With the temperature relentlessly around zero, the word “scorching” is clearly unrelated to today’s weather forecast.
Well, it is and it isn’t. This frosty time of year is ideal for a belt and braces cleansing of empty beehives. This can be accomplished by immersing the hive parts in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution, or for smaller scale beekeepers, by using a blow-torch to singe the interior crevices and wide surfaces of brood and super boxes. That’s where the scorching comes in. Here I am, spring-cleaning a hive which I have just started to manage.
Water is essential for life. Surprising then, that bees don’t store water.
Despite their advanced social structures and their ability to stockpile and preserve honey, pollen and propolis in their hives, bees cannot store water. They share this inability with the rest of the animal kingdom. Like fire and wind, water is an element over which only we human beings can exert control. More or less. And for better or worse.
But bees have to forage for water, which means leaving the hive to find the water to feed their brood, diluting the honey and making pollen stores more manageable. In cold weather, this can be a life-or-death excursion, since bees fall into a “chill coma” when exposed to temperatures below 10C over a short period of time – especially if they have just taken on board a crop full of cold water to take back to the hive. Water really is a matter of life or death for bees.
Let’s not despair. Bees don’t need expensively-packaged, designer-water: they like their water source to be reliable first and crystal-clean second. So if you have a leaky pipe-joint, or a shady patch where beads of morning dew still sparkle at noon, or a persistent puddle of dubious purity, the bees will favour that. I wrote a blog post in 2013 about the congregation of bees at the ventilation pipe of my central-heating system – all coming to take advantage of this regular supply of condensed H2O.
One year, I even tried a drip-feed-bottle water system into the hives, with old water bottles screwed into a nozzle which retained the water at the aperture for the bees to drink, without the jeopardy of leaving the hive in mid-winter. It was fusssy to maintain and I did not detect any improvement in the bees’ build-up the next spring, so I haven’t used this strategy again. Indeed, bees can take advantage of natural condensation in their hives (which must be kept away from the bees and brood – or risk suffocation as their spiracles get blocked) by careful arrangement and then licking the liquid off the interior hive walls.
And if you are ever tempted to put a nice bucket of water in the middle of your apiary in times of drought, please don’t! In my experience, a flotilla of little wooden rafts notwithstanding, your average, common-or-garden honeybee has a homeopathic dose of whatever it is which is supposed to make lemmings commit mass suicide by diving into water. Unless the water dribbles, beads, or puddles with a graduated, not steep, shoreline, you will be dismayed by the number of drowned bees. Of course, a sufficient quantity of water-foragers will not drown and will bring the water of life back to the rejoicing hive. Mission accomplished. But instead, let me recommend the practical solution adopted by Berlin beekeeper, Dominik, to provide a safe and reliable water supply for his bees. An inspired device.
So let me leave you with two eternal truths: Water doesn’t flow uphill. And bees can’t swim.
I knew that this day would come – I’ve been dreading it, but I just can’t put it off any longer. I’ve got to grasp the nettle and write about propolis. Unlike most things bee-related, propolis is not a crowd-pleaser. It’s greenish-brown, it’s tacky, it’s gooey …and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as a beekeeping topic, it’s too important to omit, but too unlovely to celebrate – and is a thorough nuisance to the average beekeeper, to boot. Why now ? Well, when I was filling in the BBKA Honey Survey about beekeeping conditions in 2014, I came to the part that asks about “unusual observations from your hives” over the year. No getting around it. For me and many other beekeepers of my acquaintance, 2014 will go down as the bumper year for propolis. More’s the pity. Let’s take a step back: bees returning to their hives are carrying either nectar, pollen, water or propolis. The first three on the list are self-explanatory: but what exactly is propolis ? If you cast your mind back to springtime and touching the sticky brown outers of horse chestnut buds, then you have an idea of the adhesive properties of propolis. You also have a clue as to its muddy khaki hue and to its arboreal origins. What you cannot imagine, though, is the pervasive, gloopy, gunkiness of propolis. It does not possess a uniform, clean-cut, precision stickiness like sellotape. It’s more like melted chocolate at a five-year-old’s birthday party; the pancaked slap on a pantomime dame at the curtain-call; a mastic gun in the hands of a Sunday DIYer after a pub lunch. So how will you recognize propolis when you see it ? Like most non-specific brownish gunk, it is something which you would rather avoid, but sometimes it just happens. Propolis is drab and will stick to anything, staining clothes henna brown, gumming up the floor, getting deep under your finger-nails. The smell of propolis is resinous (unsurprisingly!) and slightly antiseptic. And it may help the inexperienced propolis-spotter to know that the sole constant which applies to all propolis is that it is soft when warm, and brittle when cold. The derivation of propolis is said to be Greek “pro” = in front of and “polis” = the town (so the literal meaning of propolis is “in front of the town”). Well, it’s nice to know that even Aristotle had his off-days. The simple reality is that propolis is mostly resin gathered from trees (don’t knock it, though, since come to think of it, so are frankincense and myrrh, which represented 2/3 of the gifts from the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus), mixed with variable quantities of wax, essential oils and pollen. But since the admixture of these components varies from hive to hive, there is no definitive composition of propolis. For the same reason, modern medicine will not admit any demonstrable human health benefit from this non-standard, beige gunk. Indeed, expert bee-man John Chapple cautions that London propolis may not be as wholesome as the country variety, since bees are inclined to scoop up propolis-like materials, such as tar for roads or roofs, for use in their hives. So why do bees leave the hive and then come back with a trouserful of botanical toffee ? What do the bees use propolis for ? Here we are on firmer ground: propolis is demonstrably anti-fungal and anti-bacterial in the beehive. It is used by bees to disinfect their domain and to bolster the stability and security of the hive structure. So propolis keeps some things out – like wind and rain – and it keeps other things in – like a deceased honey-hungry mouse, mummified in propolis and hygienically sealed off from the bees inside the hive. Similarly, propolis is used by young house-keeper bees to polish the brood comb after young bees have emerged, slowly turning the cells conker-brown, as they prepare it for new eggs to be laid. And extending the disinfectant theme, some people even take propolis lozenges or tinctures against sore throats. Fair enough, it’s a free country. I should add that propolis has long been a constituent of the varnish used on stringed musical instruments. I did warn you at the beginning that this propolis lark was going to be pretty unrewarding. And I’d rather perform pirouettes on a pinhead than have to pen “Propolis Part Two”. So this prologue on propolis has almost run its course. We’re in sight of the finishing line and I can feel that I’m “hitting the wall“, so my apologies to any brownish gloop aficionados out there if I have left any ground uncovered. Finally, if you’ve got this far, well done ! Take a lap of honour and contemplate my Five Commandments about propolis. Firstly: avoid it at all costs. Secondly: if you can’t avoid it, wear medical-style nitrile gloves while working with it. Thirdly: to discourage your bees from propolising important surfaces in your hives, give the surface edges of brood and super boxes (and the frame-runners) a light rub with a cloth dipped in a tub of Vaseline – this will prevent the bees from gumming up the moving parts your hive. Mostly. Fourthly: Thou shalt not refer to propolis as “bee-glue“. Finally: if you were foolish enough to disobey the First and Second Commandments, the only recommended way to wash propolis stains off clothes or hive parts is to soak in a washing soda solution.
Better yet, your “Delete” tab will remove any trace of this propolis-prose from your screen at a single keystroke. Try it.
I’m an optimist. It goes with the beekeeper territory. For me, each New Year is an onrushing utopia. And late December is when that optimism goes into overdrive and I shift into construction mode to accomodate an expanding bee-population. If the innkeeper in Bethlehem, 2014 years ago, had been a beekeeper with similar impulses, then the entire Nativity story could have been different and we would be singing carols like: “Away In Brood-Box”, “O Come All Ye Foragers” and “O Little Hive Of Bermondsey“.
Anyway, last weekend’s build was designed to shelter a single mother and her 50,000 offspring (from up to 20 different, all mysteriously deceased, fathers) from the mean streets of SE1. That’s a tall order. The material for this 14” x 12” brood box was cedar, a light and durable wood. Hand-crafted construction, a modicum of low-impact nailing, a dab of wood glue – et voila! – the perfect four-wall habitat for raising a large family in central London.
Measure twice, cut once, is the carpenter’s motto. And the measurement at the root of all beehive construction is an improbable fraction: 5/16 of an inch. That’s the magical “beespace”,which is the gap between two surfaces which will allow two bees to pass, back to back. Any bigger than 5/16 inch and the bees would span my serried, removable brood frames with wax “brace” comb. Any smaller than 5/16 inch and they would gum up the gap with propolis. In both cases, the frames would become as rigid as a toast-rack. To get the right results, precision is key.
It’s a funny old thing, beespace. At 5/16 of an inch, it shares its awkward mathematics with other constants like pi, attractively packaged at 3.14159, or the speed of light, which clocks on at precisely 299,792,458 metres/second. In a parallel universe, in which Douglas Adams wrote the Beekeeper’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything would be 5/16 of an inch (rather than the correct answer of 42 for our own universe, of course). So my cheery Advent optimism was severely challenged by a visit to one of the last functioning limbs of the necrotic Heygate Estate last week. Yes: the discovery of an eternal formula for harmonious human habitation would be a good thing. I half-thought that I was onto something when I saw that the red bus which served the Estate was numbered “42”. But even that happy integer could not lift my hopes that human beings might be able to mimic the Extremely Social Housing of the beehive anytime soon.
As for the build, take it from me that the Bermondsey Street Bees will be delighted with their brand new hive….and that, without the faintest shadow of a hint of a doubt, 2014 will be a much better bee-year than 2013 !
Hive hygiene is important all year round to preserve healthy bee colonies from cross-infection by diseased bees. And even more so at this time of year, as we clean and repair the tools of our beekeeping trade in preparation for winter storage. But all year round, by far the most effective method of controlling the spread of disease is for the beekeeper to exercise a minimal, but crucial, cleansing ritual for the kit.
My own hive inspection routine involves using different hive tools (a hive tool is like a flat spanner specially designed to work with frames of comb and other hive components) for each of my 5 hives. After each inspection, and before I take my purple nitrile gloves off, each hive tool is immersed in a solution of washing soda and water. This disinfects and cleans the tools.
Any other equipment which is designed to go into and come out of beehives gets the same treatment. Porter escapes, for example, used for clearing bees from supers when it is time to separate the bees from the honey, often become propolised ! And nothing shifts sticky brown propolis stains quite like Washing soda !! And it’s only £1/kilo at Tesco’s !!! (A missed opportunity, I really could have scripted “Madmen” with copy like that…)