I’ve been thinking about bees and beekeeping. Most people who know me have figured out that bees occupy 95% of my brain, although other things sometimes make an appearance. Arsenal FC once took up much more brain than it now does; it was downhill after Vieira left. I have continued to build new hive floors. They are solid and heavy and fun to make. I’ve made at least ten so far, so I think I’ve perfected my technique.
That simple act of repetition, which inevitably causes subtle adjustments to create efficiencies, is one reason why I like talking to beekeepers with a lot of hives. If you have to inspect 100 colonies a day, seven days a week, you will get good at it. The same applies to swarm prevention and control, raising queens, managing mites and so forth. Many beekeepers with hundreds of colonies are reasonably quiet about their beekeeping. It’s often those with a dozen or less who have to shout about their philosophies and beliefs – oh well, c’est la vie.
There are always gadgets to play with in any pastime. When I ordered my queen cages from Italy – the ones for giving the colony a brood break – I also acquired some other toys. One is a ‘queen catcher’ that looks quite funky. The other is a simple device involving a rubber band that helps with queen marking. I’m prepared to give them a shot. They might even work. Last year after handling a queen to mark her, my bees decided to ball her, and she died. That’s the only time I’ve seen it, but presumably not handling her would make such behaviour less likely?
Pressures on Queens
Yesterday I watched a recording of Julianna Rangel’s talk to Ulster Beekeepers, which was very interesting. At one point, she explained that she had not researched oxalic acid because there was no funding for that. It is a shame that science gets done in proportion to funding availability rather than what’s most valuable. Anyway, it was another reminder of the pressure that our bees are under, especially queens. The turnover of bees is pretty high, but her majesty stays around for longer than her offspring. She is most likely to be impacted by chemicals and pathogens inside the hive (brought in from the environment by bees or introduced by beekeepers).
The issue of nasty stuff collecting inside wax combs seems to be gaining credibility. Back in the day, black combs were not a problem. Nowadays, it seems, manoeuvres like shook swarms and Bailey comb changes are proliferating like wildfire. I’m not a fan of those, but I do like to pull out my darkest combs every so often and chuck them on the fire. Ms Rangel confirmed that drones can pass diseases on to queens by mating (bee STDs) and that queens can then pass it on to eggs.
Bees deal with environmental pressures, such as crop spraying and loss of suitable forage. They also deal with beekeepers clattering about inside the hive, transferring diseases or introducing mite treatments. Then there are all the viruses, brood diseases and so forth. And, of course, there’s the weather. Given the above, I’m happy if my losses over winter are 10%, which is what they are at present. I must be getting better because my losses have been gradually falling over the years. But every so often, a disaster will strike. It’s just the way it is.
Long Live the Queen
I’m a bit miffed that my wonderful old yellow-dot breeder queen has snuffed it, and her replacement might be a drone layer. However, I have already identified a lovely colony that will provide my next breeder queen. I think she’s from a Peter Little (Exmoor Bees, Somerset) line, although this one would be her granddaughter. That means that she only carries a quarter of Peter’s queen’s genetics, with the remaining 75% being local Cheshire mongrel. I don’t care what she is; I just know that out of 40 odd colonies, she’s one of the best. That’ll do for me. It’s surprising how similar conditions are in Somerset and Cheshire; we both have mild winters and plenty of rain all year round.
Talking about bees
Once upon a time, I was a regular attendee at the UK beekeeping forum, and I even had a spell as a moderator. Respect to all moderators of forums (fora?) everywhere – I know your pain. I quickly chickened out and fled. I’d forgotten all about the forum, but something I read reminded me of its existence, so I visited this morning. Dani & Emyr are still doing a sterling job holding it all together. Many of the topics, or should I say arguments, are about the same old things. I noticed that the ‘type of bee’ issue is as hot as ever. Given the population density of bees in the UK, I don’t see how anyone can successfully keep any sub-species pure. They fly and mate with multiple partners from a wide area… Anyway, it was lovely to see some of the characters still posting away, just like when I was there.
I did a few Zoom talks recently, and to my surprise, they seem to have been well received. One question that often surfaces is, “what would be the subject of your next book?” My answer is that IF I was mad enough to go through the pain of writing another, it would focus on Celtic beekeepers. I’d like to meet some of my Irish brethren and those keeping bees in Scotland and Wales. Every beekeeper in every part of the world is interesting and has tales to tell, so really it just boils down to “where do I want to travel to?” I suppose I also have a curiosity about the genuine Apis mellifera mellifera; I’ve never seen an actual pure one in the flesh. My guess is that they are like other bees; some good, some not so good.
There is not the slightest chance of keeping anything ‘pure’ where I’m based, which is fine. Just raise queens from the best and cull the worst – simple.