The Big Picture: Successful Beekeeping

Murray McGregor with some hives at a winter site
Murray McGregor with some hives at a winter site

Beekeeping, eh? What’s it all about? I’m sure there are many answers to that question, but I’m going to talk about myself, as that way, hopefully, I can’t annoy too many people. The following is to provide the big picture: successful beekeeping, according to this walrus.

Doesn’t really matter why

I have my reasons for keeping bees (hopelessly addicted) and you have yours; I don’t think it really matters. In my case, I always wanted to try it out, then found the whole experience mesmerising, so I became obsessed and gradually acquired more hives and more sites on which to place them. I found that my primary interest, the thing that I love most about keeping bees, is raising queens. You can raise good queens with a few hives, but I think that the more colonies you look after, under all different conditions, the more likely it is that your selected ‘breeder queen’ is a good one.

I’m confident that many beekeepers simply love having them in their garden so that they can watch and listen to their industrious activity on lazy summer afternoons. I might do that one day, if I get a house with a large garden that isn’t in a built-up area, but that day may never come. Mrs Walrus MBE enjoys the countryside but, deep down, she’s a city person. I respect that. I’m a country person who has spent most of his adult life in towns and cities. Bees kept on farms in Cheshire give me a perfect balance between the bustle of the city and the fresh air of the country.

What is successful beekeeping?

I remember interviewing Ray Olivarez of Olivarez Honey Bees, a truly enormous bee farming operation based in Orland, Northern California. He said, quite rightly, that when you start out in beekeeping, success means keeping them alive. It sounds silly, but many people don’t just buy a nucleus colony when they start out; they keep buying them for a few years because they struggle to keep bees alive. In my third season I lost all of my bees (6 colonies, if I recall correctly) and I had to start again with purchased nucs. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that beekeeping is easy. Or cheap.

Once you have cracked the formula of how to keep most of your bees alive, you are already doing well. Beyond that, I think it’s good to keep records and set goals for each new season. Some things that I measure, and try to improve on are:

  • winter and summer losses
  • amount of honey per hive
  • number/percentage that tried to swarm
  • number/percentage of swarms lost
  • percentage of grafts that turn into queen cells (target 70%+)
  • percentage of queen cells that turn into mated queens
  • varroa mite count (alcohol wash in June)

My goal is to have fewer losses this year than last, more honey per colony, less swarming, more successful grafting and queen mating, and lower levels of Varroa mites. Occasionally, I will achieve this, but normally, I do well at some and less well at others. I think the important thing is to keep good records so that I am not kidding myself. However, even if all you do is keep your bees alive, you are a successful beekeeper as far as I’m concerned.

Out of our control

I consider keeping bees to be a form of agriculture. As with so much of farming, not all is within our control. The weather can make or break a season, and all we can do is cope as best we can with whatever the Gods throw at us. This has always been the way, so there is no point moaning about it; it’s just the way it is.

dry cracked earth due to lack of rain
Dry cracked earth due to lack of rain (Picture: Paul Horton)

I do have some sympathy with beekeepers that take their hives to the heather. For a start, there does not seem to be a way to know for sure that heather will yield – you just have to take hives up to the hills and hope that a flow kicks in. I am currently a non-migratory beekeeper, so I don’t have to figure out the logistics of moving hives and somehow fitting in varroa treatments before it’s too late.

Hives on the heather don’t come home until September, then the supers are removed and varroa mite treatment can begin. It’s getting late at that point; not only are temperatures lower than in August, but a good amount of the brood that will become ‘winter bees’ is likely to be heavily infested with mites. Logically, to overcome this, the beekeeper would treat for mites earlier on, in the summer, but that’s a problem too.

In the UK, even Formic Pro is not supposed to be applied when honey supers are on. I therefore broke the law last year, as I believed that formic acid was the only treatment that was allowed when honey was on the hives, but apparently not. I’m uncertain if this is just a UK thing. Basically, if you want to treat your hives in summer, you can’t in the UK if you have supers on. It is out of our control, and seems to be a policy designed to cause high winter losses for people going after late season crops.

Healthy Bees

The trick is to apply what are known as ‘barrier methods’ to prevent the spread of disease. I’m going to be much better at this in 2023 than in the past; I am ashamed to admit that I have not been the tidiest or most hygienic of beekeepers to date. Some of my apiaries look like a tornado has been through, but it hasn’t. I’m enlisting the help of The Mole (my son, Alex) to get everything neat and tidy, with old stuff chucked on the fire so that we start the coming season looking good.

Of course, the real trick is to keep it neat and tidy all through the season, not just in April. Anyway, as a minimum, I’m going to try to do the following:

  • wash bee suits more frequently
  • change gloves between apiaries
  • keep hive tools in a bucket of bleach/washing soda solution
  • try to put wax scrapings in a bag, not chucked on the floor
  • not move frames between apiaries unless I’m completely confident that there is no disease, and keep records of such movements if they happen
  • properly sterilise equipment by flaming or bleach before use by another hive

I do some of those things anyway, but I aim to do better.

Changing Comb

Many speakers from the BBKA in the UK advocate performing shook swarms and Bailey comb changes in the spring. The idea is to get your bees onto clean comb and therefore reduce the risk of disease breaking out. I did one shook swarm last April because I needed to move an inherited colony from National frames to Langstroth. I don’t think I even fed them; just shook into a hive of foundation frames and left them to it (there was a flow on). They did fine. I got a super of honey off them which, although not earth-shattering, is hardly a disaster. I use quite a few plastic frames too, which means the wax is not drawn out on potentially contaminated foundation.

Although my shook swarm experiment worked, I’m not planning to repeat it very often nor make it part of a routine. I prefer to move dark combs to the edges of hives by winter, so that the following season they can be taken out and replaced with foundation. The foundation goes between two frames of brood, and it doesn’t take long for it to be drawn out and full of eggs. I wouldn’t do that with a small colony, but small colonies are a concern anyway. However you do it, some rotation of old comb for new, in brood frames at least, is a good thing for the health of our bees.

Finally, Mastodon

mastodon logo
Mastodon logo

I get a lot of bee news from Twitter but, given the problems with that platform, I have got myself a Mastodon account too. I never spend much time on social media, but from what I have seen, Mastodon is a more pleasant place. For anyone who’s interested, I’m at There isn’t too much beekeeper action as yet, but there are countless clever people, all doing their particular amazing things.

4 thoughts on “The Big Picture: Successful Beekeeping

  1. Hello Steve, and thanks for this.

    I know you’re referring to Formic-Pro when you rightly say that it cannot be used when honey supers are on, and that any honey on the hive at the time of treatment cannot be used for human food.

    But you also said: ‘I believed that formic acid was the only treatment that was allowed when honey was on the hives, but apparently not.’ Strictly speaking that’s not accurate. Although MAQS has exactly the same ingredient as Formic-Pro (68.2g Formic Acid), the instructions for MAQS state: ‘The strips may be applied during honey flow; put on honey supers if honey flow is anticipated, to allow adequate space for colony expansion.’ Also: ‘The strips may be applied during honey flow. Put on a honey super complete with frames at time of application if necessary to provide adequate space for strong colonies to expand, or if a honey flow is expected. It is acceptable to have queen excluders in place.’

    I don’t use MAQS so it’s not an issue for me, but it is definitely the case that the VMD docs for some varroa treatments are in places eyebrow-raising.

    Separately, I wear the purple nitriles which might be a little thicker than the blue ones. I use them for weeks before they pack in, washing between every hive in the soda bucket, and in the machine with the beesuit when I get home. Using nitriles doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person as regards single use plastic.

    • Hi Archie, I’m not sure MAQS is available anymore, or if it is, I think it’s being replaced by Formic Pro. Apologies if I’m wrong about that.

      To be honest I am not a huge fan of treating with formic pads in the summer, but it’s good to have something for odd cases where mites are too high. When I used it I lost 30% of queens (3 from 10) but it was very effective and once the queens got back to laying they were going really well with beautiful brood.

      My nitriles are usually disgustingly filthy and sweaty inside so I’m glad to rip them off between sites!

      Best wishes, Steve

  2. Hi Steve
    Archie is right, the differences in VMD approved methods are a mess. This is no help to beekeepers. Scotland have a Varroa Working Group looking at this. There’s also little conservation between countries of what’s allowed or not …the US can use multiple repeated OA treatments, though the dose approved is too low to be effective ( D’oh!
    Does anyone have MAQS still for sale? It’s been out of stock for ages from the big suppliers. Should it ever return – remember, it comes from the same stable as formic pro so might well not – I think it will be important (as it always is) to read the instructions … they might have changed 🙁
    Not sure I agree with your point that there’s no options suitable for those going after late season crops … splits, prepared with care, should have a broodless period so can be treated with OA. You can do this as swarm control and – with care – it works well. A well-timed shook swarm plus miticide will devastate the Varroa population.
    Onward and upward … 😉

    • Hi David. I know the view among some who rely on honey production for a living is that the authorities are, perhaps, being swayed by certain factions of the largely amateur beekeeping community, rather than supporting UK farming. I’m not even sure amitraz, used carefully, would be a risk to the honey for human consumption, given that it barely dissolves in honey and soon degrades to DPMF, which doesn’t stick around longer than a few weeks. However, we have to follow the instructions; no question about that.

      I didn’t say that there are no options, just no treatments available for when supers are on (although MAQS might still be about). For beekeepers with hundreds of hives the shook swarm + OA option is a hell of a lot of work and leads to lost honey, which makes it a non starter. There’s also the queen caging approach advocated by Ralph Buchler et al; again, lots of additional labour cost. And honey prices are under pressure…

      My OA in winter plus thymol/amitraz in autumn normally does the trick, but I have supers off by mid August. If I do get high mites in the odd colony in June I will try the shook swarm/OA approach though.

      Thanks and best wishes, Steve.

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