Bee-keeping: Playing the odds against catastrophic collapse

Last year I was given a beehive and some bees for a birthday present. This year I’ve realised that there’s a lot more to keeping bees than I thought: the biggest problem facing me being one of simple statistics:

  • The probability of a beehive collapsing
  • The probability of a bee swarm

To put it simply: with a high probability of beehives collapsing and dying (25-75%) , if you only have one hive, statistics being what they are, you will eventually lose all your bees. But if you have a lot of bees (and not much space) you will almost certainly get bee swarming problems.
This article is my attempt to work out a strategy to keep enough bees to somehow beat the odds with colony collapse whilst preventing the issues of swarming when colonies do too well.


Beehive a few weeks after installation. The plastic bottle contains sugar water to feed them.

Beehive a few weeks after installation. The hive entrance is at the base of the white strip. The lower section contains bees, the upper had a ice-cream carton of sugar water for feed. The plastic bottle contained sugar water to feed them. Note the stunted growth to the right – supposedly an apple tree – whose failure to produce any apples led us originally to wonder if we had any bees left in our area – and consequently the idea of keeping any. Needless to say the tree did not produce any apples again last year after we got the bees.

But first … Climate Control for bees

Global warming is a severe problem for bees … Nah! Just Joking!
But seriously: the climate in the beehive is critical for success. This is because Bees are in effect warm blooded creatures in the sense that they actively heat their hive to keep the temperature of the brood high enough. So temperature control is vital to the health of a bee colony. This is a severe problem in winter with cold external temperatures. Because to keep the temperature high (in man-made hives which are poorly insulation compared to trees) they have to burn a lot of honey reserves – reserves which a beekeeper has stolen for their own use!
And it’s made all the worse, because bees collect nectar (you’re really learning it now!!) and nectar being watered down honey needs to have the water driver off.
Anyone who has teenagers knows the problem: they are constantly in the bathroom in a cold damp climate like Scotland. What happens is that the warm air cools on any surface, the dampness collects and you get a mould problem. The same is true of bees. No! I don’t mean Bees hog the bathroom!! … but they do create a lot of warm moisture which then condenses on the cold outside of the hive causing mould. And this mould then causes problems for the overwintering bees. Not only that but the moisture dampens the wood, reducing its insulation, meaning the bees consume more honey, produce more water and mould. This I believe is a major reason for overwintering collapse.

Sex: the Birds and Bees of … Bees

Let’s talk a bit about sex. Put simply: a Beehive is the ultimate feminist society. The ruler is female, most of the bees are female, and the men are just spares, only there to have sex.
And no – it might sound paradise for the males, but even though the life of a male bee is all about sex, the reason is because even if they’re very lucky they get to have it once in their life. And it’s not as if they just sit around all the rest of the time drinking fermented honey, because they often get physically chucked out the hive (by the women) for no apparent reason. And even if they do get to have sex with the Queen she’s not even monogamous! She has group sex with perhaps a couple of dozen male bees.
But the queen is key to the hive and to understand the hive, you need to understand that in effect, the hive is the queen. Usually all the workers are sterile offspring of the queen. That is until the queen decides to produce new queen bees, she then ups and leaves with perhaps half the workers to form a new colony. But she leaves around half the colony to raise new queens. These mature, fly out to mate with the males and fight to the death until one queen bee remains in the old hive.

Beehive collapse

Because the hive is the queen, whilst the hive has many members, it only takes the death of one bee to cause utter catastrophe. There are emergency measures the workers can take, but they are only possible in summer. So the loss of a queen in winter spells disaster for the colony. I knew that could happen, but it was not until I heard that an experienced beekeeper lost three out of their four hives last year. If an experienced keeper can lose 3 hives, then as an inexperienced one with one hive, there is a high probability I will lose all my bees and then have to fork out another £150 for another colony (with no guarantee they will be available when I need one).

Bee Swarming

But the other end of the population stats, is the problem of successful bees. Because any hive that is successful and is growing is liable to have half the colony up sticks, and fly away to try to find a new home. For a professional bee-keeper that will severely dent the amount of honey they get. For an amateur living near others, it may severely dent your relationship with neighbours. That’s because they don’t just fly away to somewhere no one knows you keep bees. Instead they are liable to find the nearest tree, wall, chimney – probably of that neighbour who still bears a grudge because your kids broke his greenhouse with a football …
So, the recommendation is to check the hive to prevent new queens being produced.

Bee Squishing

Unfortunately, bees don’t seem to understand that in order to keep them, you need to stop them swarming, which means regularly inspecting them for signs of swarming to take measure – and unfortunately because bees have a habit of crawling all over the hive as you put it back together, it also means that I currently have the macabre sight of little bee heads sticking out from between a couple of the layers of my hive where I failed to spot them as I put the hive back together.
That’s not too bad if it’s a worker (although it causes the other bees to be more aggressive), but what if you happen to squish the queen? Unless I inspect, I can’t stop them swarming, but if I inspect, I’m likely to eventually squish the queen.


A Varroa mite on a bee pupae.


As we originally got our bees because we could never see any honey bees, I thought we might be in a bee free zone and free from the biggest present pest of bees: the Varroa mite – which is a bit like a human being infested with crabs -not tiny pubic crabs, but Varroa on a human scale are like real crabs, and not little puny ones but fairly monstrous crabs about a foot across.
However, these crabs are not the biggest problem, it’s that Varroa carry viruses and diseases which  once the Varroa weaken the colony can then be their death knell.
If you read the internet on Varroa, it is filled with recommended treatments (link). But when I tried to find what treatments actually work, what no one admitted, is that either the treatments are expensive and/or they’re ineffective, and/or Varroa are becoming immune to them and/or bees are becoming less susceptible and don’t need treatment.
Fortunately, there is a solution and it’s called: being lucky! (aka statistics) Because whilst Varroa can be treated, they can’t be eradicated, and it appears that statistically those who treat for Varroa are just as likely to suffer colony collapse as those who don’t. Indeed there is an argument that the treatments that kill Varroa end up being harmful to the bees. It appears you just can’t win.
But there is another solution which is this: Bees that swarm seem to naturally reduce the numbers of Varroa (“Using Artificial Swarms for Varroa Control“, “How Honey Bee Colonies Survive in the Wild: Testing the Importance of Small Nests and Frequent Swarming“).
So, actively encouraging swarming may be one of the best ways to treat Varroa (but at the expense of ending any good relations with neighbours).

Beehive Size

One way to stop bees swarming is to provide them plenty of growing room. Or to turn it around, bees without space to grow are likely to want to swarm. However, there are a number of advantages to a small hive:

  1. They swarm and keep Varroa in control. Both in the parent and new home.
  2. For the same number of bees, there will be more swarms, but the number in each swarm will be smaller (perhaps even small enough for neighbours not to notice!)

A Strategy

Do it naturally
I couldn’t work out how or what I would use to treat the hive for Varroa with any guarantee of benefiting the bees. But there is good reason to believe tolerance to Varroa can/will increase without treatment (“Swindon Bees Link“). So after having read lots of the advice about the need to treat Varroa then reading the research that seems to suggest that treatments can be totally ineffective and even harmful (“Varroa Mites: No-Treatment is the Best Treatment“) eventually I’ve decided to go “au natural” and not treat.
That’sNot because I’m some eco-nutter, but because I couldn’t find any way to treat which guaranteed to be beneficial (aka is not a waste of money). But as importantly, I’m attracted to the idea that the most stable colonies seem to be those where the bees and their parasites have reached a compromise – and all I will do by treating is to knock the hive out of it’s already precarious stability (that’s the theory).
“Foundationless” frames
IMG_4440_1I’m also planning to use “foundationless” frames. A foundation is a rectangular wax template placed in the frame with a hexagonal pattern on it. The idea is that the bees build their comb on it and it speeds up honey comb formation. But these commercial foundations also force the bees to make the comb the size of the pattern which is slightly larger than they would have normally – the idea being that the bees produced are larger and that supposedly larger bees make more honey. However, since Varroa just love large bees, the foundation probably also make the problem of Varroa worse. I can’t be sure – but if it helps control Varroa, it’s worth letting the bees pick the cell size they want.
The only study I found, concluded in one location that there was no significant difference between Varroa in different cell sizes but in another that there had been significant benefits.
The big problems with foundationless frames is that the bees are free to go “off piste” and build comb in odd shapes and places and that they do not stand up to honey extraction machines. I’ve already replaced two frames where the two frames were effectively welded together. The issue of spinning out honey is not a problem for me as I don’t (yet) have such a machine.
Polystyrene beehives (warmth)
Just to prove I’m no eco-nutter, I’m using polystyrene hives – why polystyrene? Because polystyrene is insulating and this should make it easier for the bees to keep themselves warm in winter. (“Why we use polystyrene beehives“, “Polystyrene Beehives, FOR AND AGAINST“)
Nothing under their kilts (moisture control)
But having said I want warm cosy bees and no top ventilation – their bottoms will be entirely open to the air under the hive. In other words, the hive base will be removed. However, contrary to what many suggest, the hive will not have any ventilation at the top. The reason for this set up, is that I’m hoping to use the physics of warmer air – which is that it will rise to create a warm space at the top of the hive in winter into which the bees can go, with an open bottom – which allows maximum ventilation (and water can drip out).
Long Kilts (wind resistance)
However, our house is pretty exposed with open views to Glasgow – so we get a fair amount of wind. This means the bees may be a little drafty around their private parts and this may lead to excessive heat loss, high consumption of food reserves and they may run out and the colony die.  To tackle this, next winter I’m planning to give them what is effectively a “long kilt”. What this means is that I will be adding another layer at the base so the colony to raise up the brooding chamber by about 6inches. This should reduce drafts and should allow the layers of warm air to “pool” at the top more effectively without being blown out by the drafts. Hopefully this will reduce the rate of hot air escaping in the wind.
Encourage swarming (Varroa control)
The key to keeping Varroa (according to the research I read) under control and hopefully significantly reducing the risk of colony collapse appears to be to keep smaller colonies which encourage swarming. This goes against everything that beekeepers have been told to do. Indeed, as soon as I saw my bees had filled their hive in the spring, I added a few layers to “give them room”. That may stop them swarming, but it appears it may make Varroa a real problem for me.
Artificial Swarming (Swarming control)
My plan is not quite to encourage 15,000 bees to leave the hive and descend on some poor unsuspecting neighbour – instead I’m hoping to wait till the hive is about to swarm and then capture the (old) queen, move her to a (mini) hive – place it where the original was placed to encourage flying bees to join her – and put the old hive in a slightly different location where new queens can develop.
Four + one Queens (Playing the odds on colony collapse)
My plan then is to raise five queens, of which four will be placed in micro colonies and one will be left to hopefully bring the old hive back to full strength. This now gives me:

  1. The old hive with a new queen
  2. The old queen in a new (mini) hive (aka Nuc)
  3. Up to four new queens in (micro) hives (aka mating hive).

Death and destruction & infertility (Expect 83% failure)
Realistically, some of the queens will be infertile, some may just die. From what I’ve read I, from the starting 6 colonies I will be lucky if 4 get established. Of these perhaps only 50% will survive the winter and in some years, of the original 6, I may only have one surviving (or even none – but the risk should be low).
But unless I’m extremely unlucky, I should still have a start-up colony to put in the main hive. If there’s more than one left, I’m hoping a micro-hive can be put into the mini-hive without a risk of swarming. But if the main hive and mini-hive survive or I have an excess of micro-hives I will have to sell them in the spring, give them away, deliberately squish the queen or perhaps release into the wilderness in some way.
Friends (Final backstop against total wipe-out)
And last and not least, is the strategy of trying to get some friends who will take beehives.

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