Category Archives: Training

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

All the gear, no idea

The new Thorne’s catalogue came out a few days ago. I picked up a copy during a visit to the Newburgh store when I bought frames for the upcoming season and some more queen excluders.

Required reading

Required reading

I’ve always enjoyed reading the Thorne’s catalogue. Browsing the 2018 copy brought back memories of my introduction to it a decade or so ago. That was after my very first “Beekeeping for Beginners” evening class with the Warwick and Leamington beekeepers. Everyone left the class clutching a catalogue and an order form for a discounted BBwear suit. 

It was clearly effective and well-targeted marketing. I still spend more than I should (though less than I could, thanks to my catastrophic DIY skills) with Thorne’s and I still use BBwear suits.

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

The abiding memories of my first experience of the catalogue were the myriad choices … of hives, frames, foundation, tools and – perhaps more than anything else – labels and moulds.

Remember, this was before even the basics of the hive had been introduced in the beginners course. That first evening was probably spent on the distinction between queens, workers and drones, or perhaps ‘the beekeeping year’.

Back to the catalogue … surely there wasn’t the need for all those different frame sizes and styles? DN1, DN2, DN4, DN5, 14″ x 12″ and BS Manley.

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 1

And then the hives … National, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Langstroth … Aargh!

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warré 2 etc.

Of course now, a decade or so later, I know the answer. There’s no logical need for anything other than medium Langstroth boxes and one type of frame 😉

But I and most other beekeepers also know that logic is something in short supply in most beekeeping.

Indeed, logic is almost as rare as adhering to standards.

Which is why I use BS ‘British Standard’ National hives 😉

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue3 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

Eight different types of smoker. Eleven different types of uncapping knives, forks or rollers. Eighteen different types of hive tools. Eighteen! And I daren’t even look at the labels or moulds.

This isn’t a criticism. Choice is great … but is can be really confusing. Particularly when you don’t know the difference between your Bailey, Horsley, Snelgrove, Cloake or Snuggle boards.

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 4 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

For many, this catalogue is an integral part of their beekeeping education.

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

And then, schooled in basics from their winter training courses and simultaneously confused and enticed by their nightly perusal of the ‘essentials’ in the Thorne’s catalogue, come the two biggies.

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

Like lions waiting to ambush an unsuspecting baby wildebeest, the two biggest trade events in the beekeeping year allow all those essential items in the catalogue to be seen, inspected, caressed, agonised over and – finally – bought.

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

In my case sometimes bought, caressed, inspected and then agonised over 🙁

What on earth possessed me to get a Combi-Brush?

All the gear, no idea

Those early beekeeping days were characterised by limitless enthusiasm – in part fueled by the annual Thorne’s catalogue – and precious little practical experience.

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

I’ve still got stuff I bought in those early days. There’s all sorts of bits and bobs stored away which ‘might come in’.

It hasn’t and probably won’t 🙁

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 5. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

I now carry less to the apiary than I did five years ago. The bee bag is slimmed down and much more manageable. My record keeping is more organised – or at least less shambolic. I’ve given away the frame rests, mouseguard magnet … and the Combi-brush.

But, most significantly, I’ve pretty-much standardised on the equipment I use. I buy the boxes ensuring that they’re all compatible with each other. I buy the replacement frames and I buy less and less foundation.

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes etc.6

And I reckon my beekeeping is better for it. My bank balance certainly is 🙂

What’s new?

Nevertheless, I’ve still enjoyed a quiet hour or two (as the Beast from the East roars outside) with a cup of tea and the 2018 Thorne’s catalogue.

I’ve marvelled at the Adapta hive stand and floor which, by my estimates, would cost an eye-watering £422.92 if you were to buy it with all the accessories.  Actually, I’ve mainly marvelled at their ingenuity in designing all those accessories. This floor has been out a year or two now, but new for 2018 is the Adapta eke.

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

Undoubtedly well made, indubitably multi-functional, but costing £107.50 with all the add-ons.

Eek!

My first hive was a secondhand Thorne’s Bees on a Budget National bought from an association member who had had to give up beekeeping due to allergies. The boxes are still in regular use. It’s still listed in the catalogue and thousands have probably started their beekeeping with one of these hives.

While the basic hive hasn’t changed there are lots of new choices of floor, half-size supers and insulation, polish containers, queen introduction cages and – inevitably – candle moulds.

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course 😉

Horsley board

Horsley board

A year or two ago Thorne’s started selling Horsley boards (PDF) – an interesting method of swarm control consisting of a split board with an upper entrance, removable slide and queen excluder panel. I built my own a few years ago and have used it successfully. Mine is bodged together from bits of scrap wood and a butchered tin baking tray.

It’s a monstrosity.

They had one in the Newburgh store and it was beautifully made.

I was very tempted.

But I managed to resist … though I’ve looked at it several times in the new catalogue 😉


Colophon

In the interest of literary accuracy I should add that the bit about the Combi-Brush is not entirely true. I’ve never bought one. It was chosen as the most ridiculous piece of beekeeping equipment I could find in the catalogue that readers might appreciate.

However, there are a few things I have bought that, years, months, weeks or just days later, I’ve wondered … “Why?”

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret 😉

Better mentoring

So … you’ve just completed a Beekeeping for beginners course with a local association over the winter. You’ve built your flat-packed hive, you’ve bludgeoned the ends of your fingers building frames and you’ve bought a quality beesuit from one of the suppliers at the Spring Convention. Not necessarily in that order. You’re now ready to start keeping bees.

Theoretically … yes.

In reality … probably not.

Theory and practice

Beekeeping is essentially a practical occupation. The theory is important, but nothing like as important as the observation, the interpretation and the implementation of the practical aspects of the pastime. These practical aspects cannot be learned on a cold winter evening watching two dozen Powerpoint slides with a break for a cuppa and a chocolate digestive. They also can’t be acquired from a book (or a website … but don’t go yet). Instead, they’re acquired by accumulated hours spent bent over a hive – or better – hives, coupled with good record keeping and observation of what happens next. You can achieve this alone, but it can be a dispiriting process as “learning from your mistakes” can involve the loss of the honey crop for that year, or even the loss of the colony.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Most beekeepers involved in training know this, and local associations generally appreciate that their winter courses only really lay the groundwork for the practical skills to be acquired during the following season(s). To help achieve this many offer sessions in the association apiary, where experienced beekeepers inspect colonies with small groups of beginners. More important still is the mentoring many offer – the appointment of a more experienced beekeeper to a beginner so that the latter has, at a minimum, a contact for help and support as the season progresses.

‘Mentoring’ covers a range of levels of interaction, but it’s rarely defined what’s expected of mentors, either by the association or the beginner. I’m sure there are examples of good and bad practice out there. I think it could be argued that better mentoring might significantly increase the success rates of new beekeepers … where ‘success rate’ is measured as the proportion of people who take a beginners course that are still keeping bees three years later, or the proportion of colonies managed by beginners that are overwintered successfully. I’d even suggest that better mentoring is more important than the winter theory course, but these are an important source of income for beekeeping associations and do provide the necessary background information.

The first year is critical

Beginners desperate to start beekeeping might buy an imported nuc in early Spring, watch in awe – and perhaps apprehensively – as it develops at breakneck speed during May, lose half the bees as it swarms in June, struggle to get it requeened in an unseasonably wet and cold July, spend August trying to prevent it being robbed out and then lose it in the winter due to poorly timed Varroa treatment or insufficient feeding. Twelve months on they’re back to square one, on the waiting list for another nuc and trying to work out why everything went wrong the first time round. There are better ways to start.

Lots of bees ...

Lots of bees …

Of course, you might be lucky, the weather might be kind, the bees unswarmy and the honey crop weighty. The sort of ‘perfect storm’ of a season described in the paragraph above is unusual, but certainly not unheard of. Large numbers of beginners start beekeeping each year, a proportion decide it’s not for them and never acquire bees, others start and relatively quickly – perhaps within 1 to 3 years – give up, and a few become lifelong beekeepers. Of the middle group, some stop because they decide it’s not a hobby they want to pursue (which is fine, it’s certainly not for everyone). However, others abandon it because they struggle to acquire the practical skills and experience that make beekeeping both relatively easy and very enjoyable. After the first or second or third bad season, after struggling with swarms, unmated and invisible queens, Varroa and disease, bad tempered bees and other problems, they abandon any hope of being a successful beekeeper … and abandon their bees.

It’s this last group – those that abandon something they wanted to do and have trained for because of the problems that they encounter – that this post is really about. Are there ways more people that want to become beekeepers can become successful beekeepers? Are there ways to get beginners faster from the winter theory classes to a good enough level of competence? Are there ways to reduce the high levels of losses that many new beekeepers experience in their first year or two? Might better mentoring improve the success of beginners in their first year(s)?

Watch and learn

I have no doubt that the best way to learn beekeeping is to watch someone more experienced at work. Observation, combined with a willingness to ask questions and an ability to listen to the answers (I’m assuming the more experienced beekeeper has a willingness to provide the answers), provides a quick and relatively painless way to acquire the practical knowledge necessary. Note that the ‘more experienced beekeeper’ doesn’t have to be an expert … in fact, it might be better if they aren’t. Perhaps the ideal would be someone with at least two or three successful seasons behind them, able to provide a pragmatic mix of enthusiasm, reality and advice, but before they become totally set in their ways, inflexible and – whisper it – out of date. Not that there’s anyone like this in your local association 😉

Although many beekeeping associations offer ‘mentoring’ for new beekeepers, the ‘mentoring’ is often poorly defined. What does your association offer? It might be anything from season-long one-to-one support and advice, in person, to a mobile phone number and instructions to “call here if you need help”. Frankly, the latter is probably not a whole lot of use. Firstly, it’s often difficult to describe what’s happening in the hive particularly when you’ve not seen it before and when you’ve relatively little experience of what should be happening in the hive. Secondly, you can be sure that when help is needed the mentor will be at the end of a dodgy mobile phone signal in their out apiary. Typically this is the late May inspection when the new beekeeper has carefully destroyed all those pesky queen cells only to realise, far too late, that there’s no queen in the colony (they’ve swarmed) … and now no larvae young enough to raise as new queens.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

Better mentoring

I think there are ways to combine improved practical training, the desire of new beekeepers to start inspecting bees early in the season and to reduce the demand for imported nucleus colonies (something I’ve already touched on in Supply and demand). Imagine a scenario in which the beginner acquires a mentor before the practical beekeeping season starts and the mentor provides some practical advice on the equipment required. Since the plan I’m outlining involves the beginner acquiring his/her nucleus colony from the mentor mid-season (once their practical skills are improved), equipment compatibility will be important.

Once inspections start the beginner visits the mentors’ apiary and attends the standard weekly inspections. Initially this might be just as an observer. Colonies are small, just starting the spring build up. As the mentor has a reasonable amount of experience it’s likely there’s more than one colony in the apiary. Therefore the beginner gets to see the importance of being able to compare colony development, and gains through the simple repetition of the practicalities of inspections. In later visits the beginner should – under supervision – go through a colony. Together – though largely taking a lead from the mentor – they select a suitable colony that is building up fast and that will require ‘cooling off’ (by splitting off a nuc) to delay swarming. Alternatively, some sort of vertical split or artificial swarm is conducted, with the part of the colony that generates a new queen being destined as the beginners first colony. By whatever route – even making up a new nuc from one or more colonies and adding in a queen cell – the beginner acquires their first colony.

5 frame Everynuc

5 frame Everynuc …

By this time the danger of swarming has largely passed, the beginner has acquired a significant amount of practical ‘bee handling’ experience. The mentor has provided – and, if necessary, been paid for (I’ll return to this point in a later post as this is quite long enough already) – the nucleus colony. A decision will have to be made as to whether to move the nuc to the beginners own apiary. It might be best to delay this until it’s clear that the nuc is building up well, perhaps waiting until it is moved into a full hive. At the same time, the beginner will have observed his/her mentor dealing with many of the other types of ‘events’ that occur every season … queenlessness, aggressive colonies, adding supers, uniting, swarm control, swarm collection, bait hives and possibly even queen rearing or other more advanced activities.

The final activities of the season are the critical stages in winter preparation – Varroa treatment and feeding – at the very least the beginner and the mentor will have had ample opportunity to discuss this in detail. Certainly the usual seasonal IPM activities and monitoring of mite levels will be familiar to the beginner. Ideally the mentor will be involved with preparations for the winter at a practical level as these are important in successfully getting the colony through to the following Spring.

As described, this is more of an apprenticeship than mentoring … it’s a heck of a lot more than “call this number if there are problems” 😉

Benefits for all involved

I’ve been a mentor and involved in training. I’ve also been mentored. I’ve enjoyed, and still enjoy, learning from others. I think the scenario outlined above offers benefits for both the mentor and mentee:

The beginner …

  • is discouraged from meddling with colonies early in the season, delaying build up or possibly resulting in the loss of the queen through clumsiness (been there, done that 😉 )
  • conducts inspections on suitable days (weather-wise) rather than the hit and miss visits to association apiaries in the changeable conditions we get early in the season
  • acquires practical skills as colony strength develops
  • (probably) experiences more than one colony, allowing important comparisons in development to be made
  • experiences a far greater range of activities and events than would be the case in a single season with only one colony
  • gets all-important swarm prevention and control experience without (too much) panic from someone who has been through it all before
  • acquires a good quality colony of local bees from a known and trusted source

The mentor …

  • doesn’t need to make extra visits to the beginners’ apiary but conducts all training in his/her own familiar apiary where equipment is available (don’t underestimate this … if you’ve spent hours sweating in a beesuit on a hot afternoon it’s a bit of a pain having to visit one more apiary with a single colony in it … far more tempting to go and grab a beer)
  • is familiar with the colonies that he/she is showing the beginner
  • arranges inspections to suit the weather
  • should get far fewer panicky calls with garbled descriptions of things that are going wrong in a colony they might never have seen over a flaky mobile phone connection
  • guaranteed ‘sale’ of a nuc without the hassle of getting equipment returned

Sustainable nuc production for sale to beginners

I’m going to deal with this subject in more detail at a later date. Suffice to say that there is a shortfall in homegrown nuc production for sale to the large numbers of beginner beekeepers each year. In Scotland we know that this shortfall is about 20% (it was surveyed in winter 2015). Going by the number of nucs imported for resale (some even as ‘local bees’ – it’s time some of those involved in this were ‘named and shamed’), or queens imported to drop into made up nucs for early season sales, the shortfall in the UK is probably several thousand colonies. One way in which this might be addressed is to encourage beginners to acquire their nucs from their mentor in mid-season, rather than buying something in mid-April. This post is already too long so I’ll return to this in the future … but the bottom line will be overwinter more nucs and encourage beginners to acquire bees in mid-season, not in April.


Here in the east of Scotland the season is just properly starting … my spare time will soon be taken up with practical beekeeping rather than writing about it, so posts might get less regular, less frequent, less illustrated or less long. They probably couldn’t use less good written English. However, next week’s is already written and will automagically appear at the end of the month.

 

Supply and demand

I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the quality of beekeeping in the UK. I think the beekeeping associations – national and local – should do more to discourage imports, that they should strongly encourage rearing local bees, and that they should have more emphasis on promoting the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping in the UK.

This post was going to be called something like “Benefits of a ban” but I think the present title better reflects the problems in UK beekeeping and my views that readily available imported bees actually reduces the standard of beekeeping in the UK. The ban mentioned in the provisional title refers of course to a (potential at the time of writing) ban on the importation of bees and queens due to the recent discovery of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) in southern Italy.

Will there be a ban on imports and is this post relevant if there is no ban?

The European Union allows free trade between member states. However, it might be possible to impose a ban temporarily under Article 36 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows import restrictions for “the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants”. However, whether there is a ban imposed to prevent SHB entering the country or not, I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the standard of beekeeping in the UK.

Executive summary

This is a longer-than-usual article, so here’s a summary in four easy-to-digest points:

  • Thousands of queens and packages of bees are imported into the UK annually to meet the demands of; i) newly trained beekeepers, ii) beekeepers who lose stocks overwinter, or iii) beekeepers wanting to increase of improve their stocks.
  • Our temperate climate provides a five month window for queen rearing. This creates a supply and demand problem, with maximum demand at a time when supply is limited. Cheap imported bees and queens act as a disincentive to rebalance this supply and demand.
  • If imports were not available we would have to become better beekeepers, raising more nucs for overwintering, managing and meeting expectations for newly trained beekeepers, improving colony health and hence overwintering success and raising many more quality locally bred queens. Conversely, if the supply and quality of local bees and queens was better in the UK there would be fewer imports needed. We are in a Catch22 situation.
  • Sustainable UK beekeeping (i.e. beekeeping that is no longer reliant on imports) does not mean reductions in numbers of colonies or numbers of beekeepers. Instead it requires, and would result in, an improvement in practical beekeeping skills.

That’s it in a nutshell … however, if you want the unabridged version, read on.

Beautiful ...

Local bees

Introduction and disclaimers

I would support a ban on the importation of bees and queens … not only from Italy, but from other countries as well. My primary reason in supporting such a ban is to restrict the chance that Small Hive Beetle (SHB) will arrive here. I fully appreciate that there are some commercial beekeeping operations that would likely be decimated by such a ban. In particular, it would destroy the business model of the commercial suppliers of early season queens and nucleus colonies (nucs). This is clearly undesirable on an individual basis and I regret the impact a ban would have on the livelihood of the individuals concerned. However, I consider this business model exploits underlying weaknesses in UK beekeeping and a ban would have long-term benefits in the creation of better beekeepers practising a more sustainable type of beekeeping in the UK.

My support for a ban is not to increase the number of queens I sell each season. My queen rearing is very much a hobby-sized activity, limited by my full-time employment, unpredictable deadlines and regular absences on the conference circuit. In many seasons – 2014 being a case in point – I barely generated enough queens for my own use. I would gain nothing from a ban on imports. In contrast, I think UK beekeepers and beekeeping have a lot to gain from becoming more self-sufficient.

UK imports of bees and queens

Annual imports

Annual imports …

Thousands of queens raised overseas are imported to the UK every year. In 2014 alone nearly 10,000 queens were imported from Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Cyprus (only listing the countries from which >1000 queens were imported). In addition a further 580 nucs and 1402 ‘packages’ were imported. I’m assuming that the National Bee Unit (NBU) defines a package in the same way they do in the USA – a mesh-sided shipping box containing 1-2kg of bees and a caged queen. 2014 saw the greatest number of imports of the last 8 years and there has been a steady increase since 2007, with queen imports only numbering less than 5000 in 2011. Why is demand so high?

Demand

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Beekeeping has seen a recent rise in popularity, with hundreds of new beekeepers being trained every year in associations across the country. Many courses recruit 30-50 trainees each winter. Not all these fledgling beekeepers will end up getting their own bees – some accompany partners, some discover they’re allergic to stings and some are horrified the first time they’re suited up and standing next to an open hive – however, many of them do. Inevitably this generates a large demand for nucs early in the season to satisfy the enthusiasm of these new trainees. I was no different … I completed a course between January and March and then waited impatiently for a nuc to be ready. I bought a 5 frame nuc headed by an imported queen from an association member and started my beekeeping in mid-May. Demand for imports is likely to be generated by new trainees, compounded by the recent increase in the popularity of beekeeping and the timing of ‘Begin Beekeeping’ courses.

Annual colony losses

Annual colony losses

Over the last 7 years overwintering colony losses in England have averaged about 20% with – unsurprisingly – the greatest losses during the hardest/longest winter (2012/13). Inevitably some beekeepers, particularly those who are inexperienced or who have only one hive, might lose all their colonies. The most significant cause of overwintering colony loss is high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and the consequent high level of pathogenic viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus. Understandably, enthusiastic beekeepers want to replace their overwintering losses, again driving up demand for bees early in the season.

I think there are additional potential causes of demand, though these are perhaps spread throughout the season. These are beekeepers a) wanting to increase their stocks or b) improve their stocks by replacement of an existing queen with a particular strain chosen for perceived docility, honey yield or a number of other reasons. There may also be additional demand to replace failing queens – drone layers for example – often identified when the colony is first opened in spring. Enthusiastic newcomers to beekeeping (perhaps entering their second year) as well as beekeepers who have had bees for many years probably contribute to this demand for imported bees and queens to increase or improve stocks.

In addition to the demand from ‘amateur’ beekeepers there is additional demand from some bee farmers, by which I mean individuals who make some or all of their living from honey production and pollination services (rather than individuals who import bees for resale). For example, £200,000 was provided by the Scottish government to import package bees after the 2012/13 winter. I know some bee farmers are entirely self-sufficient, raising queens and nucs to make increase, to replace their own losses and to sell if there is excess. However, with the exception of the large number of packages imported to Scotland over the last two years I have no idea how many bee farmers are reliant on imports. Since hobby beekeepers far outnumber bee farmers I will restrict the majority of my comments to this sector – a group that presumably also includes all newcomers to beekeeping.

Supply

Where do bees come from? In the absence of imports the demand for new queens, nucs and colonies would have to be met by taking advantage of the natural ways that bees reproduce i.e. by splitting strong colonies that are at risk of swarming, by capturing swarms that escape and by forcing the bees to raise one or more new queens by making a colony queenless (or at least think it’s queenless). Since splitting colonies reduces the foraging workforce it may impact on the amount of honey generated; in a normal season a beekeeper generally must choose between making new bees or making honey from any one colony.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

The rate limiting step in making new bees is the provision of newly mated queens. This generally requires warm, settled weather and fertile drones. In this area (the Midlands) we sometimes have suitable weather in April, but rarely have mature drones until May. In contrast, it’s not unusual to have both drones and good weather in September. Therefore home-grown bees – whether mated queens, nucs (and possibly swarms) – should be readily available in the five months May to September. Inevitably these dates cannot be precise – it’s good to let a newly mated queen demonstrate a good laying pattern which takes 7-14 days after she first gets going. Over the last five years the earliest and latest dates I’ve had queens mated on was about the 22nd of April and September respectively.

Mid- to late May or early June is probably 4-6 weeks too late for the peak demand for new queens and nucs. It’s during this critical early season period that overwintering losses and failed queens are detected, it’s the time when keen new beginners want their first bees and when the more experienced want to increase their colony numbers to exploit on the summer flows. The supply of locally-raised bees is currently unlikely to meet this early season demand due to weather restrictions on queen mating.

How can we better match supply and demand?

Or, more importantly, how do we match supply and demand without resorting to imported bees and queens every year? This is unlikely to be solved overnight, but there are several very obvious solutions that would help both meet the demand and improve local beekeeping.

Matching supply and demand requires a combination of increasing supply and reducing demand at critical points in the season. Effectively this should result in supply and demand balancing out over the course of the season. I suspect that the overall demand for new bees and queens could be relatively easily met from locally, or at least UK-raised, bees and queens. However, our temperate climate limits supply at the time of current highest demand. This needs to be addressed to achieve sustainability in UK beekeeping. Dealing with the four types of demand identified above in turn, here are some potential solutions:

  1. Bees for beginners. One obvious solution would be for associations to only train as many beekeepers as they can realistically provide overwintered nucs for the following spring. This would have a number of immediate benefits. It would generate revenue for the association members who provided the nucs. The revenue might also be shared with the association who trained the new beekeeper – they after all ‘created’ the buyer – potentially offsetting the financial losses of a reduction in the total numbers taking the training course. Furthermore, as established members recognise the annual demand from new trainees and invest in the equipment and skills needed to provide the nucs, increased numbers of beginners could again be accommodated on winter training courses. Since the nuc would be provided from locally-raised bees, they should be from a trusted and disease-free source, suited to local conditions and they could be inspected before purchase. If the nuc was overwintered the queen would presumably be well-established and her quality would be obvious. If the nuc was generated early in the same season the beginner would have to wait a little longer, but could be mentored during this period, even working alongside the experienced beekeeper to generate the nuc and monitor its development. Mentoring of beginners and their nucs (and in due course colonies) should then be extended throughout the first season to include the important preparation for overwintering, which takes us to the second cause of high early season demand for new queens and nucs.
  2. Bees to replace overwintering losses. Some losses are perhaps inevitable. However, they can certainly be minimised by good preparation for the winter. This starts as early as midsummer by careful attention to the following points; queen vigour, colony health, stores and the hive. Taking these in the reverse order, it goes without saying that the hive should be watertight, secure and protected against damage (for example, from grazing stock or woodpeckers). There should be sufficient stores present in the hive, either from syrup or fondant fed early enough and generously enough for the brood box to be stuffed at the beginning of winter. Knowing  when to start feeding requires experience – too soon and you’re needlessly increasing your expenditure (the bees will still be foraging), too late and the colony may not lay down enough stores and so starve overwinter. During the winter it is also essential to ensure that the stores are not exhausted, by regularly ‘hefting’ the hive and providing fondant as required. It’s critical that the health of the colony is good going into the winter. This primarily means monitoring the Varroa mite numbers regularly during the season, minimising the mite load in August/September – to help raise a generation of bees for overwintering with low viral loads – and treating again in mid-winter during the broodless period to further reduce mite numbers. Weak colonies in mid/late summer are unlikely to overwinter well – there’s little point in mollycoddling them and (assuming they are healthy) it is almost always better to cull the queen and unite them with a stronger colony instead. The stronger colony will benefit and the weak colony, even if it did survive, would have been slow to develop in the spring. Finally, young vigorous queens generally lay later into the autumn, overwinter better and lay earlier and more strongly the following spring. Therefore it makes sense to replace ageing queens in the summer, rather than risk losing the colony due to her failing in the winter. This doesn’t necessarily mean culling her … she could be moved to head a nuc for overwintering for example, keeping a desirable line going for queen rearing the following season. Ted Hooper (in Guide to Bees and Honey) was a strong advocate of the benefits of young queens for overwintering success, recommending requeening in early September.
  3. Making increase. With a little planning and preparation it is possible to exploit the natural tendency of strong colonies to swarm in April-June to make increase. Although this might reduce honey yield it works with the bees to increase colony numbers. With experience, it’s usually possible to split a well-timed nuc from a strong colony without significantly impacting nectar gathering, with the nuc likely to build up to a full colony for overwintering. In addition, any area with reasonable numbers of beekeepers (and just look on BeeBase to see how saturated your local area is … there are 207 apiaries within 10km of my main out apiary) is likely to yield a number of swarms that will need collecting or can be caught in bait hives. If you divide colonies about to swarm or collect/attract swarms you might end up with swarmy bees, and you have no control of the quality of bees you acquire. However, queen rearing is not difficult and it is easy to requeen swarmy colonies or swarms of dubious quality … which takes us neatly on to improvement of stock.
  4. Stock improvement. Why is an open-mated queen purchased in early May for £40 and flown 1600 miles from Southern Italy likely to be better quality than a locally-bred queen from an association member or group who have been rearing queens in the area for several years, culling their poorest stocks and breeding from their best? Which queen is more likely to raise brood that suits the local environment? Which queen is likely to head a colony with the correct balance of stores and bees to overwinter best? Which queen is more likely, in due course, to yield daughter queens that better suit your local environment, that are placid and exhibit other desirable traits? I have no doubt that a locally raised quality queen would usually be better than an imported queen. However, not all locally raised queens are of good enough quality. This takes us onto the benefits to UK beekeepers of practising sustainable beekeeping.
Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Benefits of sustainable (i.e. no imported bees) beekeeping

If an imported queen cost £500 and package was double that there would be a healthy market for local bees and queens. It would be too expensive to rely on imports to make up for overwintering losses. Beginners would happily wait a week or two or three extra for a locally-raised nuc. What if they were even more expensive than that? What if they were priced beyond the reach of any beekeepers? Or what if imports of any bees were banned entirely? If this were the case there would be real pressure for UK beekeepers to generate sufficient numbers of good quality nucs and queens to meet demands throughout the season. This would involve more beekeepers overwintering nucs to make up losses, to make increase or to sell on in the spring. It would result in more beekeepers learning some of the easy methods of queen rearing (not those involving grafting, mini-nucs or instrumental insemination), so they could become self-sufficient, and would encourage individuals or groups to undertake active stock improvement to raise much better quality queens.

Overwintering Everynuc

Overwintering Everynuc

Nucs are more difficult to overwinter than full colonies. But not much more difficult. They have limited space for stores and the winter cluster is smaller. However, high quality poly nucs are now available from a number of suppliers and provide much better insulation to the colony, reducing the rate at which stores are consumed and increasing overwintering success rates. With UK-raised overwintered nucs costing up to £195 in recent years from reputable commercial suppliers the cost of the actual nuc would very soon be recouped even if sold on within the association at a more reasonable cost. If more beekeepers learned how relatively easy it was to prepare and successfully overwinter a couple of nucs it would go some way to meeting the early season demand for bees.

Record keeping

Record keeping …

Most swarm control methods can be readily modified to split a colony, with the queenless ‘half’ raising a new queen in due course. All it requires is a minimum of additional equipment, an appreciation of the timing of the egg-larvae-pupae cycle and the necessary weather and drones for successful queen mating. It also requires reasonable quality bees to avoid propagating unpleasant stock. There’s no point in generating bees that run frantically over the frames, that have a lousy brood pattern, that are aggressive or – my least favourite trait – that follow for hundreds of yards. Any of these take the pleasure out of beekeeping, if combined they are a nightmare (but certainly not unknown). This requires that individuals improve their record keeping, they should improve how they judge their colonies and should then select from their best stock to raise new queens. This doesn’t mean they necessarily have to split (and so weaken) their best colonies … it simply means taking a frame of eggs from their best colony and placing it into a well-populated nuc, then ensuring that queen cells are only raised from the introduced frame of eggs. These small changes in beekeeping practice will enable individual beekeepers to make increase without resorting to imported bees and will – over time – improve both their stocks and their beekeeping.

Queen rearing diary

Tom’s Tables …

Finally, relatively few individual beekeepers keep sufficient numbers of colonies to undertake rational or large scale queen rearing and strain improvement. I certainly don’t. I don’t know how many colonies would be required to start this process off but would suspect it would be at least 50 or perhaps double that number. However, beekeepers with even a handful of colonies can improve their stocks year by year. By routinely selecting from bees with desirable traits for queen rearing and rigorously culling queens with undesirable characteristics – I’ve heard it suggested that the worst 25-30% of stocks should always be requeened – the overall quality of the bees will improve. However, a small group of like-minded beekeepers would easily be managing the 50-100 colonies between them necessary to start more ambitious stock selection. The resources for actually raising queens are relatively limited and could be undertaken in several different apiaries if needed. They would need to agree the quality criteria to judge their colonies against and would need to undertake some joint inspections to decide the desirable lines to keep and the undesirable lines to cull. Groups working together like this already exist, for example several groups work like this in the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

Conclusions

Soft set and clear honey

One of the end products

Beekeeping is not difficult. It’s a hugely engrossing pastime in which the best results are achieved by working with the bees, not against them or by forcing them. Quick fixes, such as importing queens early in the season, reduces the requirement for good bee husbandry and the need to be observant and gradually improve your stock. Although I think that imports should be banned to limit the chances of small hive beetle reaching the UK, I think a far greater benefit of such a ban would be the resulting improvements in the quality of UK beekeeping. These improvements are not achieved by taking more exams or qualifications. They are almost all practical skills, readily acquired by observation, good record keeping, talking with your friends and learning from more experienced beekeepers already practising sustainable beekeeping.

I would like to see national and local associations more actively promoting the benefits of locally-raised bees. These are the organisations that should be coordinating efforts to become less reliant on imported bees, that should be teaching the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping and that will eventually also benefit from improvements in beekeeping in this country.


Additional resources

Readers interested in some of the ideas above should consider attending one of the BIBBA-organized Bee Improvement for All Days this winter. The goal of these workshops is to encourage “beekeepers of all abilities to improve their bees, using simple techniques without the need for specialist equipment“.

Michael Palmer gives a great talk on sustainable beekeeping. You can watch his talk (The Sustainable Apiary) at the 2013 National Honey Show on YouTube or perhaps see him in person at the Somerset Beekeepers 2015 Lecture Day on the 21st of February.