Some Of My Beekeeping Mistakes
Murphy’s Law – “If anything can go wrong, it will” – comes from a chap in the US Air Force in the 1940s. He was involved in testing new engineering designs. Perhaps he was always messing things up, or maybe he was super cautious and used the ‘law’ to try to foresee potential hiccups. Some call it “sod’s law”, but I’m beginning to think “Walrus Law” could be appropriate. With beekeeping, there is always the temptation to blame oneself for things that go wrong, but sometimes that’s not the case…surely? Murphy’s Law applies to bees!
Kieler Nucs Again
Most of my queen-rearing woes relate to mating rather than cell building. I’ve not had problems making queen cells from grafted larvae for a long time. This year my percentage of finished cells to grafts was 74% (67 from 90). Not great, but acceptable to me. However, not all of those 67 queen cells ended up being mated queens – far from it. Only 40% of my lovely queen cells became laying queens. Overall, 30% of my grafts turned into something useful. I’m not happy about that, and mostly it’s my fault.
Most of my failed matings came from kieler mating nucs. I thought I’d cracked kielers – last year went pretty well – but it was back to Murphy’s Law this year. Queen cells that I placed in my mini-plus hives did far better. They are larger and have established colonies in them (drawn comb, bees and brood). The only problem with mini-plus hives was trying to prevent over-wintered queens from swarming in spring. Here are the main mistakes I made with kieler nucs this season at various times:
- grafting too early so that virgin queens did not have good mating weather
- not putting enough bees into each nuc
- opening up the entrance too early
- not feeding often enough when getting established
- grafting a bit late, so the nucs had to deal with wasp attacks
I’m not proud of this; I’m just sharing so that people who have the odd mishap realise it’s part of the learning process. The best plan for raising queens in my area seems to be to get it all done in June and July, as there are problems in May (weather) and August (wasps). August is probably fine if I use mini-plus hives or five/six frame nucs with full-sized frames.
Speaking of wasps, they were involved in my latest balls up. Having placed clearer boards on all production hives in an apiary, we were all set to remove supers the next day. Unfortunately, things messed those plans up: I had to deliver some queens to customers, which took longer than expected. Then I was called out to rescue two hives that had fallen over because their stand legs sank into soft ground at one end. After that, there wasn’t time for extracting, and for the next few days, we were doing family stuff as my daughter visited.
We finally removed the supers four days after adding the clearer boards. One hive was being inundated with robbing wasps and bees that were able to get into the undefended supers. Two full supers had become nearly empty. The lessons from the above cluster of calamities are:
- make sure you repair damaged boxes so that they can’t be robbed
- poly hives damage much easier than wood
- hive stands should go on a hard surface like flagstones
- don’t leave clearer boards on for ages
- selling queens isn’t worth it for a small-scale producer like me (nucs are far better)
Luckily we have had a good year for honey, so losing a couple of supers was not a disaster. That apiary produced 560lbs of extracted honey, starting with nine hives in the spring (62lbs average). My best hive at that place gave me 125lbs. Four more apiaries to go…
Incidentally, the bees where the hives fell over are particularly horrid. The mole found this out today as we added clearer boards. They found a chink in his armour – a little gap between suit and boot. As he ran off at the speed of an alarmed wildebeest, slapping himself and uttering noises only comprehensible to moles, I had a little chuckle. Earlier, he had said that he hadn’t been stung for a while, so the Gods answered his call.
People in regular contact with bees need to get stung every so often. I’ve heard of many a bee farmer with an allergic family member, and many attribute this to being around bees but not stung. Mike Palmer talked about it in this video.
What else has gone wrong, I hear you ask. Well, this year, several of the swarms I caught were cast swarms – they contained one or more virgin queens and no mated queen. This is because I clip many of my queens. The fact that they swarmed at all means that I missed a queen cell. If you leave one cell, they won’t swarm, but with two or more cells they may fly off and hang in a tree. These cast swarms have not generally gone well for me; they draw out some comb but take ages to get mated or fail to return from their mating flight.
Finally, an issue that isn’t my fault – the price of running my bee van. All of my charging about from place to place ain’t cheap. It’s expensive now that fuel costs are through the roof. I reckon the lease cost plus insurance and fuel amount to £5,800pa. It takes a lot of honey or nuc sales to cover that. I don’t think you can make much profit from beekeeping unless you are (a) very good at it and (b) have at least 100 hives. My beekeeping is at a larger scale than a hobby but far too small to make sense as a business. It could be time to think about reducing hive numbers and getting back to more of the fun stuff and less of the hard slog. That’s what it always feels like at extracting time!