growth.

For all these purposes, slow feeding with a contact feeder or one of the smaller tray feeders or a frame feeder is the best way to achieve the required result. Feeding during the season should be avoided unless absolutely necessary in order to avoid adulteration of honey with sugar syrup.

Feed mixes

Autumnal feeding to enhance winter stores should be done with a strong syrup comprising 1kg of sugar dissolved in 625ml of water. This is the equivalent of 2lbs of sugar in one pint of water. Autumn feeding should be completed by the end of September to allow the bees time to convert it to honey before the weather turns cold. Non-ripened feed may ferment and lead to dysentery.

Spring rescue feeding should be done with an intermediate strength syrup of 1kg of sugar to one litre of water; easy to remember and easy to do. This strength of syrup is also suitable for comb drawing, emergency feeding during the season or June gap, making queen cells and nucleus feeding.

Stimulative feeding to prepare colonies for an early nectar flow (good weather in early spring), light syrup; 1kg of sugar to 1.25 litres of water. Equivalent of 1lb to one pint.

Syrup should be prepared by pouring near boiling water over the sugar and stirring well until it’s all dissolved. The liquid should be completely clear and a light straw colour.

If you make your syrup in a pan, don’t allow the mixture to boil as this will produce a compound called HMF (Hydroxymethylfurfural) which is toxic to bees.

Ensure the sugar is fully dissolved as sugar crystals will block the feeder holes or gauze. Hence the old beekeeper complaint ‘ I’ve put feed on but the bees don’t seem to want it’. Contact feeders that have been on the hive for a significant time after their contents have been exhausted should be checked for propolis blockage of the gauze or holes. The propolis can be removed by washing the lid in a strong, hot solution of soda crystals using an old (or somebody else’s) toothbrush as necessary.

And don’t forget water

Beebase resources: Feeding sugar and don’t forget water all year round. If you don’t live near a natural water source, fill a shallow dish or bowl with water and arrange pebbles and stones inside so that they can safely drink but site it away from the hive, otherwise bees can’t describe it in a dance. Alternatively, you can buy water feeders. Providing water

This page is based on an article by Wally Shaw first published in the Welsh Beekeeper.

The first Spring inspection

Spring is just around the corner with all the hope and promise that holds for our bees. So it’s worth taking time to plan our first hive inspections. The changeable British weather at this time of year means we need flexibility to practice our beekeeping activities as the weather allows.

By early March, most healthy colonies should be expanding with an increasing amount of brood being raised. The sight of workers returning to the hive with heavy loads of pollen is a good indicator of this, but be aware, brood rearing puts a heavy demand on the colony’s food reserves so starvation is still a very real possibility; keep an eye on stores and the weather.

If your bees still have honey in the brood box, move these frames so that they are positioned next to the brood nest. If stores are light but the weather is good, you can feed an intermediate strength syrup (1 litre of water to 1kg of white granulated sugar, an easy one to remember and do) If the weather is poor, continue to feed fondant. Beebase, feeding

There is nothing more depressing for a beekeeper than to open a hive to find dead workers with their heads deep in the cells, trying to access the last of the stores as they starve, especially if there are stores in another part of the hive. This is called ‘isolation starvation’ and happens because it’s been too cold for the bees to move from one part of the hive to another. Continue to heft hives through March and if they feel light, feed as necessary.

A quick inspection

If it’s not warm enough to wear a tee-shirt (temperature below 14c), it’s still not warm enough to open the brood nest, but you can do a quick inspection. Carefully remove the roof (it’s likely to be stuck with propolis) so as not to make too much noise and disturb your bees.

Peer through the holes in the crown board. Note the smell; if it’s yeasty or musty and there’s no apparent movement inside, check whether the colony has died. If it has, close the entrance to prevent robbing which can spread disease. You can examine it later in an attempt to establish the cause of death.

There may be days in March when the Sun is shining and the temperature is above 14c. On such occasions you can carry out a full inspection. The spring inspection is the most important of the year as it is the first opportunity to assess the health of your colony.

The full spring inspection


Before you start, think what it is you’re looking for and more importantly, what action you’ll take if you find it. Record your observations so you’re properly prepared for the next time you open the hive. If you’re planning to replace any equipment (for example the hive floor), take the equipment with you. Remember, you’re also going to need a queen excluder.

Check the entrance

Before smoking the hive entrance, look carefully for signs of bee excreta in the form of brown stains which could be a sign of disease. Are there bees crawling aimlessly in front of the hive? Both these symptoms could indicate disease. You can always ask at Meridian if you would welcome guidance.

Clean floor

Once you have completed your check, lightly smoke the entrance and wait a minute. Carefully remove the hive roof and place it upside down on the ground nearby. If you are providing a clean floor, gently separate the existing floor from the brood box with your hive tool. Carefully lift the brood box from the floor and place it diagonally on the upturned roof. You can then replace the floor or scrape the existing one. Make sure any scrapings go into a container and not onto the ground near the hive as this can spread diseases.

Look for the queen

Once the brood box has be replaced on the floor, gently smoke across the crown board before carefully prising it off. Check the underside in case the queen is there. If she is, carefully place her between the frames in the brood box. If the queen is not present but the crown board has other bees on it, it can be propped against the landing board in front of the hive entrance.

There’s a good chance your hive will have a super on it (you probably left a super of honey on as winter stores without a queen excluder), so if you find the queen on the crown board or in the super, make sure she’s carefully transferred to the brood box.

Checking the combs

Remove the brood comb from the outside edge of the hive nearest to you. Shake any bees into the brood box and inspect both sides of the frame. When you have finished, set the frame against the side of the hive or place it on a frame hanger if you have one. Repeat the exercise for the second frame so as to make plenty of space in the brood box for you to work.

When inspecting frames, always do so over the hive in case the queen is dislodged. In that way, she’ll fall back into the brood box and won’t be lost in the grass. As you remove and replace the frames, take care not to roll or crush your bees.

What to look for?

Record the total number of frames your bees are occupying and the number of frame which have brood. Remember, Nosema can cause ‘spring dwindling’ so your notes will help you keep track of that.

If you haven’t already seen the queen and/or brood at all stages, check your colony is ‘queenright’. The term queenright means the queen is present, laying eggs and producing worker brood. If you find significant areas of ‘bullet’ like cappings (see photos), it’s likely the queen has become a drone layer.

Keep an eye on it by inspecting again the following week. If the proportion of drone brood has increased, it’s almost certainly a drone laying queen. The best you can do is to find and kill her, then unite the colony with a healthy one using the newspaper method.

Laying workers

If the colony is hopelessly queenless (without a queen for sometime and without the means to raise one) workers may begin to lay. In this case, the patches of bullet-like cappings will be small and irregularly spaced. Look carefully into upcapped cells, you may see cells containing more than one egg or eggs stuck to the sides of cells or scattered across the top of the comb.

The only action you can take in the case of laying workers (assuming the colony is otherwise healthy) is to take the brood box about 200 metres away from the apiary and shake the bees onto the ground. Do not replace the brood box (or any supers) in its original position. The bees will find their way back to healthy colonies.

Test comb

Sometimes you’ll come across an apparently strong and health colony that doesn’t appear to have a queen or brood. In this case, you can test for the presence of a queen by inserting a brood frame containing eggs from another colony. Check the colony again in ten days. If the bees do not raise queen cells, you know the colony is queenright.

If queen cells are raised, the colony must be united with a healthy one using the newspaper method. This is because, in early spring, there will be no drones available to mate with the queens contained within the queen cells.

Check the brood is healthy

Once you’ve found your queen, you can check the brood is healthy by shaking off the bees from each frame in turn and examining them carefully.

Healthy brood is pearly-white. The segments of the bodies should be clearly visible and each larvae lies at the bottom of the cell in a ‘C’ shape. Cells containing eggs should contain only a single egg, standing on its end if it has just been laid or lying flat at the bottom of the cell if it’s two or three days old.

Cappings on capped brood should have a dry appearance and be the colour of a digestive biscuit. Sometimes, the cappings can be a bit darker especially on older comb.

Any deviations from these standards could indicate unhealthy brood, particularly if the larvae looks distorted or discoloured or the cappings have a moist, greasy appearance. If you see such signs, take photos if you can and ask Meridian for help and advice.

Check there is sufficient food

As you go through the frames, make a mental note of the stores you see. A standard national brood frame holds 2.27kg (5lbs) of stores. If your assessment is that stores occupy less than the equivalent of two full brood frames, feed your bees, ideally with a contact feeder. The syrup should be made at a concentration of 1kg white granulated sugar to 1 litre of water.

The reason a contact feeder is recommended at this time of year, is that the bees are able to reach it without moving far from the winter cluster.

Check the condition of brood combs

The spring inspection is the ideal time to plan what you’ll need to do in terms of comb change. It’s recommended that no comb is more than three years old as dirty comb can accumulate diseases. Regular comb change also helps manage varroa.

During the spring inspection, sub-standard comb can be moved to the edges of the brood box for subsequent removal. It can be replaced with drawn comb or foundation. As you move comb around the hive, care should be taken not to split the brood nest.

As you inspect, assess the overall state of the comb and plan if you think it will be necessary to replace all the comb using either the Bailey or Shook swarm methods.

Having completed your spring inspection, reassemble the hive as quickly and gently as possible. Remember, to install a queen excluder between the brood box and any supers, having checked the queen is safely in the brood box. The first inspection is also a good time to start sugar dusting your bees. Sugar dusting.

Having completed your spring inspection(s), get your supers and frames ready for use. It’s good practise to have at least one super (preferably with drawn comb) over a queen excluder on each colony by mid-March. Even a short spell of good weather could result in a spring nectar flow and as the colony population increases, the bees will utilise the super for stores.

Queen cells and how to identify the different types

Most new beekeepers quickly learn how to work out when a colony is making preparations to swarm. That’s because, an unchecked swarm will result in a diminished population within the hive, a loss of bees for the beekeeper and can be a nuisance to neighbours.

A swarm will certainly reduce the foraging force at a key time of year and it will be several weeks before the bees lost in the swarm are replaced. That’s because a new queen must emerge, go out on a mating flight, then come into lay.

However, not all queen cells mean the colony has swarmed or is preparing to swarm. There are two other types of queen cell. In addition to swarm cells, there are what’s called supersedure and emergency cells. Knowing how to tell the difference and what to do in each case will greatly enhance your beekeeping and will help your bees.

The development of a colony, including its reproduction is cyclical and follows the seasons. In our temperate climate, the queen accelerates her egg laying in spring in order to have the maximum number of foragers available at the time of abundant nectar. This abundance of nectar is converted into honey to sustain the colony through winter.

Foraging workers live for only a few weeks while winter bees live for up to six months. Drones are allowed to live for a season. The queen is quite different. She may live for up to five years but usually, she’ll live for two or three years and may be replaced by swarming or supersedure.

Swarm cells are ‘planned’ by the bees and are built down from queen cups usually found at the bottom of the frames or in little nooks and crannies between the side edges of the comb and the frame. That doesn’t mean you won’t find them in other places; you know what we always say, the bees don’t read the same books as us! Swarming is the bees’ natural method of reproduction and involves the queen leaving her colony which means she must be replaced hence the need for swarm cells.

Queen cell types

Swarm cells are numerous, mostly hanging from the bottom edges of the combs. They contain larvae of different ages meaning the cell sizes can also be different.

When a colony reproduces itself by swarming, the established queen leaves the colony with a proportion of its existing population. This leaves the colony queenless but with the ability to raise a new queen in the form of these multiple (between ten and forty) queen cells.

At the time swarm cells are present, a careful inspection by the beekeeper will reveal numerous frames of capped brood with a reduced number of uncapped brood cells reflecting the recent reduction in laying of the established queen as she prepares to swarm.

When the time comes to swarm, larvae within the queen cells will be at different stages of development. Some cells will be fully sealed, other cells may be drawn down but not yet capped and some will be little more than queen cups. In stronger colonies, this variation in the developmental stages of the queens may give rise to the colony issuing secondary (or cast) swarms as the queens emerge over time.

Supersedure cells are also planned. They too will start out as queen cups (which look a bit like the cap of an acorn). The presence of queen cups in a colony does not necessarily mean the bees are planning to swarm or supersede; colonies build a number of queen cups as a matter of course and the cups don’t become cells until they contain an egg and royal jelly.

Supersedure cells are fewer in number than swarm cells and usually contain larvae of a similar age therefore the cells tend to be approximately the same size. However, visual examination of the cells is not enough to determine whether they are swarm or supersedure cells; the time of year and the state of the colony may be a better indication of whether the bees intend to swarm or supersede. *

• Are you looking at a very strong colony in spring? Then, more likely the bees are preparing to swarm. Is it a weaker colony, perhaps with patchy brood later in the year? More likely, it’s a supersedure situation.

In a supersedure situation, the colony is not usually as crowded as it would be prior to swarming. An injured queen or one suffering from disease or failing in some other way will present a scattered or sparse brood pattern or drone larvae may appear in worker cells.

Supersedure cells appear outside the normal swarm season, usually in autumn and drones are retained in the colony longer than they would normally be permitted. When the first queen of the small batch of cells emerges, she immediately destroys the remaining queen cells and perhaps the old queen. However, mother and daughter queen may live together for sometime until the the old queen dies naturally. We call this perfect supersedure.

Supersedure does not usually trigger swarming because conditions in the colony are not suitable however long periods of bad weather in swarm season may cause the colony to re queen by supersedure.

There are many reasons why an old or inferior queen may be superseded. She may have been poorly mated or her egg-laying is defective, possibly from poor nutrition. She may have been injured by wing clipping or when transferred from a queen cage or by fighting between virgins. Often a colony infected with nosema supersedes it queen. Age or physiological problems may cause her to produce insufficient queen pheromone. Sometimes an introduced queen (bought or raised at home) is quickly superseded; this is more likely to happen when the introduced queen is a different race or strain.

Emergency cells are not planned. As their name suggests, they are built in response to an emergency such as the loss of the queen through accident or disease. By ‘accident’ we usually mean being squashed or dropped by the beekeeper but it’s not always that!

Emergency cells are developed from an egg already laid in a worker cell or very early-stage female larvae and are therefore found on the face of the comb within a patch of worker brood. There will usually be between one and three emergency cells which will have been raised from very young larvae (no more than two to three days old). The drawn cell often protrudes slightly at the top where it has been adapted from a horizontal worker cell into one which is vertical.

Due to the emergency nature of these queens, there is a delay in the feeding of royal jelly which often results in the queen being developmentally, somewhere between a queen and a worker. These so called ‘scrub’ queens are themselves rapidly superseded.

In summary

A queen emerging from a swarm cell replaces a queen which has departed with a swarm. A queen emerging from a supersedure cell replaces an old or failing queen and a queen emerging from an emergency cell replaces a queen which has been lost.

Swarm and supersedure cells are developed from queen cups and tend to be found at the bottom edge of the comb. Swarm cells are found in the spring/early summer and are usually numerous and of varying sizes whereas supersedure cells are found later in the season and are fewer in number and tend to be more uniform in size.

Emergency cells are constructed on the face of the comb from adapted worker cells. There will usually be one to three of them angled out from the comb face.

When identifying the type of cell you are looking at, you must also take into account factors such as the time of year and colony conditions. If you discover supersedure or emergency cells, close the hive and leave well alone for at least four weeks. Swarm cells can be used to make splits or you can thin down the numbers to preserve the existing colony.

Louise: reflections on 2022

It was a warm, wet January with ten sunny days but I couldn’t get to my colonies and was reduced to external checks only. All colonies were taking in plenty of pollen indicating queens were already laying.

By putting in and removing varroa boards a week later and then examining the drop of pollen and wax, I could work out broadly how many frames the bees were covering. Six colonies were on more than seven frames. Two were on three and the others were on five or six frames.

There was some difficult weather between February and April with seven named storms and I was still finding it difficult to get into my colonies. Fortunately, there was a window of warmer, dry weather in March so I could begin inspections and plan for shook swarms. Larger colonies were given a second brood box- they were too big for shook swarms (or more precisely, there was more brood than I’m prepared to sacrifice!)

At the end of March, I visited one of my apiaries (three colonies) on a warm sunny day. This was only the second spell of better weather we’d had meaning that there was only limited forage. All three colonies had been flying well the week before. On this visit, I noticed piles of dead and dying bees in front of the hives.

Poisoning was the culprit. My guess would be that the verges- packed with dandelions- had been sprayed by an enthusiastic householder. The dandelions were the main forage available to my three colonies as the blackthorn was not yet in flower. Heart breaking and unnecessary! Raced home to get dilute feed knowing in my soul that it was a waste of time- too many dead and a cold night forecast.

In April, I removed two frames of fully capped brood from the six biggest colonies and hoped that this would catch a good percentage of varroa. In each case, I also removed the three dirtiest brood combs and replaced them with foundation as part of my routine comb rotation procedures. The colonies also had the benefit of the new foundation in the second brood box. All these colonies were fed to help them with wax building.

By mid-April, the weather was still not good enough for shook swarms. I was getting fidgety! A colony at another site had no pollen going in. Investigation revealed a probable drone laying queen. Queen despatched and bees shaken out at the far side of the apiary. Four colonies in a position to accept them. There was one big colony so I assumed the bees would beg to be accepted by the other three. I didn’t like the look of two of them; they weren’t expanding properly. Samples of bees taken for examination for Nosema at the bee health day. Tests for Nosema were inconclusive but Acarine not found.

April also saw lots of planning and frame building for bee practical training day and two training days for basic assessment also completed. Need to lie down!

Practical training day 2022

End of April, beginning of May shook swarms finally completed (yay!) Three colonies still a cause of concern.

28th April, (finally!) some drones around!! Two colonies selected for raising nucs. Both produced a reasonable quantity of honey last year, have not been treated for varroa for three years, don’t follow, lay in a good pattern, haven’t had chalk brood or slipper brood (Sackbrood) I use variations of demerees for a number of manipulations within my apiaries. In this instance, I wanted to raise four nucs without significant loss of honey production.

By now, one breeder queen was already laying on fourteen frames on double brood. My method was to add a queen excluder above the double brood boxes, having first removed a frame of pollen, a frame of honey/nectar, a frame of eggs and a frame of larvae and replacing them with foundation. I then added two supers and an adapted queen excluder with bee space and an entrance. I then added another brood box, placing in the centre the frames of pollen and larvae with nurse bees.

I took the frame of eggs and made large triangular cuts through the comb containing the cells with eggs.

I pinched out alternate cells and placed this frame between the frame of pollen and frame of larvae covered in nurse bees. I opened the entrance, replaced the crown board and roof and made a note in my diary to come back in thirteen days whatever the weather.

Thirteen days later, I had seven queen cells. I carefully removed five and placed them in a dark Tupperware box with damp sponge in the bottom. I made cardboard compartments in the box so that any queens emerging cannot reach each other.

I made another breeder demeree. Although the queen was not so prolific in this colony so I left the queen, all frames with eggs and larvae, one frame of pollen and made up the brood box with frames of foundation. I then added a queen excluder, three supers, an adapted queen excluder with an entrance, adding another brood box with the frames of capped brood, a frame of pollen and honey/nectar. I took two of the queen cells from the Tupperware box and wedged them between two frames. I do this by removing a frame to create a gap, placing the queen cell against the top bar of one frame and drawing another frame close up to it. I then replace the other frames in the box, add a crown board and roof and open the entrance in the adapted queen excluder. For more information on the Miller Method click here. Dave Cushman.

I used the remaining queen cells to make up two nuc boxes, using frames from two other colonies with plenty of nurse bees, a frame of honey/nectar and another of pollen and one containing eggs and young larvae. I achieved three laying queens from this exercise so repeated the demeree and Miller combination using another breeder queen.

All colonies were sugar rolled at least four times and had a drone cull in late June. Two colonies had high varroa counts at the beginning of August (as defined by NBU varroa counter) so were treated with formic acid.

Four colonies (including one of the ‘small ones’ produced five supers of honey each. The breeder colonies each had a full brood box of honey for the winter and yielded two supers of honey each. One colony produced three supers of honey, two colonies produced one super of honey and four colonies produced no honey at all but two of these provided frames for nucs. All the colonies on single brood had a super of honey under the brood box for winter- some also had a super of partially capped honey to empty which was removed in October.

Overall, considering the storms and rain at the beginning of the year followed by crispy forage due to drought I have been pleased with my beekeeping this year. I am frustrated that it is always done with a timer in my pocket, and I did lose a breeder queen to a swarm because I didn’t inspect under one of the demerees due to time constraint.

Following the lectures at last year’s honey show, I also lined some of my brood boxes and roofs with cork to increase insulation. This worked well over the Summer but I have yet to evaluate the winter.

Marking your queen

Queens emerging in 2023 will be marked Red There are good reasons for marking your queen. Not only does it make it easier to spot her in a busy colony and allows you to keep track of her age, but it helps you determine that the queen you’re looking at is the same queen you saw last time! Your queen may have swarmed or been superseded and marking allows you to determine this.

There are five colours used to mark queen bees, they follow an internationally recognised sequence determined by the last digit of the year the queen emerged. Since queens do not live more than five years, the colour sequence starts over in the sixth year. For example, in 2023, the last digit is 3 therefore red paint is used as set out in the chart opposite.

There are mnemonics used by beekeepers to remember the order of the colours. “Will you raise goods bees” or “What! You raise green bees!”

In order to mark a queen, you’ll need to keep her still for a moment. A queen trap or crown of thorns as it’s sometimes called, can be gently placed over the queen to trap her against the comb. The special marker pen can then be used to apply the paint to the queen’s thorax; that’s the middle bit!

The identifying mark should be small, so that it does not cover any other part of the queen. Usually, queens are marked before being introduced but they can be marked at any time. Paint should be given ample time to dry before the queen is released into the colony. 

If you buy a queen she will usually be marked already.

If you’re feeling a bit squeamish about marking a queen; worried perhaps that you’ll damage her, you can always practice in advance on drones!

If you’re not on the list, you’re not coming in!

Watch this short film to see the fascinating behaviour of guard bees. They move forward to ‘greet’ incoming bees (or possibly other insects like wasps) and very quickly, make a decision about whether the newcomer is friend or foe. Friends are allowed to pass and others are quickly repelled. What is going on bottom right? There was a hornet hawking around when I was there but she didn’t dare!

It’s a shame really, the guarding behaviour was even more in evidence yesterday, 23 September but I didn’t have my phone.

The entrance to a hive is vulnerable to attack, especially in autumn, so it’s often targeted by predators and ‘robber’ bees from other colonies. But honey bees are having none it! They’ve developed a guarding behaviour to protect the colony. A group of bees, stationed at the entrance, ‘check IDs’ and expel any undesirables.

It’s known that social insects are covered in a blend of waxy chemicals called cuticular hydrocarbons to identify members of the colony. Research shows that individual bees make their own blend of chemicals. As a bee ages, she makes a different blend of cuticular hydrocarbons and by the time she starts to leave the hive to forage, she makes a blend that is specific to the colony she belongs to. The production of this final blend is influenced by the environment within the hive. Researchers Vernier et al. have concluded that honey bees guarding the entrance can only identify non-colony members, which they then treat as intruders.

The number of bees employed in guarding activities varies according to the strength of the colony; from zero to a few dozen. The role is usually carried out by worker bees aged between fourteen and twenty-one days; that’s bees in their last week of house duties. The guard bees monitor the entrance, scrutinising bees or other insects attempting to enter. If a potential entrant is deemed a threat they will be ‘roughed up a bit’ by one or more of the guard bees. In cases where the colony is more defensive, the intruder may be stung. The aggressiveness of the would-be entrant also seems to be a factor; a bit like a bouncer at a club! Wasps for instance, often resist the initial response and are then met with a stinging reaction. A straying worker from another colony is likely to be more gentle and may be allowed to enter.