The views expressed in this article are personal and may not correspond with the views of other people present. I’m sorry this is long but I really had to do the evening justice.
It was a beautiful evening, the pubs were open, some Covid restrictions had been lifted meaning we could now sit in a garden with a friend enjoying a gin and tonic so why tune in to a Zoom meeting with Weybridge Beekeepers? My excuse is that my arm had been twisted (somebody has to write a report).
The first of four (yes four!!!) presenters was Jane Hunter who told us about her “Bees for Development” beekeeping safari in Trinidad and Tobago. Whilst I drooled over the images of sunny sandy beaches and tropical vegetation, Jane told us about beekeeping on the two islands. Trinidad, close to Venezuela, has bee stocks infiltrated by aggressive “Africanised” bees. Excitement mounted, would we hear of Jane and her colleagues being terrorised by these bees? It wasn’t to be. Gladstone, their beekeeping guide, kept the bees in order – maybe it was the long machete he used as a hive tool. Honey there is traditionally sold in rum bottles- it makes one look at recycling in a different light.
Tobago – more isolated – still has a population of native stingless bees from which extracted honey is used by the locals for medicinal purposes. Utrecht University is working with local beekeepers in a project to make manageable hives for these bees. This was a well presented, fascinating talk. You felt humbled by the simplicity of the beekeeping in a country where less is definitely more.
Next came Vanessa and Alan, alumni of the 2018 Beginners course. They talked about what had drawn them into beekeeping and the trials, tribulations and joys of their first 2 years. They have thrown themselves into most aspects of beekeeping whether it’s collecting swarms, constructing hives, making polish or extracting honey. We saw hives constructed by Alan and lovingly painted by Vanessa and heard about their passion for collecting and hiving swarms. Their acquisition of an out apiary on an allotment site and the conversion of their garage into an extracting room are the latest developments. The sheer enthusiasm for the craft, their description of how beekeeping changed family life and their love of the bees themselves reminded us hardened, cynical old hands that this is what beekeeping is really about. If the evening had finished there, we’d have left the meeting flushed with re-found enthusiasm for beekeeping – but no.
There was a short break – enough time for a stiff drink to fortify us for the “hardcore” beekeeping of the second half.
David Parker talked about “Running a 2 Queen Hive”. We all know that more than one queen can happily be on the go in a colony undergoing supersedure. David’s extensive researches (the Internet is a wonderful thing) showed that 2 queens definitely seem to be better than 1 and that a vertical hive system with a queen in brood boxes top and bottom separated by honey supers should give more honey and save apiary space at the same time. David is going to give this a whirl and run this system through the whole beekeeping season with 2 of his colonies (detailed instructions can be seen in the video detailed by Andrew below).
We entered the exhilarating realms of “macho” beekeeping. Images (American bee farming of course) of not only vertical towers of boxes but vertical and horizontal splits combined (not sure where the space saving comes into that) were shown. The height of the stacks was staggering as honey supers mount up, but if you’ve got 2 burly cowboys in a pick -up with a winch to do your inspections lifting isn’t a problem is it? Replacing brood boxes and supers at head height every time would certainly be challenging but I’m sure David (and his back) is up to it; his courage in tackling this project is awesome and I really look forward to seeing his results in terms of honey yield advantage as compared to running hives separately in a future newsletter.
We finally limped into the home straight but stamina levels were flagging. How much more excitement could a jaded beekeeper take?
Geoff Cooper took us gently by the hand to encourage us to have a go at queen rearing. Geoff described the golden past when you could buy a replacement for your 4 years old, failing queen from a reputable supplier for £30 and they were good queens that lasted almost 5 years! Ah those were the days! This year, Thorne’s will sell you a queen (if they’ve got one) at £80!!!
Queen failure rates are increasing too. Many beekeepers report that queens are lasting only 1-2 years and that some are being superseded in their first year. (Maybe your £80 would be better spent on the Lottery.) With a potential import ban of foreign bees, bee smuggling will be a growth industry. As we speak, inflatable boats loaded with Slovenian, Greek and Italian bees may be stealthily crossing the Channel escaping the eagle eyes of our Border Force.
Geoff talked us through a little known (there’s probably a reason for that), Irish beekeeper’s method (instructions on pp. 12-13) where you cram a colony of bees in a single brood box to get them to prepare to swarm. Then you split up the queen cells into lots of nucs and hey presto – loads of new queens / colonies. Simples! If only….
Geoff and Marion Cooper who have zillions of years of beekeeping experience between them, will be trying this at their apiary. The method used by the Northern Ireland beekeeper originates from a beekeeper with non-prolific British native bees in an isolated part of Scotland, a very different environment from suburban Surrey. I’m not sure how easy this would work for a new back garden beekeeper managing prolific Surrey mongrels of an uncertain temperament.
In fairness to Geoff, he stressed that you really need to be on the ball with your handling skills, your observational skills and your understanding of bee behaviour, queen mating and development as well as knowledgeable in making up and running nucs. Not much of a skill base needed there then.
To think that these are things that all members have acquired and are proficient in after the average Beginners course is rather naïve. Is it no wonder that many hobby beekeepers’ eyes glaze over when experienced people stand up and talk with gusto of the multi-various methods of queen rearing?
Seriously, this is a BIG topic and deserves far more than a 20 minute slot at the arse end of an overlong evening. How do we, as an association, help our members get started in making simple increases of their stock without frightening them to death?
The answer? Tune in to Roger Patterson’s (BIBBA) webinars on how to improve our bees and raise queens. Starting at the most basic (how to choose and harvest swarm cells and how to fix them to a frame – yes that simple) to the more ambitious, Roger is not a man to make simple things complicated. These are well worth watching on the BIBBA You Tube channel and give lots of useful ideas on how to meet these challenges with a bit more confidence than we all have at the moment. I encourage every member to look at them.
Many thanks for your very comprehesive report Edwina and your thoughts about the content of the meeting. I wholeheartedly agree with your admiration of Roger Patterson’s instructional talks, of which the lockdown has been the means of so many being conveniently available to us in recent weeks. We too have had a lot of pleasure from them. I hope that our student beekeepers have listened / will listen to some of them as well.
The talks given at our meeting have been put on YouTube as limited access videos. Only people with the links given below will be able to find and view these videos.
Jane Hunter’s talk ”Stingless bees in Trinidad and Tobago” https://youtu.be/4i0SPq1eIdo
David Parker’s talk ”Running a two-queen hive” https://youtu.be/QaTaTEYiUbo
Vanessa and Alan’s talk ”Experiences of novice beekeepers” https://youtu.be/7lctze7GVgY
Geoff Cooper’s talk ”Taking the sting out of queen rearing” https://youtu.be/qdGCsCW5AWQ
The full details of the method Geoff described are included in this newsletter (p.14).
I usually do shook swarms on all my hives each year. This year I invited the students on the beginners course to join me; 5 took up the offer so I split them into two sessions to ensure we complied with the Covid rules. I decided to do just one hive in each session. The process went well but I always think it a waste of the brood removed to destroy it so I made up two nucs with the brood shaking a couple of combs into the nucs to provide enough bees to keep the brood from getting chilled. Then I fed the colonies with 4 pints of food to encourage them to draw the new comb. The benefit of a shook swarm is to remove a large load of varroa and removes any disease spores from the hive. Unfortunately the following day the weather turned cold and remained like that for two weeks. As a result they have not expanded as they usually do but they are on new comb and have drawn and started laying in five of the frames.
Meanwhile the two nucs produced several queen cells which I reduced to two in each box. The brood has all hatched and there is now a period of another 2 weeks before the new queen has mated and started to lay. This gives a queenless period to help reduce the varroa load in the nuc. I am now removing the old empty frames and replacing them with drawn comb. One queen has been given to a past student whose hive had become queenless and the remaining bees united back to the parent colony. I decided not to shook swarm the other two colonies but change all combs gradually over the coming season. These two colonies have performed much better than the shook swarmed colonies which is the reverse of past trends on my hives.
Thanks for this report Michael. There are several important beekeeping points you have covered which will be helpful to many of our members, especially our new students. I am delighted that you do not just scrap the sealed brood which is common practice for many.