Is there method in this madness?
As you can see from the photograph showing part of one of my apiaries, there is plenty going on. One might even conclude, upon initial investigation, that the resident beekeeper is a raving lunatic. While this may be true, this smorgasbord of different types of hive actually works quite well for me. At my scale it seems to work, but I suspect that a large-scale bee farmer would drop the mini-plus hives. How many types of hive can one beekeeper manage?!
Langstroth for honey production
I have lost count of the beekeepers who I have met who admit that, were they to start again, would probably choose a different hive type to the British Nationals that they currently run. I’ve heard people saying they would use Dadant hives, commercials and Langstroths in preference to the ubiquitous National. Having said that, many people get on just fine with Nationals and make plenty of honey. I have said many times that I believe the bees are far less fussy than their ‘keepers’ when it comes to the type of box they live in.
The more hives you buy, the harder it becomes to change (or more ruinously expensive) – so getting that initial decision right at the beginning is key. When I started, I got a few 14 × 12 (Jumbo Nationals) based on the things that I had read. I hated them, and soon offloaded these abominations, as Peter Little used to call them, in favour of Langs. I can’t really explain why, but I just feel comfortable with Langs; they seem to be the right size for my types of honey bee. Although I have cedar and poly hives, as I expand I find myself buying Swienty and Honey Paw poly boxes in preference to wood. I’ve become accustomed to them. The bees do well in both poly and wood, so it boils down to beekeeper preference in my opinion.
Nucs to support production hives
Of course, running Langstroth production hives means that I also keep plenty of Langstroth nucleus colonies on the go. They are a resource of bees, brood, and queens that help to cover any losses. They also provide brood for cell builder colonies or to boost others, and they can easily be ‘promoted’ to full-sized colonies. When I set up new hives I generally start with a nucleus and then as it grows I move the bees to the full-sized hive. I do sell Langstroth nucs, but demand is low (maybe 10% of the demand for Nationals).
Nucs for sale to other beekeepers
As a lover of raising queens, and having seen how Michael Palmer runs his bee farming business at French Hill Apiaries, Vermont, USA, I was always going to be a supplier of nucleus colonies. However, such is the dominance of the diminutive National format in the UK, that I decided I’d have to follow suit. What I chose to do was to run National nucs, and when they start to get too large, I split them (if they don’t get sold). Often, I add an upper box to provide space as the nuc grows, then it can easily donate 5 frames and a queen when I come to sell the nuc. In spring, they have to make their own queen, in summer I have plenty of queens and queen cells available.
There is a marked difference in demand for nucs in the spring compared to the summer. Nobody wants to buy nucs right now, but in April, they are fighting over the limited supply and prices get silly – some people sold spring nucs for £300 each, which is madness. My plan is to sell nucs whenever people want them, which means taking them through the winter and selling them the following spring. I have found that polystyrene does an excellent job of providing a safe haven for bees through the cold and wet months of winter. Mice can make a mess if they get in, and can chew the entrance extra-wide, so some form of mouse protection is wise.
Mating boxes – Kielers
Now that I have made the mistakes that I inevitably do whenever I try out an activity, not helped by my reluctance to read instructions of any kind, I find that Kieler mating hives work well. It was after multiple failures, with associated waste of bees and queens, I saw the light. The answers are all there in publications such as ‘Managing Mininucs’ by Ron Brown and ‘Using Apideas’ by Dan Basterfield. I have these little mating boxes on stands – two on each.
These are yet another type of hive, with another type of frame, but they are worth it for getting queens mated without devouring large resources in terms of bees.
And finally, Mini-Plus
When I visited Richard Noel many moons ago, I was impressed by the mini-plus hives that he uses in his operation. They are petite boxes, but have enough space for a new queen to establish a decent colony before she gets moved on. Queens can stay in these boxes much longer than in Kielers. They can act as mating nucs but, the thing I really like, is that stacked into doubles, they are great for over-wintering queens. Now that I have 20 or so of these, I will keep on using them, but I suppose there is an argument that a normal 6-frame nuc can do a similar job.
As they come into spring the queens soon fill up the mini-plus frames, which means that I have to add more boxes, until they are 4 boxes tall. Unfortunately, this is still too early in the year for me to raise queens, so I tend to remove the over-wintered queens and let them re-queen themselves. The over-wintered queens can be used to re-queen other hives or can go into full sized nucs. Often the towers of mini-plus boxes will make good queens, but I always keep a close eye on these, as they may sometimes be below par.
Once I start grafting and raising queens, I break up the towers into single or double boxes, with a newly mated queen in each. They just need a frame of sealed brood and a frame of stores, plus a queen, to be in great shape to grow and draw out new foundation. The queens will later move into full sized nucs or hives, and replaced by the next batch of newly mated queens. Meanwhile, as the Kielers lose their mated queens, a new cell goes in each, and the cycle continues.
Moving queens from Kielers to mini-plus, then on to nucs or hives, gives me plenty of opportunity to judge the laying pattern of the queen and the temperament of her offspring. It also helps with queen acceptance; by the time she is introduced to a large colony, she is laying well and is no longer a very young queen (these tend to have low acceptance rates). Nevertheless, I still tend to use a push-in-cage for introducing queens to large colonies. Nothing is ever 100% successful but, after the efforts by me and the bees to produce good queens, it’s worth tilting the odds in my favour.