An unexpected arrival

I’d left some equipment behind in the old location I used to keep bees, and hadn’t got around to moving it yet. Some new visitors took advantage of this des res – a brood box with a few frames in, a floor, and an inspection board acting as a roof, all piled up on top of a load of empty equipment. They’re against a wall and have a hedge and trees the other side, providing shelter from the Cornish rain, and – in the last few days – the Cornish sun!

I was surprised at how large a swarm it was. A couple of weeks on, the brood box is full of bees. On my first inspection, I looked for eggs but found none. I filled in the empty spaces in the box with new frames of foundation. I inspected again four days later and was happy to spot larvae.

The next job to do is move them to the same location as my other bees. The swarm is especially lucky as my sole remaining colony, headed up by Queen Oilel (named by reader Disperser), seems to be queenless (or at least, she has stopped laying if she’s there). Sorry Emilio, your Queen didn’t last long.

The swarm before I filled in the gaps with frames

I discovered a few fat slugs living in the corner of the brood box, which I ejected for the bees, using my hive tool to pick them up and gently place them elsewhere. I then had to change my hive tool, as unfortunately I discovered bees get stuck to slug slime! Which is presumably why the slugs get away with it.

The bees have been taking advantage of the beautiful sunshine after the rain. On my last visit they had bulging light grey pollen baskets – I believe from blackberry brambles. Honey bees and bumbles can also be spotted enjoying clover at the moment.

Clover

In my garden, campanula has been very popular, attracting honey bees but also more unusual small solitary bees a third of the size of the big honeys. If you look closely below you can spot a honey bee nestled in one of the flowers. The campanula self-seeds and drapes itself daintily everywhere, seemingly needing barely any soil at all.

Campanula
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Moving bees

A few weeks ago I moved my two little colonies in nuc boxes to a new location nearer to home. I’d never had to move bees before, so asked other beekeepers for tips beforehand and as luck would have it the BBKA News that landed through my door that day had an article all about moving bees.

The main thing with moving bees is make sure the bees can’t get out.

Earlier in the day I had put ventilated travel screens on top of both nucs, then left their roofs resting on them just in case it rained (it didn’t). Around 9pm, as the darkness of evening was drawing in, I returned and turned the dial at their entrance to the ventilation only setting. Very quick and easy. I had a kind helper with strapping the boxes together and moving them up to the car.

I haven’t been driving that long, and never with bees, so was a little nervous, particularly going over bumpy country lanes. I hadn’t anticipated the sound of the bees hitting the travel screen as they repeatedly flew up.

The roads I was driving down were very quiet at that time of night, so much so that for about the first fifteen minutes I only passed a couple of other cars. Was nice to be able to take it slowly without worrying about other drivers.

None of the bees got out, and they are now settled in nicely. One recently hatched queen is now laying and the other colony appears to be queenless, so I’m planning to combine them this week. I will need to think of a new Cornish name for the queen, a long dark beauty. Any suggestions?

As I was inspecting over the weekend I heard a sudden thud and something landed on the ground next to the hive. When I looked more closely, it was a baby bird, hairless and still. A baby blackbird perhaps. Its huge eyes were now permanently closed. I suddenly thought of my own children at a day old, so vulnerable and delicate. By the next day, its skeleton had been stripped to the bone. Somehow, life keeps going, and the remaining blackbirds keep flying.

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How to catch a swarm – advice from an expert beekeeper, Roger Patterson

A few weeks ago I listened into a zoom talk all about swarms by Roger Patterson. I last heard Roger speak in person almost a decade ago, back in 2012, when his talk was “Improve your bees and beekeeping – simply”. I think he’s one of the most well known beekeepers here, as he does so many talks and is very active in the beekeeping community. He has also written a book, called ‘Beekeeping – A Practical Guide’ (2012).

Roger began by saying that swarms have changed:

Pre 1990s, they used to be reliable:

– Large prime swarms had fertile queens (unless there had been a beekeeper error)
– You could chuck it in a hive
– No need to feed
– Add 1-2 supers if early in the season, 1 if later
– Leave it alone
– Often gave you a honey crop

But now:

  • Can be as they’re supposed to be
  • But more often find large swarms have a virgin or failing queen
  • Lots of small swarms with a failing fertile queen
  • Fertile queens often soon fail, supersede or disappear
  • They then swarm on emergency or supersedure cells
  • Quite a lot riddled with varroa

I was interested in this as I have had a lot of queen problems myself after doing splits or capturing swarms. Like Roger says, often the new queens seem to disappear.

Roger then went on to talk about good swarms – these he thinks:

  • Have a mix of ages
  • Far more young bees than usually thought
  • Fertile queens lay within a day of the swarm settling into their new home

He is a fan of swarms and thinks they make a great learning experience for beginners.

About being a swarm collector

Most associations have a list of swarm collectors, which may be managed by a local swarm co-ordinator. This is not an easy job, as all the calls come at once. If you go on the list, it is a service to the general public. Please commit yourself for the summer (not just collect enough swarms for yourself). You also need to be competent.

Before going on the swarm collection list, you should fully understand the swarming process and have experience of collecting swarms. Also learn about wasps, hornets, bumblebees, solitary bees, hover flies (all the things the public mistake for honey bees). You are dealing with non-beekeepers. They may need patience and understanding, but most are on our side.

Have kit ready x2

Smoker, fuel, matches/lighter, hive tool, several queen cages, clipping/marking kit, secateurs, spare veil for onlookers, bee proof container (e.g. skep, or poly nuc, or tough cardboard box). You also need a sack, cloth or sheet. Make sure it hasn’t got a hole and is breathable. Some old, dry brood comb can also be helpful, as a swarm in a thick hedge will often climb up onto an old brood comb.

When the call comes

  • Ask where the person lives
  • How long have the bees been there?
  • Did you see them arrive? (If yes – good sign)
  • Where are they? (Avoid cavity walls or in the ground. Bird box likely to be bumbles)
  • What size – football, rugby or tennis ball?
  • How high? Relate to something like a window or gutter
  • Ask if any other beekeepers have been called, and if one lives nearby
  • Is a ladder needed – and have they got one?
  • Give them your mobile number and ask them to call if the swarm leaves
  • Take their number

When you arrive

People who have found a swarm can be very different. Some are frightened or allergic. Some get too close. They can be helpful, difficult and everything in-between. We are ambassadors – diplomacy may be needed! Don’t cause damage. Leave everything tidy and say thank you.

If the location is too difficult to collect from, say so. Be calm – you may have lots of observers – but it’s not bomb disposal! Check your BBKA insurance, make sure you know what you are covered for.

Hiving a swarm from an unknown source

  • Hive on foundation
  • Don’t feed for 4 days (just in case they come from a colony with foul brood. If you hive on foundation the foul brood is used up out of their system as part of the wax making process. However Roger has only come across one swarm that had foul brood).
  • You can put a queen excluder under the brood box to stop the queen leaving, but the downside is that it can get clogged up with drones and if the swarm has a virgin queen she then can’t get out to mate.

Building up a swarm

  • Let it build up naturally
  • Only feed if necessary – Roger hasn’t in about 40 years
  • Inspect regularly
  • Re-queen if needed

Thanks Roger for a great talk. As you can see, he covered a lot! I didn’t get notes for all of it. What do you think, have swarms changed since you started beekeeping? Is there anything you do differently when collecting/looking after a swarm?

The swarm
One of my swarms, 2018
Posted in Events, Swarms, Uncategorized | Tagged | 13 Comments

Second inspection of the year

It’s been a cold week, but today seemed to mark a turning point in the weather here. I took my coat and gloves back off; my gloves had been put away for the summer two weeks ago, only to be hastily retrieved when the cold winds arrived. In some parts of the country snow has fallen and beekeepers have not found an opportunity to do a first inspection yet.

Cherry tree
Cherry tree in my garden – on one of the grey days

I lit my smoker and approached Demelza’s hive – I always inspect that hive first as it’s calmer. I still couldn’t spot Queen Demelza, and her workers had not made a start on drawing out the frames in their super. Perhaps they will now the weather seems to be warming up again. I saw eggs and brood across about six frames, and the colony seemed content and calm.

On to Kensa’s hive. I had left them a super of honey on over winter, which I now think was a mistake. They probably had too much space to keep warm, and now some of the brood has chalkbrood disease. The queen had also begun laying in the super, making it a colony on a brood-and-a-half system. I dislike this, as it means inspecting two boxes, and the two frame sizes are not interchangeable. I needed to find Queen Kensa this week for the next step in the Bailey comb change I’d started. I began by moving the top super box a few feet away and keeping it covered with the crown board to keep the bees calm. I placed the super box on top of the upturned hive roof, so that if the queen was there and fell down she would fall into the roof rather than on the ground.

I then spent some time inspecting the frames in the brood box. The colony was only using about half of these at one end of the hive. I also took the opportunity to slowly and gently remove comb sticking up from the top of the brood frames, using my hive tool. Unfortunately the bees became more and more agitated, and I couldn’t spot the queen.

The mood of the bees gave me a clue that perhaps Queen Kensa was in the super a few feet away. The bees very quickly notice if their queen goes missing and you can hear the sounds of the colony change slightly. I covered over the top of the hive and moved over to the super. Moving the brood away is a good trick with an aggressive hive, as the flying foragers are more defensive than the nurse bees that stay with the brood. The bees in the super were in a very different mood, with a busy but peaceful hum. I decided the queen must be with them.

I carefully ran my eyes over the frames, turning them over and taking in all the bees. About three frames in, I saw her. And then I didn’t. My eyes lost her for a second and she disappeared. I turned the frame over a few times before spotting her again, long and chocolate brown. That is how easy it is to lose an unmarked queen.

Returning to the brood box, I removed the half of the frames that were empty and filled them with some of the super frames of brood. I placed the queen excluder on top and then Queen Kensa on the super frame I’d found her on, plus the new brood frames added last time. Once the brood below hatches out, I can remove the old frames and get them down to one brood box with mostly new comb. Not a perfect Bailey comb change but a good start. I plan to mark Queen Kensa next week now I have narrowed down where she is. I was feeling quite tired out by this point!

I can already think of some things I’ve done wrong, but never mind, hopefully the colony is moving in the right direction and I’ll sort it out on the next inspection.

By the way, does anyone know how to edit images in the WordPress media library to make their dimensions smaller? I used to know how but the option seems to have been removed. I can see how to make images in posts smaller but it looks like the original images in the media library remain the same size and take up more space.

Apple buds
Mini apple tree in my garden. I had two in pots – one has survived the winter and one has not
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First inspections of the spring

In sunny Cornwall I’ve just done my first inspections for 2021 inside the hives. It’s been warm enough for some people to walk about in just t-shirts and for me to wear a t-shirt and cardigan, so it was time.

Good news: both colonies are alive and queen-right. Bad news: one (Kensa) is showing signs of chalkbrood disease.

Bee hives and smoker

My inspecting of Demelza went comically wrong. I began by trying to get all my equipment ready so that I could do some queen marking. I opened a brand new queen marking pen bought last summer and tried to use it on some hard surfaces as a test – no ink whatsoever came out. So much for practising on drones first. I have now ordered a little pot of queen marking paint instead in the hope that there might be something in there.

Demelza is doing well, with the bees filling up most of the frames in the brood box, so I added a super. Now I don’t know how, but I put the super on upside down and then wondered why the frames were sticking up slightly and the crown board wouldn’t lie flat. I will blame it on after running around after two small kids all morning.

Kensa also has a laying queen and plenty of brood, but the chalkbrood made me decide to do a Bailey comb change, which I had been considering already. Demelza’s combs were new last year so I can let them crack on with filling a super, but I think it’s important to get Kensa’s bees on fresh new comb. You can find the instructions for a Bailey comb change in the National Bee Unit’s Replacing Old Brood Comb guidance.

I have begun by putting a brood box full of foundation over the existing brood box, and feeding sugar syrup. By next week hopefully they will have made a start on drawing out the comb and then I have to do the hard part – finding the queen. I will place her in the upper brood box with a queen excluder underneath. Once the brood below has hatched out, the old comb can be removed. It can drag on for a while compared to a shook-swarm, but these are not the gentlest of bees and to be honest I don’t fancy shook swarming them.

Frames labelled with date
Brood frames labelled with date – this is so I can easily see what year the frames were put in. It also makes it obvious which way round the frames were in the hive when I put a frame back in.

I listened in to my local Cornwall Beekeeping Association’s last zoom catch up for beginners, it was nice to hear bee chat. It was reported that blackthorn is in flower now in Cornwall, which is a good source of nectar. No physical meeting dates have been set yet, but it’s hoped there will be some bee safaris this summer, so that we can visit each other’s apiaries.

Bees drinking water
The bees drinking at a water station my father-in-law has set up for them
Daffodil meadow
Daffodil meadow in some local National Trust gardens – not bee related!

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Swarm collecting tips from Tamsin Harris

This week I listened into a great talk for the West Cornwall Beekeepers Association by their member Tamsin Harris, she is a very experienced commercial beekeeper. She came across as a practical person with a quick, dry sense of humour. The idea behind the talk was that more swarm collectors are needed, so the association was hoping for people to be encouraged to volunteer.

Here are some of Tamsin’s tips:

  • Put up bait hives. She does 15-20 a year, using a four or five frame nuc box. It should be watertight with a small entrance, and preferably old, so they smell of previous bee inhabitants. She has also used new nuc boxes before but added melted wax rubbed round the insides of the box. Add a frame of old comb if you have one. Some spots seem popular each year – anywhere you know you’ve collected a swarm in the past is a good bet. Keep checking the bait hives regularly in swarm season.

  • Feral colonies don’t tend to swarm as early. They haven’t been fed over winter as managed colonies often are, so they take longer to build up.

  • When you’ve volunteered to be a swarm collector and the bee phone rings, the first question to ask is: “how long have they been there?”. This tells Tamsin just how quickly she has to get there.

  • The second question is: “how accessible are they?” She has found people don’t judge height well and you can usually double what they tell you! Once you get there, risk assess the situation. You have to be prepared to tell people that the situation is not safe for you and you can’t collect the bees. Tamsin bears in mind that “If I fall, I break”. We only have one body and it’s not worth putting yourself at risk.

  • You need lots of equipment ready. Tamsin takes with her: straw skep; sheet; water spray; secateurs; long handled loppers; a supermarket shopping basket for keeping things contained; a cardboard box (for swarms clustered on the side of buildings or cars, she finds a box easier to get underneath than a skep); rope; telescopic ladders. She added that common sense is one of the biggest things you need with you!

  • For inaccessible swarms, the best thing to do is put a bait hive underneath.

  • Ask the permission of the member of public whose garden it is before cutting any hedges or bushes etc to collect a swarm.

  • Put a sheet on the ground and then gently invert the skep or box you have collected the bees in over the sheet. Prop it up slightly with something like a brick or branch so that bees can come and go.

  • Once the swarm is collected, if it is in a busy area, you need to keep the bees away from people as much as possible. Tape condoning off an area or warning signs might be needed. However, you also have to put the swarm somewhere not too far from where they settled, but also safe for the general public.

  • You can’t just take the swarm off immediately, as any bees off foraging or scouting for a new home then return and hang about for 2-3 days. They fly around looking for their lost swarm mates and become a nuisance. To make sure all the bees have been collected, you need to return in the evening. You can explain to the public that bees go to bed at bed time.

  • When Tamsin returns to collect the bees, she ties up the sheet they were placed on very carefully over the skep or box they are in. She has a hive net she puts over the sheet too, just to make sure none get out in the car.

  • Her favourite part is hiving the swarm and watching the bees walk into their new home. She described the roar of their wings as such a pleasure – a beautiful way to end an evening.

  • She talked a bit about the scenario when bees have been living in a building for a while (for example, in a roof or loft) and the home owners want them removed. She said the kit you need is “immense” and the job is “so, so messy”. It’s one of those where if you start, you can’t stop. Mayhem, bees everywhere, and the size of the colony could be 12-14 brood combs deep. She warned us that though these jobs are rewarding, they are not something for beginner swarm collectors to attempt alone. Always take someone more experienced with you. She added that once bees are established in a chimney you have to persuade people to put a jumper on and not use the fire!

  • If you want to get experience as a swarm collector, buddy up with existing swarm collectors and ask to help out when they get calls. You can look on the BBKA bbka.org.uk/swarm search to find the nearest collectors to you (see Step 3: Find a local swarm collector)

  • There was some fun discussing afterwards of times swarms had been collected from post boxes. Another member recommended smearing garlic inside to put swarms off, and someone else wondered if they had ever had any complaints afterwards about letters smelling bad! There’s a lovely photo here of Tamsin collecting a swarm from a letter box: https://penzancefarmersmarket.wordpress.com/producers/bee-special/ (3rd photo down)
Swarm on wall
This was a nice easy one to collect.
Trying to tempt a swarm down with a bait hive back in 2019. Can you see it up there?
Posted in Events, Swarms | 13 Comments

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 | 27 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

Posted in Events, Honey | 10 Comments

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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