Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

honeybee on snowdrop

As February is around the corner, there’s a chance for new beekeepers to visit the apiary ahead of the beginners’ course. This year’s cohort are keener than ever to look inside the hive, but the recent cold snap has meant roofs are just briefly lifted to check the fondant.

Last Saturday I took out the varroa monitoring boards beneath the mesh floors to count the mite drop for the week. Andy Pedley used this as an opportunity to give the beginner beekeepers a lesson in what you can learn under the hive.


You can tell a lot about the colony in winter by looking at the varroa board, including its size, position, and activity. I held up Pepper’s varroa board (above) as Andy examined the ‘evidence’ like a crime scene investigator. “You’ve probably got around six seams of bees filling the brood box,” he said pointing to six ‘lines’ of debris that had fallen down from the brood frames. There was a pile of wax cappings: “The bees have been eating their honey stores in this spot here…”. We also counted 19 mites had dropped onto the varroa board in a week, which is not too high.

Next we looked at Melissa’s, Chili’s and Chamomile’s varroa boards. What can you tell about life inside these hives from the boards below? I’ve marked up Pepper’s board to make it easier to spot the clues.


Unfortunately, Melissa’s and Chili’s bees had around 30 mites dropped in a week, which might be more of a concern. There’s not much we can do about that now, but regularly monitoring varroa levels over winter may give us a better idea of what to do in spring.

Chili’s colony looks smallest and least active and Chamomile’s colony showed worrying signs of nosema (see the red ring around a spot of dysentery). Hang tight ladies, not long till spring!

We’ll put a varroa monitoring board under the hives again for one week in February.

The varroa boards are all yellow and it’s much easier to spot a red varroa mite against a yellow background. I don’t know if this is the reason that varroa boards are yellow, although I read a really interesting article on entomologist Simon Leather’s blog: Entomological classics – The Moericke (Yellow) Pan Trap. The post explains why many entomologists use yellow pan traps because the colour yellow “is highly attractive to many flying insects”. Varroa aren’t insects and don’t fly, but I found it interesting that varroa boards and pan traps are both yellow all the same.

Today the crowd disappeared even quicker than last week, Emily and I used the opportunity to clean up our kit boxes.

The apiary’s snowdrops are still peeking shyly from bright green shoots. The cold weather hasn’t quite coaxed them to unfold their pretty flowers. Instead, I’ve drawn what they might look like in a couple of weeks visited by a bee.



29 thoughts on “Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

  1. I very much like your bee drawing and your bee tips. I have had a hard time commenting on your post or it would be a much more interesting comment. The post took ten minutes to load and it is our internet here. Sorry.Hope this one goes through.

    • I appreciate your comment all the more for the effort, Donna – thank you! I often have trouble commenting on my WordPress app because my phone is so slow – I really need to sort out my storage settings 😉 Glad you enjoyed the bees tips and sketches, though 🙂

  2. Really like how you’ve done the hairs on the bee. Oh dear, the evidence from the monitoring boards has left me feeling anxious – high varroa drops, dysentery, small colonies… just hope they can make it through to shook-swarm time when we can give them some nice new frames and lose some varroa and nosema spores in the process.

    • A very sharp pencil for bee hairs 🙂 I’m not that surprised at the varroa counts given how active the bees have been this winter and, I suspect, haven’t had a break in brood. While it has been milder, I don’t think they can be as hygienic inside the hive in winter as in summer. At least the monitoring gives us a better idea of which hives to shook swarm or Bailey. Don’t worry, when we’ve seen them through the fondant they’ve looked alive, well and energetic 🙂

  3. Very interesting. Tish Farrell referred me to your blog. While I don’t think I could manage bee keeping I am fascinated by them all the same and they are some of my favorite insect subjects to photograph.
    ( not that I am that good at taking pics of them)

    • Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment – it’s really appreciated :). I’m glad that you found me through Tish. Insects are a fantastic subject for photography, I’ve been fascinated by them since childhood – drawing them at home and at school – and now as an adult photographing them! I found starting with slower-moving insects was a good way to get used to the manual settings needed for working up close, and practice in moving closer to the insects. Then spending time sitting and observing the faster insects, which flowers they visited, how they behaved, before approaching them to take a photograph.

      If you’re interested in bees and bee photography but don’t have a hive, why not plant a bee-friendly garden with a couple of mini bug hotels, and enjoy lots of friendly pollinators visiting.

  4. I never realised you could learn so much by monitoring the varroa board. The photographs are very clear. You’ve put a lot of love into your bee, it looks like a bee nuzzling the snowdrop. Roll on springtime! Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia. I love drawing and I’m enjoying rediscovering an old hobby. At school I used to run a nature club for my friends from our back garden with lots of drawing and painting activity of wildlife. Then I did art through to A-level at school, but dropped it when life got busy as an adult. My grandmother who was a professional photographer, also paint and drew. Perhaps the two go hand-in-hand because both make you look at subjects closer.

  5. Love the drawing. It really captures a moment in nature. Earlier this winter I looked at my boards and in one hive I found an area with some bee wings and legs and mouse droppings. I wonder what that means. 😛 I’ve affixed a trap to the front of the hive but haven’t caught anything yet and there are no more “signs” on the board. I’m actually wondering if the little visitor was on the board but below the screen.

    • Oh dear, yes mouse droppings on the varroa board can be a sign of other occupants (squatters) inside the hive ;p Hopefully he/she was a brief visitor. I’ve found bee wings and legs on the boards too, probably the undertakers doing their jobs 🙂

  6. Love the drawing, Emma, especially the translucent wing – nice touch. Hope your girls make it through to Spring safely, thanks for the insight on the boards.

    • Thanks Erik, the wings are always tricky! January to March can be a perilous time for bee hives, in the UK, as winter stores dwindle, the colony builds up, and varroa might rise at a time of year when the colony is more vulnerable, but the girls don’t have long to wait before spring.

    • Thanks Tom, I hope to find time to continue drawing 🙂 I hope the varroa drop is a result of oxalic treatment – better varroa on the board than in the hive – but it’s quite a while since treatment and I think the colony had brood when we did treat. I think it’s likely because the colonies have been more active and not broodless over winter, probably an opportunity for varroa to build up. We’ll find out in spring.

  7. I think sometimes that too much of varroa monitoring can drive a beekeeper crazy! I imagine these things are cyclical, and within a healthy hive sometimes there a lots of them and sometimes not. I guess the trick is to understand when the bees are being overwhelmed and not able to fight them off on their own. A difficult balance, I grant you….

    • I agree! Forums periodically show newer (and older) beekeepers worrying about mite drops, when really if you keep bees then you’re likely to keep varroa; unless in an area where it really isn’t much of a problem. And as you say, the rises and falls do appear to be cyclical which is why treatments are largely cyclical.

      After a summer in which colonies flourished into bigger colonies, an autumn in which mild weather saw unseasonal activity and brood production, and a final turn into winter keeping bees inside, all these things can be opportune for varroa to thrive. I’d have been surprised to see fewer varroa on the boards 🙂

  8. Your illustration is lovely. It would make a super little note card for beekeepers. Think about it! I am sure we could use it on our ‘meet the beekeeper’ sessions, for example, and get donations to further our project and perhaps you could do similar. All of your post is useful and I like the way it works at several levels – the obvious layer for anyone, the deeper layers about the varroa boards which educate those interested and remind us beekeepers of things we may not have done, and then you knowledge and links to experts so those who want can delve even more deeply. I think you and Emily have mentioned the bucks beekeepers seminar before, saying you’d heard they were good, so I’ll paste the details below in case they are of interest. It would be nice to actually meet someone who I think of as an online friend! Bucks Annual County Seminar Saturday 28th February 2015. I’d better not include Fiona’s phone or email in a web post but I’ll put a link to the online page.

    Wendover Memorial Hall, Wharf Road, Wendover HP22 6HF
    Speakers: Michael Palmer- The Sustainable Apiary, and Queen Rearing in the Sustainable Apiary
    Bob Smith: Botany for Beekeepers – flowers useful to bees
    Book your ticket for £12 which includes Ploughman’s Lunch by 21st February – but pay the money at the door on arrival
    Contact Fiona Matheson to book tickets see
    If you don’t book in advance then the price on the door will be £15.

  9. Fascinating reading Emma, especially the monitoring boards.. We so need our Bees and I absolutely Love your Bee drawing, you are very talented.. I am enjoying my learning about Bees here with you .. Thank you

  10. Pingback: Winter moves into spring | Ealing and District Beekeepers Association

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