Achieve More For Less

Barrels of honey at Olivarez Honey Bees, Orland, California

Beekeepers invest a considerable amount of money in their equipment. Hives, frames, foundation, bee suits, smokers, extractors, warming cabinets, mating nucs and so on, ad nauseam, all add up to a big chunk of cash. As you grow from a couple of hives to ten, then fifty and beyond, you start to need storage facilities, vehicles, honey processing rooms and yet more boxes, frames etc. However, the one massive cost that many forget about is time. Time is the most valuable thing, apart from love, so hopefully, we all have plenty of both 🙂

Who Benefits?

For many beekeepers, sessions with their two or three colonies are a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend their precious time. They love their bees and want to spend many hours with them. Whether or not the bees reciprocate is another matter entirely. Is it essential to inspect every hive every week? Do we need to pull out every frame, one by one, leaving the hive open for perhaps fifteen minutes or more each time? I suggest that we don’t need to inspect colonies anywhere near as often, nor as thoroughly, as many do. The real question is, who benefits from all of this activity? I’m pretty sure it isn’t the bees.

Minimalism

The January edition of BeeCraft magazine, which I highly recommend*, has an article about how David Wainwright goes about his successful business. He says, “Complicated methods that don’t produce reliable results or are not cost-effective (time is money) have been abandoned.” His way of managing hives requires an average of three inspections per year: early spring to check all is well, late spring to make up nucs and autumn to ensure they are healthy and have stores for winter. That might be a bit minimalist for some, but knowing what a successful bee farmer with good honey crops, year after year, does or does not do is worth thinking about.

Efficiencies of Scale

As we move up the ladder in the direction of commercial beekeepers, we often find that people obsess about making efficiencies in their operations. If they can save two minutes per hive, that could amount to several hours per worker per day. It is about developing systems; ways of working that are repeatable, teachable and effective. It’s much the same with any growing business as it progresses in scale. The thing is, many commercial beekeepers have much higher honey yields than most amateurs. It’s not as if they are neglecting their colonies so that they all swarm off or become riddled with disease. Could it be that the very fact that they disturb the bees less contributes to more honey? I remember inspecting colonies at Mike Palmer’s place in Vermont and being struck by how gentle he was. He also insisted that frames and boxes be put back together precisely as they were found (we were re-queening, so hives had to be taken apart in the queen hunt).

Where is she?!

I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, as I’m sure all other beekeepers have. I will be running four apiaries and a modest queen rearing unit. It’s what I want to do, but it became apparent that some changes were needed last year. It seems that whether you have one hive or a thousand, the same principles apply at an individual colony level. I need to work smarter, but I still want to relax and enjoy my bees.

February

Right now, with the weather all cold and wet and disgusting, there isn’t much beekeeping for me to do. What I can do is check on the weight of my hives, especially nucs, and feed them fondant if they are light. I can also identify the dead ones. These are closed up and sorted out later in spring when it’s warmer.

March/April

It is time to carry out the first inspections of the new season, although it isn’t necessary to rip out every frame. I like to change the floor and reverse brood boxes on the double-brood colonies, perhaps changing some old black comb for something newer. I plan to ascertain the amount of brood in each hive and check for any obvious signs of disease. Next, and importantly, I can remove a frame or two of sealed brood from the boomers – the enormous colonies. The brood frames removed can make up colonies for queen rearing or boost smaller but otherwise healthy ones. Marking and clipping any queens that need it is best carried out now. Clipping means fewer bees lost to swarms, resulting in more honey.

This ‘equalisation’ of hive strengths helps with management as most hives will be at a similar stage of development at the same time. It also slows down any swarming instinct in the large colonies. I’ve always worked on the basis that a frame of brood makes three frames of bees. That’s a lot of bees, and they need space. Which reminds me, April is a good time to stick on a super of drawn comb.

May/June

Early summer is swarm time and also time to raise queens. I love it, but it can get hectic. Theoretically, we can do things to limit the amount of swarming. I don’t believe in raising new queens from swarm cells because it is likely that you are selecting for a trait that you want to suppress (swarming). There is ample evidence that young queens swarm far less than older ones, so changing queens in production colonies after their second season is good practice. If she’s a lovely queen, she can spend her final days, or years, in a nucleus hive and her larvae used to produce daughter queens.

Having good young queens in hives and providing plenty of space in the form of more supers should help prevent swarms. I think it’s far better to add more supers than you need rather than not enough. Some people put the extra, very optimistic super above a cover board with an open feed hole in it. The idea is that the bees can access the space if they need it, but otherwise, they should fully work the box below instead.

Swarms and Mites

I like to have a bait hive in the apiary as it may catch a swarm but also, the presence of scout bees investigating gives me an early indication that something is thinking of swarming. Every year I nab a couple of swarms in empty hives lying about the place. They get a varroa treatment early on, and often I change the queen later that summer.

With double brood boxes, it’s easy to check for swarm cells by tilting up the top box and scanning the bottoms of the frames. This also applies to ‘brood and a half,’ which Wally Shaw discusses in his latest excellent book. If cells are there, it’s time to seriously disrupt the bees using whatever swarm control method you prefer. Vertical splits or removing a nuc (with the queen) seem to be the most efficient ways of dealing with the situation.

I try to do an alcohol wash on every production colony to see the varroa mite situation. Usually, they are ok, but if not, I need to use formic acid or create a brood break, then treat later with oxalic acid when broodless. Mite counts help me spot the queens that may be potential future breeders, assuming other desirable traits are present. I also use Randy Oliver’s spreadsheet to predict the future mite population based on his calculations.

July/August

There is no need to go anywhere near the brood box by this time. Hopefully, I’ll be adding infinite supers so that the bees can store all of their lovely honey. When removing the honey crop, I usually use a leaf blower to blow the bees off the frames and onto the ground in front of their hive. They soon crawl back inside. Once the honey is off, I will treat for varroa mites with thymol or amitraz unless they are broodless, which is oxalic time. Some queens stop laying, and hives appear queenless late summer (no brood). I suspect a temporary lack of pollen may cause this, but in any event, she’ll be laying like a train in September to produce winter bees.

September/October

My bees collect nectar from Himalayan balsam, but some colonies will need sugar syrup in October. I use a poly top feeder, which the bees can rapidly empty. Last year I also did some fondant feeding because it was getting cool, and it seemed safer. The autumn syrup feed is ideal for getting foundation frames drawn as long as the hives are strong.

Then it’s time for a week in Lanzarote 🙂


A bit of winter sun in Lanzarote
  • *Disclosure: I’m a director (unpaid)

Walrus

Currently writing a book called "Interviews with Beekeepers"

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