BBKA basic assessment revision notes

I took the BBKA basic assessment on Sunday 8 July 2012 at the Ealing beekeepers’ apiary in Perivale. These are my summary study notes of the BBKA basic assessment syllabus for 2012. The purpose of these notes was to make sure that I understood the basics, rather than attempt to remember everything on the day, and are based on: my introduction to beekeeping course, my association’s basic assessment revision class and website, books that I have read, personal experiences, and past blog posts.

The Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association provides a far more comprehensive set of study notes for the BBKA basic assessment syllabus for 2011 on their blog pages.

The most recent BBKA basic assessment syllabus, including application forms and supporting documents, is available to download on the BBKA website.

I hope that you find these notes useful as a quick-reference guide, although they should not be taken as exhaustive! My experience of taking the assessment can be read here.

Manipulation of a honeybee colony
Natural history of the honeybee
Disease, poisoning and pests

Manipulation of a honeybee colony
1.0 Manipulation of a honeybee colony
The candidate will be aware of:
1.1 the care needed when handling a colony of honeybees
Wear protective clothing – suit, veil, gloves and boots – for your own safety and be aware of others, such as neighbours, children playing and passersby. Observe the weather and avoid inspections if it is overcast, chilly or rainy, because the bees may be bad tempered. Handle bees calmly and gently to keep the colony good tempered.

1.2 the reactions of honeybees to smoke
Honeybees are forest animals with an instinctive fear of fire. A few puffs of smoke at the entrance initiates the ‘fight or flight’ reaction as the colony perceives an impending risk. The bees ingest honey in preparation to leave the hive should the threat become imminent. A fully fed bee, its an abdomen heavy with honey, is less inclined to sting and is calmer during an inspection.

1.3 the personal equipment needed to open a colony of honeybees and the importance of its cleanliness
Preparation before a hive inspection will reduce disruption to the bees. Essential equipment for every visit includes:

  • Protective clothing including veil – Wellington boots are advised to avoid bees stinging unprotected feet and ankles
  • Gloves – disposable plastic gloves or marigolds are recommended rather than leather gloves which become dirty and spread disease
  • Smoker, fuel and lighter – advisable to carry spare fuel and lighter to the hive should the smoker go out
  • Hive tools – J-shaped hive tools are useful for separating hive parts during an inspection (eg levering up the crown board or supers which can become sticky) and for separating and lifting frames. Use a clean hive tool for each hive to avoid spreading disease, and clean and sterilise tools after use
  • Queen marking cages and marking fluid – to mark a new queen. Each year new queens are marked by a different colour code (white, yellow, red, green, blue)
  • Queen cell cage – to locate and keep your queen safe during a hive inspection
  • Drawing pins – to mark frames with queen cells
  • Uncapping tool – to check for disease in brood during hive inspections
  • Tweezers – to check for disease in brood and unhealthy-looking comb during hive inspections
  • Bee brush – to gently brush bees out of the way (although I find a bunch of soft leaves are better)
  • Plastic container – for disposal of waste, eg brace comb (I put dead bees or larvae down the nozzle of the smoker)
  • Plastic bucket – with washing soda for cleaning equipment between hives, eg hive tool

Beekeepers can easily spread disease from colony to colony, so it is essential to clean clothing and equipment between apiary visits. You should also clean your hive tool in a tub of washing soda and change your gloves before opening another hive.

1.4 the reasons for opening a colony
Here I refer to Ted Hooper’s advice:
‘Every time you open a colony you should ask these five questions. They are vital and should be memorised.

  1. Has the colony sufficient room?
  2. Is the queen present and laying the expected quantity of eggs?
  3. a (early in season) Is the colony building up in size as fast as other colonies at the apiary? b (mid season) Are there any queen cells present in the colony?
  4. Are there any signs of disease or abnormality?
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores to last until the next inspection?’

1.5 the need for stores
A healthy-sized colony of honeybees feed on about 10lb (two brood frames) of stores per week. Adult bees need carbohydrate energy (nectar or honey) to perform vital functions in the hive, eg 8lb of sugar are needed to make 1lb of wax. Bee larvae, or brood, also require protein-rich brood food (pollen). Each week check your hive to make sure that the colony has enough stores to last to the following week.

After the honey crop has been removed and towards the end of the season, check to make sure that the colony is building up enough stores for overwintering. One hive needs around 35lb of honey stores to survive through winter.

1.6 the importance of record keeping
So you don’t forget what you did on your last visit and can check the results of previous manipulations! If you have more than one hive then hive records are essential to remind you of what you found and what you did to a hive from week to week.

Standard hive records require fields on date, weather, queen present (queen sighted or eggs seen), queen cells, brood, stores (brood and supers), space, varroa or other disease, and temperament.

Keeping hive records helps you to understand the temperament of your bees and what affects their mood.

1.7 open a colony of honeybees and keep the colony under control
Approach the hive quietly and put the equipment lightly on the ground to avoid disturbing the bees who can pick up vibrations. Spend a couple of minutes observing the entrance of the hive for normal behaviour and to see if the bees are bringing home pollen (a sign of a queen-right colony). Give a few puffs of smoke at the entrance and allow about two minutes for this to take effect.

Remove the roof and placed it upturned to the side of the hive. Next remove the crownboard, first checking what is underneath (the queen should not be there, but you never know), before lying it diagonally on the roof. The supers come off next including any equipment that is stored such as feeders and hive records. Supers with frames of honey should be checked to see how the bees are progressing and frames rearranged if necessary. When taking the super of honey off the hive it should be placed above the ground for hygiene (honey is a food produced for humans too) and covered with a crownboard or cloth to prevent robbing and to keep the workers warm.

Remove the queen excluder carefully and examine it underneath for the queen before placing it on top of your pile of hive parts. Remove the dummy board, and perhaps the first brood frame, again checking for the queen, to make space to work in the brood nest. These should be hung or propped up somewhere safe outside the hive.

Cover cloths are not essential but can be used to minimise disturbance to the bees, keeping them calm and warm during an inspection.

Use the hive tool to help separate sticky frames and the J-shaped handle to help lift out frames. Take care not to roll the bees when removing a frame. Brood frames should be placed back in the same order to avoid disruption to the nest.

If the bees start to get excited, give a couple of puffs of smoke across the top of the brood frames – don’t point nozzle of the smoker down in the nest as this will blow hot air and ash into the hive.

At the end of the inspection, use the smoker to encourage the bees to go down inside the hive so it can be closed. The use of wedges is desirable to lower the hive parts and avoid squashing the bees (which spreads disease as well as being a bit horrible).

1.8 demonstrate lighting and the use of the smoker
The smoker should be set alight with fuel at the bottom of the cylinder and more fuel added while puffing the bellows. The beekeeper should be aware of the different types of fuel available which produce a long-burning, clean smoke such as dried grass pellets. (Editorial note: egg cartons are the best thing to get the smoker going and last a long time, then add dried grass and leaves, and herbs like lavender, thyme or oregano.) A few puffs of smoke should be given at the entrance while waiting for a couple of minutes for this to take effect. The smoker should be kept alight and occasionally used to control the bees during the inspection, and to drive the bees down before closing the hive. Smoke should be blown across the top of the frames and not down into the nest, which causes harmful hot air and ash to enter the nest. The smoker should be safely put out by blocking the nozzle with dried grass or a cork.

1.9 demonstrate the use of the hive tool
The hive tool is used to lever hive parts to prevent splitting the wood and to separate and lift sticky frames. It can also be used to remove brace comb and to clean up the tops of frames, queen excluder and crownboard.

1.10 remove combs from the hive and identify worker, drone and queen cells or cups if present, and to comment on the state of the combs
The dummy board, and the outermost frame if necessary, should be removed to create a space for inspecting the brood frames. When removing the dummy board or other frames from the nest, remember to check for the queen as you do not want to remove her from the hive. It is desirable to have a temporary storage space to place the removed frames such as a frame holder hanging on the side of the hive or a spare brood box next to the hive.

The queen is the largest bee with a long abdomen, workers are the smallest bee with short abdomens (and look most ‘like a bee’), while drones have big bug eyes and larger, hairier bottoms.

Queen or play cups look like small acorn cups on the frame and should always be checked for young larvae or royal jelly.

Queen cells look like long peanut shells hanging on the frame and, as a ‘book’ rule, the position of the queen cell on the frame may indicate the intent of the bees: middle (emergency queen cell), bottom (swarm cells), top (supercedure cells). However, bees don’t read the books.

1.11. identify the female castes and the drone
The beekeeper should be able to recognise three types of bee inside the hive, as above: the queen is the largest bee with a long abdomen, workers are the smallest bee with short abdomens (and look most ‘like a bee’), while drones have big bug eyes and larger, hairier bottoms.

1.12. identify brood at all stages
Every bee starts life as an egg which looks like a tiny grain of white rice at the bottom of a cell. If the queen is laying then there should be one egg per cell (more than one indicates a laying worker, perhaps because the queen is missing or failing). Eggs hatch into larvae which are little white grubs curled in a crescent moon at the bottom of a cell. Bee larvae have yellow tummies the colour of the pollen that they eat.

Larvae are eventually sealed in cells with a wax capping – flat cappings for worker brood and domed cappings for drone – and pupate into larvae (usually not visible during an inspection unless the comb is damaged).

1.13. demonstrate the difference between drone, worker and honey cappings
Brood cappings should be biscuit-coloured and evenly patterned across the comb. As described above: flat cappings for worker brood and domed cappings for drone. Honey cappings are paler and waxier in appearance.

1.14. identify stored nectar, honey and pollen
When holding up a brood frame you should see stores of nectar or honey and pollen around the edges of the comb.

Cells with nectar glisten with clear liquid and cells with honey have pale, waxy cappings. Pollen is uncapped and looks like compact coloured powder in cells in varying shades of gold, yellow, red and orange, and even blue or grey.

1.15. take a sample of worker bees in a match box or similar container
Shake bees from a brood frame into the upturned roof and collect 30 bees to put in the matchbox. Tip: make a small hole, or ‘door’, at the top of the matchbox so that you pop in a bee and cover the hole, while picking up the next bee.

1.16. state the number of worker bees required for an adult disease diagnosis sample
For suspected disease like nosema or acarine, collect a sample of 30 live bees for testing. For suspected poisoning if large numbers of bees are found dead or dying just outside the hive, collect a sample of 2–300 dead bees.

1.17. demonstrate how to shake bees from a comb and how to look for signs of brood disease
Make a gap in the middle of the brood box by removing the dummy board and the two outermost frames, then hold a frame firmly by the lugs and suspended low in the nest. Shake firmly downwards (avoiding hitting the adjacent frames and side of the hive) repeat if necessary. This will remove sufficient bees to inspect the frame.

Don’t shake frames that contain queen cells or this will damage the queen larvae.

Carry a pair of tweezers for every inspection to examine the comb closely. Look for, and remove, unhealthy larvae for closer inspection. Unhealthy larvae may be discoloured, twisted or distended. Check the appearance of the sealed brood – are the wax cappings flat or domed and biscuit coloured (generally healthy) or sunken, perforated or torn (perhaps diseased)? Are they evenly pattered across the frame or in a pepper pot pattern (perhaps indicative of disease)?

2.0 Equipment
The candidate will be:
2.1 able to name and explain the function of the principal parts of a modern beehive

  • Hive stand – to keep the hive off the floor safe from ants, mice and other pests, and so that the brood nest is waist height for the beekeeper to work
  • Alighting board (desirable not essential) – for returning foraging bees to land and walk into the hive entrance
  • Mesh floor – for ventilation and varroa control (mites that drop to the floor will fall out of the hive and be unable to climb back up). A varroa monitoring board placed beneath the mesh floor can monitor mite drop
  • Entrance board – reducing the size of the entrance as needed throughout the year, eg narrow entrance gap in autumn to deter robbers and pests, and wider entrance gap in summer when there is a lot of traffic in and out of the hive
  • Mouse guard – placed over the entrance in autumn and winter to prevent mice from entering the hive and damaging the honeycomb and frames
  • Brood body (11 frames and dummy board) – holding the queen and her nest
  • Queen excluder – between the brood and super to confine the queen to the nest and prevent her laying eggs in the honey stores
  • Supers (8–10 frames depending on type of hive and/or frames and methods used) – for storing honey for the beekeeper to harvest
  • Crownboard – placed over the super with holes blocked to prevent bees climbing into the roof and building brace comb. Crownboards are useful for clearing bees before honey extraction used with porter bees escapes or cones
  • Feeder – to feed syrup when needed by the colony, usually stored in an empty super under the roof
  • Eke – narrow wooden frames used to create space between hive boxes when needed, eg when treating with apiguard
  • Roof – may store hive records, spare equipment like drawing pins, queen cages or marking kits, tweezers, mouseguard, spare bits of wood and wedges etc, or even fondant in winter

2.2 aware of the concept of the bee space and its significance in the modern beehive
The bee space is 8mm. It is the space needed for two bees to pass each other when working in the hive and to pass between two structures in the hive. If the space is less than 8mm the bees will fill it with propolis and if it is more than 8mm the bees will fill it with brace comb.

Bee space was discovered by Reverend LL Langstroth in 1850 and his theory led to the first modern beehive with moveable frames, a brood nest to confine the queen and supers to store honey. Very clever man.

2.3 able to assemble a frame and fit it with wax foundation
This part of the syllabus is best demonstrated with a video like this excellent one on YouTube filmed by Paynes Beefarm:

2.4 aware of the reasons for the use of wax foundation
Wax foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax with a honeycomb print used for brood and super frames. Wax foundation for the colony stimulates the bees to draw out honeycomb and saves the bees precious carbohydrate energy to produce wax. Again, 8lb of sugar is needed for the bees to produce 1lb of wax!

Foundation is normally reinforced with a w-shaped wire so that the frame does not fall apart during inspections or honey extraction. Unwired foundation can be used to produce cut com, or by allowing the bees to make their own foundation, although unwired comb may come apart more easily during inspections or honey extraction.

2.5 aware of the spacing of the combs in the brood chamber and super for both foundation and drawn comb and methods used to achieve this spacing
In a National hive there are 11 frames in the brood box with a dummy board and between 8 or 10 frames per box in the super depending on the type of frames and methods used.

It is important that frames are regularly spaced at intervals, particularly in the brood nest, to create the required bee space inside the hive (after the bees have drawn out the comb). This can be achieved by using Hoffman self-spacing frames, end-spacers attached to frames, or hive boxes with metal castellations to space frames apart. The latter method has the advantage of ensuring frames are firmly secured when moving a hive, but the disadvantage of restricting movement of frames during an inspection.

Natural history of the honeybee
3.0 Natural history of the honeybee
The candidate will be:
3.1 able to give an elementary account of the development of queens, workers and drones in the honeybee colony
The population of a honeybee colony rises and falls throughout the year. In summer, the hive may have around 50,000 workers, 2,000 drones and one queen. In winter, the hive may have around 10,000 workers and one queen. The population of the colony starts to fall between the end of summer and early autumn as the queen’s egg-laying slows, and starts to rise again between the end of winter and beginning of spring as the queen begins to lay again.

Spring to summer is known as the ‘swarming season’, because the colony may swarm as it increases in size. The workers will build queen cells to make a new queen and the old queen will swarm with around half the bees to find a new home.

Workers are present in the hive throughout the year to carry out all tasks for the colony. Their numbers rise in spring and summer as there is brood to nurse and more work to do, and fall in autumn and winter when there is less or no brood, and fewer tasks to perform.

Drones are present in the hive from early spring when they are needed to mate with virgin queens, and those that do not mate remain in the hive until the end of summer when they are then evicted by the workers.

There are three types of bee in the hive: workers, drones and queen. Every bee starts life as an egg, which is laid by the queen at the bottom of a cell and looks like a tiny grain of rice. After three days the egg hatches into a larva, which is a tiny white grub, and is fed brood food (pollen and honey) until its cell is ready to be sealed. The larva pupates into a pupa and eventually emerges from its cell as an adult bee. The exact stages of egg to larva to pupa to adult for workers, drones and queen are given below.

3.2 able to state the periods spent by the female castes and the drone in the four stages of their life (egg, larva, pupa and adult)


  • egg 3 days
  • larva 5 days
  • sealed 8 days
  • emerges on day 16, sexually mature in around 3–4 days


  • egg 3 days
  • larva 5 days, then sealed
  • emerges on day 21, does not become fully sexually mature


  • egg 3 days
  • larva 7 days, then sealed
  • emerges on day 24, sexually mature in around 14 days

A little tip: Andy Pedley uses the code: 3 5 8 5 3, which is scratched on his hive tool to remind him: 3 days egg + 5 days larva + 8 days sealed = 16 days (queen) + 5 days = 21 (workers) + 3 days = 24 (drones).

3.3 able to give an elementary description of the function of the queen, worker and drone in the life of the colony
The queen is the largest-looking bee with a long abdomen. She is constantly laying eggs to replenish the colony with new bees. The virgin queen mates once in her lifetime, not long after hatching from her cell, and on this one mating flight she stores enough sperm to lay eggs for the colony throughout her life cycle. A queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs, the equivalent of her own body weight, in one day.

The queen produces queen substance containing pheromones – a chemical messenger – that spread throughout the hive and let the workers know that she is present and all is well. Queen substance can modify the behaviour of the workers and also acts as a ‘contraceptive’ by preventing the workers from developing fully functional ovaries and laying eggs.

If the queen is lost or dies then the chemical messages cease and the workers will create a new queen by feeding royal jelly to an existing egg or very young larva. If the queen is unable to lay eggs, or her egg laying decreases, the workers may decide to replace her (supersedure) by creating a new queen.

Workers are infertile females and the smallest (prettiest) bee in the hive. From the moment that they hatch they begin to work, starting as a cleaner and progressing through various age-related duties: nursing, producing wax, building comb, carrying food, undertaker duties, guarding the entrance, and finally flying from the hive as a forager to collect pollen, nectar and water for the hive while performing the vital task of pollinating plants.

Worker have short life spans in summer (around six weeks) as they work themselves to death by flying and foraging for the colony. Their wings become so worn out that one day the forager will not return home. Workers that overwinter may live up to four–six months because they do not have to forage for the colony.

Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens, although they do not mate with the queen of their own hive due to the risks of inbreeding. They are slightly bigger than the workers and have larger eyes and a fatter, hairier bottom!

Drones do no work inside the hive, although colonies without drones may be bad tempered. In late spring to early summer the drones fly to a drone congregation area to mate with the virgin queens.

However, the act of mating kills the drone. Those that do not mate with a queen will live inside the hive during summer, but are thrown out by the workers in September when the colony decreases its individual numbers for overwintering.

These notes are adapted from the Ealing & District Beekeepers Association web page on ‘Introducing the honeybee’.

3.4 able to give a simple description of wax production and comb building by the honeybee
At 12 days old the worker becomes a wax producer and develops four pairs of glands on the underside of her abdomen. The glands secrete wax which the worker passes along her legs to her mouth and moulds into shape with her mandibles. The wax is used to build comb – honeycomb for the queen to lay eggs and produce workers, drones or new queens and honeycomb for the stores of pollen and honey.

Workers can often be seen hanging in long chains between frames when building comb and it is thought that these clusters may help to produce warmth for shaping the wax.

Honeycomb is made of perfect hexagonal shapes, which through evolution is the most economic shape using minimum wax and allowing maximum storage.

Workers require a lot of carbohydrate energy to build wax – around 8lbs of sugar to produce 1lb of wax (this is really worth remembering when thinking about why we need to feed bees when the colony is low on stores or during prolonged bad weather).

3.5 aware of the importance of pollination to flowering plants and consequently to farmers and growers
As honeybees lap up nectar and collect pollen from flowering trees and plants they carry out one of nature’s most important tasks – pollination. The honeybee fertilises flowers as her hairy body transfers pollen from one flower to the other.

Honeybees are just one of many insect pollinators that help to pollinate trees, flowers and crops as they forage from plant to plant collecting nectar and pollen. The value of insect pollinators to UK agriculture is £402m per annum; of which honeybees contribute £38m per annum.

An estimated one third of all food that we eat relies on insect pollination and many plants, such as coffee which is self-pollinating, would not yield sufficient crops to sustain human demand without insect pollinators.

Cattle and other livestock are dependent on insect pollinators for the food that they graze and so the loss of honeybees would also affect production of dairy and meat.

3.6 able to name the main local flora from which honeybees gather pollen and nectar
This will be different for everyone’s local area but the BBKA have useful information on foraging trees and plants for bees: trees useful to bees and shrubs useful to bees.

For Ealing, our local forage includes snowdrops, crocuses, bluebells, daffodils, hawthorn, sweet chestnut, oak and ivy.

3.7 able to give a simple definition of nectar and a simple description of how it is collected, brought back to the hive and is converted into honey
Nectar flows at 150C. Older workers are given the task of foraging for nectar from hundreds of different flowers, which they bring back to the hive in different concentrations, although most of it is water.

Foragers use their long hairy tongues (proboscis) to collect nectar at the centre of the plant and store it in their ‘honey stomach’ (honeybees have two stomachs). Chemicals in the forager’s stomach breaks down the sugars in nectar. When the forager’s honey stomach is full she flies back to the hive and regurgitates the nectar for a hive bee. The hive bee ingests the nectar and the sugars are further broken down inside her stomach. The nectar is regurgitated into a cell. The hive bees beat their wings to fan the nectar and evaporate its remaining water content. When the water content is 18% or less and the sugar content is around 82%, the nectar, now honey, is sealed in the cell with a wax cap.

3.8 able to give a simple description of the collection and use of pollen, water and propolis in the honeybee colony

When the weather warms in February, honeybees start to leave the hive to forage for pollen. Pollen is a source of protein for bees. Foragers gather pollen grains with their middle legs and dust it into ‘baskets’ on their hind legs to fly back to the hive. Honeybees can be seen flying back to the hive with baskets full of coloured pollen from gold and rusty red to bright blue.

At this time of year (February to March) the pollen crop includes snowdrops, crocuses and hellebores. As the year moves on, honeybees collect pollen and nectar from blossoming fruit trees such as plum and apple. Honeybees also love dandelion, which is a major crop for the hive.

Honeybees are very selective about their sources of nectar and pollen. Often foragers will fly past a lime or other fruit tree because they know that there is a richer source of nectar and pollen nearby. Honeybees will always fly to the richest source of food.

Pollen is used as brood food and fed to developing larvae who need protein to develop.

Foragers also collect propolis, which is a resinous substance from trees. Propolis is collected from sticky buds or tree bark. It is used within the hive to seal up spaces and to insulate the hive for winter.

Propolis is collected by beekeepers because of its health benefits – it is a rich source of B vitamins and is antibiotic, antifungal and antiseptic. However, in London honeybees may collect propolis from roof or road tar, and so it may not be a good idea to harvest or eat propolis sourced from London hives.

Honeybees also bring water back to the hive. They collect water from unclean sources such as puddles, drains, bird baths or cow pats (and occasionally clean sources like hang in laundry!). Honeybees have two stomachs. The stomach in which they store water has a valve that microscopically filters and cleans the water that they bring back to the hive.

Water is used to dilute honey to be eaten by the bees, or mixed with pollen to make brood food. Water also helps to keep the hive cool when temperatures are very high.

3.9 able to give an elementary description of swarming in a honeybee colony
Swarming is a natural phenomenon of honeybees and it is how the species reproduces itself. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain the process of swarming very well in A World Without Bees: ‘When a colony decides to swarm to reproduce, usually in early summer, it starts by raising a number of queens, one of which will take over the hive while the existing queen flies off to find a new home. The workers do this by building a number of larger queen cells and either forcing the queen to lay an egg in each one or transporting in newly laid fertile eggs. Again, feeding the eggs lots of royal jelly turns them into queens. Before the virgins emerge from their cells, the old queen will leave the nest with all of her young foragers in tow, leaving behind the older foragers and the house bees – those members of the colony that are not yet old enough to forage… The travellers gorge on a huge breakfast, equivalent to three days’ worth of food, to see them through their quest for a new home.’

3.10 able to give an elementary description of the way in which the honeybee colony passes the winter
Towards the end of summer and in early autumn the queen’s egg laying slows down and eventually stops until there is no more brood inside the hive. Drones are evicted from the hive by the workers as they are not needed over winter. A smaller colony of around 10,000 workers (as opposed to around 50,000 workers in summer) cluster into a rugby-shaped ball in the middle of the nest around the queen and fan their wings to maintain the temperature and ventilation. Fewer bees mean fewer mouths to feed from the colony’s vital food stores and the only job of the winter bee is to ensure that the colony survives until spring. Winter bees occasionally take cleansing flights on clear and mild days.

A colony needs around 35–40lb of honey to survive through winter, which the beekeeper the needs to ensure the hive has at the start of autumn. The role of the beekeeper is to give the bees medications for varroa and other diseases/pests (after the honey has been harvested) to ensure healthy bees are produced for winter; to feed the bees syrup in autumn and fondant in winter; to reduce the size of the entrance and place a mouse guard to protect from pests; and to ensure the location of the hive is safe from nuisances such as woodpeckers or vandals!

4.0 Beekeeping
The candidate will be:
4.1 able to give an elementary description of how to set up an apiary
Before keeping bees at the bottom of the garden, talk to neighbours to make sure there are no particularly strong objections to bees drinking water from drains, bird baths or laundry, or to the possibility of ‘spotting’ on laundry.

A hive should be placed where bees will not cause a nuisance and with the hive entrance facing away from homes and neighbouring gardens. Try to keep it out of view – out of sight is out of mind. The BBKA has an excellent advisory leaflet on Bees and Neighbours.

If setting up a hive at an apiary make sure that it is easy to get to and that transport is convenient for carrying equipment to and from the site. Again, talk to local residents about keeping bees in the area and explain the benefits of bees for the pollination of local trees and plant life.

Other considerations include: making sure that there is plenty of local forage, a source of nearby water, seclusion to protect hives from vandals and thieves, fencing or barriers to deter livestock such as horses or cattle, sufficient space to carry out hive inspections, enough sunlight and shade in summer, and shelter in winter.

Finally, buy bees from a reputable source to ensure that they are healthy. It is also advisable to join a local association and to take an introductory course to beekeeping.

4.2 able to describe what precautions should be taken to avoid the honeybees being a nuisance to neighbours and livestock
Talk to neighbours before setting up a hive in the garden or local area to make sure that they understand the benefits of local pollinators and to reassure them that good-tempered, well-managed bees are unlikely to sting or present a nuisance. Explain that bees may occasionally drink from ponds, drains and bird baths, or spot laundry, but that this may be avoided by positioning the hive entrance away from homes and gardens. The BBKA has an excellent advisory leaflet on Bees and Neighbours.

Barriers can be put up around the hive such as a wall or hedge to encourage bees to fly out of the entrance and above head height as they go out to forage, thus reducing nuisance to human populations.

Hives should be placed out of public sight – out of sight, out of mind – and to reduce the risk of theft and vandalism.

Above all, the beekeeper must take steps to keep good-tempered bees and avoid swarming which most presents a nuisance to local residents.

4.3 able to describe the possible effects of honeybee stings on humans and able to recommend suitable first aid treatment
I was stung for the first time by a honeybee this year – not one of mine but a naughty bee as I was inspecting another beekeeper’s hive – and reacted badly. In fact, I may be allergic, so the effects of stings and how to treat stings was fresh in my mind when writing these notes…

Avoid getting stung
Wear protective clothing to avoid getting stung in the first place and always check your suit and veil for wear and tear. Carry out hive inspections from mid-morning to mid-afternoon when the foragers are out, and when the weather is fair to ensure that the bees are in good temper. Smoke and careful handling of the bees is also essential to managing their temperament.

If a bee does get in your suit, squash it immediately because it will either sting you and die, or get squashed and die. If a bee gets in your veil, try to remain calm and look up at the light. The bee will fly up and can be squashed between thumb and finger. (However, if a bee ever gets in my veil, I will run around the apiary like a crazy person.)

If you get stung
Remain calm and use the hive tool to scrape off the stinger, which continues to pump venom into the skin. The area should be smoked to avoid provoking further stings by the alarm pheromone released by the first sting.

The NHS advises cleaning the area and applying anti-histamine creams and/or taking pain killers if needed. Taking an antihistamine at least 30 minutes before visiting a hive will reduce reactions to stings, and may help to reduce swelling if taken after a sting. If there is severe swelling the body area should be raised, and if swelling, redness or itching worsens over 24–48 hours, go to see your doctor or visit your local A&E.

If you are allergic to honeybee stings then always have your mobile phone on and don’t visit a hive alone. In the event of a severe allergic reaction, call 999.

The NHS website really does give excellent practical advice on insect stings, and particularly at-home treatment for honeybee stings, available here.

4.4 able to give an elementary description of the annual cycle of work in the apiary
As seasons change and vary each year, this is a rough guide to the beekeeping calendar with reminders to monitor bee health throughout the year.

Late summer/early autumn
The beekeeping year starts in late August/early September as beekeepers prepare hives for overwintering. Autumn feed is given as sugar syrup (1kg sugar to 600ml water) until late September/early October to help the colony build up enough stores for winter, particularly important if the honey crop was removed in late July/early August. One colony needs around 35–45lb of honey to survive through winter, so the build-up of stores must be monitored during this time.

Previously, colonies were treated for the fungal disease, nosema, by mixing Fumidil B to the autumn feed. However, this medicine may no longer be available due to lack of research about the safety of its use on livestock (bees) that produce food (honey) for human consumption.

Mid/late autumn
The entrance is reduced to prevent robbing and pests, and a mouseguard also fixed to the entrance to prevent mice from entering. Chicken wire may be placed around a hive to deter woodpeckers in areas where they are a nuisance.

Use the varroa monitoring board because the mite count may suddenly rise in October – the mites are now living off adult bees, not brood, and fall out of the hive more easily. Treatments of lactic acid can be given if varroa counts are high.

Late autumn/early winter
From November to December fondant is put in the roof for bees to nibble and occasional visits are necessary to make sure the hive is safe from bad weather, pests and vandals. The roof may be taken off to check the ventilation and insulation of the hive, and insulating materials placed in the roof as the weather gets colder.

In December the hives are briefly opened to give oxalic acid treatment. This treats the varroa now living on the adult bees and is particularly effective at this time of year because there is no brood in which the mites can hide.

Over winter is a good time to clean equipment and hive parts, prepare for spring, and catch up on reading.

Late winter/early spring
In January and February hives should be hefted to check the weight of stores and that they have not eaten all the fondant.

Early/mid spring
March and April are the time of the shook swarms and Bailey comb changes when bees are given spring-cleaned homes with new brood frames to reduce levels of parasites and disease like varroa and nosema. The colony is continually fed spring feed (1kg sugar to 1litre water), particularly important after a shook swarm and during/after a Bailey comb change, to help the brood nest regain strength. Weekly hive inspections start now.

The swarming season – weekly hive inspections to make sure that the colony is building up as it should, to check the bees have sufficient space and stores, to monitor for disease, and generally ensure that all is well. The colony may produce queen cells to swarm or to supercede old or failing queens, and the beekeeper must check the colony for queen cells and use swarm control methods.

Varroa monitoring boards should be left under the hive for one week, once a month, to monitor mite levels, and appropriate varroa management techniques used if mite levels are too high; chemical treatments for varroa should not be used once the supers are put on the hive and honey production begins.

When the brood nest is strong, supers are put on the hive for the honey crop. (Feeding sugar syrup should also stop once supers with frames are put on the hive.)

Mid/late summer
Bees are cleared from supers and the honey crop taken off the hive for extraction. The colony may be fed syrup to help replace honey stores, but only after all the honey for human consumption has been harvested for the year. (Honey that is harvested should be made from nectar not sugar syrup!)

After the honey crop has been removed, treatments for varroa are given, eg thymol medications. In August, the beekeeper should look forward to winter and monitor bee health and stores for overwintering.

4.5 able to describe the preparation of sugar syrup and how and when to feed bees
The National Bee Unit (NBU) gives advice on feeding bees in National Bee Unit
Best Practice Guideline No. 7 Feeding Bees (FERA).

Sugar syrup made with white granulated sugar (not raw or brown sugar) should be fed to bees in autumn and spring, while fondant is left in the roof over winter.

For autumn feed, the NBU advises ‘The syrup should be made up in the proportion of 1 kg. of granulated sugar to 630 ml. of water or 2 lb. sugar to 1 pt. of water. There is no need to boil the mixture but using hot water helps. Stir regularly to remove the air bubbles and dissolve all the crystals. When fully dissolved the mixture is clear and a very pale straw colour.’

Spring feed is more dilute (1kg sugar to 1l water), although autumn feed may be given in spring, or during the June gap, if the colony is weak, or at other times of emergency such as prolonged periods of bad weather.

There are many methods of feeding bees, although the rapid feeder is popular as it can be left on the hive to feed bees until the following week. Feeders should be checked regularly to make sure that no bees have fallen in the syrup and drowned. When a bee dies it expels its stomach contents and contaminates the feed with nosema spores, which the other bees drink and spread around the hive. Contaminated feed should be taken away, the feeder cleaned and a fresh batch of syrup made for the hive.

Home-made sugar syrup has a relatively short shelf life and grows mould, so a fresh batch should be made weekly. Ambrosia syrup has the advantage of a longer shelf life and not growing mould.

Feeders should be changed and cleaned regularly for hygiene and disease control.

4.6 aware of the need to add supers and the timing of the operation
Supers can be put on hives from mid-spring/early summer when the brood nest is sufficiently strong. Putting supers on the hive too early can weaken the nest by distracting workers from expanding the nest with comb for the queen to lay and building up stores around the brood. This may also lead to chilled brood if the weather suddenly cools.

Supers are needed to ensure baby-bee free honey (separated from the brood nest by a queen excluder) and to provide more space in the brood nest for brood rather than stores of honey.

4.7 able to give an elementary account of one method of swarm control
I find the nucleus method easiest, involving finding the queen and putting her and the frame that she is on inside a nucleus hive (or nuc). Bees from two more frames are shaken into the nuc and then four more frames are added so that there is a little brood and some stores. It is a good idea to feed a nucleus colony with sugar syrup.

The queen and bees in the nuc think that they have swarmed – it is in effect like an artificial swarm – and will start to build up a new colony that can eventually be transferred to a normal-sized hive once it is strong enough.

The original hive should be checked for all queen cells and only the two strongest queen cells left inside the hive to prevent cast-off swarms. This hive should be left alone for around three weeks to let the new queen emerge, mate and start laying.

4.8 able to describe how to take a honeybee swarm and how to hive it
While a swarm is usually good natured because the bees have filled up on honey before leaving the hive, the same precautions should be taken as when visiting a colony in a hive. The beekeeper should wear protective clothing and be prepared with the necessary equipment, and ask bystanders to move away.

Swarms often cluster in a ball on tree branches, fences or other structures, but the beekeeper should be aware of their personal safety and not attempt to collect swarms from inaccessible locations such as rooftops, chimneys or other high places.

The swarm should be sprayed lightly with water so the cluster sticks together and then picked (if resting on a small branch it can be removed with shears), shaken or brushed into a cardboard box and covered with a sheet or board.

The swarm is then carried to a location where an empty hive is ready to re-home the colony. The colony is shaken onto a sheet outside the hive and a raised board placed leading up to the hive entrance so that the bees can walk in. Once the queen is inside then the swarm has been successfully hived.

The swarmed colony should be fed until it has built up sufficient stores and is strong in numbers.

4.9 able to describe the signs of a queenless colony and how to test if a colony is queenless
Bees flying home with pollen are often a good indication that the queen is present because she is laying eggs and the workers need to collect pollen for brood food.

A hive inspection can reveal more obvious signs of a queenless colony such as irritable bees or bees moving erratically on the frame. There may be no eggs and no young larvae as well as no sign of the queen. The cells containing pollen may also be covered with a thin film of honey in order to preserve the pollen until it is needed for brood food.

The most obvious sign that a hive is queenless is finding emergency queen cells in the centre of frames.

To test is a hive is queenless take a frame with young larvae from another hive, first shaking off the bees, and place this inside the suspected queenless colony. If the bees produce queen cells from the new larvae this indicates that the colony needs a new queen.

4.10 able to describe the signs of laying workers and of a drone-laying queen
A hive with a mated queen that is not laying or only laying drone is considered to be queenless, or finding supercedure cells showing that the bees are not happy with the queen and are trying to replace her

An irregular brood pattern or drone brood laid in the middle of frames may indicate that the queen is failing or laying drone, or that a worker is laying because the queen is no longer present. More than one egg being laid inside a cell also indicates a laying worker.

4.11 able to describe a simple method of queen introduction
Before introducing a queen to a colony make sure that the colony is queenless or the colony and its queen will attack and kill the new queen.

A new queen normally arrives in a protective cage with attendants. The entrance tab is removed and the cage pressed down into the middle of the hive, between two brood frames with mostly young bees. The queen’s protective cage will have candy at the entrance, so that by the time she is released the bees in the colony will be accustomed to her smell. The hive should be left undisturbed for a week to let the new queen settle in.

4.12 aware of the dangers of robbing and how robbing can be avoided
In late summer wasps and bees from other colonies attempt to rob the hive. This can cause fighting and loss of precious stores, which may weaken the colony. Robbing can also spread disease from hive to hive.

Wasp traps are laid to protect the colony from wasps, and hive entrances reduced to help prevent robbing. Within an apiary hives should be arranged to deter colonies from robbing each other.

4.13 able to describe one method of uniting colonies
It is sometimes necessary to combine two hives if one hive is queenless or has a failing queen. A check should be carried out to make sure that the queen chosen to head the combined colony is in the brood nest and laying well. The other colony’s queen is then removed, if she is not dead already.

  • A sheet of newspaper is placed on top of the brood box which has the queen in the nest, and a hive tool is used to make a few small holes through the queen excluder.
  • The brood box of bees without a queen is placed on top. During the week, the bees will chew away the newspaper, which will give them time to become accustomed to each other’s smell and prevent fighting.
  • In one week it should be ok to remove the top brood box and rearrange the frames sufficiently so that the queen and brood are in the bottom brood

4.14 aware of the reasons for uniting bees and the precautions to be taken
Colonies can be combined to introduce a queen-right colony to a queenless colony or to introduce a weaker colony and create a stronger colony.

Hive combining should be carried out early evening when all the foragers have returned to the hive or the flying bees in the top box of the hive that is moved will become lost and homeless.

The queenless colony to be introduced to the queen-right colony should be checked to make sure that the queen is not present, and if she is then she should be removed.

4.15 able to describe a method used to clear honeybees from supers
For this part of the syllabus, I re-read my blog post about clearing bees and extracting honey from the hive.

4.16 able to describe the process of extracting honey from combs and a method of straining and bottling of honey suitable for a small scale beekeeper
My blog post ‘How to extract honey’ provided detailed notes with a photo step-by-step for my revision.

4.17 aware of the need for good hygiene in the handling of honey for human consumption
Throughout the season, supers with honey for human consumption should be handled with care. Supers should be placed above the ground during inspection to prevent ants from crawling inside or dirt getting onto frames. Crownboards or cloths should cover the super to protect the honey from robbers.

When the honey crop is taken off the hive, hygiene should be observed at every stage of its production from washing hands before handling frames, ensuring clean storage and working conditions, and using sterilised equipment to extract and filter the honey.

Honey should be stored in jars that have been sterilised before use.

4.18 aware of the legal requirements for the labelling and sale of honey
Don’t forget to include ‘Honey’ as well as your name, date, address!

4.19 able to give an elementary account of the harvesting of beeswax
Wax can be harvested from the hive when cleaning up frames, removing brace comb or from the removed wax cappings of the honey harvest. The wax can be cleaned up by steam, boiling or a solar extractor and made into beeswax pellets or candles.

To boil, the wax is suspended in a muslin bag over boiling water and the the wax rising to the surface is collected to be put in a mould. The wax may need processing several times to remove all impurities and hive debris

4.20 aware of the need for good apiary hygiene
Apiary hygiene is essential for good husbandry and disease control, to avoid encouraging pests, and to ensure that honey production is clean and suitable for human consumption. The same rules should apply to apiary hygiene as for hygiene for individual hives.

Carry a bucket or carrier bag to dispose of all hive waste such as wax and wood scrapings, or even dead bees, to take away from your hive after an inspection. Waste should be burned or disposed appropriately. This is vital for disease control. 

4.21 aware of the need for regular brood comb replacement
Bees naturally live with lots of different bacteria, viruses and fungi (just like people), but when the numbers of parasites rise above manageable levels this can cause problems. Changing the brood comb regularly helps prevent the build up of disease such as European foul brood (EFB), American foul brood (AFB) and nosema.

There are two methods of replacing the brood comb:

  • Shook swarm: bees are literally shaken into a new hive with fresh foundation and the old brood comb and unhatched bees are burned. The shook swarm gets rid of everything (including the varroa feasting on unhatched winter bees) and starts the year with almost no disease in the colony.
  • Bailey comb change: a gentler version of the shook swarm, bees are gradually moved into a new hive by encouraging the queen and her colony to climb up into a clean brood box frame by frame.

4.22 aware of the various web based resources relating to beekeeping such as BBKA and Beebase.
The British Beekeepers Association is an educational charity set up in 1874, and the UK’s leading organisation representing beekeepers.

The BBKA promotes:

  • the importance of bees in the environment
  • support for beekeepers through education necessary to maintain healthy colonies of honey bees
  • awareness of the craft of beekeeping

BeeBase is the Fera National Bee Unit website. It is designed for beekeepers and supports Defra, WAG and Scotland’s Bee Health Programmes and the Healthy Bees Plan, which set out to protect and sustain our valuable national bee stocks. Their website provides a wide range of free information for beekeepers, to help keep their honey bees healthy and productive.

Disease, poisoning and pests
5.0 Disease, poisoning and pests
The candidate will be:
5.1 able to describe the appearance of healthy brood
Healthy bee larvae are curled in half-moon shapes inside cells and are pearly white with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat.

Sealed brood is biscuit-coloured and evenly patterned on the comb with flat cappings for worker brood and dome cappings for drone brood. Brood capping should not be sunken, perforated or waxy looking.

A pepper pot pattern across the brood may also indicate disease.

5.2 able to describe the signs of the bacterial diseases American foul brood (AFB) and European foul brood (EFB), the fungal disease chalk brood and the viral disease sac brood
Healthy bee larvae look like little white grubs, clearly segmented with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat, and curled in a half-moon shape in cells. Unhealthy bee larvae can be discoloured and misshapen.

EFB is a bacterial infection that affects unsealed brood and causes the larvae to turn brownish, dark and slimy-looking. The larvae often twists into a spiral shape or lies distended in its cell as it dies. It can then dry up to leave a brownish scale.

AFB is a bacterial infection that affects sealed brood and causes cappings to become sunken and perforated around the edges. A pepper pot pattern across the brood cappings may also be indicative of this disease. The classic ‘snot test’ identifies AFB: a matchstick is dipped into a cell and if a stringy mess of slime is pulled out there may be bacterial disease present. AFB can also cause an awful smell from inside the hive.

Chalkbrood is a fungus that affects sealed brood and can again lead to perforated cappings. The larvae die inside the cells and look like little dried-up chalk mummies.

Sacbrood is a virus that usually affects sealed larvae and causes the larvae to take on the appearance of dried-out dark brown scales, sometimes described as ‘Chinese slippers’.

Tip from the London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day blog post:

‘The most valuable lesson that Caroline gave us was to use a pair of tweezers for inspections – not to groom the bees and make them more lovely, but to look for nasty stuff on the comb. “I have been trying to get beekeepers to look more closely at the comb for years,” said Caroline. “Bad comb is easier to spot than disease or mites.”’

5.3 able to describe methods for detecting and monitoring the presence of varroa (a mite) and describe its effect on the colony including awareness of the effect of associated viruses
My summary notes here were largely thanks to the blog post on London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day … Here is an extract below …

Varroa accounts for thousands of colony losses each year in comparison to 800 hives lost annually due to European foul brood or American foul brood.

Varroa is incredibly well-adapted to the life cycle of the honeybee and spends its entire life within the colony. It is so highly specialised that the female mite can sense the pheromone given off by bee larvae ready to be capped before the worker bees. The mother mite buries herself underneath the larval food unseen by workers as they cap the cell. Sealed inside, she waits for the larva to eat the food and release her. The mite then feeds on the juicy larva as it develops into a bee. During this time, she lays eggs that hatch and mate with each other (inbreeding is not a problem for varroa) and the entire mite family are released when the fully-grown bee emerges from its cell.

Varroa are hitchhikers too, and spread from hive to hive by drifting bees who are mostly drones. ‘Drones can do bed and breakfast in any hive,’ said Alan. ‘The workers don’t see them as a threat and so they are well tolerated.’ Beekeepers may be unaware of varroa in their hives during spring and summer, because the mites are mostly hidden within the brood. Varroa particularly prefer drone brood because they take longer to develop, which gives the mite more time inside the cell. Queen cells are rarely invaded by varroa because the queen larva develops very quickly, thus if a queen cell does have varroa this indicates that the colony is overrun.

Varroa counts may appear to rise suddenly in hives at the end of summer, but this is because there is less brood as the queen slows down her egg laying in preparation for winter. Winter or summer, varroa is always there.

‘Virus in varroa’
The afternoon sessions kicked off with a talk about the world of bee viruses by Caroline. She listed the top six bee viruses that we should all know:

  • deformed wing virus*
  • sacbrood virus
  • chronic bee paralysis virus
  • acute bee paralysis virus
  • black queen cell virus
  • Kashmir bee virus

The virus that should most interest London beekeepers is deformed wing virus, which is often transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones.

The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) suggests that deformed wing virus is associated with most colony collapse, and the problem has become worse because there are many more beekeepers now and not all are managing varroa. Bees have the same problem as people living in crowded cities like London – disease spreads faster. Hives that are not treated for varroa will have bees that will infect neighbouring hives, which seem very antisocial!

The final workshop of the day was with Brian McCallum who talked us through a practical checklist of good husbandry including using open mesh floors and varroa monitoring boards, a varroa calculator (available on the NBU website) and drone monitoring.

Drone monitoring is an effective method of checking levels of varroa in a hive, because the mites are most attracted to drone brood. This is done by taking out of frame of drone brood and de-capping it, then counting how many larvae are infected with varroa rather than counting the number of mites. This number can then be checked on the NBU varroa calculator, which will indicate if varroa has risen to harmful levels and requires treatment.

5.4 aware of acarine (a mite) and nosema (a fungus) and their effect upon the colony
Acarine is a parasitic mite that invades the airways of honeybees. The mites lay eggs in the trachea which hatch and feed off the blood (haemolymph) of bees. When the mite matures it climbs out of the bee’s airways and onto the bee’s hair, where it transfers to another bee. Signs of acarine may include weak stumbling bees on the ground outside the entrance, because they are unable to fly. There may also be dysentery or deformed wings.

Acarine is not thought to be a serious problem in the UK because levels are usually low in colonies, but it becomes more serious when bees are confined to hives for long periods (such as over winter or during prolonged periods of bad weather) and when there is overcrowding. The parasite generally weakens the bee and shortens its lifespan, making the colony more vulnerable and reducing its chances of survival.

Nosema is a fungus living inside the cells lining the bee’s digestive gut. When the cells rupture they release the spores into the stomach contents, later excreted by the bee. Signs of nosema is often dysentery on the hive entrance or inside the hive (bees are very clean insects and normally excrete after flying some distance from the hive).

Nosema is always present in colonies at low levels, but becomes serious when bees are confined to hives for long periods (such as over winter or during prolonged periods of bad weather) and when there is overcrowding. The fungal disease generally weakens the bee and shortens its lifespan, making the colony more vulnerable and reducing its chances of survival. Nosema is often responsible for winter mortality of hives.

Nosema can be spread when bees fall into the syrup of a rapid feeder and drown. They expel the contents of their stomach and contaminate the syrup, which must then be removed and a fresh batch supplied. It is also a good idea to avoid squashing bees during inspection because this too expels the gut’s contents and spreads the disease (as well as being not nice).

Good husbandry methods are essential for controlling acarine and nosema such as being aware of space inside the hive, cleaning hives and equipment, and changing combs once a year to prevent build up of parasites.

5.5 able to describe ways of controlling varroa using integrated pest management techniques
My summary notes here were largely thanks to the blog post on London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day … Here is an extract below …

Varroa is a problem to larger colonies because they have more brood, whereas its natural host, the Asian honeybee, tends to live in smaller colonies. Varroa can also rise to harmful levels inside the hive when the colony does not swarm very often or is prevented from swarming, whereas again the Asian honeybee swarms frequently. Swarming is a natural method of varroa control because the queen flies away from the nest with half her bees and leaves behind the brood and varroa. [Editorial note: therefore an artificial swarm or the shook swarm is a good method of varroa control.]

This is a risk of beekeeping, explained Alan. European bees are usually kept in large ‘super’ hives, sometimes with double brood boxes, in order for the beekeeper to get more honey. Their natural swarming instinct is managed by various swarm control methods to make sure that half the colony doesn’t fly off with the honey! However, beekeepers often report that their biggest and strongest colonies succumb to varroa over winter. So it seems the mite problem is exacerbated by the lifestyle of bees living in hives and, unlike feral honeybees living in the wild, requires good husbandry methods to keep it under control.

Alan took us through the treatment options available to beekeepers to kill varroa many of which are based on naturally occurring chemicals, such as thymol and oxalic acid. He explained that beekeepers are also dealing with a food product (honey) and so need to be careful what treatments they use and when. For example, the thymol-based Apistan varroa control strips taints honey with a strong smell and can only be use after the honey crop is removed at the end of the season.

The group asked about the effectiveness of using natural methods like sugar dusting. Bee are dusted in a light coating of icing sugar, which encourages them to clean each other and knock off the varroa. However, sugar dusting only knocks off around 29% of varroa mites and an effective treatment must kill 80% of the mites. It is a useful method during spring and summer when the supers are on the hive, because it won’t taint the honey, but it should not be used alone against varroa. Alan advised a multi-approach to managing varroa and to keep records of what works and what doesn’t.

The final workshop of the day was with Brian McCallum who talked us through a practical checklist of good husbandry including using open mesh floors and varroa monitoring boards, a varroa calculator (available on the NBU website) and drone monitoring.

Drone monitoring is an effective method of checking levels of varroa in a hive, because the mites are most attracted to drone brood. This is done by taking out of frame of drone brood and de-capping it, then counting how many larvae are infected with varroa rather than counting the number of mites. This number can then be checked on the NBU varroa calculator, which will indicate if varroa has risen to harmful levels and requires treatment.

5.6 aware of the current legislation regarding notifiable diseases and pests of honeybees [Editorial note: 5.6 and 5.7 are perhaps the most important questions to get right! If you suspect a notifiable disease or pest, contact the National Bee Unit immediately or your local bee inspector.]
There are four notifiable bee diseases and pests:

  1. American foul brood (AFB)
  2. European foul brood (EFB)
  3. Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)
  4. Tropilaelaps mites – any species

The first course of action is to contact your local bee inspector immediately to notify a suspected case, or to contact the National Bee Unit directly.

If you import bees then you must have the bees tested for disease, but it is better to buy local bees from a reputable source

5.7 aware of whom to contact to verify disease and advise on treatment
Contact the National Bee Unit:

National Bee Unit,
The Food and Environment Research Agency, Sand Hutton,
YO41 1LZ.
Tel: 01904 462510

Further details can be found on the NBU website at

5.8 able to describe how mice and other pests can be excluded from the hives in winter
Wasps can be dealt with at the end of summer by using wasp traps around the hive, and reducing the size of the entrance block which also helps deter robber bees.

Mice can be kept out of the hive by using a mouse guard over the entrance, which should be used from around October to February or March.

If woodpeckers are a nuisance in the area, protect the hive by wrapping it with chicken wire over winter.

In general, a hive should be kept off the ground to protect it from pests like ants.

If you have any questions or comments about these revision notes, please contact me.

6 thoughts on “BBKA basic assessment revision notes

  1. Pingback: Taking the BBKA basic assessment on a rainy Sunday afternoon | Miss Apis Mellifera

  2. I realize that some remedies are not expedient for commercial beekeepers due to the expense and logistics. I’m a backyard beekeeper, so am working at this from a different situation so bear with me.

    I lost four hives last week and it TOOK a week to clean up the mess with a power washer and bleach. My one remaining hive has a queen, a new hive and frames, and is starting over in JULY for goodness sake. Recently they discovered the small hive beetle on yet another Hawaiian island. BUT people are working on solutions and inventions to contain the problem. I ordered some predatory nematodes for the soil under my hive area, and dusted with the varroa mite remedy powdered sugar, which angers the bees to chase beetles also. Some of my other solutions, born of observation of what was left:

  3. Pingback: Olympic Queens! | Miss Apis Mellifera

  4. We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with useful information to work on. You’ve done an impressive process and our entire community can be grateful to you.

  5. Pingback: Taking the Basic Beekeeping Assessment » A Simple Life of Luxury

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