16 beekeepers clustered at Gareth’s house (warm and dry) and his experimental apiary (damp and chilly) to discuss bees and eat cake. Gareth, who’s kept bees since at least the 1970’s, recounted experiences from the recent Learning for the Bees conference in the Netherlands, where he was an invited speaker and moved several grown men to tears. He showed us his experiments with hive entrance positions, Golden Hives (Einraumbeute) and hybrid Warre-Einraumbeute styles, cork insulation, easier honey harvesting, and answered a mass of questions on hive design, wasps and varroa.
Really useful tip!
Gareth told us he looks at the postures of the bees which tell him the colony’s mood:
- Tail horizontal = chilled
- Tail up, with end bent down, Nazanov gland showing = come hither fellow bees
- Tail up, with end bent up = go away
- Sting everted and a drop of venom showing REALLY go away (you sometimes smell the venom, it smells like bananas)
- Rearing up on back four legs, with two front legs raised = don’t come in (bumbles do the same)
- Front end down in a posture of submission (as seen in dogs) = please can I come in.
This was immediately useful: when we approached one hive in his apiary he told us “the postures show these bees really don’t want us near them”. It was the first time I’ve known his bees to warn people off.
The Learning from the Bees conference
Gareth commented that a key theme of Learning from the Bees was natural selection, with several speakers on the subject, specifically trying to improve varroa resistance. But whereas most of the research scientist speakers spoke of trying to select for single traits in densely packed apiaries (which aids parasite transmission) with hives close to the ground (more prone to damp and mould), only Professor Tom Seeley seemed to be approaching things from an apicentric methodology. His work shows that unmanaged populations will develop necessary traits unaided, in fact in about the same timescale that intensive breeding efforts will. I’ll write more on this in a separate post on the conference.
Gareth’s apiary is in a fairly isolated valley with no non local bees, and his bees are of a pretty uniform stock. This allows him to build hives that vary in one detail from a control hive stocked from a sister colony, and draw some conclusions. This has led him down some interesting paths and he showed us his current experiments.
He is intrigued by the Golden Hive, which uses the golden ratio for hive dimensions. He’s even built a modified Warré on this principle – see picture – note how it only has 7 bars, not 8 and, not visible on this photo, the boxes are a bit deeper. Initial results seem to show the bees prefer, or at least are very happy with, this dimensional ratio for comb building. It’s a lower volume than a normal Warré and it seems his strain of bee, which tends to Amm characteristics like relatively small colony numbers, prefers this cavity size.
If you click on the picture you’ll see a couple more interesting details. There is an elegant use of screws as spacers. These must be stainless steel to prevent corrosion.
In previous years Gareth has satisfied himself the bees thrive better with increased insulation, and he’s tried super-thick walls, octagonal hives (better surface-area-to-volume ratio), and even made double walled Warres. If you look closely at the photo you’ll see this hive is insulated on the inner surfaces with expanded cork sheets. These are manufactured from cork lumps which are pressure/steam treated in a mould until their natural resins melt and glue them together into the desired shape, so no glue is used in their manufacture, though Gareth finds a couple of spots of wood glue are desirable to keep them in place. They are 3 times better insulators than wood of the same thickness, but not strong enough to support heavy weights so need to be combined with regular wooden walls. Gareth finds the bees love the rough surface and propolise the inner walls of the hive thickly with this natural antiseptic, which he views as a Very Good Thing. Cork sheets are available in the UK from Mike Wye & Associates.
Another thing you might spot in this photo is, this hive has two entrances. Gareth has been experimenting with dual entrance hives for a couple of years after thinking about how tree hives have entrances one third from the top. His standard configuration now is two entrances, one-third and two-thirds of the way up a hive. Oddly, he finds bees fan air to draw air out of the lower entrance. As humans we assume it would be better to suck it out the top hole as hot air rises, but evidently the bees know something we don’t! Maybe it is to do with CO2 or humid air sinking to the bottom of the hive.
This is carried to extremes in this next picture of a three entrance hive. (Click image to zoom in.) The original entrance was the central slot numbered 2. This was there all last year. This year, he created number 1 above, in situ, after the box was added, which the bees never used and have now propolised closed. In the meantime the bees created number 3 by chewing through wood! The hive wall is 28mm thick cedar, but number 3 hole is located where the top bar rebate is. This is about 10mm, so the bees have chewed through around 18mm of wood, probably helped by a bit of warping and a less than perfect fit between the two boxes.
If you look closely at the first photo in this article you’ll see the einraumbeutes have multiple entrances at different heights with sliders to allow them to be blocked.
The weird, the wasps and the varroa
Gareth reminisced that 50 years ago it was commonly known never to wear blue near bees, to avoid stings. That no longer seems to be true, presumably the dyes have changed in some way we can’t perceive (ultraviolet?).
Gareth is fed up with the mess of harvesting honey and is now using inverted jars above the nest. The bees build honeycomb directly into them, and he fills the gaps with regular liquid honey. He still has to do some crushing and straining but, much less.
Propolis used to be thought of as waterproof, and people wondered why bees coated the inside of hives with it. Wouldn’t it lead to condensation? It’s recently been shown to be semipermeable, like gore-tex: it lets water vapour through but repels water droplets.
Gareth suspects that washboarding behaviour around entrances is in fact bees laying down a very thin layer of propolis, which is formed from tree resins and has antiseptic, antifungal and antibiotic properties. Washboarding has been seen inside hives as well, and he’s seen drones doing it. Eric pointed out that propolis resembles TCP and like TCP, acts as a local anaesthetic; and tinctures of 1-2% wood extract in alcohol have been used as local anaesthetics in Russia.
Gareth finds that the success of a colony in repelling wasps is not linked to the size and apparent health of the bee colony. He’s seen very small colonies who were very energetic, and successful, in keeping wasps out of their hives while large colonies next to them were overrun. In his opinion, it is more to do with a colony’s sense of self. I have read, in books by other very experienced beekeepers, that the quality they prize most is a hive’s will to live or vigour, which probably refers to the same ‘personality trait’. These seem linked to health / robustness / pest resistance, and honey yield.
Will said that he’s seen few Varroa falling from inside his hives. He suggested that a balance might be approaching between the Bees (host) and the Varroa (parasite) which are entirely dependent on them. Gareth also suggested that there is evidence of Varroa tolerance in Oxfordshire.
Many thanks to Gareth and Lynne for the hospitality, tour of the apiary and cake!
Next meeting: Saturday December 1st, at Gilliane’s in Harcourt Hill