Varroa update

Varroa: a problem or not, how do I know, and what to do about it.
Plus: an overview of the Asian hornet threat.

A talk by Nigel Boulton and John Badley

A quick reminder of the life cycle of the Varroa mite will set the scene for the talk.

  • A fertile female mite will enter a larval cell just before the cell is capped. This can be either a worker or a drone cell, with a preference for drone.
  • The mite punctures the larva to feed on the bee’s fat body.
  • The mite lays one male egg followed by several female eggs.
  • When mature, the male mite mates with the females.
  • The bee and mature, fertile female mites emerge and the mites start the cycle again.


  • Varroa were found in the UK in Devon in 1992, over 30 years ago.
  • We used Apistan and Bayvarol synthetic pyrethroid strips to achieve 99+% kill.
  • Feral colonies disappeared.
  • Resistance to pyrethroids built up within 10 years (as predicted).


  • The NBU instigated a change to Integrated Pest Management, using biotechnical, management and chemical controls.
  • This has worked well for most people, with fewer chemicals being used.
  • More feral colonies are surviving.
  • Generally, there are lower mite counts in colonies than there used to be. The bees are learning to fight the mite!

Deformed wing virus (DWV)

The image shows a bee with DWV as a result of virus transmission by the varroa mite. © Crown copyright


Help bees to help themselves by:

  • Breaks in brood production e.g., via swarm prevention or swarm control management.
  • Warm hives favour bees and disadvantage mites. See Addendum.
  • Breed from feral swarms as they are likely to have hygienic behaviour (use a quarantine apiary).
  • Continue to monitor mite levels.
  • Try to use management and biotechnical methods only.
  • Only treat when necessary with approved treatments.
  • Avoid synthetic chemical treatments that tend to be persistent.

Integrated Pest Management

  • Open mesh floors can be used all year round, with or without a tray.
  • Drone brood removal can be used in April/May. A super frame placed at the edge of a brood box will stimulate drone brood production in early April. You probably only need to remove drone brood once a year.
  • Artificial swarm management from April to June will induce a brood break in at least part of the colony. Shook swarm procedures (March to May) will force a brood break and leave most of the mites behind in the abandoned comb.
  • Queen trapping in July is an efficient way to reduce mite numbers.

All of these techniques are described in the free NBU .PDF file Varroa Management.

VMD Approved Treatments 2024

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate lists 14 approved varroa treatments for use in England. They are listed below based on the active ingredient(s).

The smiley faces indicate acceptability, based on the opinions of local beekeepers.
Thymol is acceptable but has a pungent odour which hangs around for a long time in the hive.
Apistan and Amitraz are synthetic products and may lead to resistance.
The literature says oxalic acid is unlikely to prompt resistance and the dose given by the dribble method is proportional to the size of the colony, reducing the problem of overdosing.
Formic acid treatment often makes the queen go off lay (or even disappear). It is strong enough to corrode the metal parts of your hives e.g., metal mesh floors.

Always follow the instructions as to when and how to use these approved products.

Counting mites

The group took part in a mite counting exercise using mesh floor inserts.

Addendum – Warmer hives

Polystyrene hives are gaining in popularity as a warmer option for bees at any time of year. WBC hives are also claimed to be better for overwintering colonies. You can make your own insulated roof using 75mm thick building insulation.

Offcuts can be glued together with modern contact adhesives to produce a cube-shape with no base. Paint with exterior wall paint to make it last longer. The cube should be big enough to slide easily over your hive (without your normal roof) but not to cover the entrance. Use a mesh floor. The bees will thrive despite the fact that there is no top ventilation!

Addendum – Varroa mesh floors

The drawing gives rough sizes for making your own varroa mesh floor and tray. Note that the space between the mesh and tray needs to be several centimetres so that live mites that have fallen through the mesh cannot crawl back into the hive.

Asian hornet update

Identification, Life Cycle and Nest Destruction

Asian hornet
European hornet
Asian hornet lifecycle is longer than the European hornet

Professor Stephen Martin argues that the only proven method of hornet control is colony discovery and destruction. Neither task is easy.

Never attempt to remove or kill an Asian hornet nest yourself.

If things go wrong you put yourself and others in grave danger, even of being killed as has happened in France. Further information on the EDBK website Asian hornet page.

I Spy… Getting your eye in. 2024


I Spy….. Getting your eye in. 1st June 2024

Thanks to all those who came to this meeting and made it a success. We hope you enjoyed the afternoon’s beekeeping session and will put some of the hints and tips to good use in your own hives. As promised, I have duplicated the Task Sheet and put together some notes on possible answers / scenarios to act as prompts when you are working your own bees. There is also a down loadable PDF you can use.

⪻ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ⪼

We will start with 20min – 1/2 hr chat to explain what this exercise is all about.
You will be divided into groups and allocated a hive to study plus an experienced beekeeper to guide you.
Follow the Task Sheet questions and make notes as you go if you wish. We will be around to help answer questions and point things out if you get stuck.
After the Practical session we will return to the Bee Shed for tea, cakes and discussion!

Task Sheet (left hand column) and some possible observations or deductions (right hand column)

Before opening the hive


Consult the hive record sheet, and consider recent weather conditions.
What can you predict from this information?
Two possible scenarios:
Record says low on stores, weather poor – MAY NEED TO FEED
Record says good stores, weather fine – MAY NEED TO ADD SUPER(S)
What is flowering now, and what will be flowering in next 7 days?
Two possible scenarios:
Oil seed rape out now, will cease soon – BAD TEMPER!
Not much out at the moment, but nectar flow may start soon – watch SPACE in supers and ADD boxes in plenty of time.
Hive entrance activity?
Air temperature?
Pollen loads?
Nectar loads?

10℃ minimum for bees to emerge.
Pollen loads easy to spot.
Drones, indicator of swarm possibility. Check in brood box.
Nectar loads, honey stomach full, legs hanging down.
Orientation flights?

Robber bees?
Asian hornets
Orientation flights, young bees first emergence. Characteristic flight pattern. Don’t confuse with swarm emergence.
Robber bees enter hive empty (legs up), and leave full (legs down).
Hawking behaviour
Examine varroa mesh floor.
Distribution of debris?
Significance of dark cappings and/or white cappings in debris?
Count different coloured pollen loads.
Distribution/pattern shows where cluster is and what it is doing. Important to know when winter feeding.
Count mites and give average daily mite drop.
Dark cappings are from brood comb therefore bees emerging.
White cappings are from honey stores therefore bees actively using stores.

How many different pollen colours? 6 or more should give adequate nutritional diversity.
Antenna cleaning action at entrance.
Signs of:
a) Nosema
c) DWV

Very rapid cleeaning of antennae before flight.

a) Diarrhoea streaks
b) Shiny bees and quivering bees
c) Deformed wings

Nazanov gland not visible – fanning for temperature/humidity control
Nazanov gland open – colony has been disturbed.

After opening hive

Observations / Deductions?

First impression.
Crowded or uncrowded?
Space for queen to lay?
Does activity equate with what you saw at the entrance?

Should be space for queen to lay: do you see pollen blocking or solid stores?
Do bees have enough space to process and store nectar / honey?
Are extra supers needed?
Space for workers to process nectar is 2-3 times space required to store honey.

Add new super under existing super or above? Discuss.
In brood chamber examine frames and note:
Brood in all stages (MUST see eggs)
Queen present?
How many drones? (a few, fair number, lots)
Queen cells or cups?
What is your assessment?
Everyone should see eggs!

Drone numbers may indicate likelihood of swarming.
Dry cups or cells are nothing to worry about at present. Only need to take action if cells are charged with royal jelly/larvae.
Shake bees off a frame and examine for disease. Look for:
– Perforated cappings,
– Sunken cappings,
– Larvae that ‘don’t look right’,
– Chalk brood,
– Deformed wings,
– Sac brood,
– Bald brood – a sign that bees may be uncapping brood to deal with varroa.
If you need a demo, ask the experienced beekeepers.
Check for queen before shaking.

Make sure you recognise the difference in bald brood from wax moth damage and uncapping varroa mites.
Bald brood from wax moth damage

Images Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

Bald brood from uncapping
Is the brood chamber filled with brace and burr comb or even drone brood stuck everywhere?
If so, what is going on?
Bees desperate for space will build drone comb anywhere.
Ideally, provide somewhere for them to lay drones from April onwards.
Discuss alternatives, half frame, drone foundation.

Maybe the bee space is wrong.
Inspect the brood laying pattern and interpret what is happening.
Irregular pattern could be:
– New queen still learning.
– Old queen fading.
– Disease or old comb.
– (Diploid drones)
Ratio of eggs : open brood : sealed brood.
Comment on findings.
Ideally, should be in ratio 1 : 2 : 4, but will vary with season, weather, forage, etc.

If no eggs, could be swarm preparations, dearth of forage, poor weather (or need new glasses!).
What is bee space in brood box?
What is bee space in supers?

Spacing for new foundation.
2 bee spaces on face of comb, 1 bee space elsewhere.
1 bee space for supers.

Standard Hoffmann spacing is 35mm. This equates to no fewer than 10 frames in a National super.

Picking out a few observations:

  • All the hives had different characteristics! All were calm, some were busy, some were laid back and not very active. Perfectly normal!
  • Some had lots of pollen going in, others had very little.
  • Pollen colours were up to 6! Good news for the health of the colonies.
  • Good selection of flowers spotted, including cow parsley, elderflower, lots of buttercups (but not used by honeybees) and all the usual hedgerow flowers. Bramble and Himalayan balsam are also out in places, so there may not be a June Gap.
  • All participants saw eggs. Well done!
  • Ratio of eggs : open brood : sealed brood. Some comments that egg numbers were low or absent in comparison to sealed brood quantity, but at least one hive had masses of eggs.
  • Very little disease spotted.
  • Queens spotted.

Thanks to the apiary team for preparing the hives and to the experienced beekeepers (Stan, Mary, Keith and Simon) for their help and advice. Feedback on the session was positive and participants were pleased to have hands-on experience in small groups with a knowledgeable beekeeper there to help and advise.

Improvers Day 2024

Nucs: making, managing, using. A talk and hands-on demo to improve your beekeeping skills.

Title: Improvers Day

John Badley and Nick Silver take you through the selection of nucleus hives you are likely to see in this part of the world, followed by an appreciation of the basic considerations when making up a nuc colony.

This will be followed by a description of the nuc making process plus some variations on this theme.

Finally the participants will put nucs together under the watchful eye of the tutors. There will be time for questions, as well as tea and cakes!

Nucs demonstrated during the talk

These eight types of nuc represent both old and new designs. The Taylor nuc is mentioned as Frank Taylor lived in the area and there may still be some of these to be found second hand. They are small, light and handy for catching swarms but not recommended for overwintering colonies as the plywood is thin.

The western red cedar National nuc is the standard 5 frame hive sold by most bee equipment suppliers. The home-made soft wood version would be a fraction of the cost and is easy to make.

The old-style poly nuc had a feeder trough on one side and was prone to drowning bees.

The newer poly nucs have a combined crown board and feeder which is more versatile. They can also be supplied with additional brood boxes. Nick explained the various scenarios for overwintering nucs in these hives.

5 frame nucs used as an observation hive offer a good way to demonstrate bees to the public. It is essential to consider health and safety measures for the public and survival issues for the bees.

The 3 frame mini nuc has been included to emphasise the small number of bees in this type of hive. Less experienced beekeepers are recommended to use the larger 5 and 6 frame nucs which have far fewer problems with starving, absconding and over crowding.

Queen related uses for nucs

The five uses for nucs listed above are all queen-related. Comments are: breeder queens will survive longer in a nucleus colony as opposed to a full hive; queen mating requires a hopelessly queenless colony into which the new queen cells are placed; re-queening large stocks – see later; quarentine hives/apiaries should be considered for all swarms and hives that are moved from one area to another.

Other uses for nucs are listed on the slide and are largely self explanatory.

When making up nucs, the importance of a balanced colony cannot be over stressed. Allowing flying bees to migrate back to the donor hive leaves the nuc with no foragers, causing a dearth of fresh pollen and nectar when most needed. The imbalance will be corrected eventually but the delay slows down the development of the nucleus colony.

Don’t start colony manipulations too early in the year. There need to be plenty of drones around for successful mating.

Making up the nuc

This method can be used for proactive swarm prevention but there are many variations to suit your needs. You require a well stocked parent colony, a nuc box and spare frames of foundation. This is what you will be doing in the apiary.

Variations for making up nucs

Instead of swarm prevention you may need to use a nuc for swarm control, in which case put frames with queen cells into the nuc and remove queen cells from the donor colony.

Queen mating requires the nuc to be unable to produce new queen cells so make sure brood is sealed. Then you can add the new queen cells from your cell raising colony. The day 9 recommendation means they are less likely to be damaged during transfer.

It is often difficult to re-queen large or aggressive stocks. This method surrounds the new queen with her own kind who will protect her from aggression until her pheromones are spread around the colony.

Making increase is like swarm prevention or swarm control but you can make up as many nucs as you like.


When using nucs for swarm prevention, do you put the old queen back into the original hive or into the nuc? Some people say that putting the old queen into the nuc and moving it away 3+ miles is the nearest you will get to emulating a natural swarm. You choose.

To summarise, nucs are an essential part of a beekeeper’s kit. They can be used for numerous purposes in a variety of ways to make your beekeeping easier and more productive.

Swarm Control 27/4/24

Queen Cells in my Hive! What do I do?

A talk by Nick Silver 27/4/24

Finding queen cells in your hive is the beginning of a natural process which ends with swarming and the establishment of a new colony in a new location. Hopefully, the old colony will rear a new queen who will mate and continue the existence of the nest.

If your intention is to have a honey crop then you may be out of luck if the bees swarm. These notes should help you understand what the colony is doing and how you can manipulate the swarming urge to your advantage.

When you see empty queen cups, what are the bees thinking? This is usually nothing to worry about. Often, these empty cups are called ‘play cups’.

Queen cups with an egg or larva plus royal jelly (below) shows a definite intent to swarm. Now is the time for the beekeeper to take action to prevent swarming.

Queen cells with one or more sealed means you are probably too late. Swarms tend to depart when the first queen cell is sealed.

If you see a ‘bronze’ tip to a queen cell (below, left), the new queen is about to emerge.

An empty queen cell, possibly with a hinged lid, means the virgin queen has emerged.

Squishing – symptom of a beekeeper with no plan

Destroying queen cells by squishing may be used to buy the beekeeper a bit of time, but the workers will just build more queen cells.

At this point it is as well to remember the life cycle of the developing queen cell.
Egg 3 days – larva 5 days – capped on day 8

A queen cell can be created from a 1, 2 or possibly a 3 day old larva, so by squishing you are just trapping the colony in the 4-7 day zone of queen development. In this state they can go very quickly and you also risk missing a cell. This is very easy to do as they will build emergency cells around the fringe of worker brood which are very hard to spot – even if you shake off all the bees. Repeated squishing will demoralise the bees and can easily lead to a hopelessly queenless situation if the swarm decides to depart anyway.

The Basics of Swarm Control

The colony may be thought of as three parts:

  • The queen
  • The brood (and queen cells)
  • The flying bees

Separating one of these parts from the other two should dispel the swarming urge, making the bees think they have already swarmed.

Some swarm control methods

  • Pagden – flying bees with the Queen
  • Two nuc method – flying bees with Queen Cells
  • Basterfield split – flying bees with Queen Cell

What is your method?
Be ready to use it at any time.
Always have the equipment you need with you.

Pagden (the bench mark method)

This method is good for:

  • Simplicity
  • Learning and Observing
  • Easy inspections

But there are issues:

  • It is expensive for equipment and requires space
  • Opportunities are missed:
    Could get more increase
    Could get more honey

Two nucs (Stewart Spinks – Norfolk Honey Company)

This method is good for:

  • An easy way to get more increase (to sell or use)
  • Nuc boxes are much cheaper than hives
  • Easy inspections
  • Simple swarm control

The issues:

  • Watch for equal split of flying bees
  • Honey crop sacrificed for increase

Vertical Split (Ken & Dan Basterfield)

This method keeps the colony together, so good for:

  • Honey production
  • Minimal equipment needed
  • Single site and single manipulation

Issues are:

  • Slightly more complex
  • Inspection of lower brood box could be problematic

This is the starting configuration. Entrance to the south, queen excluder on original brood box plus two supers.
Remove roof, crown board, supers and queen excluder.

The brood chamber and floor are now turned 180° so they face in the opposite direction. Note that for National hives, the frames should be warm way to present a flat surface for the flying bees to walk up to the new entrance in the split board.

Half the brood frames plus adhering bees are moved to a new brood box, leaving the queen in the original box. Destroy any queen cells in the original box. Proportions in each brood box should be: stores – more in the original box; young to sealed brood – roughly equal. Top up both brood boxes with spare comb. Place the split board on top of the original brood box with only the top entrance open as shown.

Only one good, open queen cell should be left in the new brood box.
Replace queen excluder on top of the new brood box, followed by supers, crown board and roof.

There are variations on this manipulation depending on the starting situation and the desired outcome.

They can be found in the original article describing this method HERE (PDF file)

Cut-outs and Queen Marking

Stan and Mike’s Cut-out Video + Nick and John’s ‘To Clip or Not to Clip’

April meeting, held at Kilmington Village Hall. 30+ attendees.

The evening started with Stan Wroe and Mike Jones giving an illustrated description of their bee cut-out adventure. Stan was originally alerted to bees going in and out of a large out-building by the owners in February 2021, and decided to attempt a cut-out in late March before the established colony grew too big. Mike was a novice beekeeper at the time.

Stan outlined his approach to both the property owner and the way he and Mike had planned and prepared for the event. The owner was made aware that there may be some damage to the fabric of the building and it would be his responsibility to carry out repairs.

The kit consisted of a National brood box with empty frames to fasten the cut-out pieces of comb into, a large sheet to spread on the ground, a large number of rubber bands, and a small panel saw to cut the comb pieces to size. Just in case, they took a spare nuc box with more empty frames plus more rubber bands. The tools included hammers, chisels, screw drivers, Stanley knife and saw, to facilitate opening-up the building.


Prepare kit

More kit

More kit

Remove planks

Remove planks

Good progress

Good progress

1st glimpse

1st glimpse

The images show the stages of the operation. They are taken from the video that was recorded by Mike’s wife, Julie, who had never seen inside a bee hive before or worn a suit and veil. She very bravely got up close to the bees, and was thoroughly fascinated by it all.

The nest

The nest

Start cut-out

Start cut-out

Section of comb

Section of comb

Transfer to frame

Transfer to frame

In brood box

In brood box

For the most part, the bees were well behaved. This certainly made life easier for Mike who was responsible for fastening the comb pieces into the frames. Stan also cut out some clean pieces of comb for the owner’s son, aged about 10, who had taken a keen interest in the operation. He took the comb and some video clips to school and was able to give a short presentation to his class.

Honey comb

Honey comb

Brood comb

Brood comb

Comb secured

Comb secured

Transfer to hive

Transfer to hive

Comb sample

Comb sample for son

When the brood box was full, the bees could be seen fanning at the hive entrance, indicating that they had probably managed to save the queen, although no one had spotted her during the transfer. The new hive was transported to Mike’s apiary, where it recovered from the ordeal and thrived. It turned out to be a good tempered and moderately productive colony.

Job done!

Job done!

Bees fanning

Bees fanning

Nest site cleaned up

Nest site cleaned up

Transfer to apiary

Transfer to apiary

Stan’s take-home message to new beekeepers:

  • Volunteer to help swarm collectors – you’ll be surprised how much of what you learn on the beginner’s course stands you in good stead.
  • Swarm collectors are often happy to have an eager volunteer help them.
  • Interaction with the public is a great way of explaining how bees live – you already know so much more about bees than they do.

To Clip or Not to Clip

Nick started the discussion by using a quote from Professor Tom Seeley:
87% of wild colonies attempt to swarm every year.
Of these swarms, only 23% will survive the winter.
In other words, expect your bees to swarm, and the quality of caught swarms can be very variable.

Basic facts

It is possible for an unclipped queen to swarm 4 days after you last inspected the colony! However, with a clipped queen you will have a minimum of 11 days before a swarm can emerge successfully. You will have lost your original queen, but you will not have lost your honey crop.

This means you can do fewer inspections, requiring less work, or you can have more colonies using the same amount of work.
Either way, it is less risky building up powerful production colonies, which should give more honey per unit of time and effort.

By going down the clipping route you avoid nuisance swarms and the need to collect them, and you will improve your handling skills, something that is required for the General Husbandry assessment.

Nick likened beekeeping to a spectrum from wild bees on one side to bee farmers on the opposite side. Where you fit onto the spectrum depends on your aims, how many colonies you have, and your skill level.

John took the view that if you wish to mark and/or clip then you should make sure you can achieve your aim without harming or endangering your bees. He related three anecdotes concerning apiary demonstrations by experienced beekeepers that had gone wrong.

Marker pen flooding

Too much ink will clog the spiracles, and possibly cover eyes, antennae and mouth parts. The queen is unlikely to survive. Always check the pen before use and shake off any surplus ink before approaching the queen.

Queen goes into ‘shock’

Clipping the queen’s wing can sometimes cause ‘shock’ symptoms, such as quivering. If this happens, keep the queen warm and return her to the brood box as soon as she recovers.

Queen flies off

If this happens, stay still, don’t move equipment and wait until she (hopefully) returns. Close the hive when she does. Why does it happen? A newly mated queen can still fly strongly, so wait until your new queen is laying well before attempting to mark or clip.

A show of hands suggested the majority of the audience did not clip queens.

To clip a queen, remove ⅓ of one wing

Island Beekeeping 07/03/24

From Orkney to the Isles of Scilly – the challenges and quirks of island beekeeping at the geographical extremes of the UK, even when varroa isn’t present.

A talk by Stephen Fleming, joint editor Bee Craft magazine, held at Kilmington Village Hall, 7/3/24. 35 attendees.

Stephen has been involved in some research work aiming to find out whether the bees on small island habitats are black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), and whether inbreeding in these small communities is a problem. This work may also answer the question ’where did they come from’?

The Isles of Scilly are a natural laboratory as they are a group of islands about 11km by 11km in area, and 40km west of Land’s End. Thus, no bees are going to invade naturally.

The Orkney Islands, on the other hand, are a larger group of islands about 75km by 60km in area off the north coast of Scotland, 10km from John O’Groats. Again, it is unlikely that bees will fly that far over sea.

The weather conditions at these sites are diverse. Curiously, Orkney has more hours of sunlight than the Isles of Scilly, however they both have a maritime climate, although Orkney is generally cooler than Scilly. They both have persistent strong winds to cope with. Both island habitats have long lived queens, probably due to a lack of varroa-mediated diseases.

Windbreak hedges on St Marys

Wind break hedges on St Marys

High winds expected

High winds expected on Orkney!

The Isles of Scilly have 15 known apiaries, with 15 beekeepers spread over 5 islands (St Mary’s, St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s).

St Mary's

St Mary’s





St Martin’s

St Martin’s

On Orkney, there are 21 known apiaries with 35 beekeepers spread over 5 islands (Mainland,
St Margarets, Rousay, Shapinsay and Sanday).

Orkney landscape

Orkney landscape

The Scillonian Bee Project

This aims to answer four questions:

  • Does Scilly have native bees?
  • Is inbreeding a risk?
  • Is Scilly varroa free?
  • Can the Asian hornet be kept out?

Note that swarms can survive on Scilly and feral colonies are known to exist.

Orkney by comparison:

  • Known that dark bees are dominant.
  • Can Orkney be kept varroa free?
  • Currently no fear of the Asian hornet.

Note that swarms do not survive over winter on Orkney.

The History of bees on Scilly

A monastic settlement was established on the island of Tresco in 946, so it is possible that honey bees were introduced then, but by 1351 the monks had fled due to piracy. Bees are certainly around the old Abbey grounds today in the world-famous Tresco Abbey Gardens with its 20,000 subtropical plants from all over the world. Their origins are uncertain but over recent decades several different imports of queens and/or packaged bees are known to have occurred. With small numbers of colonies in Scilly, inbreeding is a potential problem. Experts believe 12 colonies might be the minimum number to avoid inbreeding becoming a problem.

Forage on Scilly

The islands would probably be naturally treeless, with areas of ling and bell heather, ideal for late-summer forage. Today, the plantings of Pittosporum, Griselinia and Escalonia hedging, protecting crops from the relentless winds, have transformed forage on St Mary’s. Managed, flower-rich grasslands on Bryher produce useful forage but on other islands there is a dearth outside early spring and summer. The most abundant late-summer forage at Tresco Abbey gardens are brambles, bell heather and Lily of the Valley tree (Clethra arborea, originally from Medeira). Echiums also abound.

Forage on Orkney

Basically, the climate is too cool to get much of a crop from the heather growth, but clover grows extensively, along with bog strawberry (Potentilla palustris) and meadowsweet. Wild flowers flourish in sheltered places (see images).

Orkney wild flowers

Orkney wild flowers

Orkney flowers

Orkney wild flowers

Seashore flowers

Poppies on the sea shore



Wild thyme

Wild thyme



In May 2021, beekeeper Jilly Halliday arrived on Tresco and teamed up with Nick Bentham-Jones of BIBBA to sample drone larvae for genetic analysis as part of the Scillonian Bee Project. The samples were analysed by Beebytes, a social enterprise specialising in honey bee genetics and DNA analysis. The results varied greatly from island to island. For example, St Agnes drones were 83% carniolan/Italian while Tresco drones were 89% mellifera strain. These preliminary results imply shared genetic ancestry between drones sampled from Bryher and Tresco. This could be via similar imports, human mediated movement or, intriguingly, via ‘island hopping’ of drones, queens or swarms.

The island barrier

Apart from the obvious natural barrier to invasion by alien species, such as varroa mites, there are other aspects to island beekeeping.

  • Both archipelagos seem to be free of EFB and AFB.
  • Currently, there are no reports of Nosema.
  • Wax moth has only recently been a problem on Scilly.
  • Conversely, chalk brood is a significant problem on Orkney, possibly due to adverse climate or dearth of early pollen.
  • Braula coeca, a wingless fly that lives harmlessly on adult bees, used to be a common sight of honey bees in the UK before varroa treatments but is now rarely seen. However, it still thrives in varroa free environments such as the Isles of Scilly and Orkney.

Braula (© Crown copyright)

Honey bee mating on Scilly and Orkney. The Game of Drones.

The Game of Drones is part of the Scillonian Bee Project working with local beekeepers to develop a sustainable population of honey bees in harmony with other pollinators and the environment on the Isles of Scilly.

A pheromone lure on the end of a 4m fishing rod will attract drones at drone congregation areas (DCA). By marking drones in apiaries on one island then catching drones at DCAs on the adjacent islands should indicate if and how far drones will fly over water. The alternative is to capture and mark drones at DCAs and record sightings of marked drones in surrounding apiaries. These experiments are documented in Bee Craft as part of the Scillonian Bee Project.

Stephen ended his talk with a reminder of an offer of 20% off a year’s subscription for groups with 10+ subscribers. Email for details.

Both archipelagos have been inhabited for thousands of years.

Ancient village, Scilly

Ancient village, Isles of Scilly

Scara Brae, Orkney

Scara Brae, Orkney

For gardeners. Some windbreak hedges on the Isles of Scilly.

Pittosporum angustifolium. Weeping Pittosporum.
Evergreen, hardy, salt resistant, drought and wind tolerant, Australian origin.

Pittosporum crassifolium
Leathery leaves withstands high winds, salt tolerant, evergreen, 2-6m high, a bit invasive. New Zealand origin. Dark red to purplish bee friendly flowers in early summer.

Escallonia rubra macrantha, red escalonia.
Grows to 2m, salt tolerant, fast growing, dense evergreen growth. The extended flowering period makes this a good choice for bee forage.

Griselinia e.g. G. littoralis ‘Dixon’s Cream’

Keep calm, Feb ’24

How to Keep Calm and Carry on

A talk by Clare Densley and Martin Hann at Kilmington Village Hall, 1st February 2024.
A joint meeting with West Dorset branch. 60+ attendees.

Richard Simpson welcomed back Clare and Martin. The full title is How to Keep Calm and Carry on when Things Don’t Go as Planned (with your Bees). The talk will look at three topics:
– Dead outs (bees died during the winter),
– My colony does not have a queen,
– I have too many colonies.

Dead Outs

‘My bees all died, and I don’t know why’ is the question we need to answer. It will probably be one of the following:

  • Starvation, including isolation starvation
  • Queen failure
  • Nosema or other disease
  • Varroa
  • So called Acts of God e.g., the hive blows over



Colony probably died of starvation

Dead bees in cells

Dead bees in cells

Starvation can usually be identified by the appearance of the comb. The images show the typical appearance of starvation, the bees having their heads in the comb, trying to reach the last vestige of honey. If there is plenty of honey further away from the cluster then it is probably an isolation starvation situation which occurs when the bees cannot leave the cluster during a cold spell.

This raises lots of questions:
How much food does the colony need to overwinter? Do small colonies need less? What kind of food/stores? When should I feed my bees? Does it matter where it is stored?

Martin suggested a full super of stores, 35-40 lbs, should be adequate provided the bees have access, (no queen excluder in the way), and can move up through the stores during the winter. They need to stay in easy reach of stores at all times. Do not feed syrup after the ivy crop has finished. It is too damp and cold for the bees to store as honey. If more stores are needed later than this then feed fondant. Remember, bees need water to utilise ivy honey and fondant.

Queen failure

Drone laying queen

Comb of drone laying queen *

Laying workers

Multiple eggs of laying workers in each cell

The image above shows the typical comb of a drone laying queen. When this occurs during autumn or winter it is ‘game over’. In summer, it might be possible to fix the colony, if caught early enough, by removing the old queen and supplying a comb of brood from which a new queen can be raised.

Drone laying workers

By the time this situation occurs the workers will be too old to create a new, well-fed queen. Any attempt to save the colony is probably a waste of time and resources.


Evidence of Nosema

Evidence of Nosema at hive entrance

Nosema apis spores

Nosema apis spores *

Classic signs of Nosema are bee poo on the front of the hive and possibly dead bees on the ground in front of the hive. Best to confirm your diagnosis with a microscopic examination of the bee poo. Feeding a protein source as well as sugar syrup may help them survive.


Varroa damage

Varroa damage *

Varroa damage

Varroa and DWV damage *

Varroa is still with us and still killing colonies! The image shows typical varroa damage, emerging brood with extended mouthparts and partially removed cappings. Deformed wing virus (DWV) is visible in the second image.
Images marked * Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright. More images and advice at BeeBase.

Hive knocked over

Always strap hives in winter. Even if the hive is knocked over the bees will survive, provided the hive parts are not scattered all over the apiary.
The ‘Knock Test’
To find out if your bees are still present, put your ear to the brood chamber and knock the hive. You should hear a momentary buzz.

Dealing with ‘Dead Outs’

You should remove the hive and tidy everything up. Clean and sterilise frames and scorch boxes so that swarms or robber bees do not enter possibly contaminated gear.

My Colony is Queenless

The priority here is to make absolutely sure there is no existing queen before trying to introduce a new queen. These are Clare and Martin’s pointers to queenlessness:

  • Can’t find the queen
  • No eggs (or larvae or sealed brood)
  • Bees are disorganised and buzzy
  • There is a queenless ‘roar’
  • Reduced activity at the entrance
  • Colony has become a drone layer
  • No eggs but emergency queen cells present

The reason you need to be sure of queenlessness is because, if there is already one in the hive, (it could be a dud, or an unmated virgin, or a drone layer), the workers will kill your attempted introduction of a new queen. A good way to check this is to put a queen from another hive in a cage and place this on the brood frames. If the workers ignore the cage they already have a queen. If they crawl all over the cage and try to feed her it is fairly certain they are desperate for a new queen.

Maybe there is a queen, but you have not found her yet. If there is no brood, she may not have started to lay yet, and sometimes queens just stop laying for a while e.g. when the main flow has finished. Or she could have got above the queen excluder. Sometimes, a queen returning from a mating flight will miss the entrance and end up under the hive.

Alternatively, she could have left with a swarm. Look for characteristic clusters in nearby trees, lots of queen cells in the hive, no eggs in the brood area and possibly depleted numbers of bees. Additional reasons for queenlesssness are beekeeper error (queen squashed by accident), a supercedure that didn’t succeed, or maybe she just died of old age at a time of year when she could not be replaced.
When you have ascertained there is no viable queen in your colony, it is time to decide what to do. Three approaches:

  • Where there are queen cells present, ask the question ‘Was the colony strong enough to produce a good, well-fed queen? Remember that the existing workers are getting older and less able to perform house-bee duties. Leave only one queen cell. Martin’s tip for selecting that one cell is to observe which queen cell the workers are oriented to. That one will probably be your best bet.
  • Where there are definitely no queen cells you may wish to introduce a new queen cell (one of your own perhaps). In this case you will need to prepare the colony for queen introduction. Obviously, make sure there is no possibility for the bees to raise their own queen. Consider introducing a protected queen cell, either in a special cage or the simpler aluminium foil wrap, leaving the tip uncovered.
  • To speed up the recovery of your queenless colony you may wish to introduce a new queen rather than a queen cell. The safest way is to create a 3 frame nuc with no viable eggs or larvae, then introduce the new queen to that. When she is established and laying, then use the newspaper method to combine the nuc with your original hive.

How long must I wait for a ripe queen cell to become a laying queen?

Absolute minimum would be around 12 days, but could be up to 35-40 days before you need to worry.

How many hives are too many hives?

There are no set rules, but there are some considerations we should all engage with.

  • If your beekeeping becomes a chore, it is probably time to reduce your colonies.
  • The honeybee colony has evolved to produce several cast swarms, so queen cells should be reduced to one. If you have multiple swarms, you can combine them all in one box.
  • The environment your bees are in has a limited capacity to provide sufficient nectar and pollen, so best not to overcrowd your apiary. In the wild, a swarm will usually look for a new home more than 300m away from their parent colony.

Our thanks to Clare and Martin for a stimulating and informative talk, and we hope you enjoyed the tea and cakes.

Winter Social-Tips & Tricks

My Beekeeping – Tips and Tricks

A talk by Nick Silver at the EDBK winter social

7th December 2023

I started beekeeping in 2015 and now have 16 colonies (9 for production plus 7 nucs) spread around four apiary sites. The aim is to produce good quality food products. This year I had 550 lbs of honey.

I use double National brood boxes on production hives. Management starts early in the season. In April, all colonies are checked carefully for disease (Module 3 is extremely useful for this).
Now is the time to carry out replacement of old, diseased and distorted frames. Select the 7 oldest frames, usually found in the lower brood box, and replace with fresh foundation. Make sure all the new foundation is in the upper brood box or swap the boxes if its easier. This ensures a maximum of 3 years for frame rotation. Incidentally, there is no need for Bailey frame change or feeding.

Starter strips for drone brood

In spring, the bees are desperate for drone comb, so insert frames with starter strips between two drawn combs. These will be preferentially used for drones, protecting your brood frames from disruption. It is also a good trick if you are low on foundation!

Starter stripStarter strip

Old starter stripOld starter strip

Use of dummy boards

I use three different widths in order to adjust the space available to the bees. I find this useful if the colony is a bit small. Alternatively, if you are greedy, you can force more honey into the supers.

Queen rearing and making increase

Again, start early! This schedule worked for me in 2023:

Mid AprilSelect a strong colony.
20th AprilRemove Q into a nuc.
25th AprilRemove 6 frames, all with QCs,
distribute into 3 more nucs.
24th MayDonor colony has new laying Q.
Went on to produce 2 full supers of honey.
29th MayAll three mating nucs have laying queens.

Result from one colony: 4 viable nucs, 4 new queens, 2 supers honey

Making increaseMaking increase

Taking a spring cropTaking a spring crop

Take a spring crop

  • Oil seed rape now quite common (see graph above).
  • Take off this crop and the bees will work harder.
  • More total honey per colony.
  • You need to learn how to store and process OSR.
  • Don’t lose valuable drawn comb with hard set OSR.
  • We need to train our customers to like it. Younger people often prefer it.

Unite and / or boost before the flow

It’s easy to build up your honey production colonies using nucs as donors. This is effectively a simple two queen system. If you then move the nucs to another part of the apiary, the honey producing colonies will gain the flying bees as well! If this is done early enough, the nucs will recover during the rest of the season.

Using double National brood boxes – May, June, July

Ensure you can double up during May, June and July. Advantages are;

  • The arch of honey in the upper brood box protects the supers from pollen.
  • Supers can be removed anytime without concerns over starvation.
  • Bees respect the bee space between the brood boxes.
  • Swarm cells tend to be built between the brood boxes. Thus no need for full inspections. Just tilt and smoke.

Using double National brood boxes – August

By August, the bees have their arch of honey in the upper brood box and the brood area is reducing. Himalayan balsam will boost the nectar flow. Varroa treatment can be administered if needed, otherwise it is safe to go on holiday!

Using double National brood boxes – September

You will need about 20kg of stores in your hive by the middle of October when feeding ceases. The theoretical maximum for one National brood box is 25kg, so a single brood box hive would only have a couple of frames for the bees to live on with 20kg stores.

Alternatively, leave them a super of honey but this raises questions.

  • Do you leave the queen excluder in or out?
  • What do you do in the spring?
  • What do you do with any honey left in the super?
  • It may be contaminated with varroa treatment products.

Double brood – disadvantages

  • Harder to move double brood hives.
  • Hives can get rather high.
  • Can lead to very strong colonies which could be daunting to newbies.
  • Requires more boxes.

These could be good problems to have!

Swarm control with double brood boxes

There are so many options! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Move top box onto a new floor (Pagden)
  • Remove queen into a nuc.
  • Remove queen cells into a nuc.
  • Snelgrove or Demaree.
  • Basterfield vertical split (Q in the bottom). Link – BBKANews Nov 2013 p19
  • And many others…..

Other Tips and Tricks

Bait Hives and Swarm Attractants

For those situations where you need to attract and catch a swarm, attractants just work surprisingly well. All you need is a brood box, two old frames and swarm attractant. Put the box in a suitable place and wait. The pictures show the hiving of a swarm just driven out of a chimney by lighting the fire.

Bait hiveBait hive

Swarm attractantSwarm attractant

Swarm on chimneySwarm on chimney

Swarm on bait hiveSwarm on bait hive

Returning the queen to the hive after handling her

The problem is the odour from your queen clip or your hands may cause the queen to be killed if she is just put straight back into the colony. To avoid this happening, take a frame with some brood, shake off the older bees, and release the queen onto the frame. It is now easy to see if she is accepted or rejected. If accepted, put the frame with her on gently back into the hive.

Clearing bees from supers

I use rhombus bee escapes with an eke below so that the bees have space to go down into. They should all be down overnight. Note; the image on the left is upside down

Porter bee escapes in the crown board are fiddly, slow and prone to propolising. If you are in a hurry, shaking bees off capped honey is surprisingly easy and efficient. The frames need to be immediately placed in a covered container.

Feed Calculation

Feeding large numbers of colonies is hard work, so make things easier for yourself.
Always have spare syrup to carry with you.
Over-feeding creates extra work next spring.
Feed what they need – no more – no less.

To calculate the quantity of stores in your colonies:
    Both sides of a full BS brood frame equals 2.3 kg stores (5 lbs).
    Estimate the value for partially filled frames.
    Total all the values together. Should be around 20 kg (44 lbs).

Thanks, Nick, for a thought provoking talk. Beginners through to experienced beekeepers can find something there to improve their hive management.

AGM 02/11/2023

EDBK Annual General Meeting

Held via Zoom on Thursday 2nd November 2023

The meeting was held via Zoom because of the chaos caused by storm Ciarán.


Successful candidates in the 2023 Basic examination were announced; Mary Hugill, Alex Dungar, Simon Norton, Paul Lowman and Harry Burrough. This was followed by the disclosure of the winner of the Craythorne Cup, Simon Norton, who achieved highest marks in the group. Simon was surprised and delighted at this achievement. In addition, it was noted that Harry Burrough, the youngest member of the group, also achieved his Junior Certificate in Beekeeping Husbandry. Well done to all of you. Certificates and the trophy will be presented at a future meeting.

The AGM was efficiently run as all the reports had been circulated beforehand.

Election of President, Officers and Committees for 2023/24

A big thank you to the 41 members who attended the AGM and voted in your new Committee.

PresidentHilary Kirkcaldie
ChairAlasdair Bruce
TreasurerKeith Bone
SecretaryVal Bone
Committee membersJohn Badley, Mary Boulton, Marion Coleman, Ralph Cox, Rhiannon Hodson, Rosemary Maggs, Richard Simpson, Stan Wroe
Delegate to the Devon ECNick Silver

Honorary membership for David Wiscombe

Our President, Hilary Kirkcaldie, put forward a proposal to nominate David Wiscombe for Honorary Membership of East Devon Branch.


David ‘accidentally’ became a beekeeper when the Headmaster at the school where he was teaching retired and handed over responsibility for the school hives. Not wishing to lose face with the pupils, he donned the hat and veil and got on with it!

David taught Rural Studies at Axminster school and was already serving on the Branch Committee when Hilary first heard his name. In 1986 Hilary also joined the Branch. By this time David was heavily involved with setting up and running the Branch Apiary at its first location at Summerleaze Farm, not far from our current apiary. In winter he ran carpentry sessions making mini-nucs and other equipment. In due course, David became Chairman, an office he held for several years, later becoming President.

Few members have contributed so much across such a wide spectrum – establishing an apiary site, erecting the apiary hut, making and demonstrating equipment, running apiary sessions, giving talks to the branch members and to beginners and participating at Committee level – over so many years without a break.
David Wiscombe

David Wiscombe assembling the observation hive.

David Wiscombe

David Wiscombe at the apiary. Note bare hands!

The proposal was carried unanimously.

The Branch Teaching Apiary

This has been an unusual year for the bees and has caused a lot of headaches in the Branch Apiary Team. Coming into the winter with 16 colonies we had 8 losses in the cold weather before Christmas and 1 further loss in Spring. All had good food stores but appeared to die from the cold rather than starvation.

A teaching apiary is slightly different to a hobby beekeeper’s apiary. The latter is a case of reacting to what the bees do whereas the teaching apiary has to plan ahead and manipulate the colonies to make them ready for opening on various dates in the summer programme. These come thick and fast with beginners opening hives immediately after Easter. We therefore imported 5 hives from members retiring from beekeeping, so were up to 12 colonies by Easter.

The weird weather seemed to precipitate much queen cell production and some swarming, which made hives for teaching very difficult to produce. However, by July, the bees settled down to bringing in stores and provisioning for winter.

No varroa was found at all in the autumn, probably due to so many brood breaks. Oxalic will be administered in mid-winter if needed.

East Devon Beekeepers attendance at Local Shows

The most important local Show we attend is the Honiton and District Agricultural Association Show held in August. In the past, we have also attended the two day Axe Vale Festival, but this year the costs had risen so much that it was no longer viable. Instead, East Devon were represented at Goren Farm Festival, Colyton Goose Fayre, Stockland Fayre and Dalwood Country Fayre. These smaller local shows seem to be popular with the public and allow East Devon Beekeepers to fulfil their remit of spreading the word about the importance of pollinators in the environment. They also act to recruit possible candidates for our annual Beginners Beekeeping Course.

Dalwood Country Fayre

Dalwood Country Fayre.

Stockland Fayre

Stockland Fayre Bee Marquee Team.

Stockland Fayre

Stockland Fayre Show Ground.

Let’s hope the weather is kinder for our next meeting on December 7th.

Bee Microbiome 10/23

The Honey Bee Microbiome – An adventure on the inside

A talk by Graham Kingham to East Devon Beekeepers, 5/10/23

‘You are what you eat’ or more correctly, what you digest. We will briefly look at human and honey bee digestion and the alimentary canal. The honey bee microbiome will be explained and the effects of disease, pathogens and chemicals mentioned.


The microbiome is the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on the outside and inside of bodies.

Microbes are very small but can contribute in a big way to the health and wellbeing of a human or a bee. They protect against pathogens, help the immune system develop, and enable digestion of food for energy production. Most microbes are harmless but nearly all life, including plants, cannot live without them. The human microbiome is composed of communities of bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and parasites that have greater complexity than the human genome itself.

Microbiome research is a relatively recent topic, with the human microbiome taking centre stage. Often-quoted numbers for human microbiome are 100 trillion microbes per person, 95% of all human microbiota is in the gut, the microbiome weighs 2kg, 90% of disease can be linked in some way to the gut and microbiome health. There are hundreds of different species of microbe in the human gut.

Every part of an animal has a microbiome e.g., skin, urogenital tract, mouth and digestive tract. All these sites, microbes and inter-relationships make the microbiome extremely complicated to research and understand.

The role of the human microbiome

The human microbiome has extensive functions such as the development of immunity, defence against pathogens, host nutrition including the production of short-chain fatty acids important in host energy metabolism, synthesis of vitamins and fat storage. It has an influence on human behaviour, making it an essential organ of the body without which we would not function correctly. The human microbiome tends to be dynamic and variable dependent on many factors, including food, environment and medication.

The honey bee gut and microbiome

Bees have a less variable diet compared to humans with only 5-9 species dominating the gut microbiome. The bee gut consists of a tube from the mouth to the anus with specialised regions along its length performing distinct tasks (see References).

Simplified diagram of honeybee gut

The crop

The crop or honey stomach receives the nectar/pollen mix during foraging. Also in the same region is the proventriculus or stomach mouth, a projection into the crop from the ventriculus or stomach. This valve prevents the collected honey from running into the stomach but allows the pollen to pass. Crop microbiome is mainly derived from the surrounding environment and tends to be variable with seasonally changing diets.


This is a long, wide tube lined with a membrane (the peritrophic membrane) which is continually in a state of proliferation. Muscle fibres force the gut contents towards the rear and the membrane is detached and mingles with the food. The membrane produces enzyme secretions which aid the digestion of the protein contained in the pollen grains. The microbiome at this stage can still be variable depending on the environment.

The peritrophic membrane was thought to protect the lining of the ventriculus from sharp, spiky pollen grains but is now considered to be important in concentrating a range of digestive enzymes where they are most needed.

Small intestine

This is a narrow tube which is surrounded with the outlets of the Malpighian tubules. These tubules act in a similar way to the human kidney. The tubules are followed by the pyloric valve which controls the flow of material along the intestine.


The small intestine opens into the rectum, which is capable of great distension to accommodate the waste material during long periods of confinement. The vast majority of the bacterial community live in this region as it is more stable.

The relative simplicity of the honey bee microbiome leads to a very consistent set of bacterial species known as core bacteria. These are present in all honey bee workers worldwide. Understanding how the microbiota interacts as a community helps predict how that community will react to change and how that change will affect the host.

Larvae and newly emerged bees have little bacterial colonisation. Cell cleaning provides a faecal origin for the initial inoculation. Thereafter, the microbiome will adapt to diet and environmental conditions. In a relatively constant colony, the core microbiota is maintained. Over time, as colonies split, some microbes may evolve to improve the survival of the colony, thus ensuring their own survival.

What effect does the beekeeper have on the microbiome?

  • Feeding liquid sugar syrup or fondant can lead to blistering in the ventriculus.
  • Food supplements such as pollen substitutes are not normally consumed by bees in their natural environment, so must have an effect on their microbiome.
  • Smoking bees and weekly inspections disturb and stress the colony, with loss of pheromones for possibly several days.
  • Varroa treatments and pesticides linger in wax for a long time. They have been shown to affect bee systems, such as the fertility of drones, but currently their effects on the bee microbiome have not been published.
  • Thymol additives to stop mould growth or treat Varroa can repel bees. The odour can mask the chemical cues that trigger the removal of diseased or dead brood thereby affecting hygienic behaviour. As a mould inhibitor, thymol must affect the microbiome.

Treating bees is a trade-off between starvation, disease and pest control.

What can we do?

We can be more proactive in helping bees. Bear in mind that they have survived for millions of years without our help!

  • Try to leave honey on the hive for winter feed. This is the best food for bees.
  • Consider the forage in your area, and whether you could move your colonies to an area with better forage. Can the forage in your area support the number of colonies in your apiary?
  • Practice good husbandry. Reduce stress of your bees wherever possible as stress adversely affects the microbiome.
  • Always practice good hygiene.
  • Consider your Varroa treatment. Is there a ‘kinder’ option?
  • Work towards becoming treatment-free.
  • Handle bees gently and use minimal smoke.


These references to honeybee anatomy are both available in the East Devon branch library.
H A DadeAnatomy and Dissection of the Honeybee. International Bee Research Association.
Celia F DavisThe Honeybee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd.