Nine Years In

Hollyhock in Ulta Violet light
Hollyhock in Ulta Violet light

I am coming to the end of my ninth beekeeping season. I started with two hives, and now I have nearly forty, including nucs. My journey has just begun, but at least I’m through the beginner phase. Here are some things that I have learned, which seem to apply to my beekeeping and probably nobody else:

Big Honey Crops are Rare

They are as rare as hen’s teeth, straight-talking politicians and underweight walruses. My corner of England is very cloudy throughout the year; sometimes I forget that the sky is blue. There is a massive difference between the relatively stable weather systems on vast continents abroad and the ever-changing maritime climate that I get on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. There is even quite a big difference between weather on the South Coast, where I went to school, and here in the North West. This is why holidays are essential!

Hobby Beekeepers are NOT Rare

I don’t have the numbers to hand, but most beekeepers in the UK have a handful of hives or less. They enjoy their hobby, which is a fascinating way to help out with pollinators and collect a few pounds of honey to pour on their porridge. Many people take up beekeeping each year, and many give up. It’s not an easy or cheap pastime in the early years. This fact, combined with generally low honey crops, has led me to finance my beekeeping by prioritising selling bees rather than honey. Nucleus colonies are in significant demand in May and June.

Correx Nucleus Box
Nucleus Box for buying/selling bees

Hives are rarely Queenless

I don’t sell queens often because I want to keep them for myself, but I do give a few away. Every year I get calls from people asking for a queen because their “hive has gone queenless.” I then have to explain about putting a “test frame” into the hive, which few people seem to have heard of. The idea is to put a frame with eggs/young larvae into the “queenless” hive. If the bees make queen cells from the material provided, they are queenless. If not, perhaps the queen has stopped laying for a while or has swarmed leaving a virgin queen behind.

It helps if you can see eggs

My eyesight was appalling for most of my life, but I had surgery which, while not without complications, has left me with excellent sight in my left eye. The right eye is quite cloudy but a lot more useful than it was before the lens replacement surgery. Anyway, I don’t wear spectacles anymore, and I can see the eggs laid by the queen into her wax cells. If I see eggs, I know her majesty is home. Also, by looking at the ratio of eggs to larvae to pupae, I can see the history of her laying. If she lays at a constant rate, this ratio is approximately 1:2:4

I like Nitrile Gloves for beekeeping

Strangely, I started off being a bare hands beekeeper, but I am happier now wearing nitriles. I found that as my hive numbers rose, so did the number of stings. For some reason, my bees are more prone to sting my flesh than my flesh covered by a thin layer of rubber (or whatever nitriles are made of). Maybe it’s sweat or body hair or odour; whatever it is I get fewer stings with nitrile gloves. My hands no longer look like I smoke 40 cigarettes a day because the propolis goes in the bin when I dispose of the gloves. If I have to deal with very grumpy bees, I wear those gauntlet type beekeeping gloves. 

I don’t like Open Mesh Floors*

In the UK the standard floor nowadays is primarily made of a mesh screen, which provides a vast area for ventilation. In my opinion, based on my limited experience, and after discussing this with several commercial beekeepers, solid floors are better. It’s not something hypercritical like preventing starvation or managing disease; I just think my bees do better without the floor being so open to draughts. They are great for monitoring mite drop after varroa treatment in conjunction with a sticky board, but I would use alcohol wash instead. My floors have a strip of mesh across the back to provide ventilation, not the whole floor area.

Roof Insulation makes sense*

Polystyrene hives are made of insulation anyway, so I’m talking about wooden hives. I cut a piece of Celotex/Kingspan to size and insert it into the roof, where it stays forever. The primary purpose of this is to reduce condensation inside the hive above the brood nest in winter. Instead, water vapour will condense on the cooler sidewalls, which is fine. I don’t usually use upper entrances so it cannot escape that way. 

Peter Little, hive in winter
Peter Little, hive in winter

I light my smoker with a blow torch

My smoker fuel is a mixture of wood chips and those smoker pellets, with a bit of cardboard. A good blast with a blowtorch gets things nice and toasty. My Dadant smoker (large) rarely goes out once correctly started, but my smaller smoker often dies on me.

Airflow at the hive entrance

As far as I can tell my bees organise things so that air goes into the hive on one side of the entrance and out on the other side. Sometimes they build propolis on the floor to help with this. It’s probably to do with curing nectar into honey. It strikes me that this process is aided by having a wide opening, so in the summer the entrance reducers are removed on bigger hives. Later on, I get wasps and have to reduce the entrance size.

Propolis on floor helps with air flow
Propolis on floor helps with air flow

Swarmy Genetics*

My goal is to re-queen hives that have swarmed if the queen is from the previous season. I am less concerned if it’s an older queen, or if its a nucleus colony. If a nuc swarms I assume it’s because I didn’t give them enough space. I reckon about 30% of my colonies try to swarm, and 10% succeed. When I started beekeeping, I was obsessed with swarming, but I’m more laid back now. It happens. Sometimes, I miss a cell, or I leave too long between inspections. The colonies that just keep on growing and don’t make queen cells are the ones I like to raise queens from, assuming they are not evil or diseased. 

Raising Queens

I know some folks who are the black-belt superstars of raising queens for sale. It is through talking to them, and reading about others, that I have come to realise that queen rearing is my favourite part of beekeeping. I’m more of a yellow-belt, in Karate terms, but I’m very keen and willing to learn. I can only control which queens I breed from; they are open mated with local drones. Each step of making new queen bees has it’s own learning curve, riddled with frustrations and failures, but with time and perseverance comes success

Nail Guns are awesome

My nail gun is, anyway. It is so much quicker and easier to put frames or boxes together with an excellent reliable nail gun. I actually use staples rather than nails, but whatever. Mostly I use it for making hives and floors because building frames is a horrible job; I tend to buy them assembled.

So is a good Strimmer

When grass and nettles and hedges start to encroach on beehives action must be taken. My apiaries are hardly “Brother Adam tidy”, but I do try to keep the area around my hives reasonably clear. A pair of shears and a brush cutter are my weapons of choice. The bees do not approve, but I don’t care. I have a Dewalt strimmer/brush cutter that uses a rechargeable battery; no wires or petrol required. I found that using shears to cut grass wrecks my back.

A Bee Vehicle is not for trips to the shops

My Land Rover is my bee vehicle. It’s always got the back seats down and is full of beekeeping paraphernalia. It smells of smoke and wax, and quite often the odd bee is in there too. I’m not totally freaked out by bees in the car, but my family is. Trips to the shops or small family outings are not enhanced by being transported in a smelly vehicle with the occasional bee flying around. Screams and thrashing of arms ensue. Therefore, I have a small economical car for general family stuff. Longer journeys, or those involving the transportation of the dog, require me to empty out the Land Rover, clean it up and make it more suitable for non-beekeepers. One day I might get a bee truck! That would make me feel tremendously grown-up.

Treat for Varroa*

It’s safe to assume that your bees have mites, and that if you don’t deal with them your bees will suffer and die. As they die they will drift to other hives, spreading the problem. There may be odd exceptions, but as a general rule you won’t go far wrong following this.

Getting it Right

Despite all of the many things that beekeepers argue about, the noble art of beekeeping can be summarised:

“If you produce the right number of bees that are the right age and in the right condition, and are in the right place at the right time, you will be successful.” (Dr. Hachiro Shimanuki, Kim Flottum’s Book “Better Beekeeping“)

Headings marked with an asterisk are often fiercly debated topics, for some reason

2 thoughts on “Nine Years In

  1. John Broadbent

    AS a five year beekeeper, I really enjoyed this article. I hope (and am sure) that I never stop learning and being surprised by this fascinating hobbly. PS Loved the book

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