Countless beekeepers are offering their thoughts and opinions on all manner of things (I’m one of them). There are books galore, not to mention Facebook and YouTube. Hence, as with so much modern life, the challenge is information overload and echo chambers, not a lack of resources. The spectacular popularity of beekeeping means that there is a vast range of practices and beliefs. Some considerable variation is due to the different climatic conditions in alternative locations. Some is just down to humans having inquisitive minds; we like to mess about with things and ‘improve’ them. It’s all part of the fun.
Beekeepers disagree about almost anything. One of the fault lines divides two main types of beekeepers; the conservationists and the farmers. The first group keeps bees because they want to help the bees and the environment, and they get pleasure from knowing that they are ‘doing their bit’ for the planet. The second group is no less loving of bees and nature, but they want to benefit from the products of the hive. There’s plenty of overlap, but the conservationists are less concerned with honey. Over millennia, people have kept bees in hives to have access to honey and wax – it’s quite a recent phenomenon to just keep them for pleasure.
I don’t know how much honey most people eat, but we get through about 2lbs per week in our house (four adults). To be self-sufficient in honey, I really only need four or five production colonies. In a good year, I could get 250lbs from five hives, and in a bad year…well, in a terrible year, zero. Beginners who only have one or two hives are on shaky ground, but if they stay in the game, they usually get to somewhere between four and ten colonies. That’s a significant investment in equipment, but in most years, some costs can be clawed back from sales of honey and perhaps the odd nuc.
Anyway, I currently manage 24 production colonies and 25 nucs, so I’m a bit bigger than a typical hobby beekeeper for the UK, but I’m not making a living off it either. My goal is not conservation as such. I want healthy, productive bees that are neither swarmy nor defensive. I have massive respect for commercial bee farmers with hundreds of colonies. Farming is hard work, and bee farmers do not escape; arduous sweaty hours, day after day.
I have seen beekeepers in my area get agitated about local bees, varroa treatment (or not), swarming (of course), finding the queen, seeing eggs, defensive colonies and odd things like the Bailey comb change or shook swarms. In contrast, bee farmers seem to be more concerned about the availability of labour, competition from cheap adulterated honey and restrictions on importing/exporting bees and queens. Different worlds.
The ‘local bee versus imports’ debate often merges into or gets hijacked by the ‘native black bee’ discussion. I am in favour of raising queens from local stock. However, my local stock is not any particular type of bee – they are a mixture of several sub-species. It doesn’t bother me. They are good bees. Some people believe that imported bees are the source of all bee problems. Apparently, if only local bees were kept, that would end swarming and bad-tempered hives. I doubt that is true. We’ll probably never know.
Bee farmers earn their living off bees. If their bees die, they go broke. If their bees get sick, they go broke. Therefore bee farmers try to keep healthy bees, which means regular disease checks and vigilant control of varroa mites. Lectures by biology professors about an isolated group of hygienic bees that survive without treatment are all well and good, but not many biology professors rely on bees for their income.
Hobby beekeepers have the choice to forego treatment for varroa. These are often the first in line to buy nucleus colonies every year because their bees died. It wasn’t varroa, of course, because they have mite-resistant super-bees. It was something else. Maybe that CCD thing…
Lots of hobby beekeepers have hives in their gardens, which is a lovely thing. Until they swarm or become evil devil bees that chase and sting neighbours. This clash of dreams with reality can be stressful for all concerned. Beekeepers will get better at swarm prevention and control as they gain experience, so the first few years will be tricky. Education helps, as does the watchful eye of a more experienced beekeeper – a mentor or ‘bee-buddy.’ The thing that probably helps above all else is clipping and marking queens. This is regularly practised by many commercial beekeepers, but for those with bees in a garden in the suburbs, it’s almost a necessity.
As for evil bees, if they continue to be horrid and there is no apparent reason for it, then replace the queen. There are many things to make bees temporarily awful, such as being queenless, no honey flow, robbing by bees or wasps, disturbances by animals, bad weather and so forth. An advantage to having several hives is that it’s easy to see if the bad behaviour is common to all of them or specific to one.
Finding the queen is one of those ‘experience’ things helped by marking her thorax. It’s not often that you need to see her as long as you can spot eggs. Eggs! How many people struggle with that? Lots. My one good eye still works well enough, but I suppose I will have to wear reading glasses one day.
I have no idea why so many beekeepers go on about the Bailey comb change. Perhaps it is because time is not money for them – they have plenty of time and want to play with their bees. Fair enough, whatever floats your boat. I prefer to change old combs by swapping them with foundation frames when a honey flow is on. A trick to get nicely drawn combs is to put a box of mostly foundation on top of a colony after the supers have been removed – then feed syrup continuously until they are drawn. Another is to put a couple of foundation frames into the middle of the brood nest of strong colonies in autumn and feed syrup.
It is always interesting to hear about how different beekeepers do their thang. I’m probably more of a tinkerer than I should be. As I get more colonies, I’m coming to see the benefit of standardisation. Ultimately though, for all of us who don’t rely on bees for our living, as long as we keep healthy bees and have fun, that’s just tickety-boo.