Taking bees to the heather

Heather honey

Each year, at the summer’s end, some Meridian beekeepers take their strongest hives to the New Forest.

Ling heather growing there begins flowering in late July and continues until September. Colonies taken to the heather must be in peak condition, having a well-laying queen and plenty of bees.

As ever with beekeeping, good weather is essential. Yields are rarely high so Heather honey is like gold dust! The worst that can happen is that the bees will fill their boxes with plenty of good quality winter stores.

Heather honey is neither runny or set. It has a thixotropic consistency (jelly-like) but a quick stir with a spoon and it turns to liquid before setting again.

Heather honey has a distinctive floral, slightly bitter flavour and is rich in antioxidants; that’s why it’s often called the ‘British Manuka’. There is more information about honey generally on other pages.

New forest Heather

Hampshire Beekeepers’ guidance

The following notes have been compiled as guidance for those beekeepers taking their colonies to the New Forest. Although most of the points are not rules, the guidance is based on common sense and good practice.

  • All colonies moved to the heather must be free from disease.
  • Colonies must not be moved from apiaries where there is a standstill order in force.
  • Beekeepers must pay regular visits to their colonies to ensure all is well.  Horses and other critters can do considerable damage.
  • Where a colony has died out, it should be removed from the site immediately as it is a possible source of disease.
  • Particular attention should be paid to robbing:  it can be triggered easily in shared sites by returning wet supers to hives.
  • Towards the end of the heather honey flow, reduce entrances to your hives as a precaution against robbing.
  • When visiting a shared site check other hives in case they have been knocked over or left askew by animal contact. Please straighten them up to prevent robbing and advise the hive owner.
  • Make sure your hives are clearly marked with this year’s identity number and your contact details to help should a problem arise.
  • On communal sites, it’s important beekeepers act as a team to support each other and troubleshoot problems early on.
  • Keep away from roads, paths and bridal ways, and ensure your hives are sufficiently distant from others.
  • Visit the site before moving your bees so that your move can be properly planned.

These notes are based on guidance from Hampshire Beekeepers’ Association.

Each year, Meridian organises the ‘heather migration’ as an Association and siting hives in the forest must be pre-arranged and agreed. Bees are booked for the forest in April or May and the forest license begins at the end of July and expires 6 October.


Peter Grimes of the Hampshire Beekeepers’ Association has compiled this comprehensive risk assessment which offers a helpful guide to the issues you may wish to consider.

Members’ blogs

Richard Skinner describes collecting and hiving his first swarm and the progress of his new colony so far. Richard

Denise Smith writes about progress at our West End apiary and recent successes with Bailey Comb changes in Spring 2022. Denise

Louise Evans writes about the Meridian event on 3 April. Members gathered to prepare equipment for the upcoming season. Preparation day

Colin Bowsher writes about his dear friend Scott Peters who died earlier this year and their many beekeeping adventures. There’s also a lovely piece from Scott’s daughter Sharon. Scott Peters

Meridian members Steve Fallowfield and Mike Roberts describe their first attempt at candle making. Steve and Mike

Robin Sergi talks about Mentoring and the personal benefits he gets from doing it. Robin on mentoring.

Lisa describes a swarm hiving that didn’t go well proving that when things start going wrong, they keep going wrong! Lisa

Louise Evans talks us through the best and worst of her colonies in 2020 and in the process, passes on some useful tips. There’s a couple of surprising meteorological statistics in there too! Louise

Lisa Rooke takes steps to create a chemical-free pollinator paradise in her new garden and describes some of the wildflowers she’s planted there. Lisa

Rebecca Wright tells us about her candle-making journey so far and the Christmas presents she made with sister Sally. Becky

Howard Towl writes about the relationship between Honey and Veganism and questions some of the Vegan’s Society’s assertions. Honey and veganism

Charlie Mallindine writes to tell us how a warrior queen may be the remedy for a worker-laying dystopia. Charlie

New Meridian member Richard Skinner writes to introduce himself and describes his path into beekeeping. Richard

New member James Savage describes what happened when he moved his first hive, but its all right now! James


I had never really thought about becoming a beekeeper, but like many, I had become aware of the plight of pollinators through the media. It was only when my mum passed away in November with lung cancer that I started to think about creating a wildflower garden in her honour and as a place of remembrance for my dad who was diagnosed with the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

It wasn’t until the virus came at the start of the year and we were put into isolation that it really came about and we started planning the creation of the garden. I purchased 30,000 wildflower seeds from Groupon and with my partner Kurt, I started to dig over the small plot of land around the cherry tree at the side of the garden.

I started to think about how it would look and the idea of a beehive popped into my head as natural progression to the wildflower garden. So, without any real planning or research, I jumped in and purchased a Langstroth flow hive for £175 from China, which at the time probably wasn’t the best place to buy one!

It arrived a few weeks later. I put the hive together the same day and Kurt built a stand for it. It was placed in the flower garden facing south with the sun on it and a little shade from the cherry tree during the afternoon. We set to planting the seeds and creating a pathway through the flowers to the hive. Little did we know at that time what 30,000 seeds would look like!

I started watching YouTube videos about bees and thought, after looking at the price of bees, I could catch a swarm. I purchased Swarm (an attraction product) and placed some in the hive and waited.

Three weeks later, well into the swarm season, I felt disappointed that I hadn’t caught any, thinking it would be that easy! I was wrong. I decided purchasing some bees might be better as the summer was fast approaching. I found a package of Italian Buckfast, which based on my research, seemed to be the best choice for calm nature and honey production. 

Once the bees were ordered, I waited and this time, set myself the task of learning everything I could about bees. I signed-up to an online course with beekeepers.org which proved to be very useful, watched hundreds of YouTube videos (to the point where my family would sigh each time I put one on) and I started to read beekeeping books; surprisingly finding one written by Haynes which I though was all car manuals!

I signed up to Beebase and started reading their information sheets. I even purchased an iPhone 11 so that I could produce videos for myself. I was totally committed to my new hobby!

Weeks passed and I finally received word that the bees were ready to collect from Kent, a two-hour drive from us. I was armed only with my gardening gloves and a small hat with veil as the remaining items I had purchased were delayed due to COVID restrictions.

We arrived at the location and this was the first time that I saw my bees! I was very excited and nervous at the same time. I loaded the box into the boot followed by a few bees that had been flying around.

As we travelled back, we noticed a bee rising from the boot and onto the back window, then another and another. Thankfully we were nearly home and when I opened the boot, I could see that the sugar tin had worked loose creating a gap where the bees had been escaping.

I walked with the box slowly so not to lose the stragglers and placed the box at the side of the hive as I had read that the bees needed time to get used to their new environment. Several hours later around 4 pm (which again I had read, was a good time to introduce the bees to the new hive as they would be less likely to leave) I set about pouring the bees from the package into the hive. It was truly amazing and something I will not forget; it was like a stream of water pouring into the hive.

I had read that with the weather being warm I could place the queen on the floor of the hive without fear of her freezing, so I broke the plastic seal to the sugar, placed the cage on the floor of the hive, replaced the plastic foundation frames that I had purchased from Bee Equipment and closed up my hive.

My suit and equipment had still not arrived but I had to know, so I put on my gardening gloves and I was ready to have the question answered. I opened the hive and I was surprised at how calm and relaxed they seemed… at least I hadn’t been attacked yet! I removed a couple of frames and to my delight, saw fresh comb being built and on the bottom of the hive was the queen out of her cage and being attended to. I added some Fondabee and pollen patties to the hive having read that they would need a little help in the early weeks.

I then set about trying to find a club or association that could help me. I felt confident, but I also knew that there was so much I didn’t know and I was now responsible for these little creatures, all 1001 of them and growing. I spoke to a friend who recommended Meridian Beekeepers who were an amazing help from the start.

The COVID virus has brought challenges, like not being able to attend any courses or personal instruction. It’s now been close to six months and I have completed several inspections and have been amazed by the bees and the building of their colony. Like all new beekeepers, I’ve had my panic moments. My first panic came during a hot night when the bees were outside of the hive…I thought that’s it, they are not happy and they are leaving. As I turned to my videos and the internet again, I was pleased to find out that it was just too hot in the hive for them. Panic was over.

As we move into winter and I get my bees ready, I can honestly say that I’m back in that anxious mode. Have I done enough? Will they survive? What will I do in those months as I can’t look at them nearly as often?

Although this all came about from the loss of my mother, these little creatures have been a godsend to us during what is a difficult time. I know that each time I work with my bees she is watching and smiling…even dad has started to enjoy the garden again.

I am looking forward to learning all I can from my mentors Phil and Denise and attending the association’s classes next year. In the meantime, I intend to learn all I can and hopefully one day become a Master Beekeeper.

07812 624970



Being furloughed from work presented the ideal opportunity to start keeping bees – something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time, but I had no idea where to start. A neighbour, a Meridian member, kindly offered to teach me the intricacies of the art.

A paced and measured experience followed – beginning in the Spring, up until the current day. I even achieved my first colony!

Like lots, the bug was well and truly caught, and the desire to increase and diversify built. This was coupled with the offer to keep some bees in a natural woodland – an offer too good to be missed. More bees were needed!

A natural bee keeper in Surrey had developed a severe reaction to bee stings, and while on holiday, her empty equipment had been colonized by a swarm – I was later to find out this was some three years previously, and not on a more recent excursion, as I’d initially believed.

My mentor was on holiday but the bees were not to be missed! Having read-up thoroughly and persuaded a friend with a truck to provide transportation, the bees were safely moved in the depth of night and deposited in the woods, to be further assessed the next morning.

The ‘challenges’ then began.

On inspection the following morning, the area surrounding the hive was awash with honey. But why? All the rules had been followed. The hive had been handled with the upmost care, securely strapped in the truck, driven at a gentle speed and the owner although a natural bee keeper, had assured me on this occasion she’d placed frames in the hive on discovering the swarm. What had gone wrong?

I had to admit I was out of my depth, and although my pride was at risk, the welfare of the bees was paramount. A hurried email and pictures to Louise and Howard resulted and ‘Bee Rescue’ in the form of Louise and Lisa dispatched! (Imagine Baywatch with Smokers!)

When opened, the hive was full of brace comb, and although some frames were present in the brood box, these were old and broken. There was no queen excluder under the two supers, so in essence, I’d picked up a huge brood box now dripping with honey!

The hive was dismantled with the upmost care. Louise decided to leave the old brood box as was, and create a new brood box above. This was filled with some drawn comb which we brought with us and lots of disintegrating brood comb from one of the supers which we pressed into frames.

While challenging (and sticky), our production line worked. Louise selected sections of brood, Lisa transported it and I eased it into empty frames, with numerous elastic bands to secure. The bees were pretty patient with us all told – while busy and excited, they didn’t display any amount of aggression.

A crown board with an empty super went on top of that and all the remaining comb with honey was placed there for the bees to retrieve. Another crown board was added, which we smeared with all the remaining honey from our tools and the table we’d been working on. Finally, the roof went on, the entrance restricted and a huge sigh of relief went out.

On inspection with Howard, a couple of days later, we were greeted with positive behaviours. One of Louise’s major concerns was that the queen had perished in the move and subsequent collapse. But the bees were frantically busy, with lots of pollen being collected. We left the bees well alone to do what they do best. As a new beekeeper, I’m desperate to know what’s going on inside – but the biggest lesson I’ve learnt so far in this journey, is that bees like to be left alone. So my curiosity will have to wait until the Spring!



This document is an overview of Anaphylactic symptoms and first aid. It could be used as the basis for a public notice to be displayed near an apiary during a public event.  


Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction to a trigger such as an insect sting. It’s also known as anaphylactic shock.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis usually develops suddenly and can get worse very quickly. The symptoms can include:

  • feeling lightheaded or faint                
  • clammy skin 
  • confusion and anxiety                        
  • collapsing or losing consciousness 
  • wheezing                                              
  • a fast heartbeat
  •  breathing difficulties – such as fast, shallow breathing 

There may also be other allergy symptoms, including an itchy, raised rash (hives), feeling or being sick, swelling (angioedema), or stomach pain.

What to do if someone has anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. It can be serious if not treated quickly.

If someone has symptoms of anaphylaxis, you should:

  1. call 999 for an ambulance immediately – mention that you think the person has anaphylaxis. Write down the map reference of your apiary (perhaps on a hive stand) in case you ever need to direct an ambulance
  2. remove any trigger if possible – for example, carefully remove any wasp or bee sting stuck in the skin
  3. lie the person down flat – unless they’re unconscious, pregnant or having breathing difficulties
  4. use an adrenaline auto-injector if the person has one – but make sure you know how to use it correctly first
  5. give another injection after 5-15 minutes if the symptoms don’t improve and a second auto-injector is available

This page is based on the NHS website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anaphylaxis/

Classes of membership and fees

Partner and Associate members do not benefit from public liability insurance or receive BBKA News. For further details of the BBKA classes and benefits of membership please go to https://www.bbka.org.uk/classes-and-benefits

Bee Disease Insurance

The minimum payable by each Member Association to BDI Ltd as a condition of membership is a subscription of £2 per annum for each of its beekeeping members. This subscription includes insurance cover for up to three honey bee colonies. Note: BBKA Partner Members are not required to make any BDI payment, but the Full Member is responsible for insuring all colonies owned by themselves and their Partner Member.

Associate Members, Junior Members and Friends are typically not insured as they do not usually keep bees independently or they are insured via another association.  

Beekeepers under the age of 16 years are unable to take out insurance policies and any policy has to be arranged by a parent or guardian. Bees kept by Junior Members whose parents do not keep bees can have insurance taken out on their behalf with BDI.  

In such circumstances  the paper or eReturn receipt should show the Junior members name in the usual way, but the first line of the address should be replaced by the Parent/Guardian’s name, followed by the address on the remaining lines.

Beekeeping members are obliged to pay premiums for any extra colonies they own.  

The additional premiums are shown below:

Up to 5 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £1.20
Up to 10 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £4.70
Up to 15 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £7.75
Up to 20 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £9.50
Up to 25 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £11.10
Up to 30 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £13.60
Up to 35 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £16.10
Up to 39 colonies (including the basic three) an additional £18.10
Mor for more than 40 colonies, please contact the membership secretary howard.towl@btinternet.com who will obtain a quotation for you from Bee Disease Insurance Limited

For the benefit of the sharp-eyed, you may notice BDI has slightly reduced the premium for the first two bands. This change takes affect in 2023. All other bands will remain the same. 

Due to careful husbandry of its resources, BDI has not increased its premiums in the recent past, and in fact, has absorbed several rises in Insurance Premium Tax that are included in the subscription and premiums charged.   

For associations like Meridian that use the online renewal system within the eR2 membership system no action is necessary as additional premiums are calculated automatically when a member enters the number of colonies to insure.

BDI funds research into the causes of bee diseases. These activities are funded from your subscription. Further details of BDI research activities can be found on their website. https://www.beediseasesinsurance.co.uk/research

When does BDI cover start?

BDI premiums are paid each calendar year. Insurance cover becomes effective from the moment the member’s association receives his or her membership subscription and additional premiums. 

Where such payment is made after 31st March, cover will not commence until 40 days have elapsed from the payment of the subscription and premium. This is known as the 40-day rule. This is to prevent members starting or increasing cover during the active season when they may have already discovered the presence of disease.

Reading and links to trusted sources

BBKA Guide to Beekeeping

This is the only book for beginners endorsed by the BBKA. It’s enjoyable and easy to read, has clear photography and illustrations and is the definitive text for the basic assessment.

The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping introduces the reader to the craft and includes sections on the workings of the colony, the structure of a hive, how to acquire bees and keep them healthy and each month of the beekeeping year.

Each chapter is accompanied by anecdotes, answers to frequently asked questions and fascinating facts about bees and honey. The second edition includes new step-by-step sequences illustrating procedures such as containing a swarm, identifying the queen, using a smoker and cleaning a hive as well disease management and many other key subjects. Authors: Ivor Davis NDB and Roger Cullum-Kenyon. https://www.bbka.org.uk/shop/bbka-guide-to-beekeeping-2nd-edition

Guide to Bees and Honey

Former President of the British Beekeepers’ Association Ted Hooper MBE was the influential author of Guide to Bees and Honey which has sold more than 200,000 copies and has been translated into more than 12 languages since publication in 1976.

The fourth edition, updated by one of his pupils, includes techniques to control Varroa, a problem unknown to Hooper before his retirement in 1984. This is still the best-selling beekeeping book of all time and one of the most highly recommended books for new beekeepers. Author: Ted Hooper MBE

BBKA Special Editions

The BBKA has a range of special editions covering a whole range of subjects including colony management, feeding honey bees, natural varroa-resistant honey bees, general husbandry, queen rearing and practical mead making.

The special issue on Advanced Husbandry for example offers guidance to all beekeepers (not just those wishing to take the Advanced Husbandry Assessment) and includes articles written by experienced beekeepers. Each article presents personal experiences of beekeeping topics.

There is also a range of lamented sheets which summarise various manipulations for example, Bailey Comb Change, Pagden artificial swarm and shook swarm. The special editions and lamented sheets are all available from the BBKA website. https://www.bbka.org.uk/pages/shop/department/bbka-resourceshttps://www.bbka.org.uk/pages/shop/department/bbka-resources

The Collins Beekeeping Bible

A bit of a coffee table book this one. It covers all the essentials from caring for bees, hive management and has clear instructions and step-by-step guides. It also contains a wealth of information on the culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and domestic uses of honey, beeswax and pollen. There’s also information on candle-making, making home-made furniture polish and beeswax hand cream plus honey recipes for cakes and breads, sauces and marinades, drinks and even flavoured spirits.

It also covers lots of background subjects like folklore, history of beekeeping, bees in literature and bee trivia. Illustrated with photography, illustrations and etchings, this is an invaluable handbook for a beekeeper and a good read for everyone else!

Haynes Bee Manual

The Haynes Bee Manual is a clear and concise introduction into the fascinating world of the honey bee. For anyone wishing to start beekeeping, this step-by-step guide full of colour photographs and and practical advice is a very good starting point. There is something reassuring about the scale and simplicity of this book which helps to make the idea of staring in beekeeping a bit less daunting.

Author: Claire Waring

For your delectation, an absolutely beautiful video showing a mating flight:

Links to trusted sources

Beekeeping through the eyes of biologist Randy Oliver: “this site is a record of my learning process as I try to understand aspects of colony health and productivity, and the reasons why various management techniques work (or don’t)”

National Bee Unit – BeeBase
BeeBase is the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s National Bee Unit website which helps keep honey bee colonies healthy and productive by providing information on pests and diseases, treatment options, beekeeping related legislation for England and Wales. I Beebase.

BBKA – British Beekeepers Association
offers a wide variety of benefits for members. There’s the Spring Convention, their excellent monthly magazine and extensive education programme. The website contains beekeeping information including links to videos, beekeeping news and events and even a shop! BBKA

Dave Cushman’s Website
Decades of beekeeping experience laid out over several thousand pages. A repository of apicultural information treasured in the beekeeping world. Dave Cashman.


SICAMM-Societas Internationalis pro Conservatione Apis melliferae melliferae
International Society for the Conservation of the Dark European Honeybee. SICAMM.


CABK – Central Association of Beekeepers
For those with an interest in the scientific side of beekeeping. By organising lectures and producing publications, the association enables beekeepers, bee scientists and others interested in bees to keep in touch with the latest research and ideas about bees and related topics. Acting as a bridge between the beekeeper and the scientist.

Scottish Beekeepers' Association Logo

SBA – Scottish Beekeepers’ Association
The member organisation that represents Scottish Beekeepers at National and International Level.


WBKA – Welsh Beekeepers Associations
Cymdeithas Gwenynwyr Cymru
The member organisation that represents Welsh Beekeepers at National and International Level.

Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations Logo

FIBKA – The Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations
Comhnasc Cumann Beachairí na hÉireann
This is the umbrella organisation for the County Beekeeping Associations in the Republic of Ireland, and organises the annual Gormanston Summer School


UBKA – The Ulster Beekeepers’ Association
UBKA is the organisation to which the Beekeeping Associations in Northern Ireland are affiliated

Galtee Bee Breeding Group Logo

NIHBS – Native Irish Honey Bee Society
To promote the conservation, study, improvement and re-introduction of Apis mellifera mellifera (Native Irish Honey Bee), throughout the island of Ireland.


SNHBS – Scottish Native Honey Bee Society
Promoting the conservation, maintenance, breeding and study of the Scottish Native Honey Bee.

Bees for Development Logo

Bees for Development
The philosophy of Bees for Development is to assist people living in poor and remote areas of the world, and to raise awareness about the value of beekeeping for poverty alleviation.

Bees Abroad Logo

Bees Abroad
Bees Abroad is a UK charity dedicated to the alleviation of poverty in developing countries through the advancement of the craft of beekeeping. Bees Abroad runs, funds and monitors beekeeping projects that it agrees to support

Honey Bee Watch logo

Honey Bee Watch
Honey Bee Watch is a global citizen-science study to better understand the traits of survivorship among untreated and free-living colonies. Starting with a UK-based pilot focused on Apis mellifera, it’ll eventually expand into new regions and include all 10+ Apis species. Its aim is to increase scientific knowledge about these species, potentially leading to more sustainable land management and beekeeping practices as well as educational programs and conservation initiatives to engage and inspire the wider public to act locally to protect threatened or endangered populations.


Type any beekeeping subject into the search engine of Youtube and you’re more than likely to find a selection of videos. There’s some really good stuff on Youtube but there’s quite a lot of rubbish too! New beekeepers should be cautious about treating YouTube as a definitive source of information.

Many of the videos are from overseas where climatic conditions and practices are often different to ours. If you find a good video, please send details or a link to howard.towl@meridianbeekeepers.com and I’ll add a it to this page.

Honey bee under the microscope

Get up close and personal with our favourite Hymenoptera in this beautiful five minute video.

Three minutes on varroa

Watch this fascinating three minute video by Samuel Ramsey, doctoral candidate in entomology. He summarises his dissertation on Varroa which may offer some hope in the eradication of the biggest threat to our honey bees. If you’re interested, he also has some longer videos on Youtube.

BBKA Asian hornet conference 2021

This is an epic (nearly six hours) but covers absolutely everything there is to know about the Asian hornet. It’s definitely worth a watch but for most people, it would have to be in bite-sized chunks!

Beekeeping Events

The Beekeeping Events website compiles details of current and forthcoming local and national beekeeping events. There are details of both ‘in person’ events and webinars.

The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeder Association (BIBBA) has an excellent programme of talks and events, mostly free, for beekeepers at all levels. Speakers include their President Roger Patterson and subjects range from bee improvement and queen rearing to the role of the bee inspector and beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey. BIBBA

The National Honey Show

The Honey Show has some excellent lectures in their archive on many diverse subjects including managing varroa, queen rearing, practical beekeeping and honey bee biology: National Honey Show videos

Shook swarm

Shook Swarm

This is a temporary page, a step-by-step guide will appear here shortly.

The shook swarm or shakedown method is a simple and effective process. Although it may seem drastic, when it is carried out in the spring it usually has the benefit of invigorating the bees.

Newer beekeepers are sometimes squeamish about carrying out a shook swarm; it does after all involve the destruction of brood and stores but if the colony is on very dirty comb (which maybe infected with pathogens and high levels of varroa and other pests), it’s a very good way of protecting the bees’ health by getting them onto fresh comb.

This manipulation can only be carried out on a strong colony which has been building-up well. It is best done in the spring when the weather has improved.

The process involves placing a clean box fitted with foundation (including a new or clean floor and crownboard) adjacent to the target hive. All the bees from the hive are vigorously shaken from the old comb into the new box, one frame at a time. The new box is then placed on the site of the original hive for the flying bees to return to.

The old frames and comb are then removed and destroyed.

Shook Swarm can be used for a number of reasons, including combs change or to separate the bees from pathogens or disease spores. It is an accepted method of treating a colony that has been infected with European Foulbrood. Shook swarm has become a useful manipulation where a colony is heavily infected with Varroa. Beebase has some excellent information: http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/searchResults.cfm

Varroa, an overview

Varroa destructor is an external parasite of honey bees. It is non-native to the UK and Europe and was accidently introduced in the early 1990s via the movement of infested honeybees from Asia. It has now spread worldwide.

Varroa lives harmoniously with the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) which has adapted to it. Elsewhere, Varroa has caused untold damage to worldwide populations of honey bees including the European honeybee (Apis mellifera).

Asian worker bees have developed highly effective grooming techniques to detect and remove mites from each other.

Worker bees also learnt to detect infested younger drone brood and remove it.

The cappings of drone brood in the Asian Honeybee contain a central pore to allow gaseous exchange. When worker bees detect disease or Varroa mites in a cell, they plug the pore with wax. This suffocates and entombs the developing drone and inhibits the spread of the mite.

Apis cerana and varroa now co-exist quite happily.

The life cycle of the Varroa mite consists of two phases – phoretic (feeding and travelling on the back of a mature bee) and reproductive. In the phoretic stage, a mated female mite detects the capping pheromone produced by the brood when it’s time for workers to cap them over ready for pupation. At this point, this ‘mother’ mite enters the cell and hides in the pool of brood food underneath the larva.The cell is then capped.  As the larva gradually consumes the food, the ‘mother’ mite is revealed and attaches herself to the larva and starts to feed on it.   The larva is weakened but continues to pupate. The ‘mother’ mite produces 5 – 6 eggs.The first mite to hatch is always a male followed by four or five females. The male mates with the females and then dies within the cell. The ‘mother’ mite and any other mated females leaves the cell on the emerging worker or drone.  

The mite can spread between different colonies as it hitches a ride on drifting bees. Perhaps we should be re-thinking keeping hives in straight lines so close to each other? Beekeepers can easily spread Varroa during manipulations.  

Varroa weakens the honeybee and makes it more susceptible to other illnesses

Worker bees store food in their bodies and the Varroa feeds it depleting and weakening the worker.

‘Winter’ bees have highly developed fat bodies which enables them to live through the winter.

It is therefore vital to ensure Varroa numbers are low going into winter to limit damage.

Deformed Wing Virus

The parasitic Varroa mite weakens bees but it also vectors viruses which are what really causes the damage.

Deformed Wing Virus results in crumpled and deformed wings and stunts bees’ bodies. Infected bees are useless to the colony.  Eventually, there won’t be a sufficient number of foragers and the colony will starve. 

Factors controlling mite populations in honey bee colonies

(Those which we can affect are shown in bold)

Male Varroa have a high mortality rate so mating may not always occur.

Worker larvae have a shorter pupation period than drones resulting in an average of only two mated daughters leaving with the mother.

The reproductive rate of the mother Varroa varies and she may lay non-viable eggs.     

The beekeeper can limit Varroa numbers by maintaining good apiary hygiene and regularly changing comb.

A good apiary layout with hives well-spaced and not laid out in straight lines can help by preventing drifting.

The beekeeper can limit Varroa populations by sourcing local bees from reputable suppliers and raising her or his own queens.

Beekeepers can limit the movement of bee colonies to prevent Varroa spreading.

Swarming creates a broodless period which halt the reproductive cycle of the Varroa.

Artificial swarms or other swarm control manipulations also breaks the reproductive cycle of the Varroa mite.

The importation of bees, is it worth it?

Since January 2021 it illegal to import colonies and packages of honey bees into Great Britain. Importation of queen bees is still allowed but is strongly discouraged by the British Beekeepers Association, the National Bee Unit (DEFRA), Bees for Development and other organisations.

It may sometimes seem like a quick fix to import bees but it does pose an avoidable risk to the health of our bee population.

The Varroa mite was accidentally introduced by importation and look at the trouble that caused!  Small Hive Beetle is now confirmed in Italy but Italian bees are still regularly imported by some UK beekeepers.

Locally reared bees are best adapted to local forage and weather conditions.

Current best practice is to avoid the importation of queens or colonies in order to best assure the long-term sustainability of beekeeping in Britain.

Hygienic genes – increased grooming/mite detection and elimination.

Sugar dusting – see below

Drone trapping – see below

Queen trapping – see below

Varroa monitoring

The National Bee Unit cautiously considers a population of 1,000 Varroa mites to be a critical level for a colony of honey bees. There are various methods of counting the Varroa population in your hives and these have varying degrees of accuracy and complexity. All these methods are described in detail on BeeBase. Beebase, varroa

The simplest method is to use your Varroa boards. Click here to see a short video demonstrating this method Counting varroa. Insert a clean board under your hive and leave it for a number of days; it’s important to remember how many days! Remove the board and study it carefully. You will find fragments of wax and propolis, bits of dead bee and pollen and with a bit of practice and patience, you’ll be able to spot dead Varroa mites. Count them up and then visit the Beebase website where there’s a very useful calculator which estimates the population of mites in your colony. Varroa calculator.

The graph shows how keeping mite numbers low at the start of the season slows down the reproductive rate ensuring the colony is kept out of the danger zone for longer.

The graph also shows how Varroa numbers are increasing in August/September whilst bee numbers are decreasing. This means the colony could be in danger of being overwhelmed by Varroa if left unchecked.

Before the mite population of your bees reaches the critical level, you can consider a combination of tried and tested methods of control.

Described below are number of non-chemical treatments which can be used during the honey collecting season.

Most beekeepers use an ‘Integrated Pest Management’ system (IPM) and apply a chemical treatment after the honey harvest and non-chemical methods during the nectar flow. Other beekeepers do not use chemicals.

Treatments vary in their efficacy and so using the most effective treatment at the right time of year will help to ensure numbers take longer to increase again.

It is also best practice to treat all the colonies in the apiary at the same time to limit the opportunity of re- infestation via drifting.

There are several biotechnical (non-chemical) methods available to keep Varroa populations down and these may be used at different times of the year.


Queen trapping

This can be done at the beginning of the season after the queen has started laying. 

The National Bee Unit states that the technique has an efficacy of up to 95%. It works by restricting the queen to a single frame for nine days. A special queen excluder is placed on either side of a frame of drawn comb. Varroa attempting to reproduce enter the open brood cells within the caged comb. When the cells are capped over, the queen is released and the frame is removed along with any mites inside the cells.

The process interrupts the reproductive cycle of the Varroa mite. Full instructions on how to undertake the process are available from the National Bee Unit website: Queen trapping. If you search the site, there’s some other useful resources too and some photographs.

Culling drone brood

Varroa prefer to lay their eggs in drone brood because its capped for longer. It’s possible to use this information to your advantage in your efforts to reduce the mite population.

Simply replace a couple of frames at the edge of your brood box with super frames. The bees will typically draw-down wild comb below the super frame and raise drone brood within it.

Once the drone larvae is capped, you can cut it away from the frame.  Destroying these cells removes a large proportion of the total mite population.

Spring and summer

Sugar dusting

Sugar dusting encourages the bees to groom the mites from reach other. Sugar (icing sugar is best) is readily available, inexpensive, and harmless to your bees.

One cup of icing sugar per brood box is ideal and there are various suggested methods of application.

The sugar method only affects the phoretic mites which means that the sugar must be applied regularly in order to remove mites as they hatch.

Some experiments have shown the best coverage is achieved by removing every frame from the hive, treating both sides, and then replacing the frame. This is quite a lot of work but can be done during hive inspections. Other experiments have shown that dusting the top bars is more effective, as long as at least some of the sugar immediately falls through to the bottom of the hive.

Sugar dusting should only be done in dry weather and low-humidity conditions otherwise the sugar will clump on the bees instead of dusting them reducing the efficacy of the treatment.

Shook Swarm

The shook swarm or shakedown method is a simple and effective process. Although it may seem drastic, when it is carried out in the spring it usually has the benefit of invigorating the bees.

Shook Swarm can be used for a number of reasons, including combs change or to separate the bees from pathogens or disease spores. It is an accepted method of treating a colony that has been infected with European Foulbrood. Shook swarm has become a useful manipulation where a colony is heavily infected with Varroa. Beebase has some excellent information and photographs. Shook swarm

In the same way as the Asian honey bee developed tolerance to Varroa, there is growing evidence that leaving your colonies without chemical treatment allows them to build-up resistance or tolerance to the Varroa mite.

More beekeepers are going chemical free and there are encouraging studies showing that over a number of years, bees may be able to adapt and survive without chemical treatments. Where beekeepers have gone chemical free, they have often seen that they encounter initially high winter losses before the bees eventually reach an equilibrium.

For some small-scale beekeepers, these initial colony losses can be unacceptable and they therefore opt to control Varroa with chemical treatments.

European honeybees (Apis mellifera) have not yet fully developed a comprehensive armoury of defence against the mite. Some scientists argue however that chemical controls are hindering the development of their natural defences.

Chemical treatments, autumn post honey harvest

Currently, there are 15 authorised chemical treatments. As new products gain authorisation, they are added to the list found on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website.

Each of these products has been rigorously tested to ensure efficacy of treatment against Varroa and safety for the bees and beekeeper although they are only safe if used correctly.

The product information leaflet about each treatment including season of application and duration of treatment can be found on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate or from suppliers such as Thorne Beekeeping or the Beebase website.

It is vital to use any treatment at the right time and to follow the instructions carefully to ensure that it is applied at the correct concentration for the size of colony and that it is removed when completed and any residue disposed of safely.

Currently, there are 15 authorised chemical treatments. As new products gain authorisation, they are added to the list found on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website.

Each of these products has been rigorously tested to ensure efficacy of treatment against Varroa and safety for the bees and beekeeper although they are only safe if used correctly.

The product information leaflet about each treatment including season of application and duration of treatment can be found on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate or from suppliers such as Thorne Beekeeping or the Beebase website.

It is vital to use any treatment at the right time and to follow the instructions carefully to ensure that it is applied at the correct concentration for the size of colony and that it is removed when completed and any residue disposed of safely.

API-Bioxal, 886 mg/g Powder                                            Oxalic acid

Apguard Gel                                                                          25% Thymol

Apilife Var Bee-Hive Strip                                                  Camphor, Eucalypus oil, Menthol Levo, Thymol

Apistan 10.3% w/w                                                             Tau Fluvalinate, Mite resistance in UK

Apitraz 500 mg Bee-hive Strips                                          Amitraz

Apivar 500 mg Bee-hive Strips                                           Amitraz

Bayvarol 3.6 mg Bee-hive Strips                                        Fluethrin, Mite resistance in UK

Dany’s BienenWohl Powder and Solution                        Oxalic acid dihydrate

MAQS Formic Acid 68.2g Beehive Strips                         Formic acid

Oxuvar 5.7%, 41.0 mg/ml Concentrate for Solution         Oxalic acid

Oxybee Powder and Solution                                             Oxalic acid, didydrate

PolyVar Yellow 275 mg Bee-hive Strip                              Flumethrin

Thymovar 15 g Bee-hive Strips                                           Thymol

VarroMed 5 mg/ml + 44 mg/ml dispersion Formic acid, Oxalic acid dihydrate VarroMed 75 mg + 660 mg dispersion Formic acid, Oxalic acid dihydrate

  Beekeepers are required by law to keep proof of purchase and a record of purchase, administration and disposal of all veterinary medicines for a minimum of 5 years under the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2011SI 2159 Forms can be downloaded from the National Bee Base website.  
  The overriding caveat is to only treat when necessary, use authorised products, alternate treatments to limit resistance, follow the instructions carefully and keep appropriate records of applications.  

There are a number of simple methods to assess the level of a Varroa population within a colony and treat accordingly.

Bee Base offers an excellent advisory leaflet which can be downloaded free-of-charge from its website. The leaflet describes in details everything that has been summarised here. In addition, Beebase has a whole range of advisory leaflets and booklets that you can download covering all aspects of beekeeping which are available free of charge here: Beebase advisory leaflets