There have been a couple of stories in the press recently that have made me think about the idealised version of beekeeping that is often promoted … with the reality of a lot of amateur beekeeping 1.
Most recently was the announcement of the new CBBC show titled Show Me the Honey! which will be available at the end of this month on iPlayer.
Information is a bit limited at the moment. It’s clearly a programme featuring and for children. According the The Guardian it “features five children and their families taking part in a series of weekly challenges to create the best hive and tastiest honey, with the winner taking home the beekeeper of the year trophy”.
Undoubtedly this will increase interest in beekeeping. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, though the timing is a bit off. The seven week series will end with much of the winter left to run.
Will those watching who are captivated by the thought of keeping bees go for the ‘quick fix’ of an expensive mid-March nuc thinking “What can be so difficult? One of those kids became the ‘Beekeeper of the Year’ in just seven weeks”.
Or, will they do their homework, attend a Start beekeeping course with a local association, go to a couple of ‘bee handling’ sessions in the association apiary, find a mentor … and only then order a locally sourced nuc?
I’m pretty sure I know which route is more likely to produce a future ‘beekeeper of the year’ 😉
Just like Show Me the Honey!, my beekeeping often involves a set of ‘weekly challenges’.
- Where is my bloody hive tool?
- Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is “To find, mark and clip the queen in this double brood monster of a hive, bulging with psychopathic bees … before the rain starts”.
- Can I lift these three full supers together without causing permanent damage?
The concept of competitive beekeeping grated a bit when I first read about it, but the reality is that beekeeping can be competitive.
Think about the annual honey shows.
A bit of lighthearted entertainment for the end of the season?
Or a cutthroat affair, with lashings of deviousness and skulduggery to produce the best 1 oz wax blocks?
That sort of competition I can cope with, although I no longer partake as I’m a very bad loser.
And I lost … a lot 🙁
But think about what’s happened to climbing, and the huge success it was at the Olympics. The speed climbing event is probably now the fastest non-gravity-assisted 2 Olympic sport.
Perhaps the inevitable adult or celebrity spin-offs of Show Me the Honey! will involve speed inspections?
3 … 2 … 1 … GO!
With Martha Kearney doing the commentary … 3
The best hive
So let’s return to that quote from The Guardian … ‘the best hive’.
Are they going to start with a Thorne’s Bees on a Budget flatpack cedar hive, a mismatched pile of nails, a hammer and a set of IKEA-ish hieroglyphic 4 instructions?
Is the winner the one who gets everything square and true? Does beespace matter? What about injuries? 5
Or perhaps it will be to dream up ‘the best’ new hive design … and there’s lots of competition for that.
How about the urban-friendly 6 B-Box the ‘first ever beehive designed for home beekeeping’.
Hang on a sec … I’m currently at home.
Let me just check what’s in that blue and yellow box by the shed.
Yep … just as I thought. Bees. It’s a beehive.
Am I doing something wrong? Have I got a hive designed for beekeeping somewhere other than home?
There are some grand claims made for the B-BOX and the website is awash with buzzwords 7. I’m not sure the 16 small honey ‘supers’ would be sufficient during a strong nectar flow from the lime trees found in many cities.
These hives are about €480 (plus an extra €580 or so if you want a ‘swarm’ of bees with it … and I think they probably do mean swarm from the description. Yikes!).
Or what about this Philips design – another Urban beehive – that “consists of two parts, a tinted glass shell that houses the honeycomb frames and a flower pot with an entry passage to the glass vessel. You can then harvest the honey produced, simply pull on the smoke actuator chain to calm the bees before it is opened”.
I was sure that bees draw comb in a vertical plane?
This one is a ‘concept’ hive, so is effectively priceless.
Which would also be my reaction if I had to do a shook swarm on it 😉
I’m not sure that last hive is entirely practical.
Instead, how about this ‘robotic’ hive – or Beehome as they call it – from Israeli startup Beewise? This is a container 8 housing 24 colonies which are constantly monitored.
The technology is clearly pretty clever as they appear to be able (or claim) to:
- provide climate and humidity control
- monitor brood development on every frame of every hive
- apply pest control (non-chemical, but it’s not clear what) to control Varroa
- deliver swarm prevention by ‘changing the conditions in the hive’
- automatically harvest honey … when the 100 gallon tank is full the Beehome calls you to come and collect
When you think of some of the manipulations needed for successful swarm control you wonder – well, I wonder – how on earth a robot could do it by simply ‘changing the conditions in the hive’.
Their website shows a screenshot of an app displaying digital images of frames, together with schematics of the distribution of the various types of brood (capped/uncapped) and stores within the hive.
Very clever … though I do wonder whether the robot takes quite as much care as I do returning frames to the hive without crushing or rolling bees in the process.
I thought you’d never ask … $400.
At least, that’s the price quoted on the website. I’ve no idea if that’s ‘all in’, or if there are hidden costs involved, like custom frames, software licenses. If it is ‘all in’ and every hive generates a good crop of honey each season it seems very reasonable.
But, and this is a biggy as far as I’m concerned, it seems to to rip the soul out of all that is special about keeping bees.
It’s more like factory farming.
But, inevitably, it ‘saves the bees’ … so that’s OK then 🙁 9
Hives in reality
So those are the fantasy hives that the public read about in the newspapers and that adorn press releases.
Super-clean and shiny and described in glowing terms as bee friendly, bee-centric, sustainable, healthier or a nature-based solution.
In many ways these are what shape their expectation and understanding of beekeeping.
The reality is that bees do just fine in almost any relatively secure container.
Like a hollow tree.
Or a dustbin.
Or a variety of beehive types …
… including some that appear to consist mainly of gaffer tape.
Aesthetically perhaps less attractive, but perfectly functional.
I’ve discussed the concept of the ‘the best’ hive previously 10.
The 12-13 pages of different hive types in the Thorne’s catalogue describe a plethora of different sizes and designs. As long as they have the correct bee space and the boxes are broadly compatible – which really means flat interfaces – I’d be happy to keep bees in any of them.
Sure, some might suit my beekeeping a little better than others, but I reckon I’d do OK with them all.
But, of course, I’d want more than one … which is where the compatibility becomes critical. I’d inevitably end up mixing ‘n’ matching different boxes during swarm control, autumn uniting or simply when running out of equipment.
And it’s this reality that never appears in that glossy advertising on promotional websites. The ‘cobbling stuff together’ to make something that’ll do. In the picture above I’m uniting a queenless double hive with a queenright poly hive.
The poly hive is actually a bait hive built from two stacked supers. They are the Paradise/ModernBeekeeping design with an overhanging lip on the lower face, hence the thin, wide, wooden shim between the boxes.
And the crownboard is a piece of thick polythene.
All perfectly functional, but not quite as glossy, organised and coordinated as is often displayed in print or online 11.
But this neat, clean and pristine presentation doesn’t stop with the hives …
Suits you Sir!
What about the protective clothing?
If you look at the photos above you’d think you could harvest honey (from the B-BOX) wearing a T-shirt and jeans, or inspect your Philips urban hive in a slinky Christian Dior LBD.
The reality is a little less flattering.
Bees can sting, and agitated bees – with dodgy parentage or through sloppy handling 12 – can sting quite a lot.
As a quick aside, I note that one of the presenters of Show Me the Honey! has apparently been ‘keeping bees for 15 years and has never been stung’.
And now back to reality 😉
Beesuits aren’t particularly flattering.
Does my bum look big in this? … doesn’t even come close.
Everything … looks big in a beesuit.
And usually the beesuits are completely pristine, not stained with propolis, held together with gaffer tape or with pockets hanging off from hive tool damage 13.
The beesuit Angelina Jolie is wearing is what they typically look like in ‘fantasy beekeeping world’. No broken zips, no propolis staining, no pockets bulging with emptied queen cages and old gloves.
Those worn by the beekeepers around her are probably a bit more normal, though I also have a sneaking suspicion they’ve worn their ‘Sunday best’ beesuits for the photo op.
As another aside, Angelia Jolie is promoting the UNESCO programme ‘Women for Bees’. This teaches beekeeping and entrepreneurship to women in UNESCO designated biosphere reserves around the world. Further details also in National Geographic.
And it doesn’t stop there
I’ve had a great beekeeping year.
There have been some notable successes – in queen rearing and mating, in preparing nucs and in a really excellent honey crop.
However, it wasn’t all the clean, neat and tidy affair depicted in the press.
And, to be honest, parts of it could best be described as an omnishambles.
I’m being polite there.
Here are just a few examples where my beekeeping reality didn’t quite match the glossy, propolis-free, beautifully ordered and presented world of beekeeping fantasy.
- Wrenching my back during the spring honey harvest by trying to carry too many supers. I walked hunched over for a month and spent quite a lot of time lying flat on my back.
- Glenrothes – my base when beekeeping on the east coast. Underwhelming 14.
- Installing a ‘lively’ nuc in a full hive before securing my veil. No stings, but a pretty close call with several bees agitatedly struggling to escape the space they’d seemingly so easily entered.
- Lifting three supers off a hive in late July and carelessly 15 tripping over a hive roof. I dropped the lot and fell flat on my face. A very sticky mess but the bees were extraordinarily tolerant of my clumsiness.
- Sweating so much during July inspections that my gloves filled with perspiration and my wrinkly fingers stopped ‘unlocking’ the phone.
- Consequently dropping more queens in the grass than ever before. I was so cackhanded that it became unusual not to drop them on the ground before getting them into the marking cage.
- Watching a much-needed virgin queen fly off out of sight while – stupidly – trying to get her into an introduction cage with the shed door open. D’oh!
- Chasing another virgin queen around the shed – after closing the door 16 – for five minutes before getting her into a cage.
- Going half crazy trying to keep wasps out of cleared supers before stacking them in the car.
- The hole in the hive pocket and no trousers debacle. Enough said 🙁
- More lifting, more sweating, more wasps …
- The long evening drive back to the west coast, tired, dehydrated and smelling of smoke and propolis 17.
That’s the reality of a beekeeping season.
It’s been fantastic.
I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂
- Or at least my (rank) amateur beekeeping.
- Talk about stating the obvious.
- Though I’d perhaps prefer the droll delivery of Andrew Cotter “That really didn’t go well, did it?”
- I know that IKEA instructions are not written in hieroglyphs. More correctly they are wordless instructions. However, hieroglyphic has another meaning, that being enigmatic or incomprehensible symbols or writing, which is a near-perfect description.
- Severed finger, three points deducted.
- Whatever that means.
- If you’ll excuse the pun.
- As in shipping container.
- That’s greenwash – or, more accurately, hogwash – honey bees do not need saving as they’re not threatened.
- Spoiler alert … there isn’t one.
- Yes, Abelo, I’m thinking of the serried rows of perfectly coordinated yellow, green, blue and pink hives you regularly tweet about.
- Or, heaven forbid, both.
- Like mine.
- With apologies – and a healthy dose of sympathy – if you live in Glenrothes. I’m told there are more salubrious parts than depicted here.
- As opposed to carefully?
- I’d clearly not learned the lesson from the day before.
- And sweat.
We had our Taster Day last weekend and someone asked me what the time commitment for beekeeping is. My reply said that the fun stuff is far outweighed by the boring stuff. The fun stuff is checking on your bees and extracting honey. The boring stuff is making frames, building/repairing boxes, finding your queen, cleaning out your extractor and so on.
A lot of these things in the media just focus on the fun stuff, whereas most of the work of the beekeeper is in the shed.
You’re absolutely right … except for the bit about extracting being ‘fun’ 😉 Each year I enjoy the first spin … when that golden sparkly honey first flows out of the gate, through the sieve and then into the bucket. Magic. But ten supers later I’m bored, and ten supers after that I’m beginning to wonder why I ever started keeping bees in the first place. Several hours later it’s the same … but oh so much worse.
And after hours of repetitive drudgery I then have to clean the damned extractor 🙁
Amateur beekeepers work hard and fuss over their bees. I have nothing but respect for the incredible amount of work is involved in commercial beekeeping.
Finally, I find that frame making and queen finding can be turned into competitive activities … can I beat my record for knocking together 40 frames this afternoon? or I spy, with my little eye, the queen who is lurking between …. (drum roll) … frames 5 and 6. Quick, split the broodnest, is she there?
Loads of fun … even if it’s just me alone in the apiary … or the shed.
Haha – nice to hear that your queen handling skills are similar to mine! And yes, it is fantastic!
For whatever reason I’ve been worse than useless this season. I’ve marked a good number of queens, and I think I only lost that one virgin, but I lost count of the number I dropped at my feet and had to scrabble around to find. I had them walking up my arm and onto my shoulder, I’ve dropped them into the grass between my size 10 boots (Don’t move!) and I’ve searched around under the hives in the bee shed for them.
Am I getting the message?
Your descriptions of your of your omnishambles make me feel so much better! I regularly make cock ups and thought it was just me !!
I suspect 95% of readers of this site have something they’d perhaps rather not admit to in public about their beekeeping this year. There are several other things I omitted. Nothing truly ‘mission critical’, just a succession of clumsy, stupid or ill-timed events … all of which will be in my ‘soon to be released’ book entitled Slapstick Beekeeping.
And the other 5%?
That’s people like Angelina Jolie, Martha Kearney and that smart Italian couple with the B-BOX … the sort of glossy, un-propolised beekeepers who never make a mistake 😉
I always find your humor amusing, and the week especially so. Thanks for a good chuckle!
You’re welcome Yvonne.
Ha enjoyed reading this one immensley! Bees have become so fashionable and I do laugh at the celebs at work beekeeping in pristine suits 200 yards away from the hives and not a glimmer of sweat. We know the reality lol! Here’s to our bees surviving winter and maybe I’ll even wash my suit in daz ultra so it’s pristine for any photo opportunity that may arise.
I think you might need something with a bit more ‘oomph’ than Daz Ultra to get rid of the propolis. My suit goes through the wash very regularly … and it still looks pretty disgraceful.
Years ago I used to work with a scientist who kept a special white and ironed labcoat for press interviews. Maybe that’s what we’re doing wrong? We can have our daily, skanky and rather unsavoury suits for routine inspections, but as soon as the cameras appear we don the pristine white dazzlingly bright suit for the photo op.
Or maybe not … I seem to remember the scientist was the butt of a number of jokes because of that labcoat 😉
Perhaps it’s better to just be honest with ourselves and accept that beekeeping is – at times – hard physical work with a stingy workforce and a sticky product.
David thank you: I thought you would be amused by this flyer for a two hour course in the New Forest.
A interactive two-hour introduction to the art of beekeeping.
Our friendly beekeepers will provide you with all of the equipment required to safely manage hives, everything is provided. You will be given the opportunity to get suited up and pay a visit to New Park’s very own beehives.
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a complete course, or simply an introduction to what it’s like handling bees. If it’s the latter then I’m broadly in favour of people doing them before they splash out on all the gear – the hive, the suit and the bees. May go through the winter ‘Start beekeeping’ course with little idea of what it’s like to prize the crownboard up off a busy colony. It can be quite a shock. Far better that they experience this as part of a two hour introduction to bees, than after spending hundreds of pounds. Lots of people like the idea of beekeeping … not least because they’ve been fed an unrestricted diet of the beekeeping fantasy by the press. However, the reality is (as we all know) rather different, but still wonderful in its own way.
It’s just not swanning about in a pristine beesuit for a few minutes and then harvesting (without getting sticky or sweaty) loads of gorgeous honey to impress friends and family at the end of the season 😉
Such a funny article . Thank you .
It’s been my first year this year .
I bought one nuc and then collected a massive swarm . Absolutely tex book collection . Then I drove home in my Fiat 500 suited up with them on the back seat 💪
It’s been a wonderful year , both hives really doing well . I’ve got mixed feelings about this new show . It’s a serious thing keeping bees so I really don’t agree with trivialising it this way . I remember hearing Chris Packham saying everyone should get a hive , stick it at the bottom of the garden and leave the bees to it 🤦♀️. I was horrified . I’ve seen some really good programmes about keeping bees but I think this so called competition is ridiculous. Just my little opinion .
Congratulations on getting through your first season and enjoying things so much.
I’ll reserve judgement on the show until it airs and we see if it’s sensible or not. Although the winter show circuit is competitive, practical beekeeping is not (and in my mind shouldn’t be) … but there are many ways they could present it, some much better than others.
Of course, I’ll have to remember to actually watch it.
Without question you have to have a fascination with bees to pursue this along with a good dose of determination. The glamour ends quickly as you see hives being robbed of bees by wasps, deformed bees wandering aimlessly at the doorstep, and hives diminishing rapidly from fall to winter. Few keepers experience any of this until well into the purchase and start of the new adventure. My sense is why so many give up after starting. Those who hang in learn quickly bees keeping is not a “walk-away” proposition. Varroa, Nosema and other calamities rule the day. Even with careful study – and the help of people like David there is no replicating the “old-days” when bees were kept and allowed to do their “natural-thing”. Stick-em in a box in spring and come back in late summer to reap a reward. Far from it. Others know better but it takes years to develop the skills needed to handle the myrid of issues with today’s bees and even then failure lurks. It is no wonder so many start bee keeping and soon stop. May well be why those bee jackets look so sparkling clean.
Exactly … 🙁
Varroa and the boom/bust cycle of forage availability in heavily farmed land have a lot to answer for. Here on the west coast we currently have no mites and it’s one less thing to worry about. However, forage isn’t always plentiful and the weather can be – let’s say – testing.
It seems a pity so many stop so soon after starting. The basics aren’t hard to grasp but the detail and subtleties are never-ending (though not critical for starting out). I feel that one of the problems is that beginners are either encouraged or keen to try too many variables – a new method of swarm control, different mite treatments etc. Far better to learn one way and get really good at it, then try something new.
Or – heaven forbid – going treatment free before they can keep bees healthy with treatments … 🙁
Indeed. I have friends who for some reason just drag their feet on mite treatments despite me firing spreadsheet after spreadsheet at them showing just how difficult it is to control mites once they get a foothold (regardless of treatment method!). Both, like me, lost hives – more than once. Get a treatment program in place and work with it! I like your comment – “Learn one way and get really good at it” – best advice ever. Learn to walk before you run. As you know – Amatraz is hate to say it, “new” for me. Previously OA (spring and winter). Went to Formic (late-summer) disaster. This year Amatraz but unfortunately was not here to start when I wanted (mid-August). However, began Sept 2. In the “learning phase”. I have a good chance of getting most hives through – looking at the numbers but one hive is not looking well. You took my % infestation values from alcohol washes (1.3 to 3.7%) and suggested up to 1000 – 2000 mites could be in capped brood given the phoretic mite estimate at those %’s. A scary number given those were threshold numbers for collapse last season. I have one hive with a 951 mite board count as of today (average drop 48/day and a full 22-days into the treatment cycle – not good). One other hive is at 679 mites with an average drop of 34 – today 8! (encouraging). Fortunately I have 4 mid-late season NUC’s with good populations whose mite numbers are low to nil. The oldest NUC is at 260 mites so not bad! What I’m seeing so far is the trend that suggests – late season NUC’s have the least mites – which makes sense. 5 out of 6 hives are being treated with Amatraz (Sept 2 start). Given Amatraz does not kill mites under caps only time will tell how effective it will be. Currently 1-full brood cycle into treatment. I’m hoping to see a steep decline in mites over the next short while. I won’t hang my hat on the one hive. At 951 mites counted to date is not looking good – some what expected given your estimate of 1000-2000. Also DWV showed up today for the first time this season at that hive. A lovely strong hive – but Varroa is a killer. Imagine being a first time bee keeper. How to hang in there through all of this. Crazy.
The mite drop using Apivar can be a bit variable after the initial phoretic population are slaughtered. I presume that this is due to the variable rate at which new bees emerge, which in turn, reflects the laying rate of the queen and the mite infestation level. It would be an interesting thing to model (and then sanity check the results with real colonies) but probably beyond me mathematically and computationally.
Mind you … just working out how many 340 g jars I need for a 30 lb bucket of honey challenges me mathematically.
Maybe stop sending them spreadsheets but agree to keep an honest record of the overwintering success?
Is this for real? Angelina Jolie? In Australia we have similar TV shows, but not so celeb.
3rd year in beekeeping, still learning. Bees help me to connect to the alternative world, as opposed to hi-tech, artificial intelligence, controlling, glossiness, and fake success stories.
Do you think the bees on the show were following a script? Because mine never do.
Great sense of humour, David
Pleased you enjoyed the post … yes, Angelina Jolie promoted beekeeping for a UNESCO programme. She wasn’t taking part in the ‘competitive’ TV show. But who knows what might happen in the future. If you do a search for ‘celebrity beekeepers‘ all sorts of well known names turn up … how many of them actually keep bees, as opposed to simply being clickbait to generate more advertising revenue is unclear.
If you’re only in your 3rd year you have many, many more years ahead of learning. I’ve got a few more years than that but still rarely visit the apiary without learning something new.
And my bees also don’t follow the script … or any script sometimes!
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I removed the link to the site as it appears to be an almost complete copy of Dave Cushman’s website. I can find very little novel information on it. My understanding is that this was now maintained (and had been updated in places) by Roger Patterson. Almost none of the pages have any direct mention of either Dave or Roger. In fact, certain pages have been edited to remove content clearly attributed to them. My understanding was that Dave made his content freely available but – as a content producer myself – I don’t see how this extends to complete verbatim duplication with attribution removed. On the front page of Dave’s website Roger has added the text: The policy of this website has always be openness and will continue to be so. If you wish to use material you are welcome to do so, but please give a credit as follows – “Credit: Dave Cushman’s website”.
If I’m wrong then please correct me … the popularity of my site and one or two other ‘beekeeping blogs’ is a testament to the enthusiasm readers have for the subject. However, novel content is what’s needed. Things that improve our understanding, or pose new questions or otherwise extend this fascinating hobby/pastime/obsession. Not unattributed duplication.
You can read more about another case in which Dave Cushman’s website was duplicated here, together with a bit of history about that site which remains an outstanding source of primary information on many aspects of beekeeping.
I have been amazed by all the hard work you do to keep your colonies. In particular removing supers from apiaries on the East Coast , transporting them to the West Coast for extraction and then returning them to the East Coast. Wow! Presumably you then store them wet. Are there any precautions that you take storing wet in particular against wax moth. This is the first year I have tried to store wet. In the past I stored them dry but protected them spraying with Certan. This is no longer available in the UK due to action by the VMD (without ensuring there is an easily useable alternative). I think in the USA they use the new Certan and also Xen Tari. Any thoughts about storing wet? All rather messy!
It’s hard work without the travelling. The latter is a temporary arrangement. I used to live on both east and west coasts, but now just live on the west. I’m running down my colony numbers on the east coast … it’s just that the reduced number this year produced more honey than previous years (not just per hive, but in total 🙂 ).
I’ve written about Certan and alternatives that are available. These work well. However, with wet supers – assuming they’ve not been also used to rear brood in – I’ve not had any problems with wax moth. I’m storing almost all my supers wet this year. I will be checking drawn comb and brood frames for wax moth as I had some problems earlier in the year.
I just make sure my wet supers are stored in stacks that are sealed top and bottom. I’ve had more problems with wasps and bees trying to rob them than I have wax moth.
David, I have a bunch of your blogs lined up in my email to read. I am finally reading. I really enjoyed this one. Sorry it has taken so long to read. I am down to one bee partner, every one else has moved away or quit. I love him dearly but he is so rough with the bees that they are always pissed off at us. I am ready to whack him over the head with…a hive tool(?)…the smoker(?)…I have all winter to think about it.
There used to be a beekeeper who attended our association meetings who was extremely rough and sloppy with the colonies. Frames were simply dropped back into the box and squeezed together. Others were laid down flat on the top bars without giving the bees a chance to move aside. It was carnage. Anyone following him on inspections was always hammered by aggressive bees, even if the colonies were naturally pretty docile. The air was full of the scent of banana alarm pheromone.
No amount of coaching or advice made any difference. I think he was finally discouraged from attending. You have my sympathies.
Not sure if you’re asking for advice … I’d use the smoker 😉