Today was Somerset BKA’s annual Lecture Day.  This year it was held at Somerton, a bit closer to home than the usual Cheddar.  It’s well into the Somerset Levels as, looking around the area from outside the Hall, everything in sight was horizontal with no hill visible.  This time Liz Rescorla and I did the green thing and travelled together in her car. She doesn’t have a gps and I was impressed by her old fashioned method of using memory and written notes.

We got there very early, about 8.30, so had time to browse the stalls, drink coffee and eat biscuits before it got started an hour later.  Jerry Burbidge of Northern Bee Books was there with masses of bee books on tables.  He’s sold out of Getting the Best from Your Bees!  I hope he gets some more.  He kindly gave me a first edition of a new magazine: Natural Bee Husbandry.  I’ve skimmed it and it looks interesting I shall probably blog about it when I’ve had time to read it properly.

The first lecture was by Michael Maunsell of FIBKA on the subject of THE DRONE. He started with their history, from Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) who wrote that the leader of the hive was king, and then progressed through the advice of Virgil, Butler, Swammerdam, Huber and Oertel.  His talk was very interesting but I wasn’t able to keep up with legible note taking.  Perhaps I should take a tip from the lady sat next to me who was recording all the talks on her portable telephone.

Michael over-ran and so we had to hurry over more coffee and biscuits (I’ve never before eaten so many  chocolate biscuits, especially Jaffa cakes, in one day!) and then resume our seats for the second lecture THE QUEEN by Margaret Murdin NDB, current queen of the BBKA.  This was another excellent lecture from which I made a full page of illegible notes.

She finished on time, giving us a more relaxed break for coffee and biscuits and to visit the stalls.  Fera had a stall and I picked up the updated booklets from them and APHA on Foulbrood, Tropilaelaps and Managing Varroa.

Next came Nigel Semmence who used to be the Regional Bee Inspector but is now the NBU’s Contingency Planning and Science Officer.  He first brought us up to date on Small Hive Beetle with annual maps of their distribution in the toe of Italy and Sicily.  It’s worrying that, annually, we import about 12,000 queens, nuclei and packages but bees come in other ways also and he showed us a photo of a swarm of bees in the tail fin of a plane in a hanger at Bournemouth airport that had arrived from South Africa!  He says there’s a video about SHB on Bee Base, which I have yet to view.

Next he went on to the Asian Hornet, waving a large model of one in his hand as he spoke, so we’re all now well acquainted with the colour scheme if not the size.  Apparently each colony will produce about 200 queens, 95% of which won’t survive the winter, but the survivors might travel up to 20 km (my mental arithmetic reckons that to be 12.5 miles) to set up a new home.

Now is the time to set traps for the queens.  There are various recipes for bait: shrimp or fish mashed up to make a 25% mix with water; dark beer with added sugar; sweetened apple juice.  In France they lose up to half of their hives to the hornets unless they trap heavily early in the year.  The traps don’t need to be close to your bees, so you can have one in your back garden to monitor daily.

Next it was lunch break.  I had brought a couple of 30p supermarket pasties which I consumed and then topped up with coffee and biscuits.  It was good to mingle and natter with others.  Apimondia is happening again this year and several people I spoke to would like to go but don’t fancy the hassle of organising the transport and accommodation etc.  I mentioned this to Margaret Murdin in the hope that the BBKA will do something and she told me that John Hendrie might be organising something and I should contact him.  Does anybody have his contact details?

After lunch there was first the presentation of certificates, first to Ann Rowberry (if I got her name right) who has passed all the exams and is now a Master (Mistress surely!) Beekeeper and then a chap who has been a beekeeper for 60 years – he started very young.

The first post prandial lecture was Michael Maunsell again on THE WORKER DEFENDER giving details of how and why worker bees act to preserve the safety of their colonies.  He went into great detail on the effects of stinging and how people react to them and what, if any, first aid should be applied.

Then it was time for tea (and Jaffa cakes) followed by the draw for raffle prizes.  They drew lots of numbers, all of them wrong!

The final lecture was Margaret Murdin on BECOMING A PROFICIENT BEEKEEPER. She reckons we’re novices for the first couple of years, an improver for 2 – 4 years, possibly becoming proficient (depending on your definition) in 4 – 6 years.  Between 45% and 75% of beekeepers are in their first 4 years and about 5,000 beekeepers join and as many leave the BBKA each year. Only about 10% have been at it for more than 10 years, many of whom are elderly, inactive or out of date.

She urged branches to run lots of courses for beekeepers of all stages and to get the best information.  I was pleased that she mentioned my late friend, Dave Cushman’s, website as being the best in the world!  Roger Patterson runs it nowadays and there may be a link from the BBKA site.

The day finished at 5pm, excellent value at £20 (including coffee/tea and biscuits)!

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There were about two dozen of us at the DARG (Devon Apicultural Research Group) meeting at Uplowman, near Tiverton, today as the local BKA branch members were invited, which swelled the numbers.  There was one other from Dorset, Liz Rescorla, our BKA secretary.

There was coffee and biscuits and general nattering for a while.  There was also the latest version of the Asian Hornet trap to try.  Advice now is to remove the bottle top entirely rather than drill a 9mm hole in it as the hornet queens don’t like squeezing through gaps. There’s uncertainty about the best bait: sweetly scented indicating a source of carbohydrate, or savoury indicating protein. It probably varies as the overwintered queen will need sugars at first for energy but protein later to feed her babies. A few small holes in the side of the bottles will help the scent get wafted out.

The speaker was Stuart Roweth and his subject was his invention, the Bee Gym, which helps bees remove Varroa through grooming.  He has produced several versions with modifications suggested through experience, but basically it’s a plastic frame about 4″ square with protruding pegs linked by taut nylon thread (fishing line) leaving a gap of about 5mm for the bee to squeeze through, dislodging a mite on her back.  There are also loosely protruding plastic strips, both rectangular and semi-circular, which bees can straddle to scrape their bellies.

Stuart showed graphically comparisons of mite drop of colonies with and without a bee gym.  He says that Vita are interested in the product and may market it in due course. I bought a couple of his earlier version to try.

If you Google: Bee Gym you’ll find Stuart’s web site with links to film he has taken through the glass wall of a hive showing the bee gym in action. The bees seem to like it as they keep going back for more.

The meeting finished with more tea and cake. Liz and I left at the same time and spent the next hour following and overtaking each other!  Next time there’s a DARG meeting we ought to get organised and do the ‘green’ thing and travel together!

Soon after I posted this, I received a message from a lady in Cattistock, a couple of miles up the road from me, saying that she has a Bee Gym in one of her hives and its mite levels are noticeably lower than in the other hives.  She hasn’t done a count but will try to be more scientific this year.  She tells me that the fallen mites on the tray below the mesh floor are directly below the Bee Gym.

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I was contacted recently by an old apprentice, Jane, who wants to get back into beekeeping, having been beeless for a few years, her life having been too turbulent.  Her boy friend, Oliver, an organic farmer in Somerset, has planted a few more acres of apples so it would be good to set up an apiary there.

I went to see them yesterday, getting a bit lost as it’s years since last I was there.  We had a good natter and a catch up and Jane drove me to visit the site in a Land Rover.  The fields are sloping and the tracks muddy so it was an ‘interesting’ drive!

We walked around the fields.  There is an established orchard which produces enough fruit for Oliver to market cider and apple juice under his own label (with a spelling mistake that I must point out to him).  That’s on the south facing slope as I’ve now discovered by looking at a map.  When we were there it was so cloudy that I had no idea of the direction of the sun.

A stream runs down the edge of the field, so there’s water for bees if needed.  The new orchard is on the opposite slope and so is north facing.  There’s a mature wood behind it and Oliver’s also planted some more oaks for posterity.  The grass is natural so there should be plenty of wild flowers in season, but Oliver agreed that I could sprinkle borage seeds on molehills to add to the mix.

The downsides are a) carrying heavy bee kit/honey across steep fields b) badgers c) I saw a couple of woodpeckers d) it’s a long way (27 miles) from home e) my labels are for Dorset honey, not Somerset. f) there are a couple of public footpaths crossing the site.

How to cope with the downsides? a) get Jane to drive me around in the Land Rover b) a top bar hive should be out of badger reach c) plastic netting might discourage the woodpeckers d) I was recompensed with a gallon of cider, a couple of bottles of juice and a bottle of ‘slido’ (sloes that had been used for gin making re-used with cider). e) either turn the honey into alcohol or else let Oliver market it locally under his label. f) the hives can be placed 50 yards or more from the paths.

I need to do some detective work to find out whether there are other beekeepers nearby.  I have a dim recollection that there is a ‘hot spot’ for Amm, the British black bee, genes not too far away so I don’t want to move bees there and possibly contaminate the gene pool.  I shall probably set up bait hives and hope for the best, knowing that local bees are better than imports.

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Last night, with the aid of my gps, I weaved my way along the secret back lanes of West Dorset and, with a bit of doubling back, found the village hall of Whitchurch Canonicorum exactly at 7.30 when West Dorset BKA’s lecture on Thermal Performance of Beehives was due to start.  Fortunately, although advertised in GMT, they use local time (about 2 degrees and 45 minutes west of Greenwich) in West Dorset so I had nearly a quarter of an hour to find a seat in the very full hall and see who was there.

Besides members of the local branch, I saw people from Dorchester & Weymouth, East Devon, Blandford & Sturminster and, sat next to me, Somerset.  The talk had been well advertised!

The speakers, who worked as a team, were husband and wife Derek and Elaine Mitchell from Hampshire.  Derek took the lead as the scientist while Elaine, who is the beekeeper, took over at times to demonstrate the practical side.

With the aid of a magic lantern Derek showed diagrams and graphs to demonstrate that Tom Seeley’s 40 year old description of the sort of hollow tree preferred by swarms is the most efficient thermally while the design of hive usually preferred by beekeepers is least efficient.  Then they showed off their own polystyrene hives.

When question time arrived I took the opportunity to speak about the winter, inside and out, temperature measurements that apprentice Sarah made on a top bar hive of mine at her Bee Happy Plants nursery.  I described how the two lines of measurements, when plotted on the same graph, were mirror images of each other, indicating that when it was colder outside it was warmer inside and vice versa.

After several others had raised points or asked questions, it was time for tea and cake!  I went around the table about 3 times!  West Dorset has some really talented culinary artists and I expect they’re probably ok at keeping bees too.


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I’m just back from a holiday in a mansion in Kent, Broome Park, that used to belong to Lord Kitchener, although it was built 200 years before he was born.  On Wednesday a group of 9 of us, including a family from Australia, went on a guided country walk of about 4 miles. Our guide, Karen, pointed out a spot in a tree where a geocache used to be located.  It’s not there now and it doesn’t come up on the internet so it  must have been ‘archived’, but I’m fairly sure that I found it on my last visit about 3 years ago.

The walk was off the beaten track, but, in the middle of nowhere, we met a lady walking a dog, a friend or neighbour of Karen, who mentioned that the lady is a beekeeper.

We lunched at The Jackdaw at Denton, a pub I’d recommend, and, over the table, I explained to the youngsters about geocaching and on the way back to the digs I showed them the ‘App’ on my mobile phone.

There were still a couple of hours of daylight after we got back so I decided to visit the north coast so I could drive there and back without getting the setting sun in my eyes.  The gps guided me to Reculver where there is the ruin of an ancient twin towered church sat in the middle of a Roman fortress. After exploring the ruins I walked along the coast path for a while until the sun started to sink and then returned to the car and the digs getting there after dark.

An hour or so later I found I couldn’t find my phone!  I have two as the one on monthly contract with O2 doesn’t get  a signal at home  but has a brilliant camera. The old one works well at home and I top up with a monthly payment to EE. It was that one that was missing.  The last time I could recall handling it was when I was showing the app to the girls on the way back from the Jackdaw.

I checked the car in case it had fallen from my pocket there and rang the number without hearing it. I told Louise, the Receptionist, in case somebody found it and handed it in and decided to retrace my steps along the path to the Jackdaw in the morning.

I was just getting clad in my cold weather kit in the morning in order to commence the search when the other phone rang.  Somebody had found the phone at Reculver while dog walking! I got the address and headed that way and the lady, when giving me the phone that her husband had found saw from my card that I’m a beekeeper. Her hubby’s a beekeeper too!

I told Louise that the phone had been found by another beekeeper and, lo and behold, she wants to be a beekeeper too!  Over the next couple of days we had brief chats about bees and I suggested that she gets Karen to introduce her to her friend so she can perhaps lean over her shoulder to see beekeeping in action. Also, of course, she could join the local BKA.

I gave her my card with the blog address on so she may be reading this!  I also mentioned my (co-authored with Dave MacFawn of S.Carolina) book: Getting the Best from Your Bees, which is downloadable very cheaply.  If you like, Louise, I could take you on as ‘an apprentice’ by email. I’ve done that with several people over the years, the most remote being Ma Grizzly in the wilds of NW Canada, who now mentors other beekeepers herself.


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I treated the hive with the mesh floor and tray on 30th December.  Until then the typical mite drop was about 3 per day.

On 31/12 there were 17 mites on the tray; 2nd Jan 21; 3rd Jan 11; 4th Jan 26; 5th Jan 18, 9th Jan 24, 11th Jan 6.  So after a surge, the drop has returned to about 3 per day.

What does this mean?  The short answer is dunno!  As the mite drop is now the same as it was before, maybe it has been a waste of time, despite about a hundred extra mites having been killed.

Why has the drop dropped back to 3/day so suddenly?  Have most of the remaining mites found brood to hide behind and reproduce upon? Have the bees got rid of all the oxalic and now aren’t bothering (although one of today’s mites was dented as if by bee mandibles)?

I’m undecided at present what to do next and would welcome suggestions.  I might repeat the vapour treatment and see how the figures compare. Alternatively, I could give a trickle treatment and compare.  Anyway, it will have to wait for a while as I’m about to take a holiday.

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As it is now becoming fashionable to expose your bees to the fumes of vapourised Oxalic acid rather than the trickling of acid in syrup that we’ve been doing for years, I thought I’d give it a try.

I found in my shed a length of copper pipe, about 7/8″ in diameter and cut off a length of a little over a span.  I found a stick of hazel, trimmed it, and it was a perfect fit to block one end and provide a handle.  The other end was placed in a vice and squoze until it was narrow enough to fit into a hive entrance and stay there unsupported.  I tested in some empty hives in the garden.  I bent the lid of a cat food tin to make a funnel to help pour the acid crystals into the spout.

Next job was to do a test run.  I asked on the BBKA Facebook page what was the dose to apply and misread the 2.3 grammes as 23!  I measured this amount on the  kitchen electric scale and it was about 3 heaped teaspoons, about as much as would make a half gallon of the syrup treatment!

I revisited FB and discovered my mistake.  Unfortunately my scales aren’t sensitive enough to measure that amount so I had to dig out my see-saw powder scale which measures in grains.  By an on-line conversion table I discovered that 2.3 grammes equal 35.49 grains so I set my scale to that and added oxalic crystals until the bar of the see-saw balanced horizontally.  I don’t intend to do this every time, so transferred to acid to the usual measure, a tea spoon, and found that it equals half a level teaspoonful.

I poured the acid into the applicator and took it for a test run, wearing goggles and mask and making sure that there was no wind in my direction.  I lit my small camping gas stove, applied heat to the part of the pipe where the crystals would be, and started counting mentally.  It was about 30 seconds before I saw anything at the spout and, rather than the gush of acid steam that I’d been expecting there was just a mist drifting out and around.  It diminished after about 2 minutes.

I went to the nearest hive with a Varroa board, did a count of mites which was at the usual around three a day and reduced entrances with cloth, leaving a gap the size of the spout.

Later, I went back with all the kit and gave the hive and the one next door doses of half a level teaspoonful each.  Today, roughly 24 hours later, I checked the Varroa floor again and found 13 dead mites, roughly 4 times as many as usual, so it had had some effect but nothing like the massive drop I’d been hoping for.

Only one of the mites appeared dented, but there was also a paler one, suggesting an immature mite.  There  were far more bits of bee ‘skeleton’ than usual, suggesting that the bees may have been sweeping their floor to get rid of the intruding chemical.

I think I’ll leave it for a couple of days, doing further mite counts and then repeat the process using the usual trickling method to compare and contrast.


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