Bee Keepers’ Day part 2 – Improve your bees and beekeeping-simply

A second post carrying on from my previous on this weekend’s Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers’ Associations annual ‘Bee Keepers’ Day‘.

Our second speaker was Roger Patterson, advertised simply as a “Sussex beekeeper of great practical ability”. He will be well known to those of you who visit the BBKA forums. The theme of his talk was Improve your bees and beekeeping- simply’. Roger arrived with his two dogs who sat at the back and were very well behaved. They were rewarded with some ham from Emma’s lunch. Below are my notes from his talk – settle nicely on the comb while you read them please.

Roger gave us a bit of advertising info first – he now owns and runs Dave Cushman’s beekeeping and breeding website since Dave passed away – He also has his own honey recipes website – He also recently published a book, ‘Beekeeping – A Practical Guide‘.

“Treat bees as a wild animal”, Roger told us. But one which you should expect to be good tempered. He has only walked away from about ten colonies which he couldn’t handle in a veil and no other protection. He has found that crosses between a pure sub-species of honey bee and mongrels are often very bad tempered. But he believes it’s a myth that the temper of bees is determined by the drones the queen mated with – more likely to be the drone the queen’s mother mated with.

What should you look for in your bees? (If you live in the UK)

  • Good temper
  • Quietness on the comb
  • Non-runners – “runners” being bees which appear to boil over the combs and hive – there is a risk the Queen might come out of the hive during an inspection too.
  • Storing honey in the brood frames – something Roger sees as a positive trait – this ensures survival if the supers are harvested by the beekeeper.
  • Dark colouring – important to Roger. In general, he feels the yellower honey bees, for example yellow Italians such as those bred in New Zealand, tend to be more prolific and need more than a single brood chamber. He prefers a native/near native type of bee closer in origin to the original British Black subspecies of Apis Mellifera.  Such bees tend to be darker, non-prolific, less susceptible to nosema apis & acarine, nice and frugal with their stores and good over-winterers. Of Roger’s 42 colonies all were still alive when he last checked a week ago, and he hasn’t started thinking about feeding yet.

As a side note – as Roger himself admits, beekeeping books disagree that colour alone is a reliable indicator of sub-species type. To identify a sub-species properly, technically overall size, tongue length, and other external features must be measured. In his book ‘Practical Beekeeping‘ (1997) Clive de Bruyn suggests that the dark bees now present here are not necessarily descended from the British Black bee, as large numbers of continental dark bees were imported in the early 20th century from France and Holland to compensate for the heavy losses of bees due to the ‘Isle of Wight’ disease. However Roger insists that the British bee is alive and kicking up in the Orkneys and doing very well in the harsh weather up there. He believes most beekeepers here have mongrels of mixed colours and genes, whereas he is trying to breed for the traits above.

In their book ‘Keeping Healthy Honey Bees‘ (2010), David Aston and Sally Bucknall say “The honey bees of the British Isles are a mixture of genetic types produced through the introduction of strains of bees from abroad, the Dark European Honey bee and its variants, and those produced through crossing with imported strains and races of honey bees.” We are mongrels and our bees are too 🙂

A frame from Rose’s hive last year – showing Roger’s preferred trait of storing honey in the brood combs.

Photo of our bees last April – most are dark but you can see some are darker than others, the striping of the abdomen differs from bee to bee as they are local mongrels.

Now compare our darker bees above with the workers and drones below produced by a queen imported from New Zealand, where light-coloured Italian bees tend to be bred.

How can you help yourself?

  • A nice thin hive tool to fit between the frames easily – Bee Basic hive tools recommended
  • A good smoker – with easy to puff bellows
  • Use firm but gentle movements. Bees are a pack of sensors – antennae, legs, exoskeleton – so extremely sensitive to vibrations. Roger believes some people are naturals and others are not but luckily improvement is possible!
  • Read the colony – comes through experience but even a beginner can check the amount of pollen and liquid stores available to a colony. Combs empty of pollen will cause nutrition problems.
  • Smoke – but only when needed.
Get yourself a nice thin hive tool…

Other posts:

Bee Keepers’ Day 1 – The decline of insect pollinators
Bee Keepers’ Day 3 – How the National Bee Unit protects our bees

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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3 Responses to Bee Keepers’ Day part 2 – Improve your bees and beekeeping-simply

  1. Our bees have all these good qualities: good temper, quietness on the comb, non-runners (well, except Rosemary!), storing honey in the brood frames and beautifully dark-coloured! No wonder they are such good bees! 🙂


  2. Pingback: How to catch a swarm – advice from an expert beekeeper, Roger Patterson | Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

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