Home » Reports »

Bee Farmers Work-Arounds 01/10/20

Bee Farmers Work-Arounds 01/10/20

The Bee Farmers Work-Arounds

A talk by Dan Basterfield NDB

East Devon Beekeepers, 1st Oct 2020

c50 participants

Dan pointed out right from the start that the idea for this talk came from Richard Simpson.

How to keep on top of more colonies whilst making an income from bees.

What works for someone with half a dozen colonies may be unworkable with 50+ colonies. There will be a need to reduce time taken for all tasks, reduce repetitive tasks, minimise the variety of tasks and keep a close watch on costs at all times.

Approach to Beekeeping

The ideas above can be considered in one’s general approach to beekeeping, especially through inspections, management, and swarming. See below.

Standardising and simplifying are key to success. Hives and equipment should have minimal variants, manipulations should be familiar and quick to perform, and you need to think ahead to have the right kit ready and organized at the right time. Consider this question: ‘Which is the best option for feeding fondant? An eke (extra cost) or an empty super (empty frames need storage)?’  The super would be fine for a  couple of hives but for 100 hives the frame storage would cause a huge  problem!

Apiary sites are another area for consideration. Good static sites may take many years for the bee farmer to acquire and test. Good, year-round, easy access is essential. However, forage planting to improve the site is not particularly viable unless done in great quantities.

On the other hand, migratory apiaries allow the bee farmer to follow what is available for extra income. Bear in mind that extra time, work and costs are involved with moving colonies, and the fact that the extra honey extraction comes at a busy time of year.

In terms of approach to beekeeping Dan pointed out that you don’t see many bee farmers using WBC hives, Snelgrove boards, ‘novelty’ gadgets or 2nd quality frames! They all waste time or money.


Dan outlined the bee farmers ‘quick appraisal’ approach to hive inspections. This requires a quick assessment of activity at the entrance, followed by activity/condition of the top super, then the top brood box. This may take some practice for the novice to become proficient but is worth the effort. At this point you may decide that no further inspection is needed, but if it is, then use the ‘Tilt and Smoke’ approach.

  • Remove the supers
  • Tilt the (upper) brood box
  • Smoke the bees upwards.

You will now be in a position to know the weight/distribution of stores, the brood quantity and spread, plus whether queen cells are visible (between boxes is a favoured spot for starting queen cells).

As a reminder, Dan outlined Ted Hooper’s ‘five things you need to know’ from an inspection:

  • Space available?
  • Laying queen/eggs?
  • Build up/signs of swarming?
  • Disease signs?
  • Stores?

Check out Ted Hooper’s book ‘Guide to Bees and Honey’ in the branch library if you are not sure.

Guide to Bees and Honey


There are many systems of bee management. Donald Sims’ book, ‘Sixty Years with Bees’, gives a good overview (again, available in the branch library).

Sixty Years with Bees

Most well-known systems have common elements:

  • Start with strong colonies with ample brood.
  • Split(s) made without finding the queen to deter swarming through depopulation.
  • Emergency queen cells reared to generate colony increase or new queen for recombining with original colony.
  • Minimal intervention.

Remember that if you want to re-combine split colonies for the July flow you will need to start 7-9 weeks earlier. This equates to manipulations in early May, so there is time to produce new queens and have 3-week-old bees in sufficient quantity for foraging. Of course, all this depends upon the British Weather so plans have to be flexible.


Dan pointed out that it is uneconomic for the bee farmer to try to prevent ALL swarms, so the approach tends to be either prevent/defer swarming, or pre-empt swarming.

  • To prevent or defer swarming the bees should have plenty of space to rear brood early in the season and preferably be headed by a young queen.
  • To pre-empt swarming one can split likely colonies BEFORE they raise swarm cells, ideally towards the end of the spring crop. This is a proactive approach, rather than reactive.

At this point Dan introduced the concept of the ‘walk away split’, i.e. minimal intervention.

Basic ‘walk away’ split by frames:

Key points Comments
Take 3-5 frames of brood covered by nurse bees Marked queens make manipulation easier
Ensure the queen is not on the frames New queens will be mated and laying in 3-4 weeks
Place in a nuc box or empty hive Monitor stores and feed if required
Take to another apiary over 3 miles away This is a small depopulation, so may only delay swarming

Basic ‘walk away’ split by box:

Key points Comments
Colony has expanded onto 2 x brood boxes on spring crop Don’t need to know where queen is
Ensure brood and bees in both brood boxes New queens will be mated and laying before main flow
Take 1 brood box away and sandwich with floor and roof Implicitly making increase from strongest and healthiest colonies
Take to another apiary over 3 miles away Large depopulation likely to avert swarming

Dan outlined four feeding regimes.

Spring feeding

In the UK the bottleneck to spring development is pollen availability, so stimulative feeding is of limited use without additional pollen supplies. You could argue that masses of pollen being taken into a hive indicates a lack of pollen reserves. Poor weather can lead to NO pollen income.

Autumn feeding

Sugar syrup needs mixing from dry GRANULATED sugar. Dan uses an electric honey extractor to do the mixing! Neat trick. Currently ingredient costs: 65p / Kg sugar. Don’t forget that sugar syrup will ferment eventually. A pinch of thymol will prevent this, but will taint stores, feeders, even boxes.

Fondant feeding

Fondant does not ferment as it is basically 90% sugars / 10% water. Can be bought in 12½Kg blocks. Make a hole in the plastic wrap and place this hole directly over the colony as an autumn feed. An eke will be needed but ‘job done’ in one visit and no other equipment required.

Invert syrup feeding

This material is approximately 72% sugars, is stable for 12 months, requires no mixing and can be drawn off from bulk containers when needed. The cost is approx. 95p / Kg sugar. It can also be purchased in smaller quantities by hobbyist beekeepers.

The remainder of the talk covered a wide range of subjects and can be summarised with brief notes:

Varroa treatment – Apivar, MAQS, Apiguard during season are quick and effective.

Oxalic trickle in January – Use backpack and 5ml dosing gun.

Clearing supers – various clearer boards (not Porter escapes!) – needs return visit.

Chemical methods – e.g. BeeQuick – needs fume board – 1 visit.

Manual methods – e.g. ‘shake and brush’ – 1 visit.

‘Shake test’ on part-sealed combs – no drips = honey ripe.

Extracting combs – uncapping is the slowest part of extracting process – use additional kit to speed up e.g. hot air gun.

Processing honey – heated strainers speed up throughput – 30°C ideal temperature.

Many cheap electronic gadgets available to aid processing e.g. thermostats and timers.

Equipment maintenance – use winter months when time available.

Box maintenance – scrape and torch timber parts, soak and scrub poly parts (using warm bleach).

Frame cleaning – melt out old comb – boil in 5% washing soda (old Burco boiler ideal), rinse and dry.
Cheaper to clean old frames than to buy new!

Our thanks to Dan for a very comprehensive talk. Also thanks to Mary for hosting the meeting and Richard for the organisation.

View the talk on YouTube.