6 Aug 2013

Swarm list

I have received a number of enrolments to my swarm list.  All those who emailed me have been placed on the relevant list (A, B, C and D) and in the sequence the emails arrived.

At the coming meeting of the beekeeping group I will explain:

- how you can get a swarm all by yourself, with minimum effort.  They will come to you  if you do the right thing and Lady Luck is on your side,

- what to do if they do come,

- what to do if I give you a call that I have a swarm and it is your turn.

Please come to the meeting - 19/08, 7PM, venue address is under Events.

I have already emailed all those on my swarm list.  If you did not receive an email, you are not there!



5 Aug 2013

A new "Introduction to Natural Beekeeping" course has been announced for 29 August & 6th October 2013, possibly the last one before the coming swarming season. Check out the training page - http://www.naturalbeekeeping.org.au/p/training.html - for more details.


28 Jul 2013

Spring is in the air

Today I smelled the coming spring for the first time - a warm breeze promising new life, new flowers and new beekeeping season.  Let's hope that it will be better than the last one.  Gum trees had a year of lazy  rest so chances are that they will decide to flower prolifically.

If you are a follower of Abbe Warre, whether in hive design or only in his practices, this would be good time to nadir an empty box for brood area expansion.  Air temperature is of no relevance for this operation, as you do not open the hive.

Keep an eye on hive traffic, it should be quite vigorous by now.  If it is poor, the colony may be in strife.  Not all colonies survive winter, especially after such an ugly season.  I am sorry to say that at least one colony on my farm can be classified as a "dwindler" judging by external signs.  I need a slightly warmer weather to look inside, but it seems that I may have a spare hive soon.

With spring will come swarms.  Oldtimers and traditionalists say that one should do his/her best to prevent swarming.  To my limited knowledge this is akin to preventing spring coming.  You can try and have this warm feeling of making an effort but your chances are very slim indeed.  Bees will do what bees do whether you like it or not.  Apparently some beekeepers succeed in preventing swarming.  Possibly, I will not argue here.  Apparently some people win Tattslotto too.  Many things are possible, but not all are likely.

As in previous years, I will run the Homeless Bee Adoption Service, a.k.a. swarm list.  If you enroll on the list, you will be in a queue for a young and healthy swarm.  Terms and conditions:

- readiness in terms of a hive standing and ready,
- minimum of beekeeping knowledge.  Experience helps but is not a requirement.
- willingness to participate in collection and/or transfer to your hive.

I will run three lists:

List A - for participants in our training courses,
List B - for known to me group members,
List C - for members of Permaculture Melbourne,
List D - other.

List A is of highest priority.

Cost for lists A, B and C - zero, D - equal to yearly PcM membership fee.

To enroll please email to pcm.apisig@gmail.com.  In due course you will be notified and you will receive further instructions.  No need to reapply if you have already enrolled.  And for more details - come to our meetings, after joining PcM of course.


25 Jul 2013


Over the last few years we have been watching an intensive debate over what causes mass die out of bees, primarily in USA but also observed in Europe and elsewhere.  Sometimes these are sudden events - visible mass death or disappearance of entire colonies or even apiaries.  Sometimes the process is less immediately visible, but it is worth recalling what one of our past members, Tony, reported in May after his return to UK:

I've just spent 2 full days working in gardens around Darlington (Teesside,UK) and saw two honey bees in all that time - both of them spotted in adjacent gardens within 10 mins of each other. This despite warm temps, sunshine and a huge burst in flowering plants, including many dandelions.

I've also been watching trees in blossom and not seeing a single honey bee on them. I've now seen a total of 5 HBs since landing in UK on Nov 26 2012.

Things are not that bad here - yet.  Still, it is worth keeping an eye on what may cause problems elsewhere.  Today I came across an interesting if deeply troubling article describing some possible causes.  the article seems based on reasonable scientific grounds so it deserves attention.  The problem for me is that I cannot see what I or other beekeepers could do to make things better.  It seems that all we can do is to sit and watch.  Scary!

If you wish to read the article, go here.

2 Apr 2013

This is a season to forget

This is a continuation of the last subject - the current abysmal foraging conditions.  I am getting confirmation from all directions that this season is exceptionally bad.  This would be the time for many eucalyptus trees to flower, but very few do.  On the farm I have a large grey box just outside the window.  Normally, at this time of the year, it would be covered in flowers.  This year it developed no buds but instead now it shoots heaps of new growth.  New growth is fine, but it is of no use to my "girls".  Hives keep weight steady or slowly creep backwards. 

Today I came across an interesting short piece on Radio National Bush Telegraph program.  You can find it here:


It is an interview with a commercial beekeeper from SA.  He describes the conditions, very much the same as here.  He already started feeding sugar - much, much earlier than in normal years.  He tells about gum trees that survived the 10 years drought but this year are dying - the same story I have heard from a friend.  When I mentioned the miserable foraging conditions to a neighbour on the farm, he commented that indeed at that time of the year in the past trees were full of noisy cockies but there are all silent this year.  Birds have no reason to frequent the trees if no flowers are there.

Your bees have it tough new.  I advise no hive opening and no harvesting.  I do not recommend feeding sugar except as a matter of absolute necessity.  It is not true that bees like it or that it does them much good.  But it surely can prevent them dying of starvation if no honey is available.  I very much advise against any harvesting - your bees need THEIR honey to survive till spring.  Harvesting is fine when new nectar is coming, but not in a situation as it is now.  I would advise no harvesting regardless of how much honey there is in the hive.  Over the next few months bees will eat what they have to eat but what they do not need, they will leave for you to be harvested when the spring flowers come.

The sooner we can forget this season the better.

26 Mar 2013

Where is the honey, honey?

This is a very silly season.  Normally at this time of the year I would expect lots of nectar coming from gum trees going into flower.  In the suburbs these would be local gums and also trees brought from WA or NSW.  On the farm there are grey boxes and ironbarks and now is their time.  Well, normally it is, but not this year, or at least not yet.

You might have heard on the news professional beekeepers lamenting lack of nectar.  The numbers I am getting from those weighing hives tell me the same story - nectar is nowhere to be found.  I was hoping for improvement with rains, but this is yet to happen.  On the farm we had 35mm of rain lately, but I have no clue where it went.  The soil is bone dry below the top 20 mm or so, with huge deep cracks that do not seem to close.  Few weeks ago hives started putting on weight but now it is all over - barely keeping steady.  I can see a few trees with flowers, but I guess that there may be very little nectar there.  Nectar production requires a lot of water.

To add insult to injury caused by draught, in the suburbs we have a plague of soldier beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris).  There nasties are around in plague proportions indeed.  According to Mrs. Google (and she knows best!), the adult beetles feed on nectar and pollen.  I can see them around in gigantic numbers.  There is a huge ironbark tree close to my home and now all covered in flowers.  The flowers, in turn, are all covered in these nasties.  I noticed that bees trying to access flowers avoid any with a soldier beetle on it. 

It seems that this is not a very good honey season indeed.  Unless the situation changes, it may be wise to be economical with harvesting.  Your bees need honey much more than you do and sugar is no substitute for the real stuff.

Foundationless Frames

To Foundation or Not to Foundation, that is the question. (Apologies to Bill.) With the introduction of the Langstroth Hive, using frames with foundation for the bees became standard practice. For commercial Apiarists of course the goal is to maximise honey production, so have a rugged frame that stands up to the rigors of mechanised extraction makes perfect sense. As does using foundation, sheets of beeswax with the cell matrix imprinted, also makes sense as it gives the bees a kick start in the production of honey storage cells.

However, bees don't produces all cells of equal size; drone cells are larger and brood cells are generally smaller. So is forcing the bees to build comb based on one size only actually productive or counterproductive. This is an ongoing discussion in bee keeping circles and you won't find the answer here. However I was pleasantly surprised to find some commercial bee keepers experimenting with foundationless frames.

Recently I and a few friends visited R & E Macdonald, Apiarists in Castlemaine, where Bob, the founder, spoke about foundationless frames, which he termed Stick Frames. Why Stick Frames I hear you ask ... (pause) ... because they insert a stick of wood in the middle of the frame for stability. The main challenge for foundationless frames when using mechanical extraction methods and the lack of support for the comb. This is overcome by placing the stick in the middle which not only provides support for the comb but strengthens the frame overall quite considerably.

The first shot shows the frame makeup, with the central stick at 45 degrees to
the frame as this creates the sharp edge for the bees to work to/from. A strip
of foundation is then inserted in the top to start the bees off, similar to what
Sarah mentioned the other night.

Another beekeeper with us stressed that the bees would start drawing from a
sharp edge, so that without that strip of foundation at the top, or some such
similar, the bees would start drawing from the edge of the frame itself thus
upsetting the central placement of the comb.

Shots 2-3 show more details, shots 4-5 show a full stick frame waiting to be

They paint the top of the stick frames Blue for easy recognition, and shot 6
shows a nuc box with stick frames. Whether those frames are new needing to be
built out or have been recycled with pre-built comb I am not sure - didn't look.

This pic - http://img138.imageshack.us/img138/6480/img5306v.jpg - is from a
chap in the US using the same technique, however, rather than starting with a
sliver of foundation at the top, he installs half-sticks at 45 degrees to supply
the starting edge for the bees.

7 Mar 2013

Nice bees, nasty bees

A few members reported recently problems with very aggressive colonies.  The subject is important and deserves broader comment.

Experienced beekeepers report that there are some colonies that are consistently nasty and aggressive - they will buzz out anyone coming near and sting at the smallest provocation or even without one.  But these are exceptions.  Any colony may become very aggressive, but do not put a "nasty colony" label on it after a single mishap.  Bee colonies are a bit like us - they have good days and bad days.  On a bad day ANY colony will be nasty.  The same colony, a few days later, may resemble a congregation of sweet little flying lambs.

A colony will easily become aggressive if it is facing a stress factor.  What could it be?  Not much to forage, an attack by wasps or robber bees, internal in-the-hive problems such as problems with wax moth larvae, bad (for them) weather coming etc. etc. I heard experienced beekeepers complaining that bees are very nasty when foraging on grey box trees.  I do not believe that nectar would make them nasty, but grey boxes flower very late in season when hardly any pollen is available.  Perhaps they were desperate for pollen to replenish their numbers reduced by heavy foraging - good enough (for me) reason for them to be stressed.

Stress factors may not always be visible to an observer.  I like to quote Michael Bush, a beekeeper not only with exceptional experience but also gifted with lots of common sense.  Here is his approach:

Sometimes a hive is cranky because of conditions, vandals throwing rocks, bees trying to rob them, etc.  I do the "three strikes you are out" method of deciding.  If I open a hive and they are cranky and I think they have cause (rainy, windy, late in the day etc.) then I don't count that.  If I don't think they have cause, I put a red push pin in the top box.  The next time I open them, if they are nice, I remove it.  If they are mean again, I add another push pin.  If they get to three, I requeen.  They should be allowed to have a bad day.  
The last sentence is worth remembering.  What to do if a colony is nasty?  First, realize the fact - bees buzzing you out angrily, "bombing" - flying straight into the veil as if trying to get through it, trying to sting gloves, getting all over you in pursuit of any chink in your armour.  If this is the case, call it a day, leave them alone and come back later.  The situation may be drastically different.  If you persevere, all you will get is stings.

Here is an interesting letter from a lady beekeeper:

Just my two cents....had an aggressive hive last year in my yard.  One time after checking on the hives, their reaction was more aggressive than normal.  They followed me 100 feet away, a dozen or so buzzing and banging into my veil.  Over a short time, my backyard become a "no go" zone in the daytime. The aggression escalated; they would fly over my house into the front yard and chase us. However, I noticed it was never more than a half a dozen or more.  Long story short, couldn't requeen them at my location but could no longer tolerate the aggression.  I very begrudgingly planned on killing the hive (dry ice), even set a date.  (I don't even kill spiders!)

A very trusted, LONG time beekeeper told me to leave them alone for a while and they would likely resolve their problem. Took her advice and they did resolve their issue within about 8 weeks.  They are a VERY honey productive hive and are now calm.  So glad I took the advice. 

 So if you face an angry colony, leave them alone and give them some time to recover.  And if they "get three red pins" as per Michael - re-queening is the only known remedy, but this is neither easy nor pleasant.

24 Feb 2013

native bee

Sorry for the quality of the image. But I took a couple of photos this evening at 8pm with my mobile while watering the garden.  It was hard to capture and this is the best of a not so good bunch.  However, you can see that the little native pollinator with the blue striped abdomen is out foraging.  It hung around this bush for a good 15 minutes.  I would love to stumble on its hive to observe the differences, if any, between this smaller, rounder bee, compared to the honey bees in my backyard.  I have a friend who sees them in her garden as well.  We are in the Ashburton/Glen Iris area.  Has anyone else seen  native bees or a native hive in Melbourne or its surrounds?

30 Jan 2013

Tle last call - THE TRAIN IS LEAVING!!!

This is the last call for the training course scheduled for 9/10 February.  If you want to secure place please email us NOW on