When I interviewed Murray at his home in Perthshire in 2017, I asked him about honey production. Firstly I wanted to know how much honey he makes. (That’s with an ‘h’ not an ‘m’!)
Average Crop per Hive
Murray: Our long-term average? We don’t really count the blossom much, but we should be looking at about 10kg for blossom honey. It used to be more like 15kg, but clover is more or less an extinct plant around here now. We used to get 15kg to 20kg with the clover and when the raspberries were on, but neither are here now. Blossom honey averages have declined to about 10kg per hive.
Heather is our main crop. Our long-term average is about 20kg, 42lbs – 44lbs per hive per year, going back 30 to 40 years. The changes in methodology in recent times means that our average is rising slightly now.
Steve: Is there any particular thing that you think is responsible for that?
Murray: We’ve done a fair bit of changing of bee stock. We have a breeding program in place using selected stock that’s done well. Also, we now try to split everything early and re-unite the splits to the parent hive at the heather, which gives you an extra chance of a crop.
In the springtime, we have already collated all the information from the farmers about what crops are growing where and where the bees are going to go. We set about dispersing the bees from their wintering sites to a relatively large number of spring sites, which can be 170 to 180 places. They are set up in far smaller groups to avoid overloading the forage in each place. While the oilseed rape is in flower, there is abundant forage. As soon as it tails “off, if you have too many hives in one place, the bees go into decline.
Murray: So, we move them out from their winter sites to the oilseed rape. If we have an extra crop to go to, like spring-sown oilseed rape, or raspberries or perhaps some phacelia or borage, we will move them onto a second crop because happy bees are working bees. As long as they have something coming in, the colonies do well; they stay healthier and have better morale and develop better for the heather. If there is no second crop to move to, they stay where they are. We hope they get a bit of clover, something from the trees, maybe Himalayan balsam if it comes along in an early flowering area.
The Main Event
Then from sometime around 5th July, we start the heather moving. We collect all of the bees from all of the summer sites.
Steve: Some in England and some in Scotland?
Murray: Yes, we have a unit of bees in England centred on the old Cooperative Farms at Hereford and Cirencester. They tend to overwinter down there and go to spring crops there, but all hives go to the heather. We have four distinct heather areas: Aberdeenshire, which is basically around the valley of the River Dee, West Perthshire, the A9 between Dalwhinnie and Aviemore, and then we also have recently acquired some territory in the Angus Glens, in particular Glen Esk.
They go to the heather to get the heather honey crop, which is the economically crucial one. They are moved there throughout the month of July. At that point, we no longer examine the bees. It’s just a boxes-on operation. Add boxes as required, re-unite splits, and then wait until the end of the first week of September, when we commence the harvest.
Then the whole cycle repeats again. You harvest the heather honey from the bees on the mountains, and then they go on the lorry, and you bring them home to their winter place, feed them, and that leads into the next spring.
I asked Murray about how he selects breeder queens, as this seems to be a factor in maximising the honey crop when there is one.
Murray: A lot of bee breeders have a formal scoring system. They rank certain important properties and give each a score so that anything scoring below a certain level is never allowed into the breeding process. Our needs are much more basic. We need a honey-producing colony, and we need the bees to be workable and healthy. One of the properties we look out for is the brood pattern and fecundity of the queen. You’re looking for a solid brood pattern and bees that are steady on the comb and don’t run too much, so they are easier to manage, meaning you can run more colonies.
You’re looking at the honey production, and there are other things like we won’t allow a colony with more than a few cells of chalkbrood into the process. Ultimately, we would hope to get chalkbrood out entirely. We are also trying to choose bees from types that are resistant to EFB because, despite the fact that we are dealing with EFB, and it’s not an overwhelming problem for us, it’s still there and is definitely linked to bee type. It’s not that one bee is immune and one isn’t, but the degree of susceptibility varies, so we look to breed from stock that has shown itself to be less so.
We buy in breeder queens from other people, and we select the best from our own. We keep the good ones from the year before, and from the field where we have 3,000+ hives, we only need to choose 5 or 6 to go into the breeding program. I can afford to be extremely choosy. “Good enough” is not going to get in; it’s got to be something exceptional to get accepted and brought in. They can be rejected on the flimsiest of things, like a couple of bees jumped off and stung me. It’s not an aggressive hive, but you know, you’re going to find one where that doesn’t happen.
Making Money from Honey
I wondered if there was any other bee farmer that Murray admired.
Murray: There are a number of people who I admire in some of the things they do, but not other things they do. I have actually stolen some peoples’ ideas. It would probably surprise this guy to know, but there’s a guy in Yorkshire called John Whent. He is quite a large commercial bee farmer. John is the man who has truly demonstrated the concept of making money from bees without packing your honey in jars and flogging your tail around. He did it in bulk. The model I went on to in the later years, the last 12–15 years, (the bulk only model) was essentially inspired by him. I realised that he was the one guy who had really made a lot of money from bees. He was the one guy that didn’t pack any jars.
Steve: Right, that’s interesting.
Murray: He maintained his total focus on the bees, their welfare, and production and didn’t get himself side-tracked with customers and packing and things which in some cases are vanity projects.