2019 in retrospect

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is tomorrow. It will be a long time until there’s any active beekeeping, but at least the days are getting longer again 🙂 

The queens in your colonies will soon – or may already – be laying again.

What better time to look back over the past season? How did the bees do? How did you do as a beekeeper? What could be done better next time?

Were there any catastrophic errors that really must not be repeated?

Overview of the season

Overall, in my part of Scotland, it was about average.

But that, of course, obscures all sorts of detail.

Spring was warm and swarming started early. I hived my first swarm before the end of April and my last in early July. This is about twice the length of the usual swarming season I’ve come to expect in Scotland. However, it wasn’t all frantic swarm management as there was a prolonged ‘June gap’ during which colonies were much more subdued.

The summer nectar, particularly the lime, was helped by some rain, but the season was effectively over by mid-August. I don’t take my colonies to the heather. Overall, the honey crop was 50-60% that of the (exceptional) 2018 season.

Looking at the yields from different apiaries for spring and summer it’s clear that – despite the warm spring – colonies did less well on the early season nectar (~40% that of 2018). I suspect this is due to their being less oil seed rape (OSR) grown within range of my apiaries. The colonies were strong, but the OSR just wasn’t close enough to be fully exploited..

Over recent years the area of OSR grown has reduced, a trend that is likely to continue.

Winter oil seed rape – the potential is not obvious

The winter rape is already sitting soggily in the fields; I’ve chatted to a couple of the local farmers and will move some hives onto these fields if colonies are strong enough and the weather looks promising.

Bait hives

Every year I’ve been back in Scotland I’ve put a bait hive in the garden.

Every year it has attracted a swarm.

This year – with the extended swarming season – it led to the capture of three swarms in about 10 days. As the June gap ended the weather got quite hot and sultry 1 and the first swarm arrived near the end of that month.

One week after the first swarm arrived there was lots more scout bee activity. There were also quite a few dead or dying bees littering the ground underneath the bait hive. It turned out that these were the walking wounded (or worse) scout bees from two different hives fighting.

Gone but not forgotten

Within 48 hours another swarm arrived and I was fortunate enough to watch it descend.

Incoming!

I moved the hive that evening, placing another bait hive on the same spot. By the following morning there were yet more scout bees checking the entrance and a third swarm – by far the biggest of the three – arrived later that day.

Each was a prime swarm and none were from my own hives which are in the only apiary 2 within a mile of the bait hive.

Watching the scout bees check out a bait hive is always interesting. There’s a fuller account of the observations and lessons learnt – of which there were several – written in the post titled BOGOF (buy one get one free 😉 ).

Swarm prevention

My swarm prevention this year either used the nucleus method or vertical splits (with an occasional Demaree for good measure) for most hives. All prevented the loss of swarms and queen mating went about as well – or badly – as it usually does i.e. never as fast as I’d like, but (eventually) all were successful.

Split board

Split board …

I did miss a couple of swarms. One relocated underneath the OMF of the hive it originated from because the queen was clipped and, having fallen ignominiously to the ground, she just clambered up the hive stand again.

The second swarm was also not lost as I inadvertently trapped the queen on the wrong side of the queen excluder. D’oh! In my defence, I’ve had a rather busy year at work 3 and it’s little short of a miracle that I got any beekeeping – let alone swarm control – done at all.

Mites

Considering the extended June gap, which resulted in a brood break for some colonies, mite levels were appreciably higher this year than last. I think this can largely be attributed to the warm Spring which allowed colonies to build up fast. Several colonies were strong enough to swarm in late April.

I do a limited amount of mite counting during the season but also monitor virus loads in emerging bees in our research colonies. In most colonies these stayed resolutely low and no production colonies needed any mid-season interventions for mite control.

Poly Varroa tray from Thorne's Everynuc with visible mites.

Gotcha! …

Newly-arrived swarms were treated as were some broodless splits. The former because many swarms carry a larger than expected mite population 4 and the latter because it’s an ideal opportunity to target mites as – in the absence of brood – all will be phoretic.

All colonies were treated with Apivar immediately after the summer honey came off. At the same time they were fed copious amount of fondant in preparation for the winter ahead.

In late November most colonies were broodless and were treated with a vaporised OA-containing miticide.

What worked well

In what was a pretty tough year for non-beekeeping reasons even small beekeeping successes have assumed a significance out of all proportion to the effort expended on them.

In my first year or two of beekeeping honey extraction was an unbridled pleasure. As hive numbers increased it because more of a chore. An electric extractor marginally improved things.

However, there was still the never-ending juggling of frames trying to balance the extractor and jiggling of the unbalanced machine as it sashayed across the floor.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two years ago I purchased some rubber braked wheels to add to the extractor legs.

This year I finally got round to fitting them.

The jiggle-free revolutions were a revelation 🙂

I know some beekeepers who stand their extractors on foam pads. Others who have them bolted to a triangular wooden platform. I can’t imagine either solution works better than these castors, which also make moving the extractor to and from storage much easier.

I changed my hive numbering system this season. I’d previously referred to hives by position or with a number written on the box. This caused some issues with the (sometimes shambolic) way I do my beekeeping.

If the hive moves and it’s numbered by position then its number should change. Manageable, but a bit of a pain.

If the position does not change but they’re expanded from a nuc to a full brood box do they get a new number or retain the old one? A problem if it’s written on the box.

And what happens when you move queens about in the apiary (which we sometimes need to do for work)?

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

All hives and queens were assigned a number – small red discs for the queen and big, bold numbers for the box. They stay with the colony or the queen … and the records 😉

This has worked very well. As colonies expand the numbers move, if queens are moved I know from and to where (and keep a separate record of queen performance). When colonies are united the queenless component loses both the queen number and the colony number.

The numbering has been a great success. The numbers themselves less so. Most of the red discs have faded very badly and a few of the hive numbers have cracked and/or blown away.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

Never mind … the system works as intended and it has significantly improved my record keeping. I now know which hive and queen I’m referring to 😉

The Apiarist in 2019

I might squeeze in a more thorough overview of funny search terms and page accesses before the New Year. Briefly … there are significantly more subscribers and an increase of ~20% in overall page reads.

This year marks the sixth full season of The Apiarist which still surprises me. There still seem to be things to write about. Post length continues to increase, though the overall number of posts remain almost exactly one a week. Amazingly I’ve written nearly 95,000 words this year.

Words, words, words …

We had some server issues but most of these appear to have been resolved. Spam remains a problem and the machine auto-filters several hundred messages a day to keep my inbox only unmanageably overflowing. It has meant I’ve had to add some “I am not a robot” CAPTCHA trickery to the contact and/or comment forms. I’m aware that this has caused some problems making contact but can’t find an alternative solution that doesn’t swamp me in adverts for fake sunglasses, Bitcoins or Russian brides.

I live in Scotland and have no use for any of these things 😉 5

The year ahead

There are three main items on the ‘to do’ list for 2020 6.

The first is to start queen rearing again. Pressure of work has prevented this from happening over the last couple of seasons and I’m missing both the huge satisfaction it brings and the improved control over stock improvement. I’ve done lots of queen rearing in the past, but work has muscled its way in to too many weekends and evenings recently 7.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

I now have some perfectly adequate bees.

Actually, although they’re far from ‘perfect’ they are also far better than ‘adequate’.

I’ve got a couple of lines that have too much chalkbrood and almost all of them are less stable on the comb than I’d like. They don’t fall in wriggling gloops off the corner of the frame as some do, but they’re more active than I’d prefer. It’s a trait that has crept into some stocks over the last couple of years and I need to try and get rid of it.

The second is to provide better information on the provenance of my honey to potential and actual purchasers. There’s increasing interest in sourcing high quality local food and, as I’ve discussed recently on honey pricing, we should be aiming to provide a premium product (at a premium price 😉 ). The public are also increasingly aware that some of the major supermarkets have been reported to be selling adulterated honey. Providing details of the batch, the apiary and the area in which it was produced should help define it as a quality local product.

And generate repeat business.

Local honey

Finally, I’m planting up a new apiary on the west coast with dozens of pollen-bearing trees before I start beekeeping there. This has been a long and protracted process as it has involved clearing large areas of invasive rhododendron. The first 125+ native trees go in this winter – a mix of alder, loads of willow, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry. More will follow if I manage to stop the deer eating them all.

Only another few acres of rhododendron to clear 🙁

The new apiary is in a Varroa-free region so I will not be moving my current bees there, but instead sourcing them from other areas fortunate enough to be mite-free. This is a long-term project.

Bee shed #3 … bigger and better.

The trees will need a few years to mature but the bee shed (bigger than all that have gone before 🙂 ) foundations are finished and the shed will be assembled sometime in March.

Holibobs

The holiday period is almost here. Many beekeepers will be thinking about fondant top-ups and oxalic acid mite treatment. I’ve done the latter already and – if your colonies are also broodless – hope you’ve done the same. All my hives remain reassuringly heavy but as the weather warms and brood rearing gears up I’ll have some fondant ready ‘just in case’.

I’ve covered last-minute beekeeping gifts in previous years. I think the (digital edition) American Bee Journal remains good value and provides a different perspective for UK beekeepers of what happens in the US.

And with that I’ll pour another glass of mead red wine 8 and wish you all Happy Christmas/Holidays (delete as appropriate).

David


 

Footnotes

  1. For the East coast of Scotland … those of you living in Kent would have said it was ‘warm’.
  2. I’m aware of … but it’s a tiny village.
  3. Since someone accidentally burnt my laboratory down in February …
  4. And I usually have no idea where they came from … so they’re initially quarantined.
  5. Or have them already.
  6. That’s in addition to the million and one things that normally occur during the beekeeping season.
  7. And almost completely in 2019.
  8. I like my bees, I’m a bit fanatical about my beekeeping, I enjoy the products of the hive … but I make pretty rubbish mead.

28 thoughts on “2019 in retrospect

  1. trishbookworm

    Ah yes, naming hives and queens! I have also been reduced to a name for the queen and one for the hive – but it’s the hive position, not its actual box. For naming the queen, I am using the maternal line. And genetics terms! So, Minnesota Hygenic founding mother is MH0. Daughters are MH1A-?. If MH1A has a daughter, her name will be MH2A. It’s not very poetic. 😉 But I knew that naming in a more lyric manner would very shortly drive me nuts. Sure, there could have been the “greek line”, the “shakespearean line”, etc, but I just don’t have time. Maybe if I ever find a bee heaven to move my apiary to – fewer bees around, and plant my own selection of nectar sources… then I can get poetic!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Some name their queens but I have too many … I also struggle to remember names at the best of times. I’m also not sure how my better half would react to me waxing lyrical about Doris being really lovely or whatever. So, numbers it is, and that’s a big improvement on what went before.

      I have had a few queens that could have been named Lady Macbeth, Sycorax, Goneril or Tamora …

      Happy Holidays!
      David

      Reply
  2. Archie McLellan

    Hello David

    Actually I haven’t read your post yet. I just want to be the first to say how delighted I am that you’re writing a monthly Q&A for the BBKA magazine. That was unexpected. I’ve noted your comments over the years (that you’re not in touch with the BBKA etc having pledged your allegiance to the SBKA). Something made you turn and I doubt it was the fee. I hope you realise that sleep will now have to go.

    All best and Merry Christmas
    Archie

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Archie

      The BBKA column features next week – or will when I’ve written it 🙁

      It’s not that I wasn’t in touch with the BBKA. I think their insurance doesn’t apply in Scotland, whereas the SBA (obviously) does.

      Needless to say, the fees are outrageous. But not in a good way. Or existent 🙁

      However, I’ve recently managed to leverage 40% extra time every week so am quietly confident I’ll be able to deliver some answers (if I receive any questions).

      Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year
      David

      Reply
  3. James Reid

    Hi David
    I am intrigued to hear you are planning to start a west coast apiary. I have just moved from West Yorkshire to the outskirts of Ayr and am planning to start my new apiary there. Is yours anywhere near or is it in the far north-west? How far north you have to go before varroa fears to tread?
    Have a good festive season. I’m sure you will be recording all the alcohol units for each glass of red wine – not.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi James

      We’re on Ardnamurchan … so a long way North (and West) of Ayr. The Scottish Beekeepers Association used to have a map of Varroa distribution but I can’t find it at the moment. You need to go a long way North and West to avoid the mite. Colonsay of course is free, as is (or was) the Isle of Man. I think parts of Mull and Skye are free, as are Orkney and/or Shetland. I think there are mites around Ullapool. However, don’t take this as gospel … I need to do some more homework.

      Even if there are mites in some of these regions the density of beekeepers (number per square mile, not their intellectual abilities!) is so low that mite management is significantly easier. Even here in Fife it’s much easier to control mites than it was when I lived in the Midlands and there were bees on almost every field.

      I count mites in the winter, not wine 😉

      Happy Christmas
      David

      Reply
      1. KT

        Dear David,

        I’m new to beekeeping and following your blog – thanks very much for mentioning the responsible beekeepers approach to moving to a varroa free area on the West Coast! I keep bees in one of these areas and it’s a different game to the apiary I have in the varroa area. Your local bee club (Lochaber) is setting up a varroa free areas map in 2020 to help guide incoming beekeepers… the club is also valiantly trying to produce enough local nucs for beginners and relocating keepers this summer – some of these from the v-free zone – to help reduce risk of spreading it any further. Look forward to hearing more on your new apiary in future posts!

        Best wishes for 2020 ventures.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello

          I’m a member of Lochaber BKA (as of about 12 months ago) but my peripatetic life means I’ve yet to find time to attend a meeting. All this changes in 2020 … partly because I’ll be spending a lot more time on the west coast and partly because I’m speaking there on the 22nd of February … the topic currently eludes me and it’s quite possible that I’ve not suggested one yet.

          It’s very irresponsible to take mite-infested colonies to Varroa-free areas. Once this happens there is no going back. I’m delighted that Lochaber BKA are both mapping the presence of the mite (the Scottish BKA ‘mite map’ is woefully out of date now) and trying to produce nucs to meet local demand. Once I have bees here I expect contribute to the latter once I’ve built up my stocks.

          With Best Wishes for 2020
          David

          Reply
  4. Andrew Cameron

    Hi David, just a quick note to say thanks for all your knowledgeable blogging. I found your site at the beginning of this year by accidental bee related surfing on line and was even more chuffed to see your locality to me even more relevant to my own Bee Keeping journey. I look forward to each blog and find the information you pass on very helpful. Hopefully I will have x 8 hives in 3 sites around ” Muchty” from Spring next year, if all continues to go well over the first winter, good luck with new West coast venture, Andy

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Andy

      There’s some good spots for forage around ‘Muchty and you’re out-of-range of my bees which is good for both of us. It looks as though there’s a reasonable amount of OSR for next year so I’ll have some colonies there as well as my usual 2-3 apiaries, all of which are East of you.

      Geographically you might be the closest beekeeper to benefit, or at least read, this site 😉

      I hope the winter goes well for you. I’ve just checked some more colonies and they’re nice and heavy with good levels of bees just about visible at the top of the cluster. I’m looking forward to the season already.

      Have a great Christmas
      David

      Reply
  5. Kevin

    Here’s to an even higher verbocity score in 2020 and enjoy the glass of wine – your weekly posts are one of the highlights of the week. Happy Christmas and “Slàinte”.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Kevin

      I’ve just made a few arrangements to free up some time to ensure I can do a bit more beekeeping in 2020 and, perhaps, even write about it. 1500-2000 words a week is pretty tough going at times … there’s only so many ways you can say “monitor mites, treat appropriately, keep good records, squishing queen cells is not swarm control!”.

      Happy Christmas
      Slàinte mhath
      David

      Reply
  6. Fred

    very similar to season in n ireland, honey ended up 40 % down on 2018 (which was exceptional, to be fair). had to feed colonies in June, which was a first for me. made attempts at queen rearing mid May thru June but most queens failed to get mated through poor weather (cold and windy) , early July weather picked up just enough for some honey and better q mating but overall it was stop/start and colonies never really powered on. Huge wasp problems Aug-Sept. season ended abruptly late July tho there was a bit of ivy later on which again was limited by weather. Overall it was a case of just trying to keep the colonies going and hanging on for next year. You can’t beat the weather!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fred

      “You can’t beat the weather” and “Squishing queen cells is not swarm control” should be the first two things new beekeepers learn. You have to work with, or at least around, the weather. You need a simple and reliable strategy to control swarming. You need at least two hives. Once you’ve achieved that it’s relatively easy.

      Ha! Famous last words.

      Here’s hoping that 2020 is a good one for the bees.
      Happy Christmas
      David

      Reply
  7. max

    Always a good read.
    We should be in the middle of a busy honey season but this year is far from “normal”.
    Living in Australia always has it’s challenges but 2019 had a few more than normal.
    We had a bushfire about 3km away from us. It has been extremely dry with no good rain for many months. But I’m in Queensland and our wet season is still ahead – we hope.
    Think of our friends in the Southern states: lives lost, many houses burned, record heat, extreme dry and in NSW about 2.9 million ha’s of land – mostly bush – burned.
    It will take people years to get back to normal.
    There is always somebody worse off then you.
    Count your blessings

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Max

      The Australian bush fires were covered on the news at lunchtime today. It sounded like a nightmare. As you say, it will take years to recover. However, the environment is remarkably resilient and wildfires are, or were, a normal part of the yearly cycle in many areas (not just Australia, the same applies to the USA). Clearly what’s happening now is extreme and there’s the additional concern that climate change will restrict recovery. The human and animal lives lost and the impact on those fighting the fires, or exposed to the smoke for weeks at a time, are of greater concern.

      Particularly at this time of year, as you say, it’s always worth reflecting that there are always people worse off. And try and do something to help them.

      I hope the rains come soon (and you won’t often read that on a beekeeping website).
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Mark Riches

    Hi David , I would just like to say how much I have looked forward to and have enjoyed all your posts throughout this year. I appreciate the commitment that you make to your postings all year through, it’s almost become a public service to us beekeepers who follow (no pressure). I often refer back to you articles for reference. Although I am not new to beekeeping am by no means an expert, and will never stop learning new stuff about how amazing the honey bee is , and the new ways and practices in the husbandry of the same, it would probably be very boring if we knew it all.
    All the research that is done by yourself and others globally is such a valuable resource for all and will I am sure continue to grow and expand.
    Keep up the good work and have a good Christmas and a happy bee year.

    Kindest regards Mark Riches, Norfolk beek.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Mark

      I’m also not new to beekeeping and I’m far from an expert … I hope to continue learning.

      Happy Christmas 🙂

      David

      Reply
  9. Steve Donohoe

    Quote: 1500-2000 words a week is pretty tough going at times … there’s only so many ways you can say “monitor mites, treat appropriately, keep good records, squishing queen cells is not swarm control!”.

    Very true! I try to do 1,000 words per week (i.e. one post) but my digressions away from bees are probably increasing as I run out of things to say about our six legged friends. Season greetings 🙂

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Steve

      Although there’s only so many ways to discuss those topics, there’s no shortage of other topics that I’d like to cover. The problem is finding the time to write. However, I’ve just made the necessary arrangements to extend the time I have for beekeeping (and writing, walking, photography, canoeing, fishing, sailing, wildlife and birdwatching) by about 40% a week.

      The odd thing about writing about beekeeping is that the part of the season you have the most spare time (winter) is the time when there are the smallest number of readers. Conversely, in midsummer, when I’m running around like a headless chicken controlling swarming and rearing queens and carrying full supers, reader numbers are maximal.

      Busiest when I have least time

      Perhaps I should write a beekeeping blog for the Antipodes?

      Have a great Christmas
      David

      Reply

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