Hivemaker and the Walrus

Steve Donohoe Peter and Andrew Little
With Peter and Andrew Little

I can be an anti-social walrus at times. I am currently sat alone in a beautiful apartment in Funchal Old Town, Madeira, while my wife and daughter are off exploring the island doing Levada walks or some such thing. We have had terrible weather here; very windy with torrential rain, but today seems much better. They chose to get fresh air and exercise, I decided to stay indoors and transcribe my recent interview with Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives, also known as Hivemaker of the UK beekeeping forum. A tale of hivemaker and the walrus.

Before I left the UK I knew that the “Beast from the East” cold spell was forecast, and it has now arrived, sending temperatures across much of Europe below zero Celsius with snow not just back home in the UK, but also in Rome and Barcelona. They must wonder what all that white fluffy stuff falling out of the sky is. I took the opportunity to check on my bee hives before leaving and fed sugar to those that needed it, in the form of something called “Pro Winter Patties” from America. I can now feel like a proper custodian of my bees because I have ensured that starvation shouldn’t be a problem during this freezing weather.

My time down in Somerset with Peter Little and his lovely wife Sandra, along with some of his sons (he has lots of them) was most enjoyable and I learned a lot. I am grateful for their generous hospitality and taking the time to help me out. That applies to all of the beekeepers I have met on my travels as I collect interviews for the forthcoming book. Peter went into great detail with me about how to instrumentally inseminate a virgin queen, including how he actually makes some of his own equipment for the task, and it was clear that I was in the presence of an insemination guru. Perhaps, of all the things to be a guru of, insemination is one of the most useful, as evidenced by his thriving queen breeding operation, and, let’s not forget, his five sons!

One of Peter Little's Apiaries
One of Peter Little’s Apiaries

We visited some of Peter’s apiaries where the bees are currently over-wintering. They won’t move up onto sites on higher ground for a few months. I was interested to note that he uses a wooden insert under each hive roof to record the weight of the colony (see photo). You can see how the weight falls as the bees consume their stores and then jumps up after feeding. This is something that I don’t do, and I know that I should, so hopefully next autumn I will get my act together. The only way to be entirely sure that the bees have enough stores for winter is to weigh them.

Wooden hive insert showing the hive weight
Wooden insert showing the hive weight

Those of you who have seen Mike Palmer’s talks on raising queens and overwintering nucleus colonies to be sustainable will be pleased to know that this practice is alive and well in the operations of Peter Little in Somerset and Murray McGregor in Coupar Angus. These are the two active commercial beekeeping operations that I have visited in the UK for my book. The nucleus colonies can be sold or used to replace winter losses or brood can be taken from them to boost other colonies, for example cell builders in queen rearing. Mike uses wooden nucleus boxes, and he lives in Vermont where the Winter is long and harsh, whereas most of the nucs I saw in the UK were the polystyrene type. However, Mike has nucleus colonies pressed together to share warmth, and wrapped.

I noticed that on many of Peter’s hives there sat a box with 4 entrances, one towards each corner. These are boxes split internally into 4 sections with division boards, to make 4 queen mating nuclei in one box. The frames are half sized super frames, i.e. half the length of a normal frame but the full height. There are queens in these all year round. In the Summer they are used for mating, but right now they are keeping queens safe and warm over Winter. On each split box sits a cover board with holes over which sugar fondant is placed, then an eke filled with wood shavings from Peter’s sawmill operation, and then the roof (which is insulated with Kingspan or Celotex). I’m pretty sure that Brother Adam used that system with great success.

Speaking of the Benedictine monk, Peter also has access to the old mating station up on Dartmoor which he uses to perform isolated mating. He said that the mating station is useful for doing high numbers of queen matings but that you can only realistically mate with one drone line per season, whereas with instrumental insemination it is possible to mate with multiple drone lines. Peter uses insemination to try out new crosses and makes daughter queens from these to test. When he has a line that he is sure of, through seeing the performance of the daughter queens and their workers, he will then be in a position to carry out larger scale matings up on Dartmoor.

I will hopefully be booking flights to Sacramento soon for my California trip to visit Randy Oliver and Ray Olivarez. I need to just check on the wellness of my parents, or lack thereof, before committing to travel. I think they have bees pollinating almonds in California about now, and by the time I get there in early April they should be in full queen rearing mode. The scale of things over there is mind-blowing.

Weekly apiary shipments of hives into California for almond pollination 2017 (almond bloom period highlighted)
Weekly apiary shipments of hives into California for almond pollination 2017 (almond bloom period highlighted)

For now, though, it’s time for me to stretch my legs by going for a wander through the wonderfully tiled walkways of old Funchal town. The sun has decided to show up, so I’d better make the most of it.

4 thoughts on “Hivemaker and the Walrus

  1. Fabulous blog Steve….x

  2. I cannot fault the beekeepers you have chosen to visit in the UK and the USA,they are the best of the best !
    Well done Steve,keep up the good work.

  3. […] with honey and pollen need to be on the side of the box nearest to where the two hives touch. Peter Little keeps his overwintering queens in a box split into four small colonies above a large production […]

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