Trends in beekeeping #1

This is a wide-ranging article, the start of an occasional series, intended to touch on recent developments in beekeeping that have caught my attention and that I thought others may not have had the time to follow – discussion welcomed!

Topics covered here include:

  • Flow Hives
  • Electronic Monitoring
  • Online training
  • Warré hives and disease resistance
  • Colony survival rates – update
  • Neonics – update
  • and more …

Flow Hives

Honey on tap from a plastic flow hive frame.

Bees as objects of convenience: honey on tap from a plastic flow hive frame.

This is not a hive for low-intervention/natural beeks, as will become obvious  – the focus is on extracting honey, not helping bees. However, I think it worth mentioning here as I see it often in certain forums, so there is some interest out there and people need to be better informed about it.

I should note here that the Flow Hive design has been ripped off by Chinese pirates – while I am not a fan of it personally, it is outrageous that the developers’ 10 years of work has been stolen. The fakes have appeared on eBay, users report they’re shoddily made, and the fakes are getting lots of one-star reviews.

More significantly, users are beginning to get their first honey, and some report bits of crushed bees appearing in the honey: legs and wings . And if you don’t use a queen excluder to keep the queen from laying in the flow frames, you also get crushed larvae, which will present an interesting cleaning problem if the workers don’t remove the mangled remains.

Sceptics of the hive also point out that the sales videos show very runny honey, which is typical of the creators’ home area (Australia), flowing without problems; but honey consistency varies with temperature and nectar source. It is also unclear how you tell all the cells are capped – to avoid taking unripe honey which ferments and goes off – without taking the flow frame out of the hive to inspect it, which rather defeats the point.

Electronic monitoring

Electronic remote monitoring of hives is definitely trending now, with systems available from Arnia, the APiS hive project and the Open Sourced Beehive Project. They (variously) monitor temperature, weight, a bee counter, humidity, and some alarm owners via text alert if the hives are moved (stolen). They cost a lot of money per hive, so I think they are just used by researchers and a few hobbyists for now.

Some of the properties listed for monitoring by these devices can be estimated by an observant beek, at least to the level of ‘is there a problem or not?‘. But clearly this sort of precise data collection could prove very useful in, say, comparative hive-type studies and allow colony survival rates to perhaps be correlated with winter internal hive temperature, etc. And they could reduce the interventionist approach typically employed by those keeping a large number of hives.

There are also some simple, useful, cost-effective electronic tools you can get. Electronic luggage balances can check the weight of hives to 0.1kg. And recently Chris, a member of our group, found this cheap infrared temperature probe which he has been using to look at his hives’ external heat loss to find where he needs to insulate them.

So in conclusion, electronic remote monitoring is certainly an area to watch with interest but a bit pricey for my pocket at the moment.

Online training

Some online training is emerging. The BBKA has a ‘comprehensive’ scheme (conventional only) called Ark, and the National Bee Unit offers a free eLearning course specifically about pests and diseases; you need to be registered with the BBKA / BeeBase to use them. Although these are oriented towards conventional beekeeping (routine inspections, swarm control, etc.) they are informative, and in particular valuable for recognition of diseases which is essential even for natural beeks. However, for me nothing beats hands-(and eyes)-on observation and mentoring.

Warré hives and disease resistance

Warre hive

Warré hive: heavily insulated,  natural comb

Are Warré hives really less prone to disease? Warrés are claimed to be lower stress for bees than framed types, and to benefit from constantly renewed brood comb, thus should be less prone to disease. This initially seemed confirmed by the fact that I could not find any instances of EFB or AFB in Warrés mentioned online. I posted the question to the Warré beekeeping group which has about 1500 members, and the only responses were: deformed wing virus (i.e. varroa); occasional chalk brood and nosema; a little winter dysentry.

However, then I contacted the National Bee Inspector’s office, because bee inspectors will look at every hive near outbreaks of serious diseases. They inform me that they have seen EFB, chalk brood and sac brood in Warrés (and other TBH’s), and these problems do not seem any less common in them than any other hive type. (While not a detailed statistical comparative analysis, this is the direct observation of experienced inspectors and so of real significance).

Furthermore, they pointed out that because comb isn’t changed as regularly as in framed hives, they would expect bacterial (EFB, AFB) and fungal diseases (Chalk Brood, nosema) to build up from year to year. My initial reaction was, that comb is changed in Warrés as the bees build down and we remove the top boxes, so after a year or so all comb is renewed. But on reflection, this hasn’t been true this year – poor nectar flows meant little new comb was built in established hives; and even in normal years, perhaps some natural beekeepers can be too “leave alone” and do not manage top bar or Warré hives as intended, by periodic removal of old comb.

So the take-home message here is, don’t assume your hive is intrinsically protected from disease because it is not framed. You do still need to monitor and manage it to some degree.

Colony survival rates – update

It was a good start to the year for UK bees. Colony survival rates were about normal last winter. Surveys by the BBKA and COLOSS produced broadly similar results: 8% to 14.5% colony loss rate over last winter. Starvation and queen failure were the primary reasons (and varroa, according to the BBKA).

But, in August the NBU inspectors found starving colonies all over Britain, due to low nectar flows arising from odd weather. Beeks around Britain had to emergency-feed their bees, and the UK honey crop was very low this year. Other countries do not seem so affected.

How did low-intervention beekeepers compare? We did an informal survey among our Oxfordshire group early this year which seemed to show only 5-15% of colonies had died over winter, but as the Spring went on it emerged some others no longer had fertile queens. This highlighted to me a vagueness about what constitutes colony “survival”. Honey-oriented commercial beekeepers will usually immediately re-queen a queenless colony, so the genetics of the resulting ‘surviving’ colony will likely be unrelated to the original; whereas natural beeks tend to wait for the colony to naturally supersede (which does not always work), because we are interested in maintaining genetically-based  “survivor” traits such as hygiene, adaptation to the local climate, etc. If conventional beeks did the same their survival rates could be very different. So, while superficially recent conventional and natural beek colony survival rates seem similar, I suggest that it is perhaps not very meaningful to try to draw any significant conclusions from a direct comparison between the two camps.

Neonics – update

There were three stand-out developments on these pesticides this year:

  • NFU usage curtailed by review panel: The National Farmers’ Union asked for a derogation (exemption) from the EU ban to use neonics on OSR, which was initially refused. They reapplied for just 5% of the original area and were permitted.
  • DEFRA position challenged: Professor Dave Goulson (noted bumblebee expert) robustly criticised the claims of the NFU that crop yields would fall without neonics, and he has also published criticism of a key DEFRA-sponsored study which had often been offered by DEFRA as “proof” that neonics do not harm bees. In fact, the authors of that paper say “no conclusions can be drawn”; and Goulson’s re-analysis of the paper’s own data appears to show that neonics do harm bees.
  • Policy inertia: (This was covered in August on the Simplebees blog) –  A new, major review of neonic evidence by FERA’s own scientists, showed a clear link between the neonic imidacloprid and honeybee colony deaths over winter. The BBKA put out a statement implying this is a secondary effect which merely “suggests” a correlation; this is simply not what the paper says. The review also found that there’s no consistent crop yield improvement for farmers from using imidacloprid; and neonic use doesn’t seem to reduce the use of pesticide sprays by farmers when crops are flowering. Hopefully this research will help DEFRA form a balanced pesticide policy.
How neonics affect non-target species

How neonics affect non-target species

Very recent neonic research which hasn’t yet been widely reported:

A recent paper has found that different bee races have different sensitivities to neonics. The most sensitive are Italians. This might explain some of the inconsistent results in early toxicity tests.

Another paper (again by Dave Goulson et alia) points out that up to now, “field realistic” studies have assumed that pollinators only pick up the toxins from OSR fields when the OSR is in bloom – for about 5 weeks. However, wildflowers at field margins continue to provide neonics in their nectar and pollen for a lot longer, and the cumulative dose from these can be greater than the dose from the OSR.

And finally, in other news …

Beekeeping is being used as occupational therapy in a prison. This thoughtful, uplifting article by Heidi Hermann of the Natural Beekeeping Trust is a five minute read which gives moving insight into how this calm, fascinating, group activity can help inmates cope with the pressures of the British penal system.

This entry was posted in Multi-part series, Pesticides, Research, Trends in Beekeeping, Warré and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Trends in beekeeping #1

  1. Lindylou says:

    Superb article Paul, informative and diverse. Thank you


  2. itsonlyausername says:

    The paper by Dave Goulson also appeared in ‘Beyond Pesticides’ which is a global newsletter based in the US. Oddly enough I only got this newsletter today and until I did I had no idea about the Dave Goulson paper.
    My long time concerns with neonicotinoids has always been that they reside in the soil for far longer than was initially claimed by Bayer. With hedgerows and field margins being likely to absorb residues from the field even during the following year (neonics remain in the soil for a very long time hence why they were found to accumulate) it stands to reason that the flowers in both landscapes will be contaminated with neonicotinoids. When farmers plant conservation headlands they are merely creating the chemical trap for all the insects that would come to the flowers. This is because of the close proximity of these flowering death traps to the field of chemical toxins. Even if neonicotinoids didn’t spread through the plants systemically the spray of other pesticides would drift far enough to blanket these conservation headlands and kill off any insects on the plants and any late arrivals landing on them within the sprays active period.
    So I propose we rename these headlands something else to indicate their true nature.
    Suggestions on a postcard.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article and very objectively written.


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