Category Archives: Training

The most fun you can have in a beesuit

Synopsis : Queen rearing is enjoyable and educational. Don’t let the experts put you off. You don’t need to graft day-old larvae to rear queens.

Introduction

A long time ago 1 I bought, read and re-read Ted Hooper’s excellent book Guide to Bees and Honey. Every time I read it I’d find something I’d missed the last time and, even now, there are nuanced comments I think I am only now beginning to understand.

I’m exaggerating slightly when I say ’read and re-read’ as there was one chapter I pretty-much skipped over each time.

That was the chapter on queen rearing.

What put me off?

It was probably his description of opening queen cells with the tip of a penknife to check how far development had progressed, re-sealing the cell and returning the frame to the hive.

She’s gone …

I knew enough about bees to know that the future success of the hive depended upon it successfully requeening after swarming.

But I didn’t know enough to stop them swarming 😉 .

I’d also already had to ‘borrow’ a frame of cells from a friend to rescue a terminally queenless colony of mine. ’Enthusiastically clumsy’ defined my beekeeping skillset, and was probably the comment the 2 examiner made in his notes during my BBKA Basic assessment.

The prospect of meddling with developing queens, with something so precious, seemed like total madness.

Surely it’s better to let them get on with it?

For the first couple of years of beekeeping, I thought of queens as an exquisitely fragile – and by implication valuable – resource. The prospect of rearing them, handling them, putting them in little boxes or – surely not? – prising a cell open to see if they’d developed sufficiently, was an anathema to me.

Consequently, I repeatedly skipped the chapter on queen rearing.

Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.

The BBKA Annual Convention

Before they moved the event to Harper Adams, the BBKA used to hold its spring convention at the Royal Agricultural showground just outside Warwick. My (then) local association provided stewards for the event and I was asked – or volunteered – to help the late Terry Clare run the queen rearing course one year.

I’d never done any queen rearing … and still hadn’t completely read that chapter in Hooper’s book.

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to those who paid to attend the course … at least those who received any ‘help’ from me, though everything else about the course was very good.

Checking grafted larvae

Checking grafted larvae

After an introductory lecture from Terry, we spent a warm afternoon in a poorly lit room practising grafting larvae. A thin cloud of disorientated bees circled our heads before being ushered out through the windows. Most of the larvae on the frames were visible from across the room 3 but at least they didn’t turn to mush with our neophyte fumblings as we transferred them from comb to plastic queen cups.

Terry moved from table to table, checking progress. He explained things well. Very well. The preparation and procedures seemed a whole lot more accessible than they had in Hooper’s book.

I’m a reasonably quick learner and that afternoon convinced me I should, and could, at least try it on my own.

The session ended with a wrap-up lecture in which Terry encouraged us all to ‘have a go’, and not be put off by an initial lack of success.

He assured us it would be worthwhile and enjoyable.

We dispersed into the late afternoon sun, talking of bees and queens and our plans for the season ahead.

Balmy April weather

There was an early spring that year, colonies had overwintered well and were strong. The Convention was held in early April if I remember and the good weather continued for at least another 2-3 weeks.

Well before the end of the month I had my first successfully grafted larvae being reared as queens.

Success!

It wasn’t an overwhelming success.

I probably grafted a dozen, got half accepted, lost more during development 4 and ended with just two virgins. I don’t have notes from those days, but I’m pretty sure only one got successfully mated.

So, success in a very limited way, but still success 🙂 .

It still makes me smile.

Terry’s presentation had clarified the mechanics of the process. It no longer seemed like witchcraft. It was all very logical. He’d made it clear that the little specialised equipment needed was either ’as cheap as chips’ 5 or could easily be built at home by someone as cack-handed as I was am 6.

The practical session had given me confidence I could see and manipulate huge fat larvae that were far too old to be reared as queens larvae. Even with my ’hands like feet’ moving a delicate larva from comb to plastic queen cup seemed possible, if not entirely natural.

JzBz plastic queen cups

I scrounged some JzBz cups from someone/somewhere, built a cell bar frame and some fat dummies 7 the week after the Convention and used one of my colonies as a cell raiser and the other as the source of larvae.

And, at a first approximation, everything sort of worked.

I could rear queens from larvae I had selected 🙂 .

Try, try and try again

I repeated it again the following month. I was more successful. The nucs I produced were either overwintered or built up strongly enough to be moved into full hives.

I think one went to my mentee. My association encouraged relative newcomers to mentor, probably one of the best ways to improve your beekeeping (other than queen rearing).

Within a year I had 6-8 colonies or nucs and twice than number the year after that.

Almost all were headed by queens I had reared … ‘almost’ as my swarm control skills were still developing 😉 .

Now, over a decade later, my swarm control skills have improved considerably … as has my queen rearing.

I remain resolutely cack-handed but I’m now a lot more confident in my hamfistedness.

I still mainly use the same technique Terry Clare taught on that course in Stoneleigh, though I’ve now also used a number of other approaches and successfully reared queens using most of them. Even the cell bar frame I built is still in use, though I’ve built some fancier fat dummies.

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy … with integral feeder and insulation

Queen rearing has taught me more about keeping bees than any other aspect of the hobby … more about judging the state of the colony, the quality of the bees, the suitability of the environment, the weather, the forage etc.

Queen rearing has improved the quality of my bees, year upon year, so that they suit my environment and colony management.

But – more importantly and perhaps a little selfishly – queen rearing has given me more enjoyment than any other aspect of beekeeping.

I’d prefer to rear queens than get a bumper honey crop … but because I rear queens that suit me and the environment, I do pretty well for honey as well.

10%

I give 20-30 talks a season to beekeeping associations. When I’m talking about queen rearing I usually ask the organisers about the number in their association that actively rear queens.

By actively I mean that do more than simply allow colonies to requeen themselves during swarm control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating this essential aspect of beekeeping. We all (have to) do it.

To me ‘active’ queen rearing doesn’t necessarily mean grafting larvae, incubators, mini-nucs and all that palaver. But it does mean:

  • preparing a colony to be in a suitable state to rear new queens 8.
  • rearing queens from larvae selected (though not necessarily individually selected) from a colony with desirable characteristics e.g. good temper, productivity, frugality.
  • rearing more than one queen at a time, with the excess used for making increase, for sale, for ’just in case’ situations etc.

There’s perhaps a slightly grey area where you split a hive (with desirable characteristics) that’s making swarm preparations into multiple nucs, each of which gets an immature queen cell.

But, let’s not get bogged down in definitions … that’s not the point of this post (which, although it might not be obvious yet, is to encourage you to ’have a go’).

And, when I ask 9, I’m regularly told that only a small number, perhaps ~10%, of association members actively rear queens.

Why so few?

Enjoyable, educational, useful … choose any three

Of course, there’s no requirement that a beekeeper gets involved in queen rearing. You can keep bees for years without rearing queens, other than during swarm control and by making up splits. I know a few beekeepers who have been keeping bees like this for decades … by many criteria they are skilled and successful beekeepers.

But sometimes, which might mean ‘often’, being able to rear queens and having some of those ‘spare’ queens available is extremely useful.

Spare queens, heading nucs in the apiary, can be overwintered to make up losses. These can be sold or donated in Spring to meet the enormous 10 demand for bees early in the season. The availability of a queen can ‘fix’ an aggressive colony, can rescue an otherwise doomed colony, or can effectively ‘gain’ a month of brood rearing and nectar collection should the old queen fail.

And that extra month of brood might make the difference between successful overwintering or not.

In my view, once you can rear your own queens you are pretty-much self-sufficient … there are very few situations that cannot be rescued.

And all of those benefits are before you even consider the two other things I mentioned above:

  • that successful queen rearing will inevitably improve your more general skills as a beekeeper, and
  • you will get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing it … literally ’the most fun you can have in a beesuit’ 11.

Why so few?

Beekeeping, like many other hobbies, can appear an esoteric pastime. Weird terminology, hierarchical organisation 12, specialised equipment, unusual costumes and a tendency to still use arcane practises.

And queen rearing – probably like candle making or the production of excellent mead 13 – is a specialised niche within what is already a rather niche activity.

It has its own terminology, equipment and methods.

To the uninitiated – even to another beekeeper, like me reading Ted Hooper’s book – it can appear fiendishly difficult.

And, unfortunately, some practitioners make it sound esoteric, specialised and difficult.

It’s a sort of one-upmanship.

They promote methods that may not suit the beginner, that require lots of resources, or that involve techniques that sound exceptionally skilful, even when they’re not. Not deliberately perhaps, but that’s what happens.

All of which means that:

  • people are dissuaded from trying it in the first place
  • those that do try (with trepidation because, you know, ”it’s difficult”) and that achieve only limited success, have their initial impression reinforced and are unlikely to try again

It’s very easy to talk yourself out of trying something you think will be difficult and/or you are unlikely to succeed at.

Actually, it’s not only easy, it’s also entirely understandable.

Why go to all that trouble if it’s unlikely to work?

After all, you can usually buy queens ‘next day delivery’ for £50 … surely that would be easier?

Perhaps … if they’re available when you want them. Really early in the season? Think again. During the peak swarming season when everyone else wants to requeen their colonies they accidentally destroyed all the queen cells in. Nope.

But, as Terry Clare so ably instructed … it is not that difficult to rear your own.

There’s more than one way to do it

I’ve written an entire post on this topic and it applies as much to queen rearing as it does to other aspects of our hobby.

If not more.

There are many different ways of successfully achieving the three key components of the process:

  1. preparing the colony to receive larvae
  2. presenting the larvae
  3. getting the resulting virgin queens mated

Today’s post isn’t an introduction to queen rearing … it’s meant instead as an encouragment to try queen rearing.

If you’ve got a year or two of beekeeping experience and one, or preferably two, colonies you have the essentials you need to start. It’s what I started with … and look how that ended 😉 .

Over the next three months I’ll write two or three more posts on the basics, in good time for you to ’have a go’ in 2023.

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing

If you’re impatient to read more, I’ve already written about two methods I have used extensively – the Ben Harden system and queen rearing with a Cloake board.

However, throughout these descriptions I’ve emphasised the use of individual grafted larvae.

Grafting is the transfer of larvae from the comb where the egg hatched to a wax or plastic queen queen cup. For best results the larvae should no more than ~18 hours old.

A suitable larva may well be no bigger than the egg it hatched from.

Already I can feel beginners switching off … “Too difficult … not for me … nope, not interested.”

Although grafting is an easily learned and reasonably straightforward technique it can appear very daunting to the beginner.

Perhaps I’m therefore also guilty of making queen rearing sound ‘esoteric, specialised and difficult’.

Am I guilty as well?

Indubitably, m’lud.

But … in my defence please consider the two recent posts on Picking winners.

The purpose of those posts was to highlight – for people (like me) that already routinely use grafting as part of their queen rearing – that the bees may choose different larvae to rear as queens than the beekeeper might choose.

The beekeeper is essentially non-selective, whereas the bees are very selective.

I think this is interesting and it’s got me wondering about the qualities the bees select and whether they’d be beneficial for my beekeeping.

But there’s another equally important ‘take home message’ from these two posts. This is relevant to beekeepers who do not already rear queens (but who would like to) but that are put off by the thought of grafting.

And that is that you can easily produce excellent quality queen cells without grafting or ‘handling’ larvae at all.

If you refer back to that three point list above, point 2 ( ‘presenting the larvae’) can be as straightforward as simply adding a frame of eggs and larvae to a suitably prepared hive.

That’s it.

What could be easier?

No magnifying glasses, no headtorch, no treble ‘0’ sable paintbrush, no JzBz plastic cups, no cell bar frame, no ’do I or don’t I prime the cups with royal jelly?’, no desperate searching around the frame for larvae of the right size, no worries about larvae getting chilled, or drying out …

Pick a frame, any frame

As long as it has eggs and young larvae … and comes from a donor colony that has the characteristics you like in your bees.

Eggs and young larvae

Eggs and young larvae

There’s little point in rearing queens from poor quality bees.

For starters I’d suggest you select a frame from a colony of calm, well behaved bees.

If none of your colonies are dependably calm and well behaved you definitely need to learn to rear queens, but you should ask a friend or mentor 14 for a frame of eggs and larvae from a good colony.

Bees are very good at picking larvae suitable for rearing into queens. Let them do the ‘heavy lifting’. Once the queen cells are ready you cut them out of the frame and use them in the same way as you would use cells from grafted larvae.

So, having hopefully convinced you that you don’t need to graft larvae to produce queen cells, that seems like a logical place to end this post.

In future posts I’ll discuss points 1 and 3 in that numbered list above.

You already know almost everything you now need to know about point 2 😉 .


 

Tim Toady

Synopsis : The large number of beekeeping methods is both a benefit and – for beginners particularly – a distraction. Learn methods well enough to be confident when you apply them. Understand why they work and their pros and cons.

Introduction

In an earlier life as a junior academic I was generously given a crushingly boring administrative task. The details don’t matter 1 but it essentially involved populating a huge three-dimensional matrix. The matrix had to be re-populated annually … and, when I was allocated the task, manually.

To cut a long story short I taught myself some simple web-database computer programming. This automated the data collection and entry and saved me many weeks of tedious work.

Geek alert …

This minor victory resulted in me:

  • writing lots more code for my admin and research, and for my hobbies including beekeeping and photography. It’s been a really useful skill … and a lot of fun.
  • inevitably being given an additional mundane task to fill the time I had ‘saved’ 🙁 2.

The programming language I used was perl. This is a simple scripting language, which although now superseded in popularity by things like python, remains very widely used. All proper computers 3 still have perl installed.

Perl is perfect for manipulating text-based records. The name is an acronym for ’practical extraction and reporting language’ … or perhaps ’pathetically eclectic rubbish lister’, the latter reflecting its use to manipulate text (‘garbage in, garbage out’ … ) 4.

Perl was (and remains) powerful because it’s a very flexible language. You can achieve the same goal in many different ways.

This flexibility is reflected in the perl motto: ’There’s more than one way to do it’, which is abbreviated to TMTOWTDI.

TMTOWTDI is a mouthful of alphabet spaghetti, so for convenience is pronounced Tim Toady … the title of today’s post.

Why?

Because exactly the same acronym could be applied to lots of things in beekeeping.

Ask three beekeepers, get five answers

But one of the five is wrong because it involves ’brood and a half’.

Anyone who has attended an association meeting and naively asked a simple question will understand the title of this section.

’How do I … [insert routine beekeeping problem here] … ?’

The old and the wise, or perhaps the old or the wise, will recommend a series of solutions. Some will offer more than one.

Each will be different.

Many recommendations will be perfectly workable.

A few might be impractical.

At least one will be just plain wrong.

How do I avoid brace comb?

Confusingly … despite all being proffered solutions to the one question you asked, many will appear contradictory.

Do you move the queen away (the nucleus method) or leave the queen on the same site (Pagden’s artificial swarm) for swarm control? How can they both work if you do such very different things?

Ask twelve beekeepers, get nineteen answers (ONE IN ALL CAPS)

Internet discussion forums (fora?) are exactly the same, but may be less polite. This is due to the absence of the calming influence of tea and homemade cake. At least one answer will include a snippy suggestion to ’use the search facility first’.

Another will be VERY VERY SHOUTY … the respondent either disagrees vehemently or has misplaced the CAPS LOCK key.

Actually, in many ways internet discussion forums are a lot worse … though not for the reasons you might expect.

It’s not because they’re populated with a lot of cantankerous ageing beekeepers and arriviste know-it-alls.

They’re not 5.

There are some hugely experienced and helpful beekeepers online, though they probably don’t answer first or most forcefully.

The internet is worse because the audience is bigger and is spread over a wider geographic area. This is a problem as beekeeping is effectively a local activity.

If you ask at a local association meeting there will be a smaller ‘audience’ and they should at least all have some experience of the particular conditions in your area.

Včelařské fórum … and something you won’t see on the BKF … a whole sub-forum on subsidies

But if you ask on Beesource, Včelařské fórum or the Beekeeping & Apiculture forum the answers may literally be from anywhere 6. The advice you receive, whilst possibly valid, is likely to be most relevant where the responder lives … unless you’re lucky.

On one of the forums I irregularly frequent many contributors have their latitude and longitude coordinates (and sometimes plant hardiness zones) embedded in their .sig.

Geeky perhaps, but eminently sensible … 7

Tim Toady beekeeping

Let’s consider a few of examples of Tim Toady beekeeping. I could have chosen almost any aspect of our hobby here, but I’ll stick with three that are all related to the position or fate of the queen.

Queen introduction

Perhaps this was a bad option to choose first. Queen introduction isn’t only about how you physically get the new queen safely into the hive e.g. in some form of temporary cage. It’s also about the state of the hive.

Is it queenless? How long has it been queenless and/or is there emerging brood present? Is the brood from the previous queen or from laying workers? Is it a full hive or a nuc … or mini-nuc?

Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

And it’s about the state of the new queen.

Is she mated and laying, or is she a virgin? Perhaps she’s still in the queen cell? Is the queen the same (or a similar) strain to the hive being requeened? Is she in a cage of some sort? Are there attendants in the cage with her?

And all that’s before you consider whether it’s ‘better’ to use a push-in cage, a JzBz (or similar) cage or to omit the cage and just rely upon billowing clouds of acrid smelling smoke.

Uniting colonies

This blog is nothing if not ’bleeding-edge’ topical … now is the time to consider uniting understrength colonies, or those headed by very aged queens that may fail overwinter.

Uniting two weak colonies will not make a strong colony. However, uniting a strong with a weak colony will strengthen the former and possibly save the latter from potential winter loss (after you’ve paid for and applied the miticides and winter feed … D’oh!). You can always split off a nuc again in the spring.

All the above assumes that both colonies are healthy.

There are fewer ways of uniting colonies than queen introduction, and far fewer than the plethora of swarm control methods.

This is perhaps unsurprising as there are fewer component parts … hive A and hive B, with the eventual product being A/B.

Or perhaps B/A?

United we stand …

But which queen do you keep? 8

And does the queenright hive go on top or underneath?

And how do you prevent the bees from fighting, but instead allow them to mingle gently?

Or do you simply spray them with a few squirts of Sea breeze air freshener, slap the boxes together and be done with it?

Swarm control

If you find queen cells in your colony – assuming they haven’t swarmed already – then you need to take action or the colony will possibly/probably/almost certainly/indubitably 9 swarm.

The primary goals of swarm control are to retain the workforce – the foragers – and the queen.

There are a lot of swarm control methods. Many of the effective ones involve the separation of the queen and hive bees (those yet to go on orientation flights) from the foragers and brood. Some of these methods use unique equipment and most require additional boxes or split boards.

Split board

Split board …

But there are other ways to achieve the same overall goals, for example the Demaree method which keeps the entire workforce together by using a queen excluder and some well-timed colony manipulations.

No landing boards here ...

confused.com

And then there are the 214 individual door opening/closing operations over a 3 week period (assuming the moon is at or near perigee) needed when you use a Snelgrove board 10.

Like any recommendation to use brood and a half … my advice is ‘just say no’.

Just because Tim Toady

… doesn’t mean you have to actually do things a different way each time.

The problem with asking a group – like your local association or the interwebs – a question is that you will get multiple answers. These can be contradictory, and hence confusing to the tyro beekeeper.

Far better to ask one person whose opinion you respect and trust.

Like your mentor.

You still may get multiple answers 😉 … but you will get fewer answers and they should be accompanied with additional justification or explanation of the pros and cons of the various solutions suggested.

This really helps understand which solution to apply.

Irrespective of the number of answers you receive I think some of the most important skills in beekeeping involve:

  • understanding why a particular solution should work. This requires an understanding of the nitty gritty of the process. What are you trying to achieve by turning a hive 180° one week after a vertical split? Why should Apivar strips be repositioned half way through the treatment period?
  • choosing one solution and get really good at using it. Understand the limitations of the method you’ve chosen. When does it work well? When is it unsuitable? What are the drawbacks?

This might will take some time.

More hives, less time

If you’ve only got one colony you’ll probably only get one chance per year to apply – and eventually master – a swarm control method.

With more colonies it is much easier to quickly acquire this practical understanding.

Lots of learning opportunities here

Then, once you have mastered a particular approach you can decide whether the limitations outweigh the advantages and consider alternatives if needed.

This should be an informed evolution of your beekeeping methods.

What you should not do is use a different method every year as – unless you have a lot of colonies – you never get sufficient experience to understand its foibles and the wrinkles needed to ensure the method works.

Informed evolution

If you consider the three beekeeping techniques I mentioned earlier – queen introduction, uniting colonies and swarm control – my chosen approach to two of them is broadly similar to when I started.

However, as indicated above, there are still lots of subtle variations that could be applied.

With both queen introduction and uniting colonies I’ve more or less standardised on one particular way of doing each of them. By standardising there’s less room for error … at least, that’s the theory. I now what I’m doing and I know what to expect.

In contrast, I’ve used a range of swarm control methods over the years. After a guesstimated 250+ ‘hive years’ I now almost exclusively 11 use one method that I’ve found to be extremely reliable and fits with the equipment and time I have available.

It’s not perfect but – like the methods I use for queen introduction and uniting colonies – it is absolutely dependable.

I think that’s the goal of learning one method well and only abandoning it when it’s clear there are better ways of achieving your goal. By using a method you understand and consider is absolutely dependable you will have confidence that it will work.

You also know when it will work by, and so can meaningfully plan what happens next in the season.

So, what are the variants of the methods I find absolutely dependable?

Queen introduction

99% of my adult queens – whether virgin or mated – are introduced in JzBz cages. I hang the queen (only, no attendants) in a capped JzBz cage in the hive for 24 hours and then check to see if the queenless (!) colony is acting aggressively to her.

If they are not I remove the cap and plug the neck of the cage with fondant. The bees soon eat through this and release the queen.

Checking for aggression

I used to add fondant when initially caging the queen but have had one or two queens get gummed up in the stuff (which absorbs moisture from the hive). I now prefer to add it after removing the cap. The queen needs somewhere ‘unreachable’ in the cage to hide if the colony are aggressive to her.

It’s very rare I use an alternative to this method. If I do it’s to use a Nicot pin on cage where I trap the queen over a frame of emerging brood 12.

Nicot queen introduction cages

I use this method for real problem colonies … ones that have killed a queen introduced using the JzBz cage or that may contain laying workers.

Doing the latter is a pretty futile exercise at the best of times 🙁 .

Uniting colonies

Almost all colonies are united over newspaper. A sheet to two of an unstapled newspaper is easy to carry and uniting like this is almost always successful.

The brood box being moved goes on top. I want bees from the moved box to realise things have changed as they work their way down to the hive entrance. That way they’re more likely to not get lost when returning.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I don’t care whether the queen is in the upper or lower box and, if there’s any doubt that one of the colonies isn’t queenless, I use a queen excluder over the newspaper. I then check the boxes one week later for eggs.

I’m not absolutely certain one of the colonies is queenless

At times I’ve used a can of air freshener and no newspaper. This has worked well, but it’s one more bulky thing to carry. I also prefer not to expose my bees to the chemical cocktail masquerading as Sea breeze, Summer meadow or Stale socks.

Since uniting doesn’t necessitate a timed return visit there’s little to be gained from seeking alternatives to newspaper in my view. Perhaps if I lived in a really windy location I’d have a different opinion … placing the newspaper over the brood box can be problematic in anything more than a moderate breeze 13.

Swarm control

Like many (most?) beekeepers I started off using the classic Pagden’s artificial swarm. However, I quickly ran out of equipment as my colony numbers increased – you need two of everything including space on suitably located hive stands.

I switched to vertical splits. These are in essence a vertical Pagden’s artificial swarm, but require only one roof and stand. If you plan to merge the colonies again i.e. you don’t want to ’make increase’, vertical splits are very convenient. However, they can involve a lot of lifting if there are supers on the colony.

Vertical split

Vertical split – day 7 …

Now I almost exclusively use the nucleus method of swarm control. Used reactively (i.e. after queen cells are seen) it’s almost totally foolproof. Used proactively (i.e. before queen cells are produced) also works well. In both cases the timing of a return visit to reduce queen cells is important, and you need to use good judgement in deciding how strong to make the nuc.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The nucleus method has a couple of disadvantages for my beekeeping. However, its ease of application and success rate more than make up for these shortfalls.

Tim Toady is ‘a good thing’

I love the flexibility of perl for programming. I can write one-liners to do a quick and dirty file conversion. Alternatively I can craft hundreds of lines of well-documented code that is readable, easy to maintain and robust.

Others, in the very best tradition of Tim Toady, might write programs to do exactly the same things but in a completely different way.

The flexibility to tackle a task – the three used above for example, or miticide treatment, queen rearing, uncapping frames or any of the hundreds of individual tasks involved in beekeeping – in different ways provides opportunities to choose an approach that fits with your diary, manual dexterity, available equipment, preferences, ethics or environment.

In this regard it’s ‘a good thing’.

Choice and flexibility are beneficial. They make things interesting and, for the observant beekeeper, they provide ample new opportunities for learning.

… and a distraction

However, this flexibility can also be a distraction, particularly for beginners.

That is why I emphasised the need to learn the intricacies of the method you choose by understanding the underlying mechanism, and the subtleties needed to get it to work absolutely dependably.

Don’t just try something once and then do something totally different the next year 14. Use the method for several years running (assuming it’s an annual event in the beekeeping calendar), or at least on a lot of different colonies.

Choose a widely used and well-documented method in the first place 15. Read about it, understand it and apply it. Tweak it until it either works exactly as you want it to i.e. reliably, efficiently, quickly or whatever, or choose a different widely used and well-documented method and start over again.

Get really competent at the methods you choose.

Once your beekeeping is built upon a range of absolutely dependable methods you have the foundations to be a little bit more expansive.

You can then indulge yourself.

Explore the options offered by Tim Toady.

Things might fail, but you always have a fallback that you know works.


Note

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Tragedies and triumphs

Synopsis: Beekeeping shouldn’t be “a series of calamities then winter”, though it sometimes feels like that. In the first of a two-part post I look at the real and imagined disasters that can befall you during the season. The reality is that the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them.

Introduction

A few weeks ago I did a live-streamed Q&A with Laurence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. Some of the questions were both good and interesting, some of the answers were perhaps less so. Before any readers think I’m being rude here I should point out that Laurence was asking the questions – often on behalf of others – and I was answering them.

There were quite a few questions on non-chemical treatment which I was singularly ill-equipped to deal with. Not because I don’t know anything about it, but because I don’t practice it 1 and because I suspect I’m not a good enough beekeeper to be successful if I did try it. There’s clearly a lot of interest in the topic, though I fear much of this is also from beekeepers who are not sufficiently experienced to succeed with it either.

However, there were two questions – or perhaps it was one merged question – that went something like this:

What is your greatest beekeeping success and your biggest beekeeping disaster?

I’m paraphrasing here. I can’t remember the precise wording and daren’t review it on YouTube as I’d then have to listen to my erudite insights inchoate waffle … which would be excruciating.

My answer probably involved asking whether I was restricted to just one disaster … 😉

Let’s get some perspective first

New beekeepers in particular are likely to worry about the “disasters” and overlook some of the “successes” in their first season or two. I therefore thought I’d discuss what I consider are the highs and lows – abbreviated to tragedies and triumphs’ to give the post a snappy title – of the first few years of beekeeping.

Obviously this is biased and based upon my own experience, and from mentoring others. Your experience may be very different … or you may have yet to experience the highs and lows of a beekeeping season.

But before I start using superlatives to describe the chaos of my early efforts at swarm control it’s worth remembering – particularly as the war in Ukraine enters its third week – that I’m only talking about beekeeping here.

In the overall scheme of things it’s simply not very important.

What might feel like a disaster of biblical proportions in the apiary … isn’t.

Yes, it might threaten the productivity, or even the survival, of the colony, but it is only beekeeping 2.

So, having got that out of the way, which do you want first?

The good news or the bad news?

The bad news … how mature 😉

The loss of a hive tool

Clearly I’m being flippant here.

The loss of a hive tool is a minor inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

There you are!

Unless you don’t have a spare and/or you’re about to inspect a dozen heavily-supered hives in the apiary … in which case it’s a major inconvenience.

It’s remarkably easy for a hive tool to fall out of those tall, thin pockets in the sleeve or thigh of your beesuit. Inevitably it falls, not onto closely cropped sward, but into tangled tussocks of rarely-mown grass.

You will probably find it again.

You could spend 15 minutes on your hands and knees retracing your steps since you left the car or you could become a detectorist and conduct a grid-based search, sweeping the area for metal objects.

Neither method is guaranteed to work.

To be certain, you must cut the grass.

But be careful. A glancing contact with the lawnmower or brush cutter and a half-buried hive tool will be damaging at best, and potentially a lot worse 🙁

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking in a solution of soda crystal

Or you can avoid all this grief by keeping a covered bucket in the apiary – a honey bucket is ideal – containing a strong solution of soda crystals. You know exactly where the hive tools are and you soon get into the habit of dropping it back in after an inspection.

Better still, keep two hive tools in the bucket and alternate them as you look at your colonies. The soaking in soda will clean the hive tool, reduce any potential cross-contamination and improve your apiary hygiene.

The loss of a queen

This can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a bit of a calamity.

It very much depends upon the:

  • time of the season
  • whether you notice she’s missing
  • availability of a spare colony

How do you lose a queen? Other than by losing a swarm (see below) the two most likely reasons are cackhanded beekeeping or a queen that fails due to being poorly mated.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Losing a queen mid-season, for whatever reason, should be little more than a minor inconvenience. Assuming you notice she’s missing in action you can remove unwanted queen cells, leaving a single charged (i.e. known to contain a fat larva lounging around on a comfortable bed of Royal Jelly) cell, and wait while she pupates, emerges, mates and starts laying.

Nerve racking? Perhaps slightly, but it’s usually a pretty safe bet that things will work out OK.

If, through clumsiness or stupidity 3, you kill the queen during an inspection there should be ample eggs and young larvae for the colony to use when rearing one or more replacements.

Keep your eyes peeled …

But what if you don’t notice she’s missing? You assume she’s there and blithely knock back all the queen cells you can find 4.

Sealed queen cells

You return the next week … all looks good, no more queen cells.

But wait a minute … there are no eggs either 🙁

Under these circumstances you realise the importance of having at least two colonies. You can rescue the queenless colony by donating a frame of eggs from a queenright colony.

With two hives a crisis is rarely a disaster

Queens also fail because they are poorly mated. They either stop laying, or they stop laying fertilised eggs (i.e.they continue to lay unfertilised ones, leaving you with ever-increasing numbers of drones in the colony). The colony might realise and supersede her, or you might be able to rescue the situation with a donated frame of eggs.

I’ll deal with the consequences of a failed or slaughtered queen at the extremities of the season – early or late – below.

The loss of a swarm

It happens to the best of us, and it sometimes seems to happen even if you do your swarm prevention and control by the book 5.

I’ve turned up in the apiary on a warm May afternoon to discover a whirling mass of bees swarming from one of my hives 6.

It’s not a disaster … in fact it’s one of the greatest sights in beekeeping.

With luck the swarm will bivouac nearby and you’ll be able to collect them in a skep and re-hive them late in the afternoon.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

At least it shouldn’t be a disaster, but Sod’s Law usually dictates that …

  1. if you’re there when the swarm emerges, and
  2. you have a skep and sheet with you

… the swarm will alight 45 feet up a Leylandii 🙁

Even then it might end well if you’ve got a suitable bait hive set out nearby.

The time when losing a swarm is a disaster 7 is when you don’t realise you’ve lost a swarm. You find some queen cells, hurriedly knock them all back 8 and then wonder why there are no eggs the following week.

Déjà vu

At which point you’re in a similar situation to the ‘loss of the queen’ I described above … except you’ve also lost up to 75% of the workers from the colony. The situation is still rescuable with a frame of eggs from your other hive 9 but you’re likely to miss out on the major nectar flow.

Could the situation be any worse?

Oh no it can’t … Oh yes it can!

You miss the lost the swarm, you knock back all those queen cells and you then fail to realise there are no eggs or young larvae in the colony until only sealed brood remains (i.e at least 9 days).

Or worse still, until no brood remains (i.e at most 21 days).

With no brood pheromone being produced there’s now a real danger that the colony will develop laying workers. Things now get an order of magnitude more difficult as a colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen (and generally will not even attempt to rear their own if presented with a frame of eggs).

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

You’re fast approaching the next of the beekeeping ‘disasters’ …

The loss of a colony

How do you lose a colony?

What was it Elizabeth Barrett Browning said? ’Let me count the ways’ 10.

Natural disasters such as falling trees, winter gales, raging floods, woodpeckers, honey badgers and stampeding elephants 11 can destroy a colony.

Hive toppled by a summer storm

However much care you take – avoiding floodplains, strapping the hives down, seeking shelter (but not near shallow-rooted trees) – sometimes sh1t just happens 12.

You did your best and nature did her worst.

See what you can rescue and try again next year.

Queen loss at the start or end of the season

Losing a queen very early or very late in the season – for whatever reason – is a problem. There’s no chance of the colony rearing another – it’s too cold and/or there are no drones available. I suppose there’s an outside chance you could requeen the colony – if you had a queen available 13 – but doing so involves quite a bit of risk.

If the queen fails overwinter, all the bees in the box will be very old by the time your colony inspection confirms she’s firing blanks, or not firing at all. The chances of successfully requeening the hive are slim at best.

Although that colony is effectively lost – at least if it happens late in the season – it’s not an unmitigated disaster if you have another hive 14. You can unite the queenless colony over a queenright colony very late into the autumn, strengthening the latter and (at least) using the bees from the former, rather than condemning them to a lingering death.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I wouldn’t bother trying to unite a queenless colony (or one with a failed queen) at the very beginning of the season. The remaining bees will be pretty decrepit and there won’t be many of them. It’s unlikely they would contribute in a meaningful way to the successful build-up of another colony.

Winter losses through starvation

These are unfortunately common and often entirely avoidable.

Small-scale surveys from the BBKA and SBA often report winter colony losses of 20-30%, and up to 50% in some years. Large scale surveys, like the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) one in the USA, have reported annual colony losses – the majority of which occur in the winter – exceeding 40% in all but two years since 2013.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

I’ve lost colonies through both starvation and disease.

In both cases it was entirely my fault 🙁

It was a disaster for the bees and it was a sobering and educational experience for me.

I discussed starvation, and how to avoid it, in winter weight a couple of weeks ago. I won’t rehash it here, but I will repeat again that the bees are still in the ‘danger zone’.

Time for another?

Time for another? Definitely.

There’s little nectar available and they are busy rearing brood. Their need for stores is probably higher now than at any time over the last 4-5 months.

At best, a shortage will hold the colony back. At worst they’ll die of starvation.

All of which is completely avoidable by ensuring they have ample stores at the beginning of the winter, and then by keeping an eye on the weight of the colony as they enter the spring. If you’re adding fondant in late December it’s likely the colony had insufficient stores to start with … but at least you’re keeping a check on the weight of the colony.

Winter losses due to disease

I suspect that the majority of winter losses are not due to starvation but are instead due to inadequate or incorrect Varroa management.

This is a topic that has been covered numerous times in posts here. The most recent overarching review of the topic is probably Rational Varroa Control. Versions of this appeared in the August 2020 BBKA Newsletter and in The Scottish Beekeeper in the same month.

Successful Varroa control requires an understanding of the treatments available and the pros and cons of using them on your bees and in your location/climate. Too many beekeepers simply want to know whether they should add Apiguard in the third week of August or middle of September.

Apivar strip on wire hangar

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly difficult either.

Unlike many of the other diseases of honey bees – e.g. chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), Nosema and the foulbroods – there are effective treatments to control Varroa and the damaging viruses that it transmits.

Losing a colony in June to CBPV is possibly unavoidable (it’s just bad luck) but losing one to Varroa/DWV in January – which is largely avoidable – might well be bad beekeeping.

In both cases of course it’s a disaster for the colony 🙁

Disaster

The meaning of disaster is ‘An event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature; a calamity; esp. a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life’. Its origins date back to the mid-16th Century.

Some of the ‘disasters’ I’ve described above involve the loss of just one life – that of the queen. For the reasons I describe, they’re not really disasters at all, or shouldn’t be for the observant and well prepared beekeeper.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

They become disasters i.e. causing great damage or loss of life, if you miss the tell-tale signs and so contribute to the eventual demise of the colony.

The avoidable loss of a queen or a colony is a distressing experience, or at least it should be 15.

If it is distressing then it will probably also be a learning experience.

Analyse what went wrong and work out how you might prevent it happening again in the future.

We have a duty of care for the bees we manage. I don’t like losing colonies, but it still happens infrequently. When it does I try and determine whether it was just fate … or my incompetence (or – let’s be generous – my actions or inactions) that caused the loss.

And the times you manage to work out where you went wrong are the foundations for your beekeeping triumphs in the future … which is what we’ll return to next week.


 

What they don’t tell you

Synopsis: The details they don’t tell you on a ’Start beekeeping’ course are almost as important as the things they do teach. By definition these courses tend to be ‘fact heavy’. They omit some of the less tangible, and sometimes less pleasant, aspects of our hobby. These are mine, but all experienced beekeepers will have their own list of what they learnt after the course ended.

Introduction

I’ve only taken one ’Start beekeeping’ course. It was well organised, it got most of the basics right (in retrospect … I obviously no idea at the time 😉 ) and it provided a good foundation for my first season. Like many of these winter courses, it was spread over two months and timed to produce a ‘swarm’ of novice beekeepers when it was almost warm enough to open some hives for the practical sessions.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

It was held on weekday evenings and consisted of two 45-60 minute sessions separated by tea and biscuits. The refreshments were an integral and essential part of the course. Biscuits – or, better yet, cake – and tea hugely improve the beekeeping experience.

I’ll return to tea and biscuits in a minute.

The basics included talks on the biology of the honey bee, the beekeeping year, equipment, swarm control, diseases, honey and wax (and a bunch of stuff I’ve forgotten by now). It was therefore probably like most other courses that are being held up and down the country at the moment.

However, good though the course was, there are a bunch of things the course didn’t cover, but perhaps could have.

Here are some of them …

You will spend a lot more than you expect

Beekeeping can be practised relatively inexpensively, but it often isn’t.

The lure of the mail-order catalogue is strong.

The ‘must haves’ are too numerous to mention.

By the time a new beekeeper has bought a hive, a beesuit, some bees, a nuc box, frames, hive tool, smoker and one of those essential combo sugar-duster and frame-brushes, there’s probably not a lot of change out of £500 1.

And it could be a whole lot more. A cedar assembled National hive alone costs almost £500 these days.

At the beginning it makes sense to buy secondhand if you can. As long as the equipment comes from a disease-free source the bees will do just as well in a 30 year old cedar box as one purchased new. Ask around your association if there are beginners from the course last year who decided beekeeping wasn’t for them …

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s ‘bees on a budget’ hive …

… and if you have spare equipment, offer it to a new beekeeper rather than finding a corner of the shed to hide it in for another year or two. When I left the Midlands 2 I gave away lots of homemade 3 nuc boxes and other kit, much of which was perfectly serviceable and is still in use now.

And remember that although you often buy beekeeping equipment flat-packed, you can’t store it flat-packed … all those boxes take lots of space and you’re going to need a bigger shed.

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

Remember also that the ’speculate to accumulate’ justification i.e you need more supers/nuc boxes or whatever to make money from your bees, can be easily undermined by lousy swarm control or a cool, wet summer.

It might work for a year or two … but I can guarantee it does not work for a decade 😉

Observe, think, have a cuppa, then do …

There are few things in beekeeping that need immediate attention.

’Act in haste, repent at leisure’ is an aphorism that’s worth remembering.

If 4 you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand it’s often a good idea to close up the hive and take some time to think about things.

The classic ’Aargh! panic’ situation for new beekeepers is discovering sealed queen cells in the hive and immediately squidging them all to prevent the imminent loss of a swarm.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

What else was in the hive?

Did you see the queen? No … but then you’ve not seen her for weeks, so what’s new?

But you don’t need to see the queen to be reasonably certain that the colony is queenright. All you need to see are eggs. An egg takes three days to hatch after, so if you can see eggs you can be certain that there was a queen present within the last 3 days 5.

Did you see eggs? Er, no.

What about developing larvae? You can’t remember?

Of course, the likely scenario is that the queen cells were sealed because the colony has already swarmed. There are no eggs or young larvae (or possibly any larvae) because the old queen vamoosed with the swarm several days ago.

So, by acting in haste – and crushing all those sealed queen cells – the colony is left with no developing queens and no larvae from which to produce a new queen.

In fact, the colony is now terminally queenless 🙁

Far better – on discovering the queen cells – to have a good look through the rest of the hive, close it up and have a think and a cuppa while you work out the correct course of action.

Then act …

You will make mistakes

“We learn from failure, not from success!” 6.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when beekeeping.

I’ve had a lot of failures.

But, by thinking about where I went wrong, I’ve often learnt how to avoid doing it again 7.

Probably my first real clanger was inadvertently and unknowingly crushing the queen on my second or third ever inspection.

Oops.

But it gets worse.

At the next inspection, a week later, I (unsurprisingly) discovered a load of queen cells.

Uh oh! Swarming already?

If you re-read the section above I describe exactly how I dealt with that little conundrum 😉

D’Oh!

I knocked back all the queen cells and only retrospectively wondered why there were no eggs or larvae in the hive.

It was a useful learning experience.

Beekeeping looks quite easy, but there’s a lot to learn and the bees don’t always do quite what’s expected of them. A combination of good observation, good record keeping and retrospective thought should mean that the mistakes you will inevitably make aren’t wasted opportunities to learn how to avoid a repeat performance.

I don’t think I’ve ever left a colony terminally queenless in the same way again, but I’ve had ample other ’learning opportunities’ in subsequent years.

Perhaps fewer each year, but enough to keep me entertained … and educated.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of mentoring

Most well organised and responsible associations will ‘buddy up’ trainee beekeepers with a more experienced mentor. The idea is that the mentor is available to provide help and advice as and when needed. When it works well it’s a great arrangement.

You might get your first nuc from your mentor, and you may get some help with your first couple of hive inspections. If things go wrong, and they will (see above), your mentor should be able to provide the advice needed to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

I wrote about Better mentoring several years ago. It’s a post that could probably do with an update.

However, the real ’benefits of mentoring’ are probably to be gained when you’re the mentor, not the mentee.

Mentor and mentee

Mentors do not need to be hugely experienced beekeepers. In fact, I’d argue that it’s sometimes better if they only have a season or two of successful beekeeping under their belt.

A very experienced beekeeper probably knows all the answers 8, but the mentee will only properly learn when they’re helped rather than told. In contrast, with one or two (successful) years experience, the mentor knows enough of the the basics to avoid disasters, but is more likely to do the ‘thinking out loud’ and work through the problem with the mentee.

And, while doing this ‘thinking out loud’ the mentor also learns.

Did I already say that tea and cake helps? It does.

I learnt more about beekeeping when mentoring others than when being mentored 9.

Lots more.

If and when you get the opportunity to mentor a new beekeeper grab it. You might feel you don’t know it all (you don’t), but you probably know enough. And, by being a mentor, you’ll get to know a whole lot more.

It can be hard physical work

Unless you’re young and fit and strong, and even if you’re young and fit and strong, beekeeping will be tough on your back. Hives are heavy, but moved relatively infrequently. Supers can be very heavy and – with luck – you’ll be lifting a lot once or twice a season.

And it’s not just your back.

Unused winter stores … surprisingly heavy

Frames, particularly frames full of stores, are heavy. Unless I’m careful I get aches and pains in my fingers from the strain of handling lots of frames during inspections 10.

I don’t remember any of this being discussed in my ’Start beekeeping’ course.

I’ve had one or two seasons spoilt by a bad back. Most recently it was due to tripping over something 11 in long grass when carrying three full supers. This is definitely not recommended. The bees were upset and I had back pains until the end of the season.

Learn how to lift properly. Make sure you have clear space around your feet and somewhere suitable to place the moved boxes. All entirely obvious and very much a case of do as I say, don’t do as I do.

But the physical nature of beekeeping doesn’t stop with lifting.

Most beesuits provide good protection against bees, but only by being made of rather thick material. Therefore, on a hot day, they can get very warm indeed. The veil reduces air movement around your head, so the natural cooling from perspiration isn’t very effective.

Sweating in a beesuit

Admittedly they’re not needed a lot in Scotland, but these gel-filled, water-soaked neck wraps are excellent. They provide cooling for hours at a time. I’ve had mine for about 20 years now and I’m not sure if there’s a UK distributor, though you can get them in Holland.

Or just leave the inspection to a cooler day 😉

You will lose swarms

In about my third season I had about half a dozen colonies. I’d done some splits the year before and had my first tentative go at queen rearing.

I was beginning to really enjoy beekeeping.

Which didn’t mean I necessarily was any good at it, or had much of a clue about what to do 😉

My swarm prevention was poor and my swarm control was hopeless (bordering on non-existent).

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

At one point in late May or early June I didn’t have a single hive with a laying queen in it. They’d all swarmed.

I had at least learned not to knock back all the queen cells. A small victory.

Queen open mating success is about 75-80% and I think all the hives were eventually queenright. However, I still felt both helpless and hopeless standing in an apiary with 6 hives and no queens.

I think the secret of swarm prevention is to start early … young queens, give them space etc.

I know the secret of swarm control is to use a method you absolutely understand and have total confidence in. Learn why it works, learn the wrinkles. Understand the timing of whatever hive manipulations are needed.

It might be something as simple as making up a nuc with the old queen and letting the colony re-queen itself. Or it might involve a Snelgrove board, a 47 page manual and visits to the apiary every 21 hours for 3 weeks to open and close all those damned doors.

Whatever floats your boat.

Whatever floats your boat

Unsurprisingly I use the nucleus method for 90% of my swarm control, and in many years use nothing else.

In my hands it’s idiot proof. It needs to be.

Since you will lose a swarm or two, set out bait hives. If you’re lucky your swarm will take up residence and you can pretend you never lost it in the first place.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …

If you’re really lucky you’ll notice scout bees checking out your bait hive, realise there’s a colony thinking of swarming nearby, check your own hives and discover an unsealed queen cell.

Keep your veil on to hide that smug smile 😉

Joseph Merrick

One of the skills new beekeepers need to acquire is how to judge the temperament of a colony. Some bees are naturally feisty and, knowing this, you don your beesuit and gloves well in advance 12. Other bees are calm and stay calm whatever abuses are visited upon them. You drop a frame – or a super – they buzz around a little but remain remarkably unfazed.

But most bees are between these extremes. They’re fine until they say ’enough’s enough’.

The first secret of not getting stung is to avoid forcing the bees to become defensive. Don’t crush bees when manipulating frames or replacing queen excluders. It takes a few seconds more to do it gently having brushed/encouraged the bees out of the way. Avoid opening the hive in thundery weather.

But the other secret of not getting stung is being able to judge that the colony is getting riled up. If you realise they’re getting agitated you’ll take extra care.

You might even decide to close up the colony and start again another day.

There’s no shame in a tactical withdrawal …

If they’re really agitated the other thing to take care with is removing your beesuit. I generally don’t react to stings on the hand, forearm, ankle or upper thigh 13, but I react badly when stung on the face.

Stings around the lips, eyes or tongue can be temporarily disfiguring and, for some, dangerous or even life-threatening.

The few really bad stings I’ve received were to the face after removing my veil too soon after inspecting a poorly tempered colony 14.

This is the reason I consider ‘following’ one of the worst possible traits in bees, and something I rigorously exclude when selecting stock for queen rearing (or colonies for requeening).

You will be amazed how good your first honey is

If you get to late August with a strong queenright colony and a frame or three of honey, well done. You’re half way to becoming a beekeeper.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

Enjoy the honey. It tastes even better knowing that you worked with the colony to produce it.

You will miraculously develop a wider circle of friends, and long-lost family members will appear wanting to know all about your new hobby.

And test the honey 😉

In your first season just buy 4 oz or 8 oz jars … any larger and there won’t be enough to go round 😉

Get the bees through the winter, healthy, queenright and expanding well, and you’ll have successfully completed your first full year.

Now you’re a beekeeper 🙂


 

Why keep bees

Synopsis : What makes people want to start beekeeping? Is it to Save the bees, or because they just like honey? Is their persistence and long-term success influenced by their initial motivation to keep bees. Do they keep beekeeping for the same reasons they start beekeeping?

Introduction

Hundreds of potential new beekeepers, spread across the country, are now enrolled on ’Beekeeping for beginners’ or ’Start beekeeping’ events. In the next few weeks they will take weekly or weekend theory courses.

Life cycle, swarming, the hive, Varroa, foulbroods, candles, honey … the whole nine yards 1.

They will read and re-read every page in the Thorne’s catalogue until they can recite it verbatim.

If they’re sensible they will not ’splash the cash’ until they can discriminate between what they actually need, what they might want (but not need), and what will be a total waste of money  2.

With luck, and a responsible beekeeping association, they will be appointed a mentor to provide help, advice, reassurance, cups of tea, a starter nucleus of bees, cake, commiserations and/or antihistamines 3.

It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot to learn 4 and so every reason to be a little apprehensive.

And, if they’re not, perhaps they should be?

In April they should get to see inside a hive.

Will they experience the same heady combination of wonder and bewilderment that I still sometimes feel when lifting a crownboard?

For some it will be a truly life-changing experience 🙂

For others it will confirm that they should have never taken the course in the first place 🙁

But for most it will be something in between.

I’ve often wondered whether the reaction during these early apiary sessions, and the subsequent beekeeping progress, is related to their original motivation to keep bees.

In the beginning

I don’t remember why I was interested in beekeeping. Other than my grandmother, there was no history of beekeeping in my family, and I don’t think my gran kept bees for many years.

I have a faint memory of a couple of lovely WBC hives on a patch of grass overlooking the valley, but never discussed them with her or did anything other than watch the bees going in and out.

When I signed up for a ’Start beekeeping’ course I knew less than nothing about beekeeping or beehives. I didn’t know about removable frames, or supers, or anything about plants or nectar or forage 5.

In fact, I didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was actually inside a beehive, other than a heck of a lot of bees.

However, I was interested in bees.

With a background and education in biology and employment as a biologist 6 I was always fascinated by living things. I’d read Konrad Lorenz and some other books on animal behaviour, I knew a bit about communication in higher animals and I’d heard – and probably been taught the rudiments of – the waggle dance.

I also had a sweet tooth and a long history of starting things enthusiastically and then – over time – moving on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to life/hobbies/jobs 7 though it can get rather expensive if those interests are sports cars or yachts.

As it turns out … it can also get quite expensive if your interests are bees 🙁

Save the bees, save humanity

I started keeping bees well over a decade ago 8. This was a long time before the marketing departments and rent-a-hive greenwashers had realised that there was serious money in honey bees.

Not in beefarming per se but in using honey bees as a sort of environmental imprimatur. If a product states it is bee friendly, or has ’Save the bees’ stamped on it, sales will increase.

Or it will sell at a higher price … or both.

Assuming the (inevitable) illustration used to decorate the product is recognisable, it will probably be a honey bee.

Define ‘recognisable’

Equally inevitably, this constant reinforcement means that the public 9 start to believe that honey bees are threatened and that their numbers are declining.

The reality of course is that honey bee numbers are actually increasing (globally, though not necessarily in all countries), and have been for at least the last 50 years. That doesn’t mean they’re not threatened 10 … but they’re hardly in imminent danger of disappearing.

But at least some decide that the best way to Save the bees’ would be to start beekeeping.

That wasn’t what made me want to start, but I know it’s motivation for some.

Responsible beekeeping associations should stress the potential impact competition from honey bees may have on wild pollinators … those who take up beekeeping to ’Save the bees’ may be doing precisely the opposite.

And those who start and then abandon their bees, leaving hives containing Varroa-ridden colonies to re-infest the neighbourhood, are definitely not Saving the bees … or humanity.

Self sufficiency

Beekeeping often appeals to people who want to be at least vaguely self-sufficient … in much the same way as keeping chickens or growing carrots does. Subconsciously, this may well have been the driver that encouraged me to sign up for a winter course on keeping bees.

I’d always wanted to keep chickens and had already failed spectacularly at growing carrots 11.

My attempts at allotment self-sufficiency had been marred by copious amounts of ground elder, a prolonged drought and frequent overseas travel. Surely beekeeping would be less time-consuming?

I’m beginning to realise it isn’t 😉

But the great thing about beekeeping is that – with a bit of effort – you can do better than achieve self-sufficiency.

I’ve been self-sufficient in honey since my first summer. Unless you eat vast amounts of the stuff it would be difficult not to be.

But the great thing about honey is that it’s a highly valued 12 product, with a long shelf-life.

Not unlike gold … liquid gold.

Honey

Honey

And, like gold, other people value it.

Gifts for dinner parties, thank-yous for the loan of a log splitter, even payment for odd jobs. I’ve used honey for all these things in the last couple of months.

A surplus of honey also opens up a wonderful world of barter and exchange. A jar of honey for some fresh eggs, or to help reduce the glut of runner beans or carrots, is both enriching and saves me the grief of digging and watering an allotment.

Not only is this a compelling reason to start beekeeping, it also means you get to meet like-minded people who are actually good at keeping chickens or growing carrots, and they are almost always interesting to chat with.

Profit

Are you mad?

I’m sure many amateur beekeepers think they make (at least some) money from their bees, and some probably do.

But they are beekeepers, not accountants 13.

Have they factored in the outgoings as well as the income? The cost of their time, the petrol for the van, the ongoing costs of frames and foundation and Apivar?

The losses, the bad years, the bad back?

Winter losses

Over my (relatively short) beekeeping career only about one year in four provides a real bonanza of honey. In the years you don’t run out of supers and honey buckets, you still have the same effort and outgoings. Or possibly more of both.

Even taking these things into account, I’m sure it’s possible to make some money … but would it be enough to live on?

I’ve discussed my back-of-an-envelope attempt at determining the economics of amateur beekeeping. I don’t claim it’s close to accurate, but it does give an idea of just how little ‘profit’ might be made per hive in a poor year, or conversely, how many hives you’d have to run to make more than the state pension.

I’m sure there are a few 14 individuals who take a ’Start beekeeping’ course with the dream of making a good living from bee farming.

I suspect rather few achieve their ambition 🙁

And one of the reasons it’s unlikely to be achieved is that beekeeping – at least beekeeping well – is difficult. It might seem easy in principle, or in a book (or from a website 😉 ), or during a Start beekeeping’ course, but in practice it can seem like an intractable combination of art, science and witchcraft.

Why I keep bees now

Which explains at least part of my ongoing fascination with bees and beekeeping.

There is always something more to learn.

I’ve written before that there is rarely, if ever, a trip to the apiary that does not result in me learning something new. Or learning that my current understanding of some aspect of beekeeping is inadequate, and that there is therefore more to know.

Which, of course, is half the trick about learning … if you realise what you don’t know, you’ll be alert for an opportunity to fill the gap(s) in your knowledge.

And part of the reason there’s so much to learn is that every season is different.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

The weather varies; cold springs, hard winters, wet summers … all change the times that nectars and pollens are available, so influencing colony development.

Or the farmers get less subsidy for cattle feed and more for biofuel, so they abandon growing field beans and start growing more oil seed rape.

Our colonies respond by swarming earlier, or later, or (typically) at the time we’re least expecting.

Keeping bees means I am more in tune with the rhythm of the seasons.

I’m more aware of the arrival and departure of migrant birds, the flowering of trees or when the mackerel shoals appear in the loch. Most of this is subconscious, assisted by a little bit of note taking in my hive records:

April 10 : Colony #21 Q #7 : Gorse and late willow pollen, 5+ frames BIAS 15, first cuckoo of the season

All of which is actually rather nice. You become acutely aware of the environment around you. This provides an invaluable ‘grounding’ if your weekly existence usually involves shuttling between an air conditioned office and an air conditioned car 16.

Zen and the science of honey bees

I’ve worked on the biology of honey bee viruses for over a decade. The ability to mix ‘work and (p)leisure’ has been great. I’m certain that being a beekeeper has enabled me to write more successful funding applications 17.

My beekeeping has certainly helped my scientific interactions with other beekeepers … the many individuals and associations I’ve scrounged samples from, or who have acted as ‘guinea pigs’ for my PhD student’s projects.

One of the good things about the science of honey bees is that there are some excellent communicators on the subject. Thomas Seeley and Mark Winston are well worth reading, and if you have a subscription to American Bee Journal you can also read Jamie Ellis, Randy Oliver and Wyatt Mangum.

And there are many others.

An understanding of the biology or behaviour of bees can help you understand the science.

Lakes, for example … bees don’t like flying long distances over expanses of water. In fact, if they try to they often crash land in the water and perish. I’ve discussed optic flow and distance measurement by bees in a previous post. The mirror-like lake provides insufficient visual clues crossing their retinas, causing them to fly closer (and closer) to the surface to help estimate speed and distance … and take an early bath.

On a more practical level, the need for regular samples of larvae and pupae for research prompted me to investigate, and eventually build, a bee shed (or three).

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

These have been a revelation for many aspects of beekeeping, and are particularly useful in areas with unpredictable weather, or for beekeepers who only have limited time each week for their bees.

My most recently completed shed has still to accommodate any hives, but will be used for queen rearing in the, er, ’changeable’ climate I now enjoy on the west coast of Scotland.

I didn’t even know that queen rearing was a ‘thing’ when I started beekeeping, but it now brings me more enjoyment than many other aspects of the hobby.

Everyone is interested in bees

Finally, and this might be a byproduct of the Save the bees, save humanity’ marketing hype you see in the supermarket or read in the newspaper, lots of non-beekeepers are interested in bees.

When I used to live in a small village and sell honey ‘from the door’ it would sometimes involve a 45 minute conversation to sell a half pound jar.

My honey sales were earning me less than the national minimum wage 🙁

“Where are your hives? What sort of nectar do they collect? Do they fly far? Is it true that honey is antibacterial? Have you a recipe for thin syrup? 18 Why are honey bees threatened?

Which brings me almost full circle to the start of this rambling discourse …

And, of course, the other question beekeepers are regularly asked is Do you get stung a lot?”

You can play it cool and discuss the rigorous selection criteria you’ve used to produce the benign, laid back, mellow colonies of bees in your hives.

Or you can lay it on thick and make it sound akin to alligator wrestling … in a veil.

You think this croc is feisty? … You should see my Buckfasts

You’ll need to judge the customer to work out which is more likely to generate additional sales.

I now cannot imagine not keeping bees, even though I’m not entirely sure why I started in the first place. They are an integral part of my life, though they are by no means my only pastime/hobby/obsession.

The rhythm of the seasons means that my beekeeping is ever-changing; colony expansion in the spring, queen rearing, the honey harvest, talks, feeding them up for winter, DIY projects, more talks, jarring honey and then starting all over again.

If it was the same thing, week in, week out, I’d have probably given up years ago and kept chickens instead.