At the weekend I heard Tony Harris, a Scottish bee farmer, give two talks at the annual Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference. Here are my notes from his talk, which had plenty of jokes along with plenty of great tips.
Obviously Scotland is a looong way up from Cornwall, so Tony reckons his hives in the Moray Firth are about two months behind ours. After going up to 150 hives last summer and nearly killing himself running around after them all, this summer he’s reduced his operations down to 70 hives. He needs honey for money, so here’s his advice on how to get it.
- You need a plan – write it down
- You need the right bees – young queen, strong colony. More than 1 queen per hive helps!
- Rigorous management – regular inspections
- Swarm prevention and control (more on that later)
- Apiary location – know your forage! And think about the numbers of hives, not just in your apiary but locally.
Some general tips
- Keep strong colonies – build up large colonies before the main summer flow
- Check stores in winter
- Replace 1/3 of your brood combs per year – consider the ‘shook swarm’ method to do all your brood combs in one go in spring
- Cull poor queens
- Carry out integrated pest management for varroa all season, monitor!
- After you’ve dealt with swarming and have seen the new queen is laying, relax inspections. Let them get on with it.
- Build up a store of drawn comb for supers. You can keep using super comb for years and years.
- Tony doesn’t mark his queens the year they emerge, as he’s had them balled by the bees if he marks too early. Instead he waits for the following spring – easier then too, as there’s less bees in the colony come spring.
Tips for finding queen
- Use minimal smoke
- Do not be distracted, have a one-track mind on finding her
- Go straight to the middle brood frames and examine the ‘dark side’ of frames first as you lift them out.
- Last resort – use the wine method! (This would be when you phone up your best beekeeping buddy and offer them a bottle in return for them finding her majesty).
Getting foundation drawn
- Tony does a lot of ‘chimneying’. This involves putting an empty large poly brood box full of foundation over a colony in a poly nucleus, and feeding. He will quickly have a box full of drawn out foundation.
Tony’s main honey crops
- Oilseed rape (OSR) – harvest May/June
- Main summer – harvest August
- Ling heather – harvest September
He takes colonies to OSR in mid-April, puts three supers on at once, then goes on holiday for a week. Then comes the hard part – “If you’ve got a nice job you enjoy don’t even think about being a bee farmer”. After returning from holiday he extracts the oil seed rape honey fast, as otherwise it sets like rock extremely quickly. He will extract 10 supers a day, in 16 hour shifts. Starting in the early morning, working through to 10pm at night, having a shower, then starting again the next morning. Hot, heavy, sweaty work.
Part of the skill of being a bee farmer is keeping strong colonies, which means avoiding having swarms. Tony uses a much more proactive form of swarm control than me, which I was intrigued by. He’s found that making up nucleuses is the easiest method for him. He removes 1,2,3 or 4 frames from a colony in spring to delay its swarm preparations. He then puts foundation in the middle of the boxes the frames are taken from – as he noted, contrary to what beekeeping books will tell you!
The removed frames are used to make up 5-frame nucs: 2 frames of honey/pollen, at both ends, 2 frames of eggs/larvae, 1 frame foundation, plus bees shaken in. So instead of waiting for queen cells like I do, he effectively forces the bees into an early swarm, making their new queens in the nuc instead. I’m interested in trying this out, as what with work, a young family and having my bees at an out-apiary, it can be challenging keeping up with all the swarms down here!
My next blog post will be notes from Dr Ben Woodcock’s talk on “Neonicotinoid pesticides and bees”.