Principles and practice

There’s a high level of ‘churn’ amongst new beekeepers. Beekeeping is relatively easy and inexpensive to start. The principles of beekeeping appear straightforward. But large numbers of beginners give up after a season or two.

Here I argue that the colonies and hives some of these beginners abandon pose a threat to other beekeepers, sometimes for years …

A better appreciation of the commitment required to successfully practice the principles of beekeeping might increase the success rates of beginners, though it might also dissuade some from starting in the first place.

Save the bees, save humanity

Supermarket bees

Supermarket bees …

Bees are popular. You only need to visit the supermarket, spend time on the High Street or browse the web, to find bees or pollinators mentioned. The plight of the honey bee is extensively documented in the press. In places some of these references are little more than thinly-veiled adverts … there are any number of beers or ales that now include ‘local honey’ to support bees and beekeeping.

So, public awareness is high.

A good thing

In some ways this is a good thing. The public are aware that, for a variety of reasons, our honey bees (and other pollinators, but I’m going to restrict myself to honey bees for the remainder of this post) are facing real problems. Habitat destruction, monoculture, disease, farming practices, global warming, mobile phone masts, parasites, imports and – the current favourite – neonicotinoids, are all/solely (delete as appropriate) to blame for the problems faced by our cute little bees.

Monoculture ... beelicious ...

Monoculture … beelicious …

It’s a good thing because you might get to sell more local honey which, as a consequence, means you’ll look after your bees carefully and manage them to make more honey next year. It’s a good thing – and I’ll declare a vested interest here – because the Government is encouraged to spend money on research to discover what the real threats to honey bees are (hint, it’s probably not mobile phone masts). This money will also help develop ways to mitigate these threats in due course.

There are a lots of other reasons why it’s a good thing. People are designing bee-friendly gardens, they’re planting wild-flower meadows, they’re reducing pesticide usage and favouring biological control or other pest management techniques. Farmers are being encouraged to leave wide field margins or build beetle banks … and some might even be doing this.

Too much of a good thing?

Some people are so concerned about the plight of the honey bee they decide to do the obvious thing and buy a hive and bees for the bottom of their garden. Obvious, because they’ve increased the number of hives and they’ll be getting lots of delicious honey at the end of the summer.

Some attend a winter ‘start beekeeping’ course (or fully intend to next year, once they’ve kept bees for the current season). Some think they’ll be OK with generous offer of telephone support from the person who sold them a midsummer nuc.

Others do this without any training, without any advice and without anyone to mentor them. 

What could possibly go wrong?

These new beekeepers are certainly well-intentioned. They fully intend to help bees. They really think they’re going to help. They love the idea of their own local honey.

Unfortunately, although many might think they appreciate the basic principles of keeping bees, they know very little about the practice of beekeeping.

Principles

Actually, the principles of beekeeping are a little more complicated than buying a hive, dumping a nuc into it and harvesting the honey at the end of the season.

The bees need to be fed when there’s a dearth of nectar, or in preparation for winter. They need to be protected from pests and diseases. They need space to expand. They need to be monitored in case they’re thinking of swarming. If they are, action is needed. And all this needs to be regularly and repeatedly checked throughout the Spring and Summer.

In short, they need to be properly managed. This management is the practice of successful beekeeping.

Without proper management I’d argue that one of the biggest threats to bees and beekeeping is the unmanaged colony (or hive) lurking in the corner of a field.

Practice

It’s easy to overgeneralise here. The following paragraphs are really describing beekeepers in their first few seasons. Experienced beekeepers can modify their management practices to one that suits their bees, environment, climate and strategy. Bear with me.

Inspections need to start before colonies build up too strongly in the Spring. Queens should ideally be found and marked (and clipped in my view, but some prefer not to do this). Inspections continue at 7 day intervals until the swarming season is well and truly over.

Not 11 day intervals … not when “the weather is better than today”, not when “I get back from the  fortnight in Crete”, not when “I can be bothered” … and certainly not only when “the neighbour is angry about the swarm clustered on their garden swing”.

Inspections have to be conducted thoroughly and with a purpose. It’s not a cursory glance in the top of the box. There’s a reason you’re doing it, so do it well.

Inspections must be done even if it’s 32°C in the shade and you’re melting in your beesuit, when the bees are stroppy as the OSR has just gone over and there’s no nectar coming in, when the weather is (again) miserable and all 50,000 will be ‘at home’ (and possibly tetchy as well) and even if you think “surely they’ll be OK for another day or two?”.

They probably won’t.

Hard labour

Beekeeping is hard work. If you’re lucky and the supers are bulging full it can be backbreaking.

You have to work reasonably fast and carefully. Manage only one of these two and, for different reasons, inspections can become tiresome.

You will get stung, though not often if you’re fast and careful and if you have well-tempered bees.

It can be hot as hell in summer and you can get wet, miserable and cold at any time of the season.

Uh oh ... swarming ...

Uh oh … swarming …

It’s not only physically hard, it is also mentally hard. Not like quantum physics, but it still requires quite a bit of thought. Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Using a combination of observation, experience and knowledge (and perhaps a little inspired guesswork) you need to determine what’s going on in a forty litre box containing over 50,000 bees. Is there disease present? Is it one you can do anything about? Is it notifiable? Is the queen present and laying well? Is the colony thinking of swarming (hint, a dozen sealed cells is usually an indication the colony has swarmed, not that it’s thinking of swarming 😉 ). Do they have enough stores? Do they need more space?

You need to be prepared for disappointment (and have a contingency plan). Despite your best efforts the colony may swarm. An extended period of lousy summer weather prevents the new queen from getting mated properly. The colony dwindles, is too weak to defend itself and is robbed out by another colony. Any number of things can go wrong.

Bees are managed, not domesticated.

That’s the reality of beekeeping. That’s the practice that underlies the principle of just dumping a nuc of bees in a box in late April and harvesting pound after pound of golden honey in early September.

If only it were that simple!

Beeless “beekeepers”

I regularly meet people who ‘once kept bees’. I’m sure you do to. Further discussion often shows that they certainly once had bees, but that they failed to keep them.

The colony died, was robbed out, repeatedly swarmed, absconded or – much more frequently – these beekeephaders simply lost interest.

Often they aren’t actually sure what happened to the colony. Have you ever asked them?

Their initial enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the first couple of inspections. The colony was getting much bigger, much faster than their experience made them comfortable with. They got a bit frightened but wouldn’t actually admit that. They missed an inspection (or two) as they were in Crete for the family holiday. The colony swarmed. They’d read somewhere that the colony shouldn’t be disturbed for a month, so they didn’t. They remembered again three months later but were then too late for the autumn Varroa treatment. Have you got any fondant to spare? They’ll have another go next year.

Definitely.

It’s not unusual for these hives to be simply abandoned. You find them in the corners of fields or tucked up against the hedge in a large sprawling garden.

Out of sight and out of mind.

Forgotten, but not gone

Forgotten, but not gone …

The gift that keeps on giving

Sometimes the colony limps on for a season or two. More often though it expires in the winter. The hive may then be repopulated the following year by a swarm. They flourish, or more likely perish and are repopulated again. Even if mice move in for winter and wax moth trashes the comb they still attract swarms.

duunnn dunnn ...

duunnn dunnn …

There’s a dozen or more hives like this on private land I know of. Some local beekeepers visit every year or so to collect any swarms that have moved in. I can’t imagine the state of the comb … or the colonies they collect.

But (queue Jaws music … duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn) these abandoned and unmanaged hives mainly provide a great opportunity for Varroa to flourish. Together with both the foul broods, Nosema and goodness knows what else.

The abandoned hives effectively act as bait hives, attracting swarms which become established feral colonies. Most will eventually be decimated by Varroa and its viral payload, but many will chuck out a swarm or two first, or drones that drift from colony to colony. Some will get robbed out as they collapse – perhaps by one of your strong colonies – leading to a huge infestation with phoretic mites carried by the returning robbers.

They’re like a 40 litre cedar version of Typhoid Mary.


† And my extensive market research suggests they are very delicious too 😉

‡ After all, there’s no time like the present to start and the sooner you buy and populate that lovely cedar hive, the faster honey bee colonies numbers will increase. But they will definitely attend the beekeeping course next winter. Absolutely!

Telephone support. Really?! Have you ever tried to give telephone advice to a new beekeeper who’s standing by an open hive, mobile clamped to their ear, desperately looking for eggs, or deciding whether the queen cells are capped or uncapped? I’ve tried … don’t bother. Grab the beesuit and get to the apiary 😉

There are others I know of and have access to. The entrances to these have miraculously become stuffed tight with grass, so preventing their repopulation. How did that happen? 😉

A poor analogy, but it makes the point. Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was an Irish immigrant  New York cook in the early part of the 20th Century. She was also an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, a bacterial infection. During the period 1900-07 she infected at least 51 people, three of whom died. Investigative epidemiology traced a series of typhoid fever outbreaks to places where Mary Mallon worked. She was named Typhoid Mary in a 1908 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon refused to accept that she was infected, was forcibly incarcerated (quarantined) twice and eventually died after three decades of isolation. The analogy is poor because Mary Mallon appeared in good health, whereas these abandoned hives (and the bees they contain) are often pretty skanky. However, the term “like Typhoid Mary” is often used to indicate a source of repeated infection … which is spot on.

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Principles and practice

  1. Kevin O'Neill

    Great post
    I nearly gave up in spite of theory and practical over 16 weeks.

    My analogy is it’s like taking home a puppy – research what dog you want – chose wisely as the real work starts when you get home and be prepared for ongoing work
    I’m now a third year ‘keeper’ and learnt as much by the mistakes you point out than any course prepared me for
    Thank god for a mentor ( John & Martin)

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Kevin
      Good mentoring is priceless and – I suspect – more beginners get to experience some of the pleasures of beekeeping a bit faster.
      We all learn from our mistakes … many mistakes in my case, though few real catastrophes.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Megan Wannarka

    Wonderfully written as always! I don’t understand why articles like this isn’t mandatory reading for new beekeepers. If you want to help bees, plant flowers first, find your nearest beekeeper second, and then keep planting flowers. You’ll see enough other wonderful ‘new to you’ insects that it might be more fun than beekeeping or bee-having itself.

    Keep up the great work and writing!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Megan
      I certainly think it’s worth highlighting the hard work that’s involved at certain times of the season. It does repay the effort though … but many want the benefits, not the hard work. I agree that – for those – planting flowers would be a better choice 😉

      Reply
  3. Nicola

    What a great article. It certainly chimes with me as someone who has taken the beginners’ course at their local beekeeping association but who has hesitated about taking on bees due to the commitment it needs. The media portrays beekeeping as someone in a beekeeper’s suit and beautiful jars of honey and not much in between. But I’m only delayed rather than deterred from beekeeping – please keep the articles coming!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Nicola
      The commitment and hard work are certainly downplayed … but, as a beekeeper, it’s not something I ever really think about as I love working with bees. I suspect it’s the same for others. Don’t worry about the commitment … embrace it, get a good mentor and try. If it’s not for you, you’ll know you gave it your best shot.

      I think beekeepers have a responsibility that’s also rarely discussed – to their bees, to local beekeepers and to their neighbours. This article really highlights the responsibility to these … it’s not too onerous, but it is a responsibility and needs to be taken seriously.

      Enjoy your beekeeping when you start … just taking the beginners course will have been a great help.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Calum

    Reading about Tom Seeleys Studies of wild population studies (American beekeeping journal Nov 2017 page 1183) there is evidence that after the initial crash wild populations survive without intervention at about pre varroa levels. But yes they can be a source of re-invasion though good beekeeping will counter this easily.
    BR
    Calum

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum
      I’ve discussed Seeley’s studies on the Arnott Forest ‘feral’ colonies before. They are self-sustaining, but only as a consequence of existing as small, well-separated and very swarmy colonies. Studies of feral colonies in the UK show high levels of Varroa and viruses. I suspect that we haven’t really determined the importance of these types of colonies in maintaining foulbroods in the environment yet … beekeepers can manage mites pretty easily, but the foulbroods are a more serious threat.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Simon

    I agree with much of what you are saying about the effort that needs to be put in to keep Bees however, from what you are saying, all colonies without a beekeeper should be got rid of because of the Typhoid Mary effect.

    Is that true of all feral colonies then? Get rid of all of them because only the human knows best how to keep Bees with varroa and viruses?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Simon
      I don’t think I said anywhere that feral colonies should be destroyed. However, the evidence that feral colonies are potential sources of disease is very clear. Catherine Thompson published a study of parasite and pathogen loads in managed and feral colonies and showed that “feral honey bees contained a significantly higher level of deformed wing virus than managed honey bee colonies”.

      Varroa and the viruses it transmits are a consequence of anthropogenic activity – probably predominantly “driven by trade and movement of honeybee colonies” and there’s currently no well-documented evidence to suggest that feral colonies are any better able to cope with the ravages of Varroa.

      Beekeepers need to be aware of these facts and take appropriate action. At the very least this would be to treat all swarms (of unknown or doubtful provenance) with great caution. I’d also prefer abandoned, potentially disease-ridden, hives were removed and destroyed (the hive, not the colony!). That way, swarms might be more likely to end up in a bait hive of a beekeeper willing and able to control their Varroa levels … because, yes, beekeepers know how to do this better than the bees currently do.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Sandra Wilson

    Great topic. I finished a basic bee keeping course in June which included a mentoring program. I still feel this first year with my own bees is challenging with lots of ‘firsts’ but being a member of a local beekeeping association means support is still there when needed. I wonder if these one day courses or tasters in beekeeping really do anyone any favours? A basic beekeeping course isn’t mandatory (but perhaps it should be for the bees sake) but it certainly is highly advisiable in my opinion. For those really serious in keeping bees it is a worthy investment of time and money, tackling and preventing the reasons why so many beekeepers give up and equiping you properly for the task.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Sandra
      It sounds as though you’ve had a very good (and supportive) introduction to beekeeping. I hope you continue to enjoy it.

      I think the ‘taster courses’ and one day courses are potentially very useful. Some people attend the winter theory courses (or don’t), buy a nuc in the Spring and then are overwhelmed when they actually open the box. A rapidly expanding colony in late May or early June can – for inexperienced beekeepers – be rather daunting. These ‘taster days’ should give the potential beekeeper an indication of what he/she is taking on. Far better that they spend £25 and find out it’s not for them, than £250+ … only to discover too late. These are the colonies that get abandoned, forgotten or ignored.

      Many beekeeping associations also rely on the income from these training days to boost the club coffers to pay travel expenses for speakers or get the apiary shed repaired. They also provide an important public education function.

      However, they’re no substitute for good mentoring over a full season … which sounds like what you’re getting.

      I hope your bees do well through the winter and that 2017 is a great season for you.
      David

      Reply
      1. Sandra Wilson

        thanks David..and for reminding me about the good points about taster sessions but potential beekeepers I hope are discouraged from starting beekeeping after such short introductions. I attended one myself before doing the BB course. It was really useful for educating the public and raising an understanding of beekeeping for sure. Good wishes to you to for 2018.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Sandra … I meant to add … of course, associations that run winter ‘starter’ courses, or ‘taster days’ during the season, but that do not provide any proper mentoring or other support are abandoning new beekeepers when they most need help. In these cases the association is simply taking advantage of the current popularity of beekeeping to fill its coffers. These probably also do little to provide ‘homegrown’ local nucs for new beekeepers, so driving up demand for cheap, early imports. I think there are better ways to train new beekeepers.
          Cheers, David

          Reply

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