New Year’s Resolutions

Synopsis : Often made, less often kept. How to improve your health, wealth and generosity … good habits for the season ahead, plus wildfires, bananas and XXXL beesuits. New Year’s Resolutions for beekeepers.

Introduction

Historically, the Babylonians used the start of their New Year as an opportunity to clear old debts, return a kindness or right a wrong. In 2000 BCE 1 these New Year’s resolutions were retrospective, they did something measurable to ‘correct’ a past event.

At some point in the last 4000 years resolutions evolved to become prospective … and acquired increasingly religious connotations. The Romans made promises to their god Janus after whom the month of January is named. The change from a lunar calendar also shifted New Year, from the Babylonian springtime to its current location, shortly after all the mince pies are finished and the tree has shed the last of its needles onto the carpet.

Lots of people – perhaps 40-50% of the population 2 make New Year’s resolutions and almost as many fail to keep them. In many cases this failure seems predestined; asked at New Year whether there’s an expectation that a resolution will be kept, only ~50% say they expect to achieve their goal.

In practice, that’s ambitious.

When asked one year later only 12% had managed to keep the resolution.

‘Close, but no cigar’ 3.

These days the once predominantly religious resolutions have, for many, been replaced by ‘self promises’ that can be broadly categorised as health (e.g. lose weight, quit smoking, get healthier), finance/career (e.g. save money, reduce stress) or generosity (e.g. be helpful, donate to charity).

New Year’s Resolutions for beekeepers

And, in a blatantly-contrived way, some of these resolutions are also relevant to beekeeping.

Like everyone else, beekeepers are just as capable of not keeping their resolutions, despite the clear benefits of doing so.

So, in no particular order, let’s have a look at a few beekeeping resolutions tailored to our obsession but still recognisable as generic or popular New Year’s Resolutions.

Quit smoking

Most beekeepers are smokers, or at least use smokers.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

In fact, the smoker is probably the most widely recognised tool of our trade. The smoke is used to calm the colony before inspections. It masks the alarm pheromones and so makes inspections a little easier. After smoking a colony and opening it up you will usually find a significant number of the bees gorging on open honey stores or nectar.

This probably accounts for the explanation that bees nesting in tree cavities have, over eons, evolved to respond to smoke from natural forest fires. This response includes gorging on stores so that the colony can abscond – a term used to describe the entire colony abandoning any brood and relocating – to set up home elsewhere.

This is almost certainly incorrect.

Abscond? What’s the point?

Firstly, bees exposed to wildfires do not abscond. Unfortunately they just get cooked, and almost certainly die from either heat or asphyxiation 🙁 . Or, if the nest survives the fire, they starve as there’s no forage in range. Secondly, if you assume it’s midseason and the queen is laying eggs like crazy, they probably cannot abscond as she will be too heavy to fly any distance.

What’s more, if you open a colony without using smoke there will still be bees gorging on honey stores … the disturbance alone is sufficient to make them do this.

Try it.

Mr Smoke-Too-Much

Just like the Monty Python character, you can smoke too much. If you do the bees get disorientated and distressed. On occasion I’ve had to smoke a colony heavily and it’s generally something to avoid (but they never abscond).

Many beekeepers probably rely on smoke rather more than they should. If you smoke a colony heavily at the hive entrance the bees will be driven up … to the exact region you want fewer bees when you manipulate the frames. A very gentle waft under the crownboard and the occasional very light puff to clear bees from the frame lugs should be sufficient.

There are alternatives to smoke. A plant mister with plain water works well for many colonies and is what I often use if I’m just inspecting nucs. There are also commercial smoke/smoker alternatives like Fabi-Spray or Apifuge.

One of the best ways to learn to use less smoke is to keep bees in a shed. If you are over-generous with the smoker you also end up getting ‘kippered’.

Kippered

Kippered

I leave the smoker outside the door and only retrieve it when initially opening a colony and very rarely during inspections.

Of course, the best way to need to use less smoke is to select for calm, stable bees when you are queen rearing.

So … perhaps don’t quit smoking, but as Bounder-of-Adventure suggested to Mr Smoke-Too-Much in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ’better cut down a little’ 4.

Reducing stress

The Oxford English Dictionary has at least 13 definitions for the term stress; although many automatically think of tension or anxiety, biologists also use the term to mean:

Disturbed physiological function occurring in an organism or cell in response to conditions, events, or factors that are deleterious or threatening.

Bees subjected to adverse conditions – like long-distance transport, temperature extremes or disease – show evidence of stress which can be quantified in changes to the levels of molecular markers such as pheromone receptors and immune responses. This ability to respond is important, but it can be at the expense of normal physiological activity; e.g. more fighting pathogens or keeping warm than following waggle dancing foragers or feeding developing larvae.

Whilst I’m not aware of any studies of inspection-induced colony stress 5 I’ve no doubt it occurs … and that it’s at least transiently detrimental. The pheromone levels and gradients in the hive are disrupted, the brood nest is flooded with light, the location of bees in the nest are disturbed.

So, if you assume that that it is detrimental, try and minimise it. Only open the hive if needed, be gentle, use minimal smoke, be quick and calm and controlled … and try not to drop any frames 😉 .

The stressed beekeeper

The greater the disturbance you cause to the colony, the more defensive the bees become. They start pinging off your veil, burrowing into creases in your beesuit, stinging your gloves.

I love the smell of isoamyl acetate

You become aware of a feint but distinct whiff of ripe bananas … that’s the alarm pheromone produced from the Koschevnikov gland at the base of the sting.

Then things start going a bit Pete Tong.

Your stress levels rise, you use too much smoke, you try to work faster but consequently get clumsier, a bee gets inside your veil and you get even more stressed … and smoky … and clumsy … and stung.

If you are tense and anxious before even opening a hive the bees can probably sense it, and this may exacerbate things.

Beekeeping shouldn’t be like this.

To reduce your stress you need to:

  • have confidence in your protective clothing – buy a good quality beesuit and wear additional layers underneath when needed
  • wear gloves that enable good dexterity – thin nitriles rather than welding gauntlets
  • take care to cover areas of weakness – cuffs, ankles etc. (the bees will find them)
  • requeen defensive colonies as soon as practical from better quality stock
  • learn to inspect the colony quickly and calmly by practising (don’t avoid conducting inspections)
  • and, if you’re frightened of the sting reaction, take antihistamines in advance of apiary visits

Beekeeping is supposed to be an enthralling and relaxing pastime. If it’s a stressful battle – for you or the bees – then something is wrong.

Improved health

This is a huge topic and needs more than a few hundred words – here are three examples of good practice:

  • many diseases are always present in the colony but only become a problem under certain conditions. Deformed wing virus (DWV) isn’t an issue until Varroa levels rise, chalkbrood often ‘disappears’ by mid-season as the colony strengthens. Weak colonies are often more susceptible to disease and/or more likely to show symptoms. It therefore makes sense to maintain strong colonies. Take account of environmental conditions; don’t split them too hard and feed if necessary. Wasps and robbing bees aren’t ‘diseases’ but strong colonies are also better able to defend themselves.
DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

  • ignore much of the nonsense you read in some surveys of colony losses. The biggest problem most beekeepers face is the toxic combination of DWV and Varroa. I would be amazed if these accounted for <75% of all annual colony losses. Isolation starvation? Nope … the winter bees died faster due to high levels of DWV and the little cluster froze to death. Monitor your Varroa levels a few times during the season and look out for overt DWV symptoms – much of either and you might need to intervene. Yes, there are other things to look out for, but mites and viruses are the biggest problem.

Varroa incursions and introductions in NSW, Australia, 19 December 2022

  • beekeepers are responsible for spreading many pests and pathogens between hives and apiaries. If the global distribution of Varroa doesn’t convince you of this, then the map of Varroa presence in New South Wales should. Similar data exists for foulbroods, where the only reasonable explanation for the presence of the same strain miles apart is hive movements or contaminated equipment. Practise good biosecurity and remember, ‘when you move bees, you move disease’.

Save money

Some beekeepers already have a bit of a reputation in this area … ‘deep pockets, short arms’ as they say 6. Even more beekeepers, whilst not actively mean, enjoy making savings wherever possible – if you want evidence of this just watch the stampeding hordes descend on the trade show sales at beekeeping conventions.

There are lots of ways to save money, at least after the initial expenditure on a hive (or two), beesuit, smoker etc.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

Brood boxes and supers are probably best purchased as they are difficult/expensive to make without good tools, woodworking expertise and a source of high quality wood. Buy new cedar (even second quality) or poly boxes and they’ll last longer than you will. However, floors, roofs, crownboards and most of the things I consider as the horizontal components of the hive can be easily and inexpensively constructed.

Switching partly or totally to foundationless frames will save you a small fortune over the years.

Honey, honey

Of course, rather than reducing your outgoings, the other way to ‘save’ money is to raise your income.

Is your honey priced correctly? Beefarmers are talking about a glut after the good 2022 season, but I know plenty of places selling excellent local honey for £9-13 a jar (227 g or 340 g). The days when the milkman used to distribute and sell my honey for £4 a pound are long gone 7.

Do your homework, use attractive jars, think about your labelling and remember that well produced local honey is a unique premium product and should be priced accordingly.

Not local honey, but it might well be priced correctly

A final piece of advice on saving money. Omitting or skimping on Varroa treatments is false economy. I use Apivar and Api-Bioxal and spend less per hive per year than the cost of one 340 g jar of honey 8. That’s a small price to pay 9 and is a cost I more than recoup from increased honey production or reduced overwinter losses.

Be more helpful

One of the best ways to learn is to teach.

If you’ve got a year or two of beekeeping experience why not volunteer to act as a mentor for beginners? By sharing the responsibility for an additional hive or two you will get more beekeeping experience than if you just manage your own. These additional colonies will make the distinction between ‘good’ bees and ‘poor’ bees much easier, particularly if they share a similar environment.

Checking grafted larvae

Mentoring and training … the best way to learn

The inevitable questions from your mentee will challenge your understanding of the bees;

  • Is this a queen cell or a play cup? What’s the difference between them anyway?
  • Does this queen look inbred? Is there another explanation for a pepper-pot brood pattern?
  • How do I cut out a queen cell overlaying a foundation wire?

As good as the training course was that I attended, and despite my attentiveness during my subsequent solo blunderings 10, I’ve learnt much more from mentoring since I started.

Try it, you won’t regret it. You already know more than you think you know, and – if you’re anything like me – you’re only just realising how much else there is to learn.

Donate more to charity

I am aware of two charities that promote beekeeping in communities, supporting sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty, build resilient livelihoods and benefit biodiversity” and who mentor and train in local beekeeping best practices, business skills, and protecting the environment” 11 :

Both do really valuable work, primarily in Africa, but in other countries as well.

You can donate directly or purchase anti-tamper labels for jars that also help promote the work of the charity to the purchaser/consumers of your honey. Gift Aid donations if you can.

Lose weight

No, no, no … I don’t think so.

This one is the exception.

Other than during the self-flagellation exercise that is honey extraction, in particular shifting full supers from hives to the the store and then to the extractor, I don’t think there are any circumstances when beekeepers want less weight.

  1. I want my supers to be bloated with honey and I want them stacked head high.
  2. Colonies going into winter should be stuffed with stores and correspondingly heavy.
  3. I want the heaviest swarms possible to conveniently make their way to my bait hives. Bring it on, the more the merrier. They’ll get established faster and may even yield a good crop of honey (see 1, above).

There may be things I’m overlooking and my basic politeness means I have no intention of discussing anything to do with XXXL beesuits.

Does my bum look big in this?


Bargain basement

NHBS 12 currently have a special offer (£13.99 rather than £23.99) on Thomas Seeley’s The Lives of Bees. Although I’m not a fan of his Darwinian Beekeeping ideas, the book is an outstanding account of the biology of free-living honey bees. It is not a book about beekeeping but it explains loads of things about their behaviour which will help you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. 

Footnotes

  1. Before Common Era (BCE; and CE for Common Era) are the secular versions of BC and AD. Well, almost secular, as they both use Dionysius’s estimate of the birth year of Jesus as a reference. Odd.
  2. UK and US stats here from a variety of sources.
  3. Particularly if you’d planned to give up smoking.
  4. With apologies for those unfamiliar with Monty Python.
  5. At least at the molecular level, there are some using hive monitors.
  6. Interestingly, the idiom ’deep pockets’ means having lots of money, but coupled with ’short arms’ the wealth or otherwise of the Tyrannosaurus-limbed individual is irrelevant.
  7. As has the milkman, and the pound … until the recent asinine suggestions to reintroduce imperial measures.
  8. Premium local honey, not imported syrup @ 69 p.
  9. Though the £150 outlay stings as I leave the store clutching those small foil packets.
  10. Which continue to this day – blunderings that is, I’m getting less … er … what was I saying?
  11. To use key phrases lifted directly from each their ‘About us’ pages.
  12. No affiliation … I’m just on their mailing list and have bought from them before.

20 thoughts on “New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Phil Redhead

    Timely as always, and useful – I don’t do NY resolutions, but after a really bad 2022 (personal issues, a few too many hives, and so leaving them to themselves for swathes of summer..I still have supers stacked ready for extracting!) I am focussing on being a better beek – so better planning, fewer hives and better beekeeping including queen rearing and going for for some post-Basic education also. Good luck for the new season

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Phil

      The supers will be fine. Warm them if you can before extracting as it makes things so much easier. Less can be more. I had fewer production colonies last year and got much more honey. Fewer, stronger colonies will almost always do better, but they will need attention to prevent swarming. I hope you have a great season.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Ihor Pona

    “take care to cover areas of weakness – cuffs, ankles etc. (the bees will find them)”
    True.
    Stung twice, on the middle of my bare buttock. Entry at the base of my pant leg, up the leg, under the underwear, and bullseye!
    This was no mere sting, it was a message, “I will find you…..”
    The whole body is an area of weakness.
    Much respect for such eloquence.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Ouch!

      It always amazes me how a bee can traverse a long distance inside your clothes, often while you are moving quite vigorously (lifting, bending etc.), until she reaches the point of maximum tenderness and sensitivity before BAM! I regularly wear a jacket and I know the bees get in under the waist elastic. Even when I’m just wearing a T-shirt underneath they always seem to appear inside the veil, rather than stinging me en route. Fortunately I usually manage to take a few steps back and release them … unless they’re in a really bad mood 😉

      Happy New Year!
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Peter

      Many thanks. Very interesting. I edited the post to directly link the article and the video so I don’t infringe RepublicWorld’s copyright. It looks like those hives were buried in ash but it’s not clear how far they were away from any hot lava from the volcano. Nevertheless, spending 50 days sealed in the hive from mid-September without asphyxiating is pretty amazing.

      While writing this post I also came across information of the hives on the roof of Notre Dame cathedral which survived the fire there in April, 2019. These hives were about 30 metres below the main roof which was ablaze.

      Happy New Year Peter … I hope you have a great season in Slovakia.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ivan

      I think that formally a kipper is a split herring that’s been salted and smoked, whereas an Arbroath smokie is a smoked haddock.

      However, I don’t think the distinction is important … I used that picture in that context because it was 1:30 in the morning and my brain was only half engaged 😉 … and I didn’t have a picture of a kipper uploaded already.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Marina Steel

    Hi David
    I do resolve to cut back on my smoking (I may have shamelessly borrowed this idea for my latest Instagram post….)
    I did try a water spray towards the end of the season (when I couldn’t be bothered to light the smoker for a quick inspection) which actually worked really well and my bees are pretty chilled on the whole, so something to pursue.
    I may even resolve to plan ahead and get enough frames & supers assembled before the season starts….
    Great post as always.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Marina

      I’ve had one or two colonies that never really behaved with a water mister, but generally they work well. I’ve tended to use them a lot less since I moved back to Scotland as it’s generally a lot cooler when I’m doing inspections and I want to minimise the risk of chilling the colonies. However, in high summer with nucs or mini-nucs it’s a quick and easy solution … and always ready 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Jeremy

      If you do a search there’s about a 50/50 mix of long/deep pockets with short arms, so I guess they’re interchangeable. I am more familiar with the deep pockets variant, perhaps because it seems to make more sense when used along. Just saying someone has long pockets – to me – means little … though if you look up the idiom it appears to mean just the same as deep pockets and probably dates back to about the same time (1950’s America).

      Perhaps I need to retitle this site to “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Beekeeping” or “Bees and etymology” 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Maccon Keane

    Dear David
    Happy new year and here’s to a great season. I agree completely re little / no smoke and have largely abandoned it finding a calm / no jerky movement approach works better. I am really interested to read that you are not a fan of Tom Seelys Darwinian Beekeeping ideas. Given the natural structure and behaviour of of a colony in the wild his suggestions appear reasonable and well founded albeit some v difficult to implement. Clearly his suggestions are hypothetical given that he presents no experimental evidence that their implementation improves outcomes over standard beekeeping practice but if you had an opportunity I would be keen to hear your arguments particularity against Seelys suggestions to which you take the most exception.
    Yours sincerely
    Maccon Keane

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Maccon … and Happy New Year

      I’ve written about Seeley’s Darwinian beekeeping and should have linked it in the post (I’ll go back and edit shortly). I wrote the post a couple of years ago and there’s a few bits I’d change now, but essentially it’s all there. My fear is it sounds good, but that it will result in a lot of lost swarms, a lot of dead colonies and that there’s an expectation that beekeepers will proactively kill mite infested colonies. None of these things are particularly appealing. I’m also not convinced by the “healthier and less stressed bees” … it’s something treatment free beekeepers promote but it’s wishful thinking. I’m not aware of any that have actually proven it by monitoring pathogen levels and molecular markers of disease and stress.

      Don’t get me wrong, The Lives of Bees is an excellent book, but the final chapter is a bit contrived in places and – in my view – sounds better than it is likely to be. I suspect it will appeal to a lot of beginners who don’t like the sound of using nasty chemicals in their hives … but that lack the backbone to pour a jar of petrol into the colony to kill it.

      That’s not a criticism … I wouldn’t like to do that either … but that’s because I know how effective miticides are when used properly 😉

      Have a great season 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      PS I just checked … it was linked already.

      Reply
  5. Kasia Walker

    David
    I am a bit late reading this as I have been bludgeoned by Covid since 22 December but improving on a daily basis.
    I am curious to know, when you retire what will you write about? Surely you will keep a couple of hives in your garden? I think you would miss them so much. Even if I never had any honey just watching the comings and goings of the bees is reward enough.
    Thanks for a year of great reading. Happy New Year!
    Regards
    Kasia

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Kasia

      I think my punctuation has let me down (again) … 😉 . I’ve still got ~20 colonies this winter, with half of them in my garden. This number is likely to increase this season. I can’t imagine being without bees and have several new things I’m interested in exploring this year (pollen analysis and new – to me at least – strategies for queen rearing, blended honey). I’m also still going to be doing lots of writing. However, not all of it will be here and posts here won’t get longer or more frequent … over 3000 words is more than enough a week. The additional writing I’m doing is for other projects that I may talk about later in the season. And, if that wasn’t enough, I also give a lot of talks a year.

      Retirement is a relative term 😉

      Happy New Year
      Cheers
      David

      PS Pleased you’re on the mend.

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Kasia

      Many thanks. I had seen that and have made a few notes on it for a post in the future. Sunflowers aren’t widely grown in the UK – perhaps no more than a few square kilometres (and only then in the warmer regions) – and the mite reduction they report isn’t really big enough to be compelling. However, it’s an interesting observation and one that deserves more research.

      Maybe I should write a grant to spend the next three summers in France where they have hundreds of acres of the stuff 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Jim Stuart

    David, a bit late due to other matters. I thought it was Dionisius not Dionisus; a Roman not a Greek God!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Jim

      Not too late at all … you’re absolutely right 🙂 . That’s either autocorrect gone haywire or my lousy classical education!

      The calendar was modified by Dionysius Exiguus (470-544), a Roman monk, whereas – as you indicate – Dionysus is the Greek God (of wine amongst other things, so I really should have remembered).

      I’ll edit the footnote.

      Thank you
      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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