Interview with Walrus

Steve Donohoe 2019
Steve Donohoe 2019

Just in case any readers want to know what little ole me thinks, I have answered some of my interview questions:

Q: Is there any family history of beekeeping?

A: Not that I know of

Q: How did you get started?

A: I went to evening classes run by the Cheshire Beekeeping Association. The tutor was Graham Royle, who was very calm, patient and had a twinkle in his eye which said, “I love keeping bees.” Later on, Graham let us come to one of his apiaries where we handled his bees, to make sure that the reality was as compelling as the theory, and it was. Once I held up a frame with bees, brood and stores on it, I was hooked. Graham has very gentle bees; he breeds for gentleness because beginners so frequently handle them. That summer I did another one-day course somewhere in Yorkshire and came away with two nucs of bees. That was me started.

Q: Are there any mentors or heroes or books that have inspired you?

A: Yes! Many of my heroes are in my book, and they are people that I trust to give me a well thought out answer to any questions I may have. The first people I would ask would be Peter Little, Murray McGregor, Michael Palmer or Randy Oliver, depending on what I needed help with. I also have a lot of respect for Graham Royle who is responsible for me becoming a beekeeper and who is very wise in the ways of the honeybee.

My favourite bee book is “Honey Farming” by R.O.B Manley, and I also liked “Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey” by Brother Adam. I think the “Haynes Bee Manual” by Clair Waring is a good one for people starting out. Oliver Field’s “Honey by the Ton” is a great little book. People who say the old books are outdated because they are pre-varroa are missing out. Varroa and associated viruses is a live current issue, and the best way to keep up with that is through research papers and articles in the magazines. As an example, Samuel Ramsey’s work showing that varroa mites feed on the fat bodies of bees not their blood is not something that you’ll find in a book yet. Randy Oliver continues to research varroa and has written about it extensively in the American Bee Journal.

Q: What do you do to earn money?

A: I don’t earn much from bees, that’s for sure! Nowadays I actively manage an investment portfolio to try to keep our nest-egg growing. I have mostly worked in finance-related roles for both big and small companies in the past. My wife and I owned and ran a company called Xenzone for ten years before selling it in 2015, and we are proud of what we achieved on that project. I think we helped thousands of young people with their mental health and gave good jobs and training to many counsellors.

Q: What is the scale of your beekeeping operation?

A: Small. Currently, I have two apiaries with around ten production colonies and ten nucleus colonies. I am steadily increasing my hive numbers and have started to raise my own queens, but I can’t see me ever having more than fifty hives or so. Because I use Langstroth equipment I can’t easily sell nucs in my area, so really it’s all about honey. I can raise queens for myself or friends but don’t have the numbers to sell to the public, and I’m wary of inbreeding.

Q: What type of records do you keep?

A: I write notes on duct tape on each hive roof, and I keep a spreadsheet which I update after every inspection. I dictate notes into my phone or voice recorder and write up the spreadsheet later on. It’s mainly to record things like mite treatments, syrup feeding, any problems found and how much honey I take off.

Q: Any inventions or discoveries?

A: I have started making my own hive floors because I can’t buy the ones that I like. I use polystyrene boxes, but I don’t like the poly floors, so I make wooden ones that I designed. They are larger than standard, because poly walls are thicker than wood, and they have under-floor entrances and no mesh floor. I have found that these work best for me.

Q: What about mistakes made?

A: I have made a lot of mistakes. Firstly, based on what I had read, I started with extra deep BS National hives (14 x 12), which turned out to be horrible. If I had handled those frames first rather than buying them based on what sounded good, then I’d have saved some pain. Some people like them but they are not for me.

I also made the usual beginners mistake of inspecting too often and for too long, and I can’t tell you how many bought queens I lost. I would often become convinced that my hive had gone queenless, buy a new queen, then introduce her to certain death as there was a queen already in there. My main disappointment has been losing nucleus colonies because I have not made them up strong enough with a laying queen. I have found that leaving a queen cell doesn’t work well for me; far better to have a laying queen who can get on with making more bees straight away. I have lost colonies to starvation because I have not fed them enough and because wasps are a big problem in late Summer for me. So yes, plenty of mistakes and lessons learned.

Q: Opinion on the importation of queens from abroad?

A: I think it’s best to use a mixture of homegrown queens and some bought from good breeders elsewhere. At present, about 25% of my hives contain purchased queens and I made the rest. I prefer to buy queens from breeders in the UK. I think that if more beekeepers raised queens and kept them in nucs over Winter, then they would not need to buy so many queens the following season. Commercial beekeepers sometimes need queens early and if they don’t have enough of their own, they will have to buy them from wherever they can get them, which is often Italy or Greece early on. Having said all that, I would like to try those VSH Saskatraz queens to see what they are like, but Canada is a long way away.

Q: What about the ban on neonics?

A: I suspect that it may not have the intended consequences, but I don’t know. Almost everything is poisonous at a high enough concentration. It’s all about getting the balance right between food production and environmental protection. I have heard stories of farmers stopping oilseed rape growing because they don’t want to use the untreated seeds – it’s not economically viable for them. In that case, bee farmers who rely on oilseed rape in the Spring have to find something else for their bees. That leads to the absurd situation where a ban brought in to protect bees might cause them harm, because of the loss of Spring forage.

The other issue is that neonics are likely to be replaced with older alternatives which may cause more damage. It will be interesting to see whether the ban brings about a boost to insects and wildlife; if it does then I’m all for it, but if it doesn’t then I think they should be re-introduced where needed, not indiscriminately.

Q: What are the main threats to bees?

A: There is a big difference between honeybees and the rest, because honeybees are extensively farmed by people whereas wild pollinators and insects are not. I saw a lecture by Giles Budge once on this, and he concluded that the number one killer of honeybees was beekeepers! Next came the weather, which we can’t control, and then all the other things. It seems to me that the best way to help honeybees is to educate beekeepers so that they work with the bees and don’t kill them through doing stupid things. New beekeepers will make mistakes but the important thing is to learn from them and to continually soak up new knowledge. Having a mentor and ideally helping them with their bees for a year before getting your own would be a great way to get started.

As for other types of bee the threats seem to stem from the population growth of humans, leading to habitat changes, and climate change.

Q: How about the hive ventilation/insulation debate?

A: I think that insulation of the hive roof, especially over Winter, is a great thing. Without it, water vapour would condense on the cold surface and rain down on the cluster of bees, which would not be good at all. I do use mainly polystyrene hives because I like them, but in all honesty, I haven’t personally noticed much difference between colonies in poly and wood. Ventilation is something that I’m still trying to figure out. Most people in the UK use mesh floors, so the bees get their ventilation that way, but with solid floors, I’m not sure yet. I do believe and have read about experiments to prove, that damp kills bees rather than cold.

Q: Dare I ask about Manuka?

A: It isn’t my favourite honey taste wise, and any medicinal properties are trashed once it is consumed, so I see it as a wound dressing. I’m pretty sure that all honey has healing properties when applied to wounds or burns, but maybe Manuka is slightly better – it does contain MGO which most of the others don’t. Either way, it is over-priced in my opinion, and I fear that the bubble may burst at some point in the next ten years. New Zealand has done a spectacular job of marketing Manuka honey, that’s for sure.

Q: Favourite type of honey?

A: Mine, which is floral honey from various plants in my part of Cheshire. It varies from year to year, but it’s always good. I did enjoy Rata honey from New Zealand, and honey from lime trees (Linden/Basswood) is delicious too. I do also appreciate honey from clover and heather and honeydew. Let’s face it, it’s all good, as long as it’s real honey from a beekeeper.

Q: What beekeeping wish would you like to be granted by a friendly genie?

A: It would be that all honeybees have developed resistance to the varroa mite, meaning that treatment is no longer required and mite levels stay low and are managed well by the bees.

Q: Finally, what are your hopes for your book?

A: I want it to be a success, naturally. I’d love for it to become essential reading for beekeepers and for it to be well received by the beekeeping community. If that doesn’t happen, I hope still to have made a small contribution to the literature. I had great fun putting it together, learned a lot and made some friends, so it’s been worth it. Maybe there will be a clammer for a second volume, who knows?

Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe is planned for publication in October 2019

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