One of the great pleasures that I derive from writing my book “Interviews with Beekeepers” is meeting the people that work with honey bees. Everybody that I have talked to on my travels so far clearly loves their work, and they are always willing to share their knowledge and experience with me. Bee workers must possess huge patience because they tolerate my bumbling lines of questioning as I grapple with my voice recorder and notes, trying to sound vaguely knowledgable. When I get back home and listen to the interviews I am usually able to make some sense of it and turn it into pages that readers will one day find enlightening, fascinating, humorous and life affirming…I hope. My reasoning is that if I like reading it there must be somebody else out there who likes it too, and any beekeeper hoping to learn will surely wish to hear from the gurus on my hit list.
I recently visited Murray McGregor, owner of Denrosa apiaries, at his hard-to-find-but-very-lovely cottage near Blairgowrie in Perthshire, Scotland. It sits beside a small loch which had mostly frozen over. The large area of surrounding land was populated with nucleus hives, countless mating hive stands, a queen rearing shed, some artificial birds of prey to scare off woodpeckers, Unimog vans and various other paraphernalia. After a tour of some of his apiaries along the sides of the valleys of rivers Earn and Tay, we met up with Jolanta Modliszewska at Denrosa’s headquarters in Coupar Angus. Jolanta was cutting and packing heather comb honey, which is a strange thing to be doing on a Saturday afternoon, but orders need to be fulfilled and there is plenty of demand for this top quality product. There were a great many images of sloths on the wall. Who doesn’t love sloths? However, her real domain is the queen rearing operation, so we drove her back to the bee shed where I stuck a recorder under her nose and did my bumbling question routine.
Jolanta has been working for Murray for 12 years. For the first few years she was helping out working bees in the field, but she stood out from the crowd in terms of both aptitude and passion for the bees, and jumped at the chance to establish Denrosa’s queen rearing operation. She was flown out to Cyprus to train with Roger White where she quickly picked up skills such as grafting, setting up cell builder and finisher colonies, using the incubator, achieving successful matings, catching and marking the mated queens and all things related to keeping her majesty healthy and well.
In her first year at the new Blairgowrie mating station Jolanta started off with 150 mating boxes, and the results were very encouraging. Since then it has steadily grown to 900 mating boxes split between two locations, and word is spreading around the beekeeping community about the quality of the queens produced. Murray proudly informed me that only last week the Scottish bee inspector and somebody at the science institute had both been very complimentary about the project. Although the majority of the queens raised are for use in production colonies to make that delicious heather honey, an increasing number are being sold to other beekeepers. Murray has plenty of capacity to expand that side of the business and will surely do so. I’m going to be placing an order myself next season because they are great bees and now I have seen how they are made, and by whom.
I’m going to save many of the technical details of how the talented Ms Modliszewska makes her queens for my book, but I can say a few things. She uses a Chinese style grafting tool and was keen to point out that it has to have the bamboo reed, not plastic. She uses quite small mating boxes of the Kieler type. Murray brings back packages of worker bees shaken from colonies out in the field, and a measure of these is put into the mating box and a newly emerged virgin queen is introduced. Jolanta places sealed queen cells into the incubator at around day eleven, so a few days later the virgin emerges into its roller cage on day fourteen, and within two days it has a new home in a small mating box with the newly shaken workers.
Once the queen is mated she is caught, removed, marked with a coloured dot on her thorax, and placed in a queen cage for transportation elsewhere. Her place is taken by a sealed queen cell from a finisher colony (not an emerged virgin) and on it goes. Jolanta found that virgin queens work best in newly created mating boxes but queen cells work best once they are established with drawn comb and brood. The cell is protected with aluminium foil wrapped around it, which improves the acceptance rate. Mating success is very dependant on the weather, which can be unhelpful in these parts, but overall Murray reckons they get around 60%-70% mated. Sometimes if it is too cold or too windy the virgins won’t leave their cosy homes to go on a mating flight, and if they are still virgins after two weeks they are shaken out and the whole thing has to be started again.
The breeder queens live in 5 frame poly nucleus hives placed near the bee shed. These are the absolute best queens, carefully selected by Murray and brought back to be used for breeding only after proving themselves to be exceptional. Murray has over 3,000 colonies of bees so he can be very choosy. Each queen is known by a code; the prefix “J” is for Jolanta, and this is followed by numbers sequentially. Apparently queen “J21” is a really good one, and “J7” is very old and very dear to the ever protective Jolanta. She says that she will cry when J7 dies. I fear that may be soon as she is 7 years old! These queens live longer than production queens because they are kept in small colonies and don’t lay as many eggs each year as a queen heading a giant colony. They are the mothers of most of Denrosa’s colonies and many of the prime queens sold to customers, although Murray does keep diversity by bringing in breeder queens from abroad too. Both Murray and Jolanta agree that the Carniolan sub species does best in their area, but any queen of any type gets into the program if she’s good enough.
When I asked Jolanta about her favourite part of the queen rearing cycle she said, “Catching queens,” so that she can “see her new babies.” She cares a lot for her queens and is a perfectionist, which is clearly part of the reason for her achievements so far. I asked her if she had found any aspects of the job difficult. “No,” she said, “I have found everything pretty easy really.” Murray interjected with a laugh, “she does find one thing difficult – following orders!”