A Craftsman and a Gentleman

I knew that Peter Little was a nice guy, having had a few telephone conversations with him at various times, but I had no idea until I met him just how highly skilled he is in so many technical areas. He is all about being self-sufficient with all aspects of his beekeeping and queen breeding. He does not need to employ staff because he has five able sons and a wife who all play their parts in the endeavour. They use a sawmill to cut Western Red Cedar for use in hive building (straight from the tree), their hives are all self-built, as are the frames that go in them, and the wax foundation is made on site.

However, it is in the area of breeding honey bee queens of the highest quality that Peter truly excels. He uses instrumental insemination as well as two isolated mating stations (one being the famous site on Dartmoor used by Brother Adam back in the day), to have control over which drone genes get joined with the genes of selected virgin queens. There are many people selling queens who are not so much queen breeders as queen rearers. They buy a few breeder queens and then graft countless larvae from these queens, which are put in cell builders and generally open mated, to produce large numbers of good queens for sale. Queen breeding is about controlling both the drone and queen lines, and it’s about having an instinct for which combinations are likely to do well.

With Peter and Andrew Little
With Peter and Andrew Little

My mind was blown when Peter started to tell me about how he makes a lot of his equipment rather than buy it, partly to save money, but partly for the love of doing it. For example, he makes his insemination tips from soda-lime glass capillaries. “To buy a tip costs £35, but I can buy 200 x 90ml glass capillary tubes for £7,” said Peter.

“I put it in a little vice clamp with a nichrome wire heated ring, and a weight at the bottom and another chuck, this is the proper way of doing it; it’s a tip puller. You heat the ring, the weight at the bottom stretches the glass, it pulls it down to a point. I then use a gauge wire inside, for the right diameter. Where the wire stops is where I snap the glass off. I flame it first, because if you try to file it straight away the glass will split, so I flame it to polish it – just flick it through my lighter a couple of times – or a bunsen burner, but I use my lighter, and then I use some 1200 wet and dry with some water to file it up gently and down, then I flame it again, and that’s an insemination tip.”

Glass tip (right) inseminating a queen bee
Glass tip (right) inseminating a queen bee

To me, the idea of sticking a tiny sperm filled glass tube into the nether regions of a prized queen bee is terrifying, and I’m sure the queen would concur, let alone doing it with a homemade one, but Peter has been doing this for years and years. I was there to interview a beekeeper and found myself with some kind of genius bee surgeon.

He continued: “I’ve just made a new syringe as well, a high capacity one. Those things cost about £165 each, so I just bought the glass for about £3.50 and made it into a high capacity one. That’s what you put the saline in; you can buy it, but I make all my own. You add the salt and set the pH, then I put it into small bottles, I can’t remember the name of them, they are special bottles with an aluminium cap, and you can autoclave them. They go into blue autoclave bags. I haven’t got an autoclave, but I use a pressure cooker which does the same job. They go into a pressure cooker, and they are in there for about 20 minutes, so everything’s sterilised. The tips go in there too. Everything gets sterilised, everything that comes into contact with the queen.”

But that’s not all. He also makes his sting hooks! His friend Danny had mastered the art of making them using a watch ruby, and after a while, Peter decided to make his own from silver using a tiny hole rather than a ruby. A watch ruby has a minute hole in it which is used to grab the queens sting during insemination.

“You basically heat it over the gas, flatten it out with a tiny hammer, bore a tiny hole in it so small that you can’t see it with your eyes – you have to use a microscope. It has to be able to grip the queen’s sting. Even the very point of the finest pin is too big. I use that, but I don’t go right through with it, the hole is so tiny you wouldn’t believe it. I file it with wet or dry, shape it – it takes me longer to explain than to do it.”

Me: “That’s made from silver?”

Peter: “Yes, it takes about 15 minutes to make a sting hook.”

Me: “The queen’s sting is not barbed is it?”

Peter: “No. Once the queen is in the holder she’s anaesthetised with CO2, and you use a ventral hook to open up one side of her vent, and on the other one you have to thread the sting through the eye of a needle basically, then the angle of the hook grips it so you can pull the sting upwards and outwards, so that you can insert the insemination needle. A lot of people use forceps, and you grab the sting and pull it up and out, like a tiny pair of tweezers. I don’t really like forceps. I don’t like flattening the queen’s sting. Although the majority of people do that I don’t like that method. I think the sting hook is a gentler method.”

Diagram showing insemination of queen bee
Diagram showing insemination of a queen bee

I asked him where he learned about all of this, to which he replied, “Basically I taught myself using the internet, and talking to people like Dr Joseph Latshaw at Ohio Queen Breeders. He manufactures equipment, but years ago I used to spend hours chatting with him. Sue Coby, who’s the best in the world; I’ve had lots of help from Sue Coby, in America as well.”

“It’s like most of them said, if you can ride a bicycle you can ride a bicycle, but I can’t show you how to do it. The advice was to get 50 virgin queens and practise, using condensed milk. You’re going to kill most of them practising, and I practised.”

So there you go, a tiny snippet from an extremely informative interview with a ridiculously talented man who is determined to stay as self-sufficient as possible. There’s plenty more where that came from because another thing Peter is very good at is talking!

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