Thursday, 1 October 2009


“If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on and the dedication to go through with it.”

- John Carmack

“Nobody should start to undertake a large project. You start with a small trivial project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you’ll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage. Or worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision. So start small, and think about the details. Don’t think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn’t solve some fairly immediate need, it’s almost certainly over-designed. And don’t expect people to jump in and help you. That’s not how these things work. You need to get something half-way useful first, and then others will say “hey, that almost works for me”, and they’ll get involved in the project.”

- Linus Torvalds

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Evidence Based Beekeeping

I was recently asked, by a friend on Twitter to give my opinion on this article from the University of Sussex Apiculture Laboratory. I am just an amateur beekeeper so certainly would not claim to have anything like the same knowledge and facilities as those at the university so this is purely my own personal opinion based on 8 or 9 years of beekeeping.
I whole-heartedly agree that beekeeping does need scientific research and welcome any initiatives which will cast new light on some of beekeeping's mysteries. However I would suggest that it is far from correct that much of what we do as beekeepers is based on nothing more than traditional lore and custom. A great deal of research has been carried out using scientific methods over the many years that people have been writing books about beekeeping. It is just that the equipment and monitoring facillities available to the professional research scientist are far more powerful and sophisticated today than anything available at the time that Langstroth was busily revolutionising the craft.
I believe that most beekeepers would aim to carry out evidence based beekeeping if the evidence was available and was interpreted in a way that was applicable to their particular circumstances. However, the variables involved, have highly complex interrelationships.
For example, the survival of a queen being introduced into a hive will be dependent on several factors:
  1. Strain of bee that produced the queen
  2. Genetic heredity of queen
  3. Strain of bee in target colony
  4. Time of year
  5. Status of target colony - how long queenless/existence of brood/availability of stores/proportion of nurse/housekeeping/foraging bees
  6. "Mood" of colony - have they been recently disturbed/will they be disturbed/more or less agressive
  7. Local climatic conditions
  8. Local availability of forage - is there a flow on
  9. The "Quality" of the queen - is she laying well/physically well developed/nourished
and several more that we are probably not even aware of yet.
These variables will all affect the level of pheremome responses to the various stimuli involved. The use of a cage is intended to give the resident bees a chance to get used to the chemical makeup of any queen that is introduced so that comunication can be set up before the bees come into direct contact with the queen. Without this separation it is likely that alarm messages will be propagated and the new queen will be killed. The attack message is communicated by scent so heavy smoking of the hive will also work by masking the attack scent. So the bees will not attack the new queen. This could well be effective every time because the mechanism is known and the variables in the laboratory apiary are probably pretty constant. The queens are probably raised in a standard way rather than being sourced from whatever the beekeeping suppliers happen to be breeding or importing at the moment. The arrangement of the apiary, the relative position of the hives, the location of external stimuli will be fairly consitent. The important thing here is that the research predicts the probablity of a particular outcome given a particular method. The value of the research should be in the identification of the variables and an assesment of there interractions and relative validity rather than determination of a particular method on the basis of probability.
The evidence suggested by the results of any particular scientific experiment will need to be replicable by beekeepers in practice. What I am trying to get accross here is that before beekeepers can practically follow an "Evidence Based" approach to beekeeping they will have to understand which variables are significant and be able to replicate conditions that will allow the recommendations to be followed.
Scientific research and the dissemination of its findings costs a lot of money. Recently the only big money in entemological research has been provided by the agrichemical companies who obviously will have a diferent focus. It is to be hoped that with the promised Government funding the money will finally be available to determine the relative value of all the variables involved in assessing and working with bee physiology/sociology climate/environment/chemicals etc. and inform the beekeeper accordingly.
Will I be just using smoke to introduce queens in future?
Well... if I buy a queen from most suppliers she is going to cost in the region of £40, in the height of the season it is quite likely that there will be no queens to purchase and if you can it could be up to a week before you can try again, there will have to be some pretty compelling evidence to persuade me to risk it! I will next year try to start raising my own queens so if I have plenty I may well experiment, does that qualify as "Evidence Based Beekeeping" ?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Why Engineers Don't Write Cook Books

Chocolate Chip Cookies:


1.) 532.35 cm3 gluten
2.) 4.9 cm3 NaHCO3
3.) 4.9 cm3 refined halite
4.) 236.6 cm3 partially hydrogenated tallow triglyceride
5.) 177.45 cm3 crystalline C12H22O11
6.) 177.45 cm3 unrefined C12H22O11
7.) 4.9 cm3 methyl ether of protocatechuic aldehyde
8.) Two calcium carbonate-encapsulated avian albumen-coated protein
9.) 473.2 cm3 theobroma cacao
10.) 236.6 cm3 de-encapsulated legume meats (sieve size #10)

To a 2-L jacketed round reactor vessel (reactor #1) with an overall heat
transfer coefficient of about 100 Btu/F-ft2-hr, add ingredients one, two
and three with constant agitation.

In a second 2-L reactor vessel with a radial flow impeller operating at
100 rpm, add ingredients four, five, six, and seven until the mixture is

To reactor #2, add ingredient eight, followed by three equal volumes of
the homogenous mixture in reactor #1. Additionally, add ingredient nine
and ten slowly, with constant agitation. Care must be taken at this point
in the reaction to control any temperature rise that may be the result of
an exothermic reaction.

Using a screw extrude attached to a #4 nodulizer, place the mixture
piece-meal on a 316SS sheet (300 x 600 mm). Heat in a 460K oven for a
period of time that is in agreement with Frank & Johnston's first order
rate expression (see JACOS, 21, 55), or until golden brown.

Once the reaction is complete, place the sheet on a 25C heat-transfer
table, allowing the product to come to equilibrium.

Written by Butch Kemper (a long time ago!)

Monday, 6 July 2009

Review of Lady Chaterly's Lover

This pictorial account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.
Ed Zern, "Field and Stream" (Nov. 1959)

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Top Bar Hives and Varroa Control

Following a recent question from @AmethystDragon on Twitter I asked a few of my beekeeping collegues what their opinion was on the assertion that using top bar hives led to a substantial reduction in the infestation of bees by Varroa mites.

The question had been prompted by this article on Warre Beekeeping .

Although most people felt it unlikely to make a big diference to the incidence of Varroa there is some logic to the assertion and there is a connection between this and the work of an Italian beekeeper who claims that increasing the space between frames to give a wider "Bee Space" shows a significant improvement. (Can't find a web reference for this at the moment will update later).
The theory is that top bar hives in which the bees build natural comb without wax foundation as a guide tend to use a wider space between combs. The mites travel around the hive after hatching by being transfered from bee to bee. A wider bee space may lead to fewer interactions between the bees as they pass each other over the comb and therefore statistically reduce the ability of the mites to spread.
This is only a theory and I have not been able to find any scientific peer reviewed work to back it up - anyone reading this who does know of studies please contact me and I will update this with relevant links.
Natural comb building is of course what happens in nature and there is evidence that wild colonies have been known to exist quite happily in inaccessible places when they will almost certainly have picked up mites whilst out foraging or robbing hives. This is one of the reasons that wild colonies are very important for research. Whether it is a genetic or a behavioural trait it may well hold the answer to keeping bees that are more resistant to Varroa and disease.
On a practical note. The use of top bar hives presents particular management and manipulation issues. Modern beekeeping practice requires colonies to be regularly checked for disease and most swarm control techniques requires the regular manipulation of combs. Comb without a wooden frame around it is very delicate and on a hot day could easily break whilst being examined. Extracting honey from natural comb almost certainly will require cold pressing equipment or heating to melt the wax the later being significantly detrimental to the flavour, aroma and beneficial qualities of the honey.
This I suggest would lead to the advice that one should learn beekeeping on the more usual framed system and then start experimenting with top bars once a significant level of skill and knowledge of bee behaviour and husbandry has been gained.
This is not to suggest that keeping bees in the Warre way should be dismissed out of hand. I believe that there may be substantial benefits to this system if applied properly and with the appropriate regard to disease control. I and many of my collegues are sceptical that it is the answer to varroa problems but any system which gets as close as possible to the natural environment for the bees themselves is worthy of serious consideration and should be supported by all Associations in a spirit of collaboration and research.