Interviews With Beekeepers

Bee Work in Winter

With David Kemp in Nottinghamshire
With David Kemp in Nottinghamshire

I had a lovely chat with David Kemp this week on the telephone. He is a talker! It’s always a privilege and a pleasure to hear his stories, and he’s still going strong at 82 years of age. I asked him for the secret to long life and happiness, and he said that a lot of it was to do with genetics. Not much I can do about that, then. He also said that he had loved his work throughout his life, whether it was gamekeeping or working with Brother Adam at Buckfast or being a bee inspector. It is undoubtedly essential to love one’s work given how much time we spend on it, but not everyone is fortunate enough to pick and choose.

Anyway, as we are in the winter, here is an extract about winter work from my book in which I interviewed David:

Changing Floors

David: In the winter, we worked indoors doing maintenance on the hives. He (Brother Adam) was absolutely keen on painting hives, keeping them up to snuff, and everything working right. The first outdoor work would be to change the floorboards on all 320 hives. You’d wait until the bees had a cleansing flight after the winter, then we go out in the van, 40 floorboards. We had a sequence; the new floorboard went to the side, then two people would lift the hive and place it on the new floor, so the old floor could be taken away. Then they would lift it up again, with the floor, and put it back in its place. You weren’t dancing around to see which way it faced because they were kept two to a stand, four to a group, with entrances North, South, East, West, roughly, to prevent drifting.

Buckfast Abbey in the 1960s
Buckfast Abbey in the 1960s

Keeping Records

David: And they were all numbered, they all had an enamel number plate on. If you lifted the hive up and the floorboard was clean…I used to get a pencil and mark down the number of the hive. When we got back to the van with all the old floors, Adam would say, “Well?” and I would say “Hive number so and so Brother, clean.” He’d get his apiary book out and record it. It was all relating to the queen and the crossing.

Or you’d get one with a lot of dead bees on it, you see. As you lifted them up Pascal or another experienced beekeeper could judge the weight, so if one came up light and there was another one very heavy, we would take a comb from the weighty one and give it to the light one. When you’re changing combs like that you have to be careful with diseases.

Removing old combs

The second operation was taking out the old combs. He used to take three combs, sometimes four but mainly three, out of the brood box every spring. We used to place those combs in the colony the previous June. We’d go to the colony to select the old combs. He used to run 10 frames plus a division board in a twelve-frame box, and he’d put one old comb next to the division board and two on the far side.

Steve: Right – so in the previous summer, you moved the older combs to the edges.

David: He said that if there was going to be any mould in the hive over winter, it would be on those outside combs. We would pull them out after winter, take them back and cut out the old wax – one of the filthiest jobs in beekeeping. Then we would have just over 1,000 combs to render down. It would take a day to render them down.

Rendering wax

I’ve seen Adam render 1,000 combs on his own, but he had the steam boiler, the steam pot. He’d put 36 in at a time and bring it to the boil, so it disintegrated the wax. The wire and debris would fall to the bottom, and the wax would rise to the top. We used to pour the debris onto the floor and then put it through again, you would still get more wax, but it wasn’t worth doing a third time. All the debris, the old larval skins and pollen, used to go down to the gardener’s compost heap. You had to move it while it was hot and steamy because if it set, it was difficult.

So your colony then went down from ten combs to seven. The brood frames were treated in caustic soda – you wouldn’t be allowed to do that now – you can do it with washing soda now, but caustic…if it got on you it would burn.

Steve: I’m sure

David: Then they had to be rinsed because the nails would rot with the
caustic, then they were stacked and dried, the whole workshop was a drying room.

New Foundation

Steve: Then you would have to put foundation in

David: Yes. If the frames were needed in April, to bring the colonies back up to ten frames, we’d put foundation in around March time. Not too early, because the aroma goes off the wax, you know. And we used to re-fit them.

Steve: Did you have to sit there wiring frames?

David: No. The wax blocks, which used to weigh about 100–110lbs, were weighed, wrapped in polythene paper then put in sacks, with a couple of ears sown on so you could lift them. They were sent from Buckfast to the railway station, I think they used to go to Newton Abbot. Then they’d go by rail from Newton Abbot to London, and they’d go onboard a ship to a company in Ontario…

Steve: Wow. OK.

David: It was a contact that Adam knew. His wax that he sent would be milled into foundation and come back. It had vertical wires, crimped, and it was beautiful foundation. It came back in boxes with a layer of tissue paper, then a layer of foundation, then a layer of tissue paper and so on. Beautiful stuff. They could get it done in those days cheaper than it could be done in England.

Steve: And better?

David: And better.

Steve: So that was already wired

Queen excluders

David: Yes, and the wax was held in the frames, not by a wedge, it was a saw cut. The frames were very substantial to make them last longer, and they were spaced by two boot studs, so they only touched on that metal stud. There was nothing there for the bees to propolise, and he selected bees that didn’t use too much propolis because it hindered you. You can select for it. The Buckfast strain uses a very limited amount of propolis.

In the winter the queen excluders were cleaned with a warm paintbrush and vaseline, on the woodwork, which prevents the bees from sticking stuff to it. It was all thought out and had taken years to get to that stage, but it worked, it ran smoothly.

What do you think?

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