Unleashing my bees on new sites

Apiary in an orchard
Apiary in an orchard

Spring has arrived here in Walrus-land, so it’s time to do some actual bee work at last. This coming season will be a year of expansion. The winter has certainly seen some undesired growth in my waistline, but that’s the wrong kind of expansion for me. Hopefully, my frantic beekeeping activities will help to burn off some of that stored up energy. What I’m talking about is unleashing my bees on new sites.

We have plenty of things in bloom right now, particularly dandelions, but also blackthorn and cherry blossom. I have seen oilseed rape fields just beginning to turn yellow, so all that will kick off in a couple of weeks. This year it looks as if my bees will have access to OSR, so I will have to be ready to whip off the honey and extract it before too much granulates in the combs – probably in May. I wonder if more of it was planted in winter, or if farmers just rotate the crop and this year the fields happen to be near me. The bees always do very well on it, and that includes the time before the neonicotinoid ban came in.

Increased Sales

Last season, the Mole and I ended up taking fifteen 40 KG plastic tanks of honey into winter in our storage barn, and I was concerned that we’d never get rid of it. However, word about our delicious produce soon spread; now we have several great sales outlets, and the number of tanks is rapidly diminishing. The good people in the parts of Cheshire where I operate seem to enjoy our elixir of life rather more than the ’so-called-honey’ sold in the supermarkets. After much pontificating, I decided to make my hobby a little more like a business. If it all gets too much, I will scale back, but right now, the prospect of selling more honey and more bees, and making more queens, seems like a good way to spend my summers.

Bottlenecks and Capex

The thing about farming, and other businesses too, is that growth is not along a smooth gradual curve. It must be fuelled by investment in bees, hives and equipment, so it’s lumps of money out now in the hope that it comes back over time in the form of increased revenues. It’s a bit of a vicious circle, really. There’s some bottleneck that holds you back until you blow some cash, on an electric extractor, or wax melter, or a van, or a storage barn. Then, having spent the money, you must increase your income to justify the investment, and begin to recoup the outlay. Then, just as you seem to make headway, you find another bottleneck and need to blow more cash. And so on. I am about to invest in an 8 ft (2.44 m) x 21 ft (6.4 m) portacabin (not new, that would be crazy) which will become the Walrus Honey processing facility. This is the way.

A portacabin
The new honey processing unit

On the plus side, what a great life! Working with bees and my family, in the glorious English countryside through late spring and all the summer. What’s more, in recent times our summers have been pretty good. Now that I have said that, I’m confident this summer will be horrid, so sorry to all those who will be affected by my careless loose talk.

More Boxes

My bees are currently on 4 main apiary sites, but this season I have been offered new places which look too good to refuse, hence the headline of this article. This winter, I purchased a load of poly hives from a bee farmer who was off-loading his Langstroth kit. They are all cleaned, sterilised and painted now, and the boxes have lovely new frames in them purchased from Denrosa at the Tetbury show. I buy frames already made up and wired; sometimes I add the wax myself, but this time I paid for them to arrive ready to use.

Honey or Bees?

This is all very well, but how can I expand early in the season without more bees? And queens. You can’t have your cake and eat it, sadly. Luckily, I have several strong hives from which I can make nucs. I also have some queens that over-wintered in nucs and mini-plus boxes which will very soon need more space. So, my plan for early expansion is to initially use up my spare queens. Some hives will get broken up into 2 or 3 nucs, which means I am definitely sacrificing honey to make bees. However, one apiary, which was new last season, has now got strong over-wintered colonies that are raring to go. I’ll make a lot more from that place this year, which should make up for honey lost by splitting up other hives elsewhere.

Queen Conundrum

There is also a strong temptation, dare I say it, to buy some early queens from a reputable supplier. Let’s face it, anything available in April/May will have come from somewhere warmer, like the Mediterranean region, even though the seller will be based here in the UK. This is absolutely not my preferred process, and once we get to late May, I’ll be making as many of my own queens as I can. However, I can’t rule it out. I’ve got a refurbished portacabin to pay for, and new sites that need bees. Go on – hurl your rotten tomatoes – if it happens, it’s a one-off. I can say this with confidence because our plans for the end of this season are to over-winter a lot more nucs. I’m going on a relentless queen and nuc production spree this year so that I can be self-reliant in the future.

Good Apiary Site

Finally, what makes a good apiary site? I could say, “not your back garden if you live in the suburbs,” but many people have little choice on that score. My list goes something like this:

  • south facing
  • easy vehicle access in most weather
  • hidden from public view
  • away from passers-by, cyclists, vandals
  • sheltered from wind
  • not too close to a river (flood risk)
  • but water not far away
  • good forage available all season
  • not in a dip in the land where cold air collects

Right, that’s it. Off to inspect some hives!

What do you think?

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