Reflections on winter lectures on beekeeping

What is reflection?

When you attend a lecture, talk, seminar, presentation or workshop what might you do as a result of attending it.

Was is simply for your entertainment or did you attend with the hope or intention that it might change the way you do things that relate to the talk and to your life.

Reflecting on learning is I believe a most powerful form of learning, but what do I mean reflecting?

The act or process of learning, usually associated with those studying for a qualification of some kind, but actually relevant to all of us unless we are simply biding time between bouts of entertainment, is vital to life.

Gibbs’ theory of reflection talks about a cycle that asks us to make note of four things relating to the learning experience; 1. how did we feel and what were our emotions; 2. can we describe the event, 3. What did we learn, 4. What might we do differently.

I have attended three lectures in March of 2015 that were all entertaining but from which I can reflect and learn a lot for the coming season.

The first was actually a series of lectures given by Roger Patterson on behalf of BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) and this was entitled ‘Bee Improvement for All’. Roger has kept bees since 1963 became chairman of his local BKA at 23 and has at one time kept 130 colonies. He took over the administration of Dave Cushman’s website in 2011 Roger covered several topics with over 290 slides. From my notes I summarised the following things that I want to follow up with this season:

1. Non prolific bees are the most productive in the UK climate. Less work, less feeding, bees and queens live longer, single brood box all year round, food in brood chamber, black queens are favourable, yellow queens are more prolific.

2. He keeps what he calls a ‘support colony’ in each apiary to provide main honey producing colonies with; food, comb and bees.

3. He puts a second brood box above the Queen Excluder QE. This gives a greater flexibility in managing beehives with clean drawn comb as comb drawn in a breeding brood box is invariably scruffy and patchy, foundation doesn’t go stale. Drawn comb is then instantly available as well as food comb if needed.

4. Two key factors to look for in a colony of bees (among others) are ‘good tempered bees’ and ‘calmness on the comb’. An interesting observation from Roger is that the good tempered nature of a colony follows the queen such that it is her presence that is the important factor, she does not need to replace the bees before they become good natured.

5. Roger adds a one sheet of drone brood foundation to the brood box to allow the bees to easily rear drones without messing up layer comb or making comb elsewhere for the rearing of drones. This works two fold as drones are vital in the well being of the colony, but also means that at least twice a year the comb once capped can be taken out and put in the freezer as deterrent against varroa.

6. If you have Queen Cells QCs the advice is often to leave 2, but why? Leave 1.

7. Any colony will have a ‘Peak Queen Cell Number, PQN’. Aim for colonies with a PQN of 10-12 when rearing queens. In Roger’s experience he has seen colonies that create between 4 and 30 QCs.

8. After finding QCs and queen has gone, wait at least 8-9 days before reducing to ONE QC, by this time the bees should not be able to make anymore.

9. If replacing a queen wait at least 6-8 hours after removing the queen before adding a QC. Roger uses a small piece of aluminium foil to rap around the cell leaving the end open. This is to prevent the bees from tearing it down.

10. Roger uses a two frame technique for making NUCs, one brood one food. Don’t inspect between 10am and 6pm just in case the queen is on a mating flight. Keep Nucs in a shady place and away from from full colonies, entrances facing different directions.

With over 290 slides I had made a dozen or so pages of notes from which I have condensed these even further to give the 10 points above as the ones that I felt can improve my beekeeping. I intend to try all of these methods if not across the apiary with at least some of my colonies before making a decision about which ones if not all to adopt for the future.

Roger recommended ‘The Principles of Bee Improvement‘ by Jo Widdicombe

Rather than searching the country, or the world, for the perfect bee to breed from, this book explains how to select and improve bees from the local bee population. It discusses the problems of importation, the use of natural and artificial selection, assessment of colonies and selection within a strain. By following these methods, the standards of our bees can be raised, producing gentle, hardy and productive bees.’


The second lecture was given by Glyn Davies at the WBKA convention on 28th March 2015. Glyn has been keeping bees a long time and is a member of Newton Abbot BKA

The lecture was on ‘The Mysterious Sex life of the Honeybee and the Virus Threat’

The queen mates with around 15 drones on her mating flight, but why so many. Research has shown that the average is 13.2.. But why when two drones would supply ample amounts of sperm to fill her spermatheca?

It is important to realise that drones are ‘haploid’ that is they have only the genes of their mother; they have no father only a grandfather. This may be easier to understand if you think about the process of how a drone is created. The queen has many eggs and a spermatheca full of sperm. When she lays an egg and fertilizes it with some sperm, the result will be either a worker bee or another queen. When she lays an egg but does not fertilize it the result is a drone.

It is thought that the reasons include the following:

  • Increased genetic variation and resistance to environmental changes including disease.
  • Increased chance of colony longevity
  • Improved division of labour
  • Reduce the chance of diploid production

Worker bees can recognise a larva produced by the mating of a queen with her BROTHER and hence diploid; they very quickly remove it and this can create a ‘pepperpot’ pattern in the brood.

It can be shown that over 90% of differences in relatedness come from the first 6 matings, but the optimum is 13.2.

It has also been seen that only certain drones lines produce queens.

Research has shown that a drone congregation can include drones from 250 colonies and from a 10 square mile area.

This is interesting and reminded me of Roger’s talk where he keeps bees in Sussex with many more beekeepers than we have in Breconshire, and two thoughts occurred to me; the first being that I don’t need to worry too much about how many hives I have in that in this rural location we will never have that many beekeepers, the second thought was that how many colonies are there in any 10 miles square within Breconshire? Well the queens get mated and the colonies thrive…

(Later I looked up the area of Breconshire and found that it is 469,281 acres which is 733 square miles whilst Radnorshire is 301,165 acres acres. (Sussex is slightly larger that Brecon and Radnor combined) With about 100 registered beekeepers in B&RBKA who on average have 4.5 hives each that would mean 450-500 hives. I find this quite astonishing but also worry a little about the diversity of the drones. We should also be aware that large parts of Breconshire are mountainous with very little in the way of pollen and nectar producing plants)

A book that Glyn recommends is ‘The Buzz about Bees‘ by Jurgen Tautz

The book destroys the cute notion of bees as anthropomorphic icons of busy self-sacrificing individuals and presents us with the reality of the colony as an integrated and independent being a “superorganism”with its own, almost eerie, emergent group intelligence. We are surprised to learn that no single bee, from queen through drone to sterile worker, has the oversight or control over the colony. Instead, through a network of integrated control systems and feedbacks, and communication between individuals, the colony drives at consensus decisions from the bottom up through a type of “swarm intelligence”. Indeed, there are remarkable parallels between the functional organization of a swarming honeybee colony and vertebrate brains.’

Glyn talked about the research that his BKA had carried out with regard to drone laying queens and the seemingly earlier occurrence in the lifespan of the queen.

Wally Shaw added that in Wales similar research has shown that queens mating later in the season are more susceptible to deformed wing virus from the drones and recommends using queens mated in May to June only.

What I take from Glyn’s lecture is that drones are vital to the colony and the mating of the queen and that I should try and use only queens mated early in the season. As the season starts in 2015 I have two hives that have late mated queens in 2014, I will watch these with interest as the season progresses. I will also be aware of any pepperpot brood pattern that I might come across especially if the colony is otherwise looking healthy. I will also get a copy of Jurgen’s book in due course.


The third lecture was by Wally Shaw also at the WBKA convention on 28th March 2015 and entitled ‘Reactive Swarm Control’ Wally has produced two fantastic booklets that can be downloaded from the WBKA wesbite. The following are extra notes that I made from his talk.

Some things to be aware of:

Flying bees have the swarming impulse, so make sure that any nucleus that you make doesn’t include them.

A natural swarm has up to 70% of bees less than 10 days old. Bees can fly at 2-3 days old, but the swarm will include bees from 4 days of age and greater.

Well of course it doesn’t make sense to take only the old bees as there will be a period of at least 21 days until new bees emerge, but it does beg the question whether the young bees inside the hive that can fly carry the swarm impulse. We would at this stage assume not.

Wally talked about experiences with the Snelgrove method of swarm control and mentioned problems that can occur such as the flying bees can sometimes find the queen and walk up to the box that includes her on top of the old hive.

This can be avoided by giving the queenless part a frame with a QC on it; the Snelgrove II (modified) method.

Just in case you didn’t know if you find a queen cell with a bee head down it is a worker, if the bee is head up it is a queen.

If a colony swarms late in the season, find the queen and make a nucleus, put this on top of the original hive with a QE and a Snelgrove board to allow bees to stream back down to the original box. This can be particulatly helpful during a honey flow.

Because of the issues with late mated queens reinstate the original queen later on

I spent Sunday 29th March making Snelgrove II modified boards in preparation. In 2014 I trialed a similar approach used by Ken Basterfield which has very similar boards. I should point out that using the KB method for ‘preemptive’ swarm control I had two hives that issued swarms. I put this down to the fact that although I hadn’t seen any QCs the bees were probably on the verge of creating them and hence had the swarm impulse. As a result I may manage any preemptive splits as if they are re-active.

My reflections are in bold and have helped me to make a clear plan for the coming season.

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