Category Archives: Bee Basics

Varroa – the Basics

The Varroa mite is a parasite of the honeybee. Being a mite it is not an insect; it has eight legs and is a member of the spider family. As parasites go, Varroa mites are quite large in comparison to the host – about the size of a pin head and quite easily visible to the naked eye. If humans had a parasite the same relative size of Varroa it would be about the size of a saucer. The mites have a reddish brown, leathery shell and from above they look a bit like a crab but without the pincers. Continue reading Varroa – the Basics

Winter Oxalic Acid Varroa Treatment

When the shortest day is upon us there is a brief broodless period in the honeybee colony. This is the time conditions are right for oxalic acid treatment. There are two reasons for this:

  1. When a colony is broodless, all the Varroa are at their most vulnerable out there in the open, either on the bees or creeping about on the comb – Varroa are protected from the effects of oxalic acid when they still inside the cells of the brood nest;
  2. Oxalic acid can damage open brood so these effects are minimal when there are no or few larvae.

On December 9th 2013 the bees were flying quite strongly and still working the last of the ivy and the Mahonia but there has been little activity since then. Any eggs laid during that spell of mild weather will have hatched by the end of December so that might be the best time to treat.

The following methods can be used during any broodless period, even in the middle of summer, but supers need to be removed. Click here for more about summer oxalic acid treatment. Continue reading Winter Oxalic Acid Varroa Treatment

Irish Wasps

Although all wasps seem to look alike there are actually 6 species of social wasp in Ireland. First the Vespulae – these are the ones that cause most nuisance and particularly the first two blaggards:

  • Vespula vulgaris (Common Wasp);
  • V.germanica (German or European Wasp);
  • V.rufa (Red Wasp);
  • V. austriaca (Cuckoo Wasp). V.austriaca is known as the Cuckoo wasp because it is an obligate parasite of V.rufa!

Then there are the ‘long cheeked’ wasps – Dolichovespulae:

  • Dolichovespula sylvestris (Tree wasp)
  • D. norvegica (Norwegian wasp)

The most numerous are the Common and German wasps and they are very similar to look at. To decide which is which you have to look them in the eye and examine their facial features. The Common wasp has an anchor shaped black patch on the front of its face while the German has an arrangement of 3 dots. Also, the black bands are wider on the Common wasp. Great photo’s here.

Both species mostly build nests underground however they will go into roof spaces but this habit is more often seen in the Common wasp. During the course of the year they will rear between 6,500 and 10,000 workers, 1,000 queens and 1,000 males. Towards the end of the summer the old queen starts to lose her power and she goes off lay. This presents the army of workers with a problems – they have spent the summer gathering insects, chewing them up and feeding them to the larvae. In return the larvae would secrete a sugary syrup which the workers take as food. When the larvae run out the workers have to find another source of sugar and end up throwing their weight about in beer gardens and kitchens. And of course creating problems for the bees.

The other two Vespulae species are less of a problem for humans or bees because their life cycles are different to those above. The Red wasp has a similar anchor shaped black patch on its face but is easily distinguished from the others by the reddish band on the upper abdomen. It builds a much smaller nest and seldom in an urban setting. It is also very much less aggressive and is (apparently) reluctant to sting.

It is parasitised by the Cuckoo wasp, the queen of which moves into the nest as soon as the first workers are up and running. She kills the Red queen and forces the workers to look after her brood which she sets about laying in the cells built for the eggs of her predecessor.  They rear only males and new queens – because they use the Red wasp workers as slaves and do not need their own workers. Isn’t that awful?

The other two also build much smaller nests and although the Tree wasp can be very aggressive they seldom cause problems like the first two. The Tree wasp tends to suspend its relatively small nest from trees and shrubs but it will also nest in relatively small cavities. The Norwegian wasp also builds a small nest in trees or shrubs often quite close to the ground.

The colonies of all of the above species break up at the end of summer and only the new queens overwinter by hibernation. It’s surprising how often wasp queens can be found hibernating inside the hive roofs. In spring they wake up and begin to build their nests. They lay their eggs and they feed the brood themselves until eventually they have workers on the wing after which, the queen lays eggs exclusively and the workers tend the brood. The workers are all female and they all sting – the sting is an adapted ovipositor. The males, which emerge later in the year have no sting. Learn the difference and impress your friends. The very large wasps to be seen on the Cotoneasters early in the year are the queens.

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December Bees

It’s December, eight degrees C and the bees are very busy – quite a loud hum out there. The ivy is still flowering and there is the usual horrible smell if you stand anywhere near it so we have to assume the bees are still working it. And they have the car windscreen well spattered with bee dung – fortunately I didn’t have any washing out but then who does in December?

They’re all over the Mahonia as well.

How do people get through winter without bees!


How to set up an Apidea

Mating nucs, or ‘mini nucs’ are a great way of getting a new queen laying using the minimum of resources. Should she fail, little is lost but if she does get laying – a spare queen is a great thing to have!

Apideas are far and away the best mating nuc on the market – they cost a little more but are worth every penny for the elegance of the design and the quality of the product.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and the same can be said for Apideas but here is how I’ve been doing mine for the past 15 years… Continue reading How to set up an Apidea

Frame Assembly – Good

This is how to assemble a frame properly but don’t do this too early or your wax will go off:

FrameAssembly1Remove the wedge cleanly or it won’t sit properly when you put the wax in. It doesn’t matter too much with wired wax, but if you’re using unwired wax the wedge won’t grip it properly. If necessary shave the area clean with a nice sharp chisel. Continue reading Frame Assembly – Good

Bees and Mahonia

Bees on Mahonia

Rather a murky late winter’s day, 8 degrees C and misty with it. Despite that, the bees were flying quite strongly at around noon when I took this photo.

This is Mahonia, a very tough flowering shrub which the bees love. Some Mahonias are scented but this one isn’t – I think its full name is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Mahonias like this one come from North America originally but are now well established in parks and gardens everywhere – which is good for the bees. It is sometimes known as Oregon grape as the fruits look like grapes, being dark blue with an attractive bloom like sloes, or grapes – not edible though I think.

The bees don’t get a crop from it – obviously – but it really seems to cheer them up in the winter. It cheers me up too. It flowers from mid-November though to mid-January and whenever the temperature climbs sufficiently they will venture out and forage for a little fresh pollen or nectar.

Mahonia with Bees

Mahonias need to be cut back regularly in the spring after flowering to keep them from getting too leggy. You can be quite savage with them as they are very tough but aim to take about 25-30% of the stems down per year. The bits you cut off can be stuck in the ground and about 30% of them will root.

Click here for Bee Trees – Hawthorn

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Propolis is a word with Greek roots.  Pro means before and polis means city.  The reason propolis is called propolis is that the bees will use it to narrow the entrances to their cities (hives). The bees also use propolis to waterproof their hives from the inside or to glue down anything that is loose.

Propolised skep
Skep propolised on the inside

While they do tend to rely on the sticky exudations of plants they can and will bring home anything sticky such as wet paint, tar or even bubblegum. Fortunately, though they tend to prefer the natural gums that coat the buds of some trees for example the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) or poplars (Populus spp).  If you want to know what propolis smells like – stand beneath some poplars in March or April on a sunny day and that wonderful resinous smell is propoplis. If it is a warm day listen carefully and you may hear the bees at work.

Poplars in March
A fine row of aromatic poplars on the Barrow near Millford, Co.Carlow.

They will also gather the resins that ooze from softwoods. Amber is a fossilised resin and samples have been found with bees trapped inside. Those ancient must have gone out one sunny day millions of years ago to get some propolis and got stuck there they are for us to marvel at today. A neighbour of mine once cut down a line of cypress trees in the middle of summer – the stumps continued to ooze sap and that year my hives were absolutely gummed to the gills with it.

Bees gathering propolis are bees on a mission – they have detected a draught or something loose and they head out for something to fix that with. When they find something sticky – and they’re not over fussy – they pack it into their pollen baskets (corbiculae) and head for home.

Bee with corbiculae stuffed with sticky propolis
Bee with corbiculae stuffed with sticky propolis

Depending on what they are up to they will either mix it with beeswax or use it neat.

In its pure form it is a reddish gum with a wonderful resinous aroma. In the summer it has a gluey consistency and it is a nuisance to beekeepers and bee breeders – in this part of the world anyway – will select against propolis gathering.

In winter when it is cold, propolis is quite brittle and is easily chipped or scraped off hive parts. If you want to harvest some nice pure propolis, spread a sheet of gauze across the top bars of the hive under the crown board, when the bees have it packed with propolis, peel it off, fold it up and put it in the freezer. Next day remove the gauze from the freezer and crumple it up over a sheet of newspaper – all the little squares of propolis will fall out onto it.

Apart from its stickiness, propolis has other properties. It is an anaesthetic which used to be used by dentists and it has antibacterial and antifungal activity so when they line the hive with it they are applying a protective shield around it – it even hinders the beekeeper.

If you want to test the anaesthetic properties – chew a small piece and you will feel a numbness in the lining of your mouth. Don’t try too big a piece or you may find your teeth all glued together.

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Beeswax Facts

Beeswax has been described as the most recalcitrant substance known to man which means it makes great, long lasting polish but is not so great to splash it on your clothes.

  • Beeswax is produced by the bees from wax glands on the undersides of the abdomen;
  • Bees will only produce wax when there is a nectar flow;
  • To produce wax the bees cling together in clumps and consume a lot of honey to bring up the temperature, then wax is extruded in little white lens shaped scales that can sometimes be discovered amongst the debris on the hive floor;
  • Approximately 4lbs of honey is consumed to produce 1lb of wax.
  • Beeswax begins to melt at 64 degrees centigrade;
  • Beeswax begins to discolour at temperatures above 85 degrees centigrade;
  • Beeswax will spontaneously combust if it is heated to above 200 degrees centigrade;
  • The natural colour of beeswax is yellow – all shades of yellow depending on forage but if it is brownish or olive it has been overheated. If it is pure white it has been bleached.

Click here for how to render beeswax

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Click here for beeswax lipbalm recipe

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Click here for beeswax furniture polish recipe

Click here for beeswax soap recipe

Click here for beeswax candlemaking

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