When Paul worked in IT over twelve years ago, he used to spend “far too long” gazing out of the window. “I’d had enough of office work; I was sick of it,” he told me. In 2008 he was enjoying a post-walk pint with Malcolm Thorpe and Janet Beech in the Vale, Bollington. Malcolm and Janet, who had kept bees many years previously, agreed to help Paul get started with bees. It was an opportunity to spend time outside and to learn about these fascinating insects.
Paul left his job to work with his dad in the quarry, doing some truck driving and operating the excavator machines. He allocated half a day a week to manage his bees, which had grown in number by collecting swarms and doing splits. Paul explained, “Half a day a week would be messing about with bees. Over the years half a day became a day, then two days then three, and eventually a full-time job.”
A few years ago he bought a hundred hives from Honey Paw and realised that he could sell them in the UK for a profit. His newly piqued interest in beekeeping equipment sales led to him buying the Modern Beekeeping business. Things have changed since 2008; he runs about 100-120 hives, sells equipment through Modern Beekeeping and honey through his Happy Valley Honey brand.
Paul likes to use polystyrene hives because they are light but strong, easy to move, reasonably cheap and according to a large commercial beekeeper in Scotland (Murray McGregor) they produce 20% more honey than timber hives. He uses Langstroth hives for honey production but sells most of his nucs in the BS National format.
Keep on movin’
Many commercial beekeepers, Paul included, move their bees around during the season from crop to crop. This strategy means earning a fee for pollination services as well as collecting more honey than by keeping hives stationary. Typically bees move in March to orchards, then to oilseed rape, then field beans, and later on up to the peaks for heather. I can testify that his ling heather honey is an incredible gem – one of the best I’ve tasted. He also buys in some attractive UK niche honey such as blueberry and borage, which he sells on.
I asked if he’d ever had his honey analysed. “No, but you can get it from the taste, and how fast it wants to set and things like that,” he replied. “Predominantly in this area, it’s lime trees, bramble, rosebay willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. They sometimes get a fair bit of privet which is similar to the lime but later.”
Paul told me that blueberry production in the UK is on the increase. He missed out on a blueberry pollination contract in Essex, and now he buys the blueberry honey from the beekeeper that got it. “I’m a bit gutted because I would have liked the pollination contract myself, but another lad that I know got it. We get the honey off him. Blueberry production in the UK is on the up, and these places want a hundred plus colonies at a time. One of the bonuses of pollinating, of course, is that you end up with honey too.”
He takes bees down to Kent for cherry pollination. “It’s usually March when we take them down, so you’re messing with them early. You check them and feed pollen supplement to get them ready. You don’t want them too big, or too small – there is a nice sweet spot. It pays us to go, and we don’t run the smallest of vehicles…”
“We bring them back from the orchard and might catch some of the later flowering oilseed rape crops. Then they go onto field beans, then back near home for lime trees and bramble, then later on we go up to the heather,” says Paul.
Like me, although on a larger scale, Paul uses Langstroth hives for honey production but sells more nucs in the National format. “I prefer the Langstroth format, but the market dictates that Nationals are the thing, so we have to deal with it.” As an equipment supplier, he can see better than most what beekeepers in the UK want to buy. Paul reckons that the ratio of Langstroth to National equipment sold is about 40:60, and says that demand for bees on Langstroth went up because of the Flow Hive.
Varroa mite treatment
I asked him if he follows a particular treatment regime for dealing with varroa mites:
Paul: Not particularly. Usually, it depends on what I can get at the right price. We like MAQS because they are quick, penetrate the brood cappings, and I don’t have to take the honey off, which is a big bonus. It’s only a week, and then it’s done. This year I couldn’t get what I thought was a reasonable price, and I think there was some supply issue with it, so we opted for amitraz based treatments. Of course, we’ll trickle oxalic acid in the winter. I have had some reports that amitraz is not knocking down mites as it should, so maybe some resistance is developing.
Steve: I heard that from Peter Little in Exmoor. He says the mites love the stuff! I don’t know if he’s exaggerating or not.
Paul: Probably not, it’s becoming a bit of a problem. Thymol is an extended treatment time, and you need to be at the right temperature, so you are putting off feeding, and queens can go off lay…with formic acid it’s just boom and done.
What about NOT treating?
Steve: Most people in Cheshire are hobby beekeepers, and they are maybe less interested in massive honey crops; they enjoy beekeeping and want to do a bit of good. There seems to be quite a strong contingent that are anti-treatment; what are your thoughts on that?
Paul: I’ve had apiaries that I haven’t treated for one reason or another, maybe lack of time, thinking that they’ll probably be okay. You come to the spring, and your losses are enormous. It doesn’t work. I know the people who don’t treat because I sell them a nuc every year! They say their bees starved or the hive was wet. I don’t see those high losses, but if I don’t treat, I can guarantee I will. I’ve had people come up here to buy equipment, and they say, “I’m not treating this year.” I think, “why?!” People say that the bees will cope with it. In some circumstances, they can, if they swarm a lot. Maybe that’s some of the difference there, between the hobby side and the commercial side. I like my colonies to be big with lots of brood so the mite load isn’t reduced as it would be if I let them swarm.
I know some people shook swarm early in the year. It will remove the varroa, but your colony will not be as big. You’ve taken away all the energy that the bees stored in their bodies, in their fats, and all the vitamins and minerals. They’ve given all of that, all their fat reserves and their lives, to turn this colony over to new bees in the spring. Then you go and take it away and chuck it on a fire or something, or melt it down. It doesn’t sit with me, I don’t like the idea of it.
Steve: About queens. Are you more inclined to buy them in than make your own?
Paul: Yeah. It’s far easier to buy them in at the moment. Up until recently, it’s just me, and there’s only so much time. We’ve got to a stage where we had somebody working part-time making frames and painting things, and we just took on Sally who will work on the bees. Hopefully, my wife will get more involved next year too.
Steve: Where do you get queens?
Paul: We stick with a reputable breeder that we’ve used for the past five years, in Greece. I like Carniolan queens but we buy-in and use a mixture. What we buy and sell is what we use in our own colonies. If local adaption was a thing, then we wouldn’t produce any honey (laughs).
Steve: If I were to print that in the Cheshire Beekeeper, it would cause outrage.
Paul: We get through two or three hundred queens a year. We buy in, use ourselves and sell to customers in nucs. If they didn’t work, we wouldn’t do it, simple as.
Brexit…(there, I’ve said it)
Steve: Does Brexit make any difference to any of that?
Paul: I think it might be a challenging year, but it will sort itself out. We don’t envisage any difficulty getting our stuff in; we send stuff here, there & everywhere – Europe, worldwide, everywhere. The problem will be a paperwork problem. We already ship containers about; they come through the docks. That same boat has got cargo on it from Europe, Canada, all over the place. There might be tariffs, but from what we have seen they’ll be relatively low. Polystyrene stuff might be the highest – I think that’s 6%.
Steve: I think I read about how maybe queen imports/exports to the EU won’t be a problem but anything with brood would be.
Paul: They’ve said there are to be no package bees. There are some big players out there that do package bees, and they haven’t stopped taking orders! I’m in touch with some big queen resellers, and they say it’s all still going to go ahead. I spoke to Mark McLoughlin about this, and he says you need to look at the TARP regulations – that’s what will determine what you can or can’t get. The thing is, if I can’t get them from Europe, there’s New Zealand as an option, and Argentina as well.
Steve: It’s just madness, isn’t it?
Paul: Maybe I’ll have a go at them!
Steve: The bees I saw in NZ are almost fluorescent yellow, they are so light.
Paul: Yeah, I would need to get packages from NZ and queens from closer to home, in Europe. Italian queens are certainly not suited to us. The Carnies and the Buckfasts work really well here
for us. They build up fast, produce honey and work really well. From what I read, pure Italians wouldn’t be so good.
Steve: On the swarming side of things, you’re a clipper, aren’t you?
Paul: I like to clip my queens, no doubt about it. It doesn’t change anything, it just means that I don’t lose my livestock. I might lose a queen, but my bees don’t leave, or they might be under a hive or on the hive stand. It means that I’m not chasing around after swarms and I’m not causing stress to my neighbours.
Steve: The other thing is, people often see that they have queen cells, but they’re not sure about a queen.
Paul: I speak to a lot of people; I think it’s one reason why they come – not just to buy stuff but to chat about some problem or other. There are so many times when people come saying, “I need a queen, I need a queen!” I’m always trying to slow them down. I can sell them a queen, but I don’t want to take their money if they don’t need one because there’s a virgin in their hive. It’s a waste of a queen. Sometimes it’s just a waiting game.
Steve: I think it is quite often.
Dangerous mating flights
Paul: Also, people don’t have enough colonies to pool resources from. There’s nothing better than sticking a test frame in; if you stick a frame of eggs and young larvae in, they’ll soon tell you if they’re queenless. In 24 hours, you know. If they raise the larvae normally then they have a queen. That’s not to say that they will still have a queen in two weeks. When there are masses of pollinators on a crop you see so many birds – I think a lot of queens on mating flights get caught in the air by birds.
Steve: I like to make my own queens so that I have spare mated queens when I need them.
Paul: It’s so handy to have them on hand. You can fix problems before it gets too far gone. If they turn into drone layers or laying workers, they are just not worth saving. You are much better uniting and splitting again later. Trying to make a laying worker colony back into a queenright colony takes so long, and they end up small going into winter.
For swarming, I’ve tried all sorts of things like Demaree and stuff like that. I needed too many brood boxes and couldn’t get on with that, so I just use small nucs. If I take the queen away and leave them with one cell, it’s sorted. It’s instant. Some people do a vertical split which basically does the same thing, there are all sorts of ways.
I asked Paul if he had any closing thoughts, and he said:
“One thing I would say about us is that we’ve got the bees, we’ve got the equipment, and we use the majority of the equipment that we sell. The jars, the hives, the treatments, any queens we get in. I know it works. I know it works for me – it might not work for everybody. That’s the thing with beekeeping; you have to find what works for you.”