Now that most of my beekeeping work for this season has finished, and my book manuscript is off to the publishers, tax return information sent off, BFA magazine printed … I can start to think about writing blog posts again. I’m using those other things as an excuse, of course. Really, I was just having a break from the blog. But, I’m back! Here is ‘A Honeyed Tale: The 2023 Beekeeping Season in Review’.
A Year of Expansion
I seem to have got fat, or my clothes have shrunk. I am dealing with this by going to the gym and trying to exercise will power. The gym is hard, but the will power, when faced with cheese and ice-cream and cake, is a whole other level of difficulty. My 60-year-old walrus body is not averse to laying down some extra ‘stored energy’ for winter (or any other season, for that matter). Still, the expansion of my bee empire is what I should really be talking about.
Because I knew that I would have the services of my son Alex (the Mole), and because I needed to generate some income to justify my investment in new equipment (a honey house and Api melter), I thought I’d better up my game. This season was a stepping stone to my goal of running around 80–100 production colonies and 30-40 nucs. They say that you can either make bees or honey, but not both. Well, I did both. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t go completely crazy by splitting all my hives and expanding too quickly.
One good way to have low winter losses is to get rid of, or combine, the rubbish colonies in the autumn. I take plenty of small colonies through winter in nucleus hives; either 5 full-size frame nucs, or stacked mini-plus boxes. These smaller ones tend to have a higher mortality rate than full-sized colonies, but normally most come through just fine.
My winter losses were 10%, and in all cases the problem was ‘queen issues’ (either no queen, or a drone layer). One of these was my fault; I had introduced a queen under a push-in cage in the autumn, and forgotten to release her. Doh! They had made another, but she did not manage to get mated successfully. I hate that, and hope I never to repeat the mistake.
In April, we set up two new apiaries, both in great spots. One is on the edge of a field of wildflowers, next to a pond, with plenty of hedgerows and mature trees about, plus several large gardens belonging to people who must be very wealthy. The other is on some land near to the Cheshire Smokehouse, adjacent to a field of dairy cows. The Smokehouse will be selling the honey from their land, and have just had a new label made for the purpose. It is far too good to be used for putting on their excellent smoked bacon (they use the cheap stuff for that).
These new sites were started off with nucleus colonies, made by using some over-wintered nucs plus frames taken from normal hives. We robbed sealed brood from colonies that would possibly have thought about swarming had we not done so. As for queens, I used some of my mine but most were purchased from Becky’s Beeez, and came from Greece. This is not my preferred way of doing things, but I needed to get them up and running quickly. Anyway, it worked, and they did well. No doubt somebody will tell me I have ruined UK beekeeping forever…
A Decent Spring
We harvested our spring crop in June, during lovely warm weather (mostly above 25 degrees C). It was a sweaty and sticky exercise extracting it, but we were pleased to find very few granulated combs. Oilseed rape had been growing near most of the apiaries, but the bees seem to have foraged on plenty of other sources of nectar. The yield was not huge, but I had stolen brood from colonies to establish new sites, and I also left quite a bit for the bees. We only took fully capped combs. I ended up getting 29 lbs of spring honey per hive.
I managed to do three rounds of grafting this season, starting in May, and made plenty of nice queens. Some are daughters of a queen that Andrew Little let me have (she had been mated with a single line of drones on Dartmoor); her daughters were all pretty well identical, which isn’t what I get when raising queens from one of mine. Unfortunately, I lost that breeder when I went on holiday for a week at the end of May.
I also grafted off my best queen from last year; an incredible laying machine that got going early, and kept on going. She is the daughter of another of my queens who had identical traits. Sometimes, I also like to breed from a queen who takes her time in the spring, but really gets going later on. I have one of those in mind for next season, which came from Jolanta (Denrosa Apiaries), along with an inseminated queen from Northumberland Honey Co.
Mating went pretty well this year, and we used quite a few Kieler mating nucs. Our success was assured by closely following the words of Dan Basterfield, in his excellent book Using Apideas. However, they did need to be visited frequently to top up their fondant. Furthermore, once the wasps started pestering later in the season, several of those baby colonies bit the dust.
The summer weather was not the best, but the bees still brought in some honey. We cleared supers in August, by which time it looked like the season was over. As it turned out, there was an Indian summer to come, and plenty of activity on the balsam. However, I prefer to get supers off and treat bees for varroa, rather than leaving them in the hope of a late flow. There is no heather near me.
We were able to harvest honey from both new sites, as those nucs that we started with had grown into strong colonies. This meant that my summer crop was higher than spring, but with a slightly less average per colony (26 lbs per hive). I expect better from next season, as I will have more established production colonies and, one hopes, the summer will not be so poor.
This year I used as much Formic Pro as I could get my hands on, and the rest was Thymovar. I have grown to prefer the formic acid treatment, as it is so quick and effective. Some queens don’t survive, but there is plenty of time for the bees to recover (I treat in August). With thymol, the treatment drags on for ages, and early on it does seem to stop queens laying eggs. I like to re-queen in the autumn, but not when thymol is on, so that’s an issue. Brother Adam was a spring re-queener; I may try some of that to see how it goes. Some of my queens are getting a bit old and will probably swarm next year if I don’t change them.
Beekeeper’s Wife MBE
On a completely different note, my wife received her MBE from HRH Prince William at Windsor Castle on 4th October, with a walrus and mole in attendance. It was an incredible experience. My highlight, apart from seeing HRH pin a gong to the Mrs, was chatting to Leah Williamson and her mum and grandma.
Overall, A Good Year
I truly enjoy beekeeping, although occasionally when things go wrong it can be frustrating. This year, on balance, was a good one. I have more hives, lots of nucs, no really horrible queens, and I made enough honey to keep my customers happy until the next harvest. However, although I haven’t done my accounts yet, I suspect that I made a small loss overall. There’s always next year! ◻︎