Tom Seeley on Darwinian Beekeeping

I was very lucky last week as the Exeter Beekeeping Association had some spare spaces for a Zoom talk by Professor Tom Seeley. If you’re a beekeeper yourself you have probably heard of him – he’s well known for his research into honey bee swarming and foraging behaviour. He has written five books, the most recent of which is The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild (2019).

He comes across as a gentle, thoughtful man. He began his presentation by showing us two pictures: one of Lorenzo Langstroth, and one of Charles Darwin. He explained that both had insights that can help us with our beekeeping – the concept of the moveable frame hive, and the concept of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin’s concept tells us that everything that colonies do when they are living on their own (in control of their own lives) is done to favour their survival and their reproduction.

What is Darwinian beekeeping?

Professor Seeley went on to explain his own principles of Darwinian beekeeping, which revolve around allowing the bees to use their own “beekeeping” skills fully: the bees are superb “beekeepers”. He explains more about this idea in ‘The Lives of Bees’ book. He told us that this way of beekeeping is not for everyone. It’s for those beekeepers with a small number of hives.

Based on his research on wild colonies living in Ithaca, New York, he feels it’s not always the case that bees need help dealing with varroa. The Arnot Forest there is an area of mainly deciduous forest about a five hour drive from New York City. He has studied colonies in the forest since 1978, and has seen the forest getting wilder and wilder, so that it now is home to black bears and ravens. There used to be farms in the area but these are mainly now abandoned and the hills forested.

The area is the one place in North America with data on wild colony abundance before the arrival of the varroa mite (ca. 1994). Tom mapped the colonies out before that and found:

Before varroa (1978): 1.0 colonies per square km
After varroa (2002): 1.0 colonies per square km

It would seem that varroa had not impacted the density of these colonies, despite the colonies being wild and receiving no treatments. Tom wanted to test whether the bees did in fact have varroa. In 2003 and 2004, he caught 11 swarms in the Arnot Forest, finding that 100% of these had varroa, 9% chalkbrood and none had any AFB or EFB. So the bees had not avoided varroa.

Varroa mites

Varroa mite infestation – © Crown copyright 2010 “Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright”

In the right location, and the right size operation, Tom suggests that you may want to consider NOT treating for varroa. But you have to be satisfied with modest honey crops of around 25 pounds per hive. He also advised that not treating may not be suitable for urban beekeepers keeping more than a couple of hives close together. (Although he mentioned a book he’s a fan of – ‘The Idle Beekeeper’ by Bill Anderson – a Londoner who Tom said is a ‘Darwinian beekeeper’ in spirit).

He took us through a series of comparisons:

Original environment of honey bees   (Wild)
vs
Current circumstances of honey bees  (Managed)

Original Current
Colonies are genetically adapted to their location Colonies are not genetically adapted
Colonies live widely spaced in woods (on average 1,000m apart in the Arnot forest) Colonies live crowded in apiaries
Colonies live in small nest cavities and swarm freely Colonies live in super-sized nest cavities (often multi-storey) and swarm rarely. This massive brood nest makes them a varroa gold mine.
Nest cavity walls are thick and coated with propolis Hive walls are thin and not coated with propolis
Colonies build drone comb freely – 15-20% drone comb Colonies discouraged from building drone comb – produce fewer drones
Nest entrance high off ground (avg 8m) Nest entrance is low to ground – more vulnerable to predators
Colonies have diverse pollen sources Colonies have non-diverse pollen sources (e.g. hives taken for pollination contracts)
Colonies are not treated – bees evolve resistance Bees are treated

In Tom’s Darwinian ethos of beekeeping, the goal is to allow managed colonies to live in their original environment. Colonies will make less honey, but they will have better health.

Drone comb

Drone comb

Some of Tom’s guidelines for Darwinian beekeeping

  1. Keep bees that are adapted to your location: Rear queens from your best survivor colonies, OR Capture swarms with bait hives, OR Purchase bees from a local queen breeder
  2. House your colonies in small hives – e.g. one deep 10-frame hive body + 1 shallow super over a queen excluder. The thinking behind this is that mite levels get higher in large colonies.
  3. Space your colonies as widely as possible – even 30-50m apart still gives lots of benefits in avoiding the “mite bomb” phenomenon among crowded colonies.
  4. Line your hives with propolis collection boards, to encourage the bees to collect the same levels as they would in the wild.
  5. Provide your most resilient colonies with 10-20% drone comb, to promote the genetic success of your best colonies.
  6. Put each frame back in its original location and orientation. No reversing of brood box frames. The bees work hard to organise their brood box how they see fit.
  7. Provide only a small entrance at the bottom (many US beekeepers provide top entrances too).

As well as explaining these guidelines, he told us about many mini-experiments he had done which back some of these methods up.

I found these ideas interesting. Some I am doing already: local bees, small hives, a small entrance at the bottom. I could try going foundationless in at least some frames, to encourage more drone rearing. I will continue to treat for varroa because I know there are beekeepers in my local area, and I don’t want my colonies spreading mites to them. Cornwall is not quite the Arnot Forest! Spacing colonies widely would be the most challenging part. I think 30-50m apart would be impossible for many urban beekeepers. The median garden size for a house in London is 140 square metres, just over half the size of a tennis court, while one in eight British households has no access to a garden at all.

What do you think, would you try any of these methods?

Further reading

For alternative viewpoints critiquing Tom’s ideas, see these blogs:

More webinars

The Bee Improvers and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) are running a series of webinars (some free, some for a small fee) which you can see at bibba.com/webinars. They have something for all levels of experience and cover all sorts of topics, so well worth checking out.

Posted in Colony management, Events | 21 Comments

‘Honey – but not as we know it’

Recently my beekeeping club, the Cornwall Beekeepers Association (CBKA), has started running meetings via Zoom. I’m happy about this, as I can listen along curled up at home, without having to get lost among remote country lanes in the dark.

This week Kate Bowyer of the West Cornwall Beekeepers Association (WCBKA) gave a talk “Honey – but not as we know it” for the Bodmin Group of the CBKA – all about honey fraud. This is something I’ve found fascinating ever since watching the Netflix documentary, Rotten: Lawyers, Guns and Honey.

Kate had done an incredible amount of research, throwing in so many statistics that I often wished I could hit a pause button to take them all in. (I tried my best to keep up but apologies if I get any figures slightly wrong!). She has a particular interest in honey quality as she is the Show Secretary of the Royal Cornwall Show, where prizes are given out for the very best local honeys.

Capped honey

The good stuff

Kate explained to us that there are many strands to honey laundering. Adulteration is one of the most common – for example, cutting it with cheap sugar syrup, or adding in bee pollen to obscure its origins. Misrepresentation is another type of fraud – for instance, selling a honey as single source honey made mainly from one particular flower, when it is really not. Yet another type is importing cheap honey and reselling it as premium local honey. Honey fraud is the third biggest food fraud worldwide, topped only by milk products and olive oil!

The UK has increased its imports of Chinese honey by around 20 times over the last 20 years. China’s production has increased by about 88% between 2000-2014, while only increasing hive numbers by 21% (see EURACTIV article). One way Chinese producers deliver such high yields is by speeding up the natural ripening process, harvesting unripe honey in huge drying tanks where they artificially dry the honey (rather than the traditional method of bees frantically fanning it with their little wings).

The Manuka honey industry is particularly lucrative for honey fraudsters. The figures for Manuka honey don’t add up: 1,800 tonnes of manuka honey sold annually in the UK alone, while just 1,700 tonnes in total are produced by New Zealand beekeepers each year – The Manuka Honey Scandal.

In The Honey Regulations (England) 2015, honey has a very precise – and poetic? -definition – “In these Regulations “honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.

So honey on our shelves should not contain sugar added by humans; the sugar in honey should come only from the nectar collected by bees. Yet studies investigating the origins of honey often discover extra sugar syrup is in there. A 2016 European Commission study assessing 2264 samples of honeys found that around 20% of the samples were suspicious of containing added sugar (see Results of honey authenticity testing).

There is a shortage of good quality honey. In the US, 90% of commercial beekeepers now make most of their money from pollination contracts rather than honey sales. And beekeeping is an industry lacking in young beekeepers to keep it going. We’ve reached a ceiling on how much honey we can produce worldwide. The average harvest per hive is dropping.

Governments across the world have been working on developing a database of about 10,000 honeys as a reference point. Unfortunately, testing methods vary between countries and some fraudulent samples have been provided. People are protecting their own commercial interests, as there tends not to be an economic incentive for testing honeys and discovering problems. In the UK, DEFRA have been tasked with sorting this database out.

Hunny

There is some good news: there is now a British Standard Institution (BSI) kite mark standard which honey producers can apply for. The Scottish Bee Company has achieved this for its Scottish Heather Honey. This may not be so great for small sellers though, as testing a sample costs about £150. Will there come a point where we all need kite marks to sell our honey?

For now, buying honey from small-scale local beekeepers at farmers markets or local shops is probably the safest way to ensure you get good quality honey. During the questions afterwards it was commented that customers are often pleasantly surprised when they try a local honey – because it tastes flavourful, whereas they are used to the cheap but bland honeys from the supermarket.

Thank you Kate for a fascinating talk.

Further reading

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Midwinter beekeeping in a pandemic

At the weekend I did my winter oxalic acid anti-varroa trickling – about 2-3 weeks later than is often recommended. But I did it, which I’m pleased with.

Having two children under 5 (and Holly’s birthday just before Christmas!) has made for a very hectic December. On top of that Tommy got ill just after Christmas and was waking up hourly crying out in pain. It took a little while to get to the bottom of that, but he’s now received the right antibiotics and seems to be recovered.

When both children are a bit older, and there’s not a pandemic on, and no-one in the house is in agony and needing trips to A&E, I imagine my oxalic acid trickling will be done at the perfect time 😉

I saw someone recommend using a poly hive roof and super to overwinter, so I’ve given that a go with one of my hives this year. So far so good. I have chicken wire around the hives to try to deter woodpeckers, though thinking about it I probably should put some over the top as well as the sides. Fiddling about with chicken wire has to be one of my least favourite beekeeping tasks though!

I’ve been continuing to help out my local association now and again by updating the website and answering emails sent in by the public. This week someone sent in a photo of a falling apart hive they had seen while out walking, full of ivy and cracks. They were worried about the colony inside, as they had seen bees going in and out on a few occasions. One of our members is going to have a look. It reminded me that bees can be remarkably resilient even in a less than perfect home 🙂

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Winter is coming: embracing the dark nights

As the days shorten, the bees are still managing to find yellow pollen – probably from ivy? On the warmer days, they zip frantically in and out, bringing home as much as they can. As increasingly darker, rainy days come, they hunker down in the hive; perhaps similar to the way we curl up at home and listen to the comforting sound of the rain on our windows. 

Over the years I have got into a bit of a routine with my bees when it comes to over wintering. I’ve found methods that work for me and I don’t tend to adapt them too much. I started out in 2008 and have been lucky to not lose a colony over winter yet (but it helps that I’ve only been keeping between 1-4 hives each of those years). 

I like to feed fondant, and this year the bees are already devouring it fast. Below you can see the dent one of the colonies made in a 2.5kg pack of Fondabee within a week. I put it over the hole in the crown board and then pack insulation over the top. 

Bees eating fondant

My winter checklist:

  • Late summer varroa treatment – usually I do a thymol based treatment in late August-early September (with supers off)
  • Feed syrup in September if stores are low
  • Switch to feeding fondant after October
  • Colonies are overwintered either in a single brood box or brood box with super on top (with queen excluder removed)
  • I put sheets of silver foil style insulation over the crown board, above the brood box
  • Mouseguard put on in early November, after the ivy pollen has finished (as the mouse guard can knock pollen off foragers’ legs)
  • Oxalic acid treatment (Api-Bioxal nowadays) done around the winter solstice 

I’m enjoying our autumn colours and textures – the reds of hawthorn, holly and cotoneaster, the crunch of acorns under foot, the dewy wet grass of the field I walk over to take Holly to nursery in the mornings. This year has been a strange one, but at least in bee-world life continues as before. No social distancing in the bee hive! 

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Last flowers of summer

I’ve suddenly realised that summer has come to an end. The vibrant wildflowers below in my local park are now dying back. Berries have taken over in the hedgerows – shiny blackberries, dusky blue sloes, the red of hawthorn. Green acorns hang from the oak trees.

Wildflowers and baby

Wildflowers and baby

Wildflowers

Wildflowers

A few last treats for the bees and butterflies – sedum (ice plant). Bumble bees, honey bees, small tortoisehells and red admiral butterflies can all be found enjoying its sweet smelling scent.

Sedum (ice plant)

Sedum (ice plant)

And last weekend I found my first flowering ivy of the year, by the sea at Flushing. An important last big feed of the year for honey bees. There is even a bee called the ‘Ivy mining bee’, which emerges in the autumn in time for the ivy flowers. The male Ivy bees emerge first, in late August, with females arriving around a month later. Incidentally Ivy has become a popular name for baby girls recently (though I prefer Holly ;))

Ivy at flushing

Ivy at flushing

You may be wondering why all my images now have jazzy coloured borders. Well, a blogger friend of mine reminded me that this can be done. Thank you, Emilio!

My bees are currently doing well, zooming back and forth with bright loads of pollen. I step off the inspections in August, as the threat of swarming has mostly passed. Also, if I did accidentally squash my queen, my colonies might struggle to get a new one mated before drones disappear. Last week I observed my ladies kicking their brothers out of the hive entrance, shoving them away before they could get back in. Unfortunately their free ride of getting fed by their sisters has come to an end. The days are shortening and the focus of the bees and beekeeper is very much on winter preparation. More on that later.

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When will you be finished?

“When will you be finished?… The kids are getting hungry”… Drew’s voice reached me as I stood surrounded by bees, gingerly trying to put boxes back together as bees poured out from every direction. It hasn’t been easy to keep up beekeeping now that we have two small children to care for. Once upon a time, in those wonderful days before Coronavirus, Drew’s parents could help him look after T&H while I inspected the bees in their garden; not any more. I am grateful that Drew has continued to look after them both, as at times I am sure I am infuriatingly slow! And it would be completely impossible to do any beekeeping without him.

All of which is a part-excuse, part-explanation for how I came to butcher The Apiarist’s ‘nucleus method’ of swarm control. I had found unsealed queen cells in my hive, which is usually a sign that the bees are planning to swarm – but haven’t yet. I had spare equipment ready. All I had to do was find the (unmarked) queen, in about eight frames of brood, while tetchy bees flew up at every move of my hands.

It took two goes, but amazingly I did find her. A lovely long dark queen. I transferred the frame she was on over to a nucleus which I placed next to the hive. Following David’s instructions (which I had printed out for safe keeping), I shook in nurse bees. Deviating from David’s instructions and improvising on the spur of the moment, I then added more frames of brood and honey than he suggests, as I was worried about the nucleus running low on bees or food. I made sure that no queen cells were on any of the frames in the nucleus and closed it up.

Going back to the original old hive, I put in some frames of foundation to replace the frames I’d put in the nucleus. I removed large queen cells as David suggests, leaving only three containing small larvae. I can’t remember how many I had to begin with – maybe eight? I marked the frames the queen cells were left on with a pen. Ideally I would have used drawing pins but as usual I couldn’t find them in the chaos of my beekeeping bag. I placed the supers back on top and pulled the ratchet strap back in place.

I was hot, the bees had tried to sting me multiple times, but I had done it! One had become two. I went back the week after and reduced the queen cells down in the original hive down further, choosing one to leave – at least, if I didn’t miss any (which I probably did!). I also found the nucleus could do with more room, so moved the bees into a single brood box. They weren’t any happier to see me; I miss my old London bees which I could inspect gloveless using just clove oil rubbed on my hands to calm them. I have had to get better at keeping my smoker going to inspect these Cornish bees.

Bees after nucleus swarm method

Bees after nucleus swarm method

Posted in Colony management | 15 Comments

What’s flowering now – Cornish clifftop

A trip to Chapel Porth on the north Cornish coast, where the wind batters anyone who meets it. Drew enjoyed the wild effect it had on his lockdown hair. I enjoyed the views but not the earache I got from the ‘sea breeze’.

I took a photo of a couple of little solitary bees hunkered down in what I thought were dandelions. The wind was shaking the flowers about violently but the bees stayed put, nestled firmly in.

Large shaggy bee

At home one of the experts on the Bees, Wasps and Ants (BWARS) Facebook group told me this was the wonderfully named ‘Large shaggy bee’ (Panurgus banksianus). A long-term monitoring project called The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme looked at numbers of bees and hoverflies between 1980-2013 and found that the range of this species had declined by around 54%. So I was lucky to spot these beauties. The males are said to shelter in the flowers in dull weather.

They were not on dandelions as I thought but a plant called Catsear. Moira O’Donnell, the @nervousbotanist, wrote the helpful tweet below to help with ID’ing Catsear.

Moira O’Donnell tweet Catsear

From a distance I’m still not sure if these yellow flowers are dandelions or more Catsear.

Flowers behind a wall

Foxgloves at Chapel Porth

Foxgloves at Chapel Porth

The foot paths past the old mine house and along the coast take you past bright swathes of purple heather, mingled with the wizened thorns of gorse bushes. A few brave little wild flowers survive at the edges. A few bramble stems trail among the heather, but they don’t manage to take over.

Heather

Chapel Porth cliff top

Chapel Porth cliff top

It’s mad that this is only the second time I can remember seeing ladybirds this year. Tommy has learnt what ladybirds are from pictures in books. They used to be everywhere. One surreal summer when I was visiting family in Wales, a ladybird cloud was blown in on the beach and covered everything in ladybirds.

Tommy had a good time looking at bees and insects. He had an even better time later when he got an ice cream down on the beach!

Tommy looking at flowers

A little further inland on the way back to the car park was this thistle. Another successful spiky plant managing to survive the eternal wind.

Thistle

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Book review: Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe

Steve must have amazing persuasive powers, for somehow he got a book deal for travelling the world chatting to fellow beekeepers about their techniques. What beekeeper wouldn’t want to do that? The beekeepers Steve met are: Murray McGregor, Michael Palmer, Ray Olivarez, Peter Little, Peter Bray, Richard Noel, Randy Oliver and David Kemp. All commercial/ex commercial beekeepers or honey producers. David Kemp is an ex-bee inspector and former assistant to Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey, so was able to tell Steve all about Brother Adam’s methods.

The interviews are really in-depth, it’s a meaty book with a lot to it. If you are interested in queen breeding, maximising your profits or just learning more ways to do swarm control, this book should have something for you. There are lots of little tips to be picked up. I’d like to try Murray’s trick for autumn comb replacement (p.44), getting three frames of foundation drawn out then – apparently as there is no drone rearing at that time of year the frames are perfectly drawn, 100% worker.

Interviews with beekeepers

Interviews with beekeepers

All the beekeepers in the book make or made their money through pollination, honey sales, nuc sales or being a bee inspector. I’d like to see a follow-up book by Steve featuring interviews with beekeepers making a living through alternative routes like offering training courses, doing cut-outs of colonies from tricky places or looking after bees on behalf of businesses like hotels and law firms.

For example, Steve could travel to San Diego to interview Hilary Kearney (Beekeeping like a Girl) who specialises in complicated honey bee removals, runs beekeeping classes and mentors new beekeepers. Or he could meet the lovely Sara Ward at Hen Corner, who runs craft and food courses, including beekeeping. Over to you, Steve!

 

You can buy Interviews with Beekeepers as a hard copy or ebook at https://interviewswithbeekeepers.com

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What’s flowering now in Cornwall: late May to early June

In a different lifetime – perhaps simpler, happier times – I used to walk the wild paths to find out what was flowering in Hanwell, my area of London. There was a surprising amount of green space there, connected up by canals and parks. One field used to be full of bright yellow ragwort and cinnabar caterpillars, a sunny sight to see.

I thought I might try to do that again in Cornwall. We shall see how it goes. The foxgloves are especially spectacular this year, standing tall in all the country lanes. Huge bumble bees disappear inside their bells.

A friend gave me a book called ‘The complete language of flowers: A definitive and illustrated history’ by S.Theresa Dietz. ‘Digitalis purpurea’ also goes by the old names of Cow Flop, Dead Man’s Bells, Dog’s Finger, Fairy caps, Goblin’s Gloves and Witch’s Thimble, to name but a few of its delicious nicknames. According to superstition, if you pick one, the fairies would be offended.

Foxgloves

Some eagerly awaited visitors have found our Lamb’s Ear patch – wool carder bees. They wear chic black outfits with bright yellow stitching down the side. The Lamb’s Ear are useful to them both to line their nests with their fibres and for their nectar. I was perplexed today to find one laid completely still on one of the leaves. I thought she might have been grabbed by a crab spider, but there was no sign of any creature gripping her from below. Perhaps she was just having a rest? When I returned a bit later, she was gone.

According to my book, Lamb’s Ear guards against harm and wards off evil magic.

Wool carder bee

Wool carder bee

Wool carder bee on lambs ear

Wool carder bee on lambs ear

Red campion grows along a field I walk around to pass the long days. Its symbolic meanings include ‘youthful love’.

Red campion

Red campion

In the past week campanula flowers have come out, casually growing out of walls and any little spot where no other flowers will grow. Patchwork leaf cutter bees zoom between them, occasionally stopping for a rest in the sun. They are said to collect sections of leaves from plants including birch trees, roses, lilac and honey suckle, which they carry away to use in their nests.

The mini apple trees were pollinated very fast indeed and the apples are now well on their way to getting big. I prefer the cooking apples on a little tree by our shed though, except that most of them are too high to reach. But I will get a few crumbles from them.

What is growing where you are?

Apples

Apples

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A shortage of eggs

For weeks now both my hives have had no eggs or brood. So I’ve been reading about queenlessness and asking the advice of other beekeepers recently.

People said things like ‘Be patient. Bees won’t deliberately make themselves queenless’. So, rather than ordering a new queen in the post I managed to get a frame of eggs from a kind local beekeeper. A frame of eggs is a test of whether a hive is queenless – if it is, they should make queen cells. The bees did nothing with it. Did they have a queen, or were the eggs somehow damaged by being away from their colony and transported in the car without workers to care for them?

Still, I waited and hoped. And then finally last weekend one of the hives had the long looked-for eggs. One per cell, at the bottom of the cell. The sign of a queen! The bees seemed in a better mood. There were about three frames with eggs so I took one to the other colony which miraculously has no laying workers yet no eggs or brood either. It will be interesting to see what they do.

While I was waiting for eggs, some bees came to me. Unfortunately, they came to my chimney. Just as the old colony up there had started to dwindle and die out, a new swarm dramatically moved in, filling the air with bees. A procession of thoughtful neighbours knocked on the door to inform us… one said:  “If you go to the British Beekeepers’ website, you can find a local beekeeper”. When they discovered that I happen to be a beekeeper, I loved their confidence that I could sort it out… if only.

At the moment I am reading ‘Interviews with Beekeepers‘ by Steve Donohoe. There’s a lot to it and I am slowly moving through in the small bits and pieces of free time I get, taking in the advice and humour. It arrived quickly soon after ordering.

Below are a few photos of flowers out in Cornwall at the moment and cake that I’ve been eating.

Mexican fleabane

Mexican fleabane – this grows everywhere along the Cornish walls

Hawthorn

Hawthorn – the queen of May

Foxgloves

Foxglove – good for bumble bees

Victoria sponge cake

Victoria sponge cake and a cookie I won as part of my runner-up prize in our street’s VE day art contest

 

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