Reviewing Beekeeping Notes is Addictive in a Good Way

Field of Oilseed Rape
Field of Oilseed Rape

This morning, Mrs Walrus MBE made a quip about where I might be “on the spectrum,” indicating that it is probably some way along. Although this was partially in jest, it was possibly a tactic to divert attention from her undiagnosed, but obvious to all, attention deficit issues. Ha! Touché. Nowadays, it’s cool to have a disorder, so we must be a very cool couple. I’ll admit that I’m obsessed with beekeeping. However, I reckon that reviewing beekeeping notes is addictive in a good way, one that helps me to learn.

I am in no way minimising the suffering that mental health disorders cause; we are healthy people with certain personality traits that tend to attract labels. If either of us are on any spectra (I never thought I’d use that word today) it’s not near the zone where lives get ruined, thankfully. My mental health has improved considerably after 17 years of abstinence from alcohol and 11 years of keeping bees. Perhaps swapping a damaging obsession for a healthy one is the best that someone like me can do, and I’m at peace with that.

My Notes Are Far From Perfect

Anyway, to the subject of this article. Over the years, my beekeeping notes have become increasingly unwieldy, but I still write them up after each apiary visit. I manage to make notes on a hive by hive basis, so each hive can tell me a story when I review the notes later on – sometimes years later. As the hive numbers have grown, so the amount of detail recorded has declined. Mostly I record when something happens, such as adding or removing boxes, frames, treatments, food or whatever.

One complicating issue is the different hive types that I keep. It’s a bit crazy. My main production colonies are in Langstroth hives, and so I also keep Langstroth nucs. However, as people only want to buy National nucs, I keep them too, just to over-winter and sell. I have National nucs but not hives, so I have to split rather than promote them as they expand. I also raise queens, and have two types of mating boxes; the mini-plus hives and Kieler mating nucs. The former are great for over-wintering spare queens. Most of these hive types are colour coded on my apiary maps (yes, I do that).

Example of an apiary plan

Winter Losses

Despite some evidence to the contrary, I’m going to call winter over. My winter losses were 6 hives from 31 that went into the Autumn of 2022. Three died before Christmas (discovered at oxalic acid treatment time) and three afterwards (found in early April 2023). That’s 19% losses, way higher than I’d like, but not the end of the world. One died of starvation, two were drone laying queens, and the others I’m not completely sure about. Probably a combo of mites/virus/queen issues. A mouse seems to have been involved too.

In the past, I have tended to re-queen towards the end of the season, in July or August. This means that if something goes wrong, there isn’t much time to put it right. It’s not been uncommon for introduced queens to be accepted, but a month later they are superseded. The classic line from beekeepers is that “the bees know best,” and that they must be doing whatever it is they are doing for an excellent reason. I have doubts about that, but I certainly need to reflect on queen introductions – timing and how I do it.

Queen Replacement

From a honey production perspective, it’s wise to re-queen once she has finished her second season. This season, any of my white-dot queens need to be changed, or moved to a nuc and possibly used for breeding if she’s great. Is it better to do that now, or should I have done it last August? Mostly, I did it last August. That’s why most of mine are yellow-dots.

If we were going with a ’spring replacement’ strategy, we would have to either use imported early queens or queens that went through winter in nucs. Early queens, even those from warmer places like Italy and Greece, are not always the best. Sure, drones are about early on, and the weather can be decent, but that’s not as good as mid-season when drones are plentiful and everyone is sun bathing.

Therefore, if I were to switch to Spring replacements, it would be with nucs. I have purchased early queens, occasionally, and some can be perfectly good, but I am inclined to prefer my stock if I have it. Brother Adam was clear that spring was the best time to re-queen the bulk of his hives. Combining a nuc with a colony that has been made queenless is pretty reliable. But is it better to just start again with that nuc, promoting it into a clean hive, rather than merging it with different bees/brood and older comb? Or maybe do as Adam did – swap the queens in the hive and the nuc. An over-wintered queen made last season that is laying well will almost always be accepted.

Swarms

A good use of my notes is to look at swarming and how well I dealt with it. I find that it’s the colonies that do really well early on that swarm, so pulling out a couple of brood frames should help. Last season, 27% of my hives swarmed. Last year I just gave them space, but this time I have been removing brood frames from the biggest colonies to give to others. I’m also hoping that, having had successful eye surgery, my sight is so much better that I will miss fewer queen cells. I can easily spot eggs now, whereas it was tricky before. Thanks to Julian Stevens for his incredible skills.

Explaining the unexpected

Occasionally, some really unexpected things happen, and my notes help me to figure out what caused it. For me, idiot that I am, I sometimes find that I accidentally move queens. Last season, at one point, an old marked queen turned up in a mating nuc. I had shaken it in without realising. This sort of thing has also happened in the past, when I gave a ‘test frame’ to a queenless colony, only to find a marked queen wandering about. I had moved the queen with the test frame.

I’m hoping that having 2 working eyes will be an advantage this season, and maybe I’ll do fewer silly things. Already this season I have looked in the hive of a drone laying queen to find that my introduced queen of last season was still stuck under a push in cage, dead, obviously. I had forgotten to release her, poor thing. My notes should have helped, but I often forget to take them with me!

Breeder Queens

The real reason that I keep detailed notes on more or less every colony is that I’m always on the lookout for a nice queen to breed from. Apart from the amount of honey produced, and lack of swarming, it’s good to see a placid temperament consistently throughout the season. Plus, of course, I record the mite count in June, and don’t breed from anything showing with high mite loads.

A queen on comb
A special breeder queen mated on Dartmoor

Having spent all of last year asking Andrew Little (Peter’s son) for a breeder queen, I am now the proud owner of a special insect. She is one of the few living bees in the world that was actually mated at the Sherberton mating station (Dartmoor) previously used by Brother Adam. That does not mean she will be great, but for a sentimental old walrus it is a special thing. More importantly, she has gone through all the rigorous checks such as daughter testing that Peter Little used to do. I shall do my best to create perfect daughters from her, as Andrew is keen to hear how she performs.

Weather

As I record the weather in my notes, I can reassure myself that the current cold spell is nothing out of the ordinary. Last year, for example, it was overcast and 12 deg C on 18th April, and then overcast and 10 deg C on the 27th. April can have its chilly spells, but I often forget and think that something unusual is happening when it’s not. Things worked out pretty well last year, so why not this?

What do you think?

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