ONBG meeting, 9th Sept 2017 – colony personalities, and ferals

An “observation” Warré box with TWO windows, allowing comb to be viewed edge-on and from the side

Eleven bee enthusiasts met in north Oxfordshire to discuss preparation for winter, look at feral colonies around a village, and discuss how colony personalities differ. This last is because we get a lot of questions from people concerned that their hives are not doing what the books say they ‘should’, or that their two hives are behaving completely differently. Luckily the local apiaries contain colonies with varying degrees of eccentricity!

Eric explains how to poison people

But first, Eric gave a splendid presentation on a related subject related tangentially to beekeeping – the medicinal effects of common plants that can be found in our gardens. As a doctor, homeopath and beekeeper, he has noticed his interests converging on these plants and how common they are. Peppering the lecture with references to Brother Cadfael, dispatching vampires, and the dodgier uses of some plants he led us through an A to Z of healing, mood altering, fever control, tonics, oncological applications, touched on Chinese medicine, and finally apitherapy – the use of bee venom in medicine.


Probably the most important, but least mentioned, part of our meetings is the unstructured nature of our lunchtime chats where people share food and their experience in small friendly groups. Starting beeks especially seem to find this aspect of ONBG meetings valuable as any and all questions are encouraged and the debate across various experiences and views yields much more information than any one book or talk.

The weather was too wet to open hives so we had a particularly long lunch chat this time. Topics discussed ranged across Eric’s talk, how our bees were doing, evolution, varroa, books, bee races, genetics, crossed strains giving angry bees, and anaphylaxis. And chickens.

Peter raised a particularly interesting analogy to illustrate the advantage of using free mated queens instead of buying pure lines from a breeder: pedigree dogs have all kinds of health issues and shorter lifespans. A few days later I was in a vet’s examining an information poster, and learnt the lifespan ratio for dogs is: purebreeds average 12 years, crossbreeds 14.

One point to note – we found Queen failure in cast swarms seems to have been common this year. I.e, queens that failed to mate.

Autumn tasks

Mouse guard on Warré hive entrance. Usually affixed with drawing pins.

A timely topic we then moved on to discuss was autumn tasks.

One key task as winter approaches is ensuring the colonies can fend off threats. We showed novices how to reduce entrances to help guard versus robbing wasps and bees; copper tape on hive legs versus slugs and snails; and how to fit mouse guards on entrances once colder weather forces the bees to cluster and they can no longer guard the door.

Simple way to feed Warré hives

Another is feeding. Several of us are concerned at very light hives this year. Some of us are hard core non-feeders to ensure their bees are well adapted to local forage. I didn’t feed last year, but right now my hives are so light I have given them some syrup using mini Ashforth feeders: it seems my bees cannot completely compensate for reduced forage this season. It’s worth mentioning that all the colonies here are static: the hives are not moved to follow crops, so they are dependent on whatever is growing within 1-3 km. After a great spring with much fruit blossom, the other crops in this area have had a bad year due to poor weather.

Hefting a TBH with a digital luggage scale to determine if it needs feeding (use the average of both ends’ weight)

If you do feed, at this time of year thick sugar syrup (2:1, i.e. 2kg white granulated sugar for each 1 litre of water) should be used. However, sugar syrup on its own isn’t ideal – its pH isn’t acidic enough to inhibit microorganisms – which is one reason to add ascorbic acid / lemon juice. Honey can also be added/fed, but has to be from the same apiary to avoid spreading disease.

Honey also adds scent, which is useful to help the bees find the feeder the first time you fill it in a dark hive. Alternatively one can add e.g. lavender or thyme to the syrup as attractant scents – the bees associate these with food.

In Spring one uses weak syrup (1:1) and ideally add micronutrients in the form of nettle sap or chamomile tea, but that stimulates brood laying; so in winter it is arguably better to just use honey (from the same apiary!) as the micronutrient additive to syrup.

Note that the syrup is most attractive when around blood temperature, and no more should be fed than the hives can consume within 2 days to avoid problems that can arise if the syrup starts to ferment.

Feral colonies and varroa resistance locally

We then went for a walk across the village to an out-apiary and noted five feral colonies along the way. The out-apiary hives are descended from swarms Peter gave Helen and Ann in 2012 and 2014, so he was in effect visiting his great grandchildren!

Partly due to being called out to catch swarms, I’ve discovered a remarkable density of wild bee colonies in roofs, unused chimneys etc in the area, as shown on the map below. There are probably others. They are all in slate-roofed buildings over 100 years old and numbers seem limited only by the number of cavities – there are none in new houses, nor in nearby managed woods which lack suitable hollow trees. Careful observation over the years has shown only one is prone to dying over winter – presumably a small cavity – and even that survived last winter. The others fly continuously throughout the year, they are not repopulated by swarms from human-run apiaries. If anything the gene flow is in the other direction as the village beekeepers repopulate from local swarms.

There are five beekeepers in this village. Note how few red dots (treated hives) there are on the map – if you actually ask beekeepers in this area if they treat, it turns out a lot do not, but keep quiet about this, not wanting hassle from the highly vocal pro-treating lobby. Of course the feral colonies are untreated, yet one feral colony is 13 years old. I stopped treating with miticides in 2012 and began using local swarms and since then, have never lost a colony to varroa. A beekeeper 1km away uses Apistan once a year, but has a feral colony in their roof. You might wonder how that survives quite happily without their treatment (coughcough). (Interestingly, Apistan’s active ingredient is the pyrethroid fluvalinate, and varroa has been developing resistance to this since the 90’s. It’s possible their treatment is doing nothing.)

Bee colonies in the area – click to expand

It seems likely that the varroa resistance of the local bees is largely due to a farmer 5km away with 70 National hives, which he repopulated from survivor feral colonies back in the 1990’s when his Buckfasts and Italians were wiped out by varroa. This mirrors the ‘live and let die’ strategy of Ron Hoskins at the other end of Oxfordshire at the same time. Like Ron, he was ignored by the BBKA. The farmer, by the way, harvests 2.5 to 3 tons of honey a year and reckons his local bees give him better yields than his original stock.

The unmanaged colonies throw swarms, which leads to brood breaks, which is a key varroa-reduction strategy aiding the feral colonies around (because varroa parasitise larval bees to reproduce, and the short lived adults mostly die before brood laying recommences). Because ferals aren’t fed during nectar dearths like some managed hives (to stimulate laying), they probably shut down brood production last June, which again disrupts the varroa breeding cycle. And because no one is doing migratory beekeeping round here, the local bees and mites have an opportunity to come to a balance.

Colony personalities

Back garden hives – click to expand. No veils needed, even when peering through windows.

We reassured the novices among us that there is a lot of variation in colony behaviour, and that given good observation habits, the best judge of their health is them. No one else knows what’s normal for your hives.

I let new queens mate as they wish with local drones as they know what makes a good mate better than we ever could. Swarms are gathered from up to 20km away, so there is a large pool of genes to draw on; but nearby ones are preferred to match our unusually damp microclimate. None of these colonies are treated for mites, or opened more than a couple of times a year, so the bees are not generally irritable towards humans. I don’t requeen because I am selecting for survivor bees, and I accept losses because this is a long term strategy. I only take truly excess honey. There is a wide variety of trees and flowers nearby, though apparently not enough forage in total this year.

Here’s a comparison of the colonies we looked at over the day. Hives 1-4 are Warrés in the garden whilst 6 & 7 are TBH’s in the out-apiary.

  • Hive 1: Populated by a cast from Gareth in April (i.e. an early swarm with plenty of time to build up), the bees built 7 combs then lost energy. I initially wondered if this pause in activity was due to starvation from the early nectar dearth (unseasonal drought) in this region, but hive 2, a prime swarm caught a week later, had no such problem. Gareth told me he has had several colonies that go into “hold mode” then restart next year and flourish. But this colony never recovered, it dwindled and died. The cause was queen failure – the virgin queen had failed to mate. The last bees died, or perhaps defected to queen-right hives, a couple of months later.
  • Hive 2: Populated by a prime swarm (mated queen) emerging from hive 6 a week after hive 1, i.e. another early swarm, this was completely different. With a fertile queen emitting strong pheromones, the colony never lost vigour and a few months later has filled two boxes with comb. However, it got the balance of bees wrong for this year’s weather pattern and raised too many young in the drought, ending up with almost no stores by September and has been given some syrup. Gentle temperament.
  • Hive 3 (part 1): At the start of this year this was occupied by an exceptionally large and vigorous established colony, from a swarm I took from a local feral nest last year, and was the source of most of my honey crop. It had a very fast build-up of bees in Spring. Although normally docile, this colony had one quirk – it didn’t like the sound of my voice if I was too loud, and I had to wear a bee suit when mowing near it as the mower would be covered by angry bees. After emitting a huge prime swarm earlier this year, though, its temperament changed and I could mow right next to it without problems, showing it must have been something to do with the queen as for a few weeks the remaining bees would have been the same genetics as the ones that attacked the mower! After a couple more casts emerged, the remaining queen failed to mate and it dwindled and died; for some weeks the remaining workers could be seen huddled purposeless on the landing board.
  • Hive 3 (part 2): I repopulated hive 3 on August 29th with a “swarm” I caught in Bicester. As this was about 2 months since the last normal swarm around here, we think it’s a colony which has absconded as a last resort from another hive, because of robbing by wasps or a larger bee colony. It’s carrying in pollen (a sign of a fertile queen) and building comb and seems vigorous. The bees are lighter than my others and I suspect they are Buckfast, whereas all the other colonies are a mix dominated by local genes. I’m feeding it and guess it has a 40% chance of surviving winter. A lower entrance traffic than the hives next to it, possibly because most workers are inside building comb from the syrup I fed it. Gentle temperament.
  • Hive 4: An old established colony, this one just exists happily and without drama and tends to always have some stores even when others do not. It is much more cautious in its breeding strategy, not tricked into breeding just because there is a temporary nectar flow, but more in tune with the main flows of the area. So it has fewer mouths to feed in the lean periods – and sometimes seems to have fewer bees than other colonies, but it has them when it counts. These are ‘British Black Bee’ traits but the bees are no darker than my others, they’re some kind of hybrid. This was originally a small, late cast from 10km away of unknown genetics and shows the value of propagating even the most unlikely swarms. Gentle temperament.
  • Hives 6 and 7: Established colonies in TBH’s at the other end of the village, vigorous, numerous and putting on decent weight – due to being near plentiful forage – a dramatic difference just by moving 300 metres. These two colonies have been known to be somewhat edgier, particularly hive 7. Hive 6 is currently heavier, but hive 7 has more bees and just built more comb, as if they decided to use the recent nectar flow in different ways. Every year, hive 6 seems less numerous than hive 7 and has a tiny winter cluster, but both survive despite different strategies. Hive 7 had 3 swarms this year, hive 6 had one.

Isolated out-apiary. Veils advised.

A note on colony defensiveness

I realise that I may have contributed to hives 6 & 7 being touchier, as I tend to observe them less and so they are not so familiar with me, and the last couple of times I opened them it was just before rain. Peter believes defensiveness of a colony varies over the cycle of a year, which makes sense as they must be more on guard when robbing occurs in Autumn.

The possibly-grumpier colonies happen to be TBHs whereas the gentle colonies are in Warrés, but I don’t think that’s the reason as I have seen many happy TBHs. Strikingly, garden hive 2 has always been gentle, but is the daughter colony of defensive out-apiary hive 6, and it was a prime swarm so even had the same queen.

So what may be the key factor for general defensiveness, given no acute triggers such as predator attacks and no starvation? I’m tending to think familiarity with humans – I have read in several places that hives ignore people if they are used to people being around, which would explain why we could stand unprotected in front of the frequently-observed garden hives unharmed, but for 6 & 7 at the less visited out-apiary we needed to don veils and move around with more caution. Of course genetics can also come into how defensive a colony is, but given sister colonies with close genetics as in my garden/out-apiary, with differing responses, all other factors being neutral, I think my out-bees need to see me around more.

Other topics covered

A clearer board with cone escapes allowing bees to leave, but not re-enter a Warré box. Used to harvest honey

Floors: Many hives come with a slide-able floor allowing you to examine what has fallen through a mesh onto it; this is a relic of conventional beekeeping where they are obsessed with counting mites, which we ignore as a non-problem.

Opinions differed on the best option for floors. Whereas Peter slides these out and leaves his mesh floors open all year for ventilation, figuring damp is the biggest enemy, I believe a closed warm hive is best, and most closely resembles the cavities they evolved for. But this leaves a space between the mesh and the floor – which I think is a reservoir for parasites.  So I remove the mesh from my hives so the bees can keep the floor clean. I slide the bottom out occasionally to examine any detritus for clues to hive health.

Another approach is the eco-floor, where the mesh is removed but a deliberate pile of e.g. sawdust is added so pseudoscorpions etc can live in it and eat varroa.

More significantly – the bees survive, whichever type of floor the beekeeper provides!

I exhibited various types of top bars for Warrés. I switched from the standard flat, wide slats to narrow bars because my bees  didn’t seem to realise there is another box to build comb in below the bars (“stuck box syndrome”). But this led to another problem: the thin bars were too thin and comb could now be built from one box through the gap between bars, creating one long, poorly anchored comb through multiple boxes. So my latest design features bars which are thinner than standard, but not so thin that comb can be built between them.

I also now add side dowels to all bars to create “semi frames”. After a hive was knocked over in a storm I saw that combs which were only attached on their top side sheared off, but all combs in semi frames survived intact, which was pretty convincing.

Many thanks to everyone who came and participated, and especially Eric for his extensive presentation on medicinal plants!

Next meeting: not yet determined.

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2 Responses to ONBG meeting, 9th Sept 2017 – colony personalities, and ferals

  1. Gilliane Sills says:

    Thanks Paul for this summary. I’d wondered whether tbh bees might be less happy than Warre bees, so I’m particularly glad you’ve said that you’ve seen many happy tbhs. However, my tbh bees sound closer in temperament to yours than to your Warre bees, and, apart from most of August when we were away, I’ve visited them at least once a day to observe them and talk to them, so they should be used to me. Nevertheless, they’ve stung when I’ve been nearby (though not in front of the entrance) three or four times this summer, the most recent being two days ago, when I was watching from about nine feet away. They seem very active – a lot of bees flying, a lot of pollen going in and many bees clustering in the entrance on the landing board.


  2. Paul says:

    I’ve seen colonies in identical TBHs next to each other with different temperaments. They had very different genetics – in each case the calm colony was Buckfast and the more defensive one was (1) a random swarm (2) a cross between Buckfasts and the local ferals. So one cause can be genetics. You might conclude that it is best to buy bees advertised as calm from a breeder, but in general it is a bad idea to import non-local bees (like Buckfasts or Carniolans) to an area as their drones cross with all colonies in the area and everyone ends up with grumpier bees until the local genes reassert themselves through natural selection, which takes a couple of generations (years). Obviously breeders will continue to promote their own bees as “best” but, that’s their business model.

    So it is likely your bees will eventually calm down, probably after swarm season 2019 when they are likely to swarm, get a new queen and reshuffle their genes.

    The other usual reason for defensiveness is a stress on the colony such as robbing, wasp attacks or starvation – but that tends to come and go.

    Yesterday I revisited my TBH’s and they were quite calm, and exceptionally busy – loads of traffic at the entrances with foragers returning with heaps of pollen. I have just been reading that when bees are busy (which I suppose is the same as, when forage is plentiful) they are much less interested in humans, and just ignore you. But that was obviously not your experience 2 days ago.


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