We live in a parish; not really a village, no pub, no shop, just a church, a scatter of houses and acres of agricultural land. The forage is what the farmers grow, if it flowers, and sugar beet, wheat and barley do not. We get oil seed rape every year and, although every year ends with brambles and ivy, if we can, we move the bees to beans, buckwheat, ling heather or borage. We are now in our eighties so shifting colonies is not quite the breeze it used to be. I keep bees for the pleasure of their company and for the intellectual challenge of looking after them as best I can. Currently, I have fifteen full colonies and six nuclei in two apiaries, three miles apart. All are on Commercial frames (16”x10”) and the supers are mostly Nationals.

Hive Choice
Why Commercials? That is what my Hampshire mother gave me. While, just like people, bees vary greatly, I think Nationals are too small for the average honey bee colony in Suffolk and a restricted brood nest leads to swarming. Ron Brown, argued that bees could be kept in Nationals in Devon if the first super above the queen excluder were reserved for the bees and never harvested[1]. Similarly, Beowulf Cooper, the founder of BIBBA (the British Isles Bee Breeders’ Association), writing of black bees says: “If the bees are allowed free range, they would not normally place brood in more than 14 BS brood combs.”[2] I think this implies he thought a single National (BS or British Standard) box often was not big enough. I tell my beginners that; they smile and do their own thing.

While thinking about hives, to all those starting beekeeping, however ‘green’ you want to be, I suggest you do not start with a top bar hive, Rose, a Warré or similar. No hive is ‘natural’. Ordinary beehives have developed since 1851 when Langstroth realised the need for bee space. Why not benefit from all that refinement and start with a conventional hive, until you know how to look after the bees? Only then try a different one if you must. Bee colonies prefer to avoid competition; in the wild the density of colonies is approximately one per square kilometre (or 2.5 per square mile)[3] so the most unnatural thing is an apiary. Again, in the wild, the bees choose cavities with entrances at least four metres up[4], preferably more.

Do not forget drone brood

I hope you have been putting some frames together for the coming season as, when it comes, it comes with a rush. You will get no sympathy if you then regret all that time you lost. When making up frames, consider that in most managed colonies, drone brood occupies only some 2-4%[5] but the wild, it averages 13-17%[6]. I give every colony one full frame with a drone base starter strip 9%. This is all drawn into drone comb; the dowels support the comb. Some put a super frame in the brood chamber; the bees build drone comb below it which can be removed if Varroa numbers get too high but its edges will be attached to the hive sides; full length side bars prevent this. For the hard up, and the really ‘green’ beekeeper, even a starter strip is not essential as the bees will draw comb without it but a sharp downward pointing strip under the top-bar will help them to put it where you want it.

Things to do in February

In no special order; like January’s advice.

  • On a warmer day, check for bees taking cleansing flights. Is there a safe supply of water reasonably near?
  • Check hives are still securely tied down and that green woodpecker defences are still in place.
  • Heft all hives and note the weights. Do they still have enough food?
  • Put in a Varroa check board for three or four days This will tell you which frames the bees cover and allow you to tell the degree of activity. Count the mite drop. The NBU guide[7] says more than six per day is not good. If you suspect one of the bodies may be either Small Hive Beetle or Tropilealaps, put it in the freezer overnight and inform the NBU - see BeeBase: https://tinyurl.com/4khahtsu.
  • Continue to prepare, repair and replace equipment. A recent talk by Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota to the Central Association emphasised the essential role propolis plays in the bees’ antimicrobial defences, so burning it off the inside of a hive may make it look nice and clean to you, but it is not good for them.
  • If you are not yet a beekeeper but want to start, do sign up for a proper beginners’ course with your local BKA before you acquire some bees.

Photographs by Jeremy Quinlan


1] Ron Brown in Beekeeping, the journal of the Devon BKA, April 2002.

[2] Beowulf Cooper: The Honeybees of the British Isles p 23.

[3] Tom Seeley: The Lives of Bees p 33.

[4] Tom Seeley: The Lives of Bees p 52.

[5] Giles Budge

[6] Mark Winston: The Biology of the Honey Bee p 201.

[7] https://tinyurl.com/5xr388kc: Advisory leaflet: Managing Varroa.