Members of ABKA have a vast collective knowledge about all things bee related.  In fact, like a colony of honey bees, they’re a kind of superorganism in their own right.  Which is why this page is called ‘Ask ABKA’.  Whatever your unanswered bee-related query, my guess is that ABKA has the answer – in fact it probably has several!

What’s the best way to handle a swarm?  11th May

OK, nobody actually asked, but Chris’s email was so good, I was determined to re-print it here (note: other brands of gin and tonic are available):

It’s important to appreciate that when a swarm issues from your hives, that ‘decision‘ has been made by the colony some hours (possibly longer) before the event.  The bees ‘speak‘ to each other through pheromones, bee dances, antennating and palpating, vibrations and sight.  It is an intelligence unlike any other.  These subtle yet highly effective ‘conversations‘ all create behavioral changes which enable the bees to act, mind-boglingly to us, as one.  And whoosh. They swarm.
Swarming is this species’ method of reproducing.  This one super organism (or colony) split into two – each with a viable queen and colony – now equates to two colonies.  It is an unique behaviour in nature.
Then a beekeeper comes along and decides to get the bloody thing back. She gets some smoke, shakes the branch that the bloody things are hanging off in the neighbour’s hedge.  They drop into a box.  She checks that there’s not a queen still willfully hanging onto a twig. She takes them back.  Drops them into a hive. Phew! Has a G&T.  And the buggers leave – right in front of her.  She hasn’t even managed to down her Sipsmith and Fevertree.
OK, you have made a decision about what the swarm is going to do.  But the bees have already made other choices.  The queen while she is resting and protected in the centre of the cluster is simply a (very important) passenger in this activity.  Her scout bees could already have chosen the site of their permanent lodgings-to-be.  This is where they could be intent on going next and that won’t include being dropped into a box; so they leave!
Sue Chatfield gave me a good tip a few years ago.  Before housing a swarm put a queen excluder directly under their brood box for a few days. This is not how you would normally use one but that way despite trying to swarm the queen cannot leave and eventually (95% of the time) they will change their plans and adopt the home you have offered them. I think this is the best way because it means the bees can keep cool while they collectively invest some time ‘deciding‘ to stay.
Alternatively you can block the caught swarm in for 24 hours – but you must be able to keep them cool and shaded -especially in this weather.  Use of a travelling screen as crown board is useful as you can mist the bees with water from the top through this to cool them.  Make sure the floor is vented too. An incarcerated box of bees under duress with the desire to move on will very quickly expire.  It is a miserable sight peering into the box later and to sadly look into pile of dead bees.  What a waste.
As a beekeeper you need to always consider that your clumsy interventions are just that.  You can not possibly ever know the subtlety of a colony’s beautiful and incredibly powerful communications skills.  All we do is out clumsily try to out manoeuvre them in our manipulations.
Other points
Once a queen cell has been capped inside the hive you are too late.  They will have swarmed.
If you do not know the origin of the swarm, once housed do not feed for 2 days.  This forces them to consume rather than store their crop contents and therefore reduces the transmission of pathogens.  After day 2 feed with a thin syrup – by weight 1:1 water to sugar. 
You can sight a swarm anywhere you like with one exception: it cannot go back into the hive from which it came.
Always fill the brood box with comb or they will make wild comb -great for the bees but not the beekeeper.
If you do incarcerate the bees for 24 hours in a cool and shady place this does not have to be their final site.  As they have not flown and orientated themselves yet you can move them again to their proper site and let them fly.

How many queens is too many?  JD 5th May

Have just been into one of my hives to find not one but two very happy queens trolling around in a very calm happy hive. I had already marked 1 and have now marked the 2nd (a different colour). I have left them both in the hive for now. I have eggs, brood, stores …. all good apart from definitely having an heir and a spare. Suggestions/comments welcome please.

CS:  Possibly mid supercedure before the old queen knobbled?!

LS:  Congrats, you’ve had a successful supercedure. The old queen is retained as an insurance policy and to continue the brood production until the new, virgin queen has mated and begins to lay ….then regicide!

Castles in the air?    John Peet, 7th April

John Peet asks “What are the advantages/disadvantages of castellated spacers in a super?”

Do you use castellated spacers?  Have you used them in the past? Can you give John any advice?


Fair Rent Tribunal? – JD, 11th September 2016

I have 2 of my hives at an out apiary. I think I should give the owners some honey as ‘rent’. They do have to put up with a not very competent beekeeper turning up on a regular, and sometimes frequent, basis!!

What are people’s views on this? How much honey should I give? Is anyone else in a similar position? If so what do you do?

David Wadsworth replied:  I have my bees at a farm in Harden and I was told the standard rent is one jar of honey for each hive.  So I give the farmer Richard a jar per hive when we harvested the honey and then I usually give him another jar or two at Christmas.  He did say he does not like honey so he gives it to his sister.

John Peet replied:  I believe an agricultural tithe has traditionally been a tenth of the harvest.

Holiday Hive Activity – Kate Clough, 28 August 2016
Just back from holiday and been to see my bees.

My newest hive was fed before I went away as their stores seemed very low.
On looking today they have gone bonkers and built wild comb in the super I was using to house the feeder!

I have removed this and put super frames in (hope this was the right thing to do!) however it contained a fair bit of honey which I have extracted!
I don’t think most of it was capped but seemed such a shame to lose it-will this now ferment and how will I know? (Is it really obvious?). Otherwise is it okay to use (personally-I’m not going to sell it or anything-am guessing there is a couple of jars worth)

Can anyone help Kate with her query?  What do you do/would you do in this situation?

Finally a response from the ever-reliable Madame Hardy:

Then uncapped honey you have taken has a high water content. Honey to be bottled is usually around 17-20% water, unless it’s heather honey when the water content can be higher.  But as you took it before the heather was in flower, let’s assume it’s an immature flower honey in the making.  Technically it would be Bakers’ honey and will not keep unless stored in the fridge.  Otherwise it will ferment. It’s perfectly OK for you to use at home, you can even sell it if labelled correctly – as baker’s  honey.
You can also feed it back to the bees. But make sure it has not started to ferment otherwise it will do great harm to your bees. You decide.

Stuffed Spring Hives
All the books and websites are very helpful in providing advice on feeding bees in Spring to make sure they survive and increase. However when we opened two of our hives we found them rather cramped with only a modest amount of brood – a couple of frames only, but masses of stores. What would you advise? I’ll  let you know later the plan we devised for this unexpected eventuality.     Submitted by: Roger Law

I received this reply from Linda Schofield:

To put a young man out of his misery, I’ll chance my arm and suggest that Richard (and Jane) should find stuffed spring hives delicious, when served with Mediterranean veg, roasted in olive oil, with penne pasta and a little pesto mixed in (additional olives are tasty, but optional).

After this and provided there are no nasty disease problems to account for the limited amount of brood and the cause could rather be attributed to aged queens or poorly mated young queens…….find one or more stronger colonies in your apiary. Brush all bees from the frames with brood and insert into the stronger hive/hives.”Squidge” the poorly laying queens when you have identified a stronger hive to which you could add your house and flying bees from a weaker hive. Stop reading the Telegraph (immediately and cancel your subscription) and use a couple of pages of it to unite the weaker colony with the stronger. Don’t mix the weak bees together or it will be like Donald Trump being elected, a cat-ass-trophe!

You can then add the superfluous stores to the now larger colonies…..but don’t feed them to anyone else’s bees (especially not mine!).

If this is wrong I am determined to live the rest of my days in my skep.

I can’t vouch for Linda’s recipe, although she does make a damn fine chocolate swiss roll.
Luckily, our team has been able to create an artist’s impression of how Linda might look if she lived in a skep.  Pretty lifelike, don’t you agree?  Ed


Andrew Brown takes a different tack, and asks:

Gill – Were the hives with stores but little brood close to Himalayan Balsam. I read somewhere that sometimes they store so much honey off Himalayan Balsam that they don’t have room to breed and for some reason fail to use most of it in spring.

Well, Andrew, I don’t know, but with any luck Richard will enlighten us in due course.


Block planting for bees?
I read recently in a Sunday supplement that when planting for bees, we should group plants in blocks to keep flying miles down, as ‘bees make separate journeys for different flower types’.  The magazine didn’t specify if they were referring to the collection of pollen, nectar or both.  I’ve never heard of this before, can anyone confirm whether this is true or not?  Surely this would make working on a wildflower meadow tough going?

I received two replies from Richard  Law.  His first reply was this:

I never trust what I read in Sunday supplements!  They are usually pieces put together in a rush without much checking and are often just opinions.  Nothing wrong with having an opinion, but there’s always a danger that someone will believe it.  Where bees are concerned there has been a vast amount of research done and it is reasonably easy to check the results of that research as it has to be published for peer review before it is worthwhile research.

Now for my opinion.  Men do plant bee nourishing species together – rape seed, almonds, tomatoes etc. This is known as mono-culture, and produces many problems with pests and diseases that exploit that easy access just as do honey bees. Sometimes plants naturally grow together as well – heather is a good local example of this.

Bees have a hard time foraging and are worn out after flying about 800km (Neukirch, 1982).  If the nectar, pollen water and propolis sources are nearby and easily exploited those 800km will produce more inputs to the hive than if they are spread out and a long way away.

If you just want to produce lots of honey etc.  Tear round the countryside with your bees chasing the next commercial crop to flower, and maybe get paid for the pollination services thus performed.  However, I think people who are interested in wild flower meadows etc take a balanced view of things and are content to promote biodiversity even if it means that honey crops are less.  A wild flower meadow in blocks would tend to look rather odd don’t you think?

I got a second reply from Richard which read:

I now reread the question and find it was about whether bees make separate flights for separate species of plant.  There is research reviewed by Menzel, Erber, and Masuhr 1973 showing that bees learn how to exploit a particular flower and this influences why they specialise in one species per trip, and sometimes for days

If you know the answer to this question, or have a question of your own, please send it to me,