Keeping High Standards

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It’s that time of the year when it’s time for me to start to get my hives ready for the winter. I’m currently treating all of them with Apivar, which means that the evil varroa destructor mites are taking a beating. If I had any weak colonies, I would combine them with stronger ones after removing the queen, but I don’t. I have plenty of nucleus colonies going into winter, and they are looking good.

My bees are bringing in nectar from the Himalayan balsam plants which are commonly in flower at this time. I love this stuff. It saves me a fortune in sugar. There is very little in flower for my bees, so without the balsam, I would already be feeding sugar syrup to them.

Heavy like lead

Michael Palmer recently posted a video (below) showing how he feeds sugar syrup to his bees for winter. He is a commercial bee farmer with a lot of hives, so he needs to make sure that he feeds enough sugar, but not too much. Too much sugar is just a waste. If you overfeed a couple of hives in your garden, no big deal, but Mike has 700+ hives. That can add up to a lot of sugar. Commercial bee farmers often weigh their hives to establish how much syrup each one needs.

I find it amazing how much you can learn just by watching one video. Again, this highlights the difference between hobby beekeepers and those with lots of hives. Commercial beekeepers need to be fast and efficient. They don’t do what they do by accident; everything has been worked out and learned over time. Standardisation is a significant factor in being successful as the scale of your operation grows.

Mike talks about “hefting” beehives, which means lifting them by one side to feel the weight. As he has learned, not only would this be extremely tiring to do on hundreds of hives, but as fatigue sets in your judgement of what is heavy will become impaired. For those with a couple of hives, they need to feel “heavy like lead,” Mike says.

Fast and Efficient

One thing that strikes me when viewing the video is how much easier life is when you use standard equipment. If all of your hive stands, boxes and lids are the same, it will be easier to weigh them. What’s more, there will be less mathematics to do because every piece of similar equipment will weigh the same. I have a long way to go! My apiaries look like a random assortment of all sorts of different shapes, sizes and weights. As I grow my hive numbers, I need to keep this in mind.

The idea of standardisation does not just apply to beehives. Many bee farmers perform various tasks to try to ensure that the bees in each apiary are at a similar stage to each other. In general, it is easier and quicker to manage an apiary if all of the colonies are at the same stage of development and similar size. If one hive looks like swarming, they probably all are. The same applies to feeding or adding supers, and so on. David Kemp once told me how the behaviour of bees headed by sister queens at Buckfast, back in the day, were all similar.

Trip to the Heather

Murray McGregor, who I interviewed for my book back in November 2017, was on the radio recently (BBC Radio 4, On Your Farm). It’s well worth a listen, in my opinion. It mainly concentrates on moving hives to gather the annual heather honey crop from the glens and slopes in Deeside, near Balmoral. Murray now has 4,000 colonies which is vast by UK standards, and by listening to this piece, we can start to understand the level of organisation needed at this scale.

Extracting Honey

While I’m providing links to content made by the beekeepers in my book, Richard Noel has an excellent video showing his honey extraction set up.

That extraction line, which Richard says is far from the best, still represents a considerable capital investment for a non-commercial operation. I reckon it looks like it costs £20,000+ to get something like Richard’s set up, and then you have to consider the premises, the barrels, the means to move boxes and barrels around and the space to store them.

My extracting set up is a far more modest affair, although each year I buy something to add to it. This year I upgraded my extractor, and it made life so much easier. The old extractor held four frames and had to be cranked by hand, or flipper in my case. The new one holds 30 frames and has an electric motor to take the strain. I had a decent honey crop; about 560lbs for the year. At one point it looked like we might have a bumper year like last year, but it was not to be. I’m hoping to at least double it next season as many of my nucs will become production colonies. It’s good to dream!

What do you think?

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