First you must find a container to carry all your bits and pieces round your apiary in, writes Ann Chilcott, Scottish Expert Beemaster. 

Once you open a hive for inspection, it’s no good if you have to keep running back to your shed for forgotten things like I used to do.

Here’s what I keep in my tool box:

  • Spare gloves
  • Hive tools
  • Bee brush and goose feather to gently brush bees off a frame if harvesting honey
  • Blue metal hanger (at front) to hang a frame on hive during an inspection when I need space but don’t want to place frame on the floor (infection risk)
  • Hair curler if I want to introduce a queen to a colony and allow the colony to get used to her before she is freed to walk over the combs. Otherwise, bees normally kill a strange queen. They will feed her through the holes.
  • Magnifying glass, spare spectacles and torch if I’m not finding it easy to spot eggs in poor light
  • Drone- removal fork for uncapping and inspecting drone larvae for varroa
  • Clear plastic queen catcher for temporarily holding the queen safely during some procedures
  • Plastic box for storing bits of comb and propolis that are scraped off frames (important not to leave debris round the apiary as it increases infection risk, and may promote robbing of hive by bees from another hive)
  • Spare smoker fuel
  • Queen marking kit consisting of coloured (white, yellow, red, green and blue) non-toxic Posca pens. Each year a different colour is used to mark the queen’s thorax as a reminder of the year she emerged. Year ending 0 or 5 is white; 1 or 6 is yellow; 2 or 7 is red; 3 or 8 is green and 4 or 9 is blue. 2017 is a red year which I remember by the mnemonic, “Will you rear good bees?”
  • Pen and paper for notes

Smallholder:

Documentation

Keeping hive records is really important because it helps you learn more about your bees. You can record the numbers of frames of eggs and brood and compare at each inspection building up a picture that enables you to see how each colony is progressing. You can take early action to remedy any problems with colonies that are not doing well.

If you fill in the details of an inspection immediately you have finished you have more chance of remembering them. It is a legal requirement to document details of any medicines given to bees and you should record anything that you give to bees including sugar or pollen. Trading standards can ask to see your records if you sell honey or any other products for human consumption and cosmetics.

Maintaining a reflective beekeeping journal will also help you learn, especially from your mistakes.

After hives (including frames and wax foundation) and bees, the other must-have items are personal protection (suit/jacket & veil, boots, gloves), smoker and hive tool. 

Smoker

Smallholder:

Smoker. Photo by Peter Titmuss

Smoke makes bees fill up with honey. They evolved in forests where fires forced them to leave home taking their honey stores with them. With full abdomens, it is harder for bees to sting. Smoke may also mask the bee alarm pheromones which signal distress and cause other bees to come and defend the colony and sting you.

American commercial beekeeper, Moses Quinby, is reputed to have invented the smoker in 1875 making it easier to inspect colonies, especially defensive grumpy ones.

Previously, beekeepers waved smouldering rags over the hive but now we can direct the smoke more accurately and control the amount.

Some colonies do not require much smoke at all but it is wise to have a well-lit smoker to hand always in case the colony mood suddenly changes. Smoking a lot at the entrance sends the bees upwards to meet us as we open the hive so using smoke sparingly from above is a technique more commonly practised today.

There are some situations that necessitate using a lot of smoke. A very bad tempered colony is one but you must always give them time (approx. 5mins) to take in the honey before you open the hive.

The smoke mustn’t be hot, so it’s good to test it first on your own forearm which is not so easy if you are rigged up in heavy duty gauntlets. When you burn bees they make a distressed sound like a carbonated drink fizzing up.

There are many different types of suitable fuel but the key is never to burn plastic or other toxic fuels. If using hessian sacking ensure that there are no manmade fibres included. There is a knack to lighting a smoker and keeping it alight, and it is best learned with help from your mentor. If you’ve chosen material like cardboard that can burn too hot, just add some fresh grass to cool it down.

I struggled keeping my first smoker alight till I discovered that the hole in the bellows was not in alignment with the tube in the firebox so no oxygen was getting in when I squeezed the bellows.

Suitable fuels: • Hessian sacking • Wood pellet cat litter • Pine needles • Grass cuttings (produces a cool smoke) • Dried rotten wood (can be hard to light so can be added later) • Dried lavender/thyme stalks • Sisal rope/binder twine • Old cotton rags • Cardboard with added grass to keep smoke cool

You might have some good ideas yourself for smoker fuel.

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This article was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine. To read more like it buy a copy from a local newsagent, subscribe here, call 01778 392011 or email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk.