When the going gets tough…

Image above copyright Mariusz Nikiciuk

Here in the UK, and particularly in my corner of our emerald isle, we are accustomed to some unpleasant weather, mostly of the wet kind. A couple of years ago I picked up some bees from somebody up in the hills of Derbyshire because I wanted to try out bees which get even more rain than me in Cheshire. They did not have webbed feet, thankfully, but they are pretty good at survival, which is a trait I’m very keen on. I call them my “mountain bees” which sounds more impressive than “bees from gently rolling hills” so I’m sticking with it. We have had a pretty harsh Winter by UK standards, and even now Spring is struggling to get going. I have seen many reports on Twitter of this new season being very late, and of many more Winter losses than usual.

In my apiary, I went into Winter with thirteen colonies; six quite small ones in nucleus hives and seven stronger, in full-sized beehives, but in all honesty, I only had three really good colonies, and the rest were weaker than I’d like. There are reasons for this, including, no doubt, some incompetence, but last season was a difficult one for me as I had problems with particularly swarmy bees and later on a prolonged battle with wasps. The thing I am most happy about from last season was that I created a new beekeeper by donating one of my nucs, which was being wrecked by wasps, to a friend who had done the bee courses but did not yet have bees of her own. They will be moving into a full sized hive this season and hopefully will do well in their new location.

I purchased new queens from good UK suppliers (Ged Marshall and Peter Little) and requeened my hives last August in the hope that they will perform better for me this season than the previous lot. I ended up with some extra queens which I put in nucleus hives with a few combs from other colonies, hence the somewhat weakened state of some of them going into winter. In many years, when the Winter is not very harsh, I would probably have got away with it, but for this Winter what was needed was strong colonies with plenty of stores. My losses so far over Winter have been three nucleus colonies and two others, so I’m down to eight in total. I also treated all colonies with an oxalic acid trickle in November and, after speaking with some far more experienced beekeepers that me, I wonder if I may have done more harm than good to the weaker colonies, as oxalic acid can be hard on them. These are all “learning experiences.”

Two of my surviving colonies in full sized hives are descendants of my “mountain bees.” I had another problem over Winter in one of my nucs; the scourge of the mice, little furry fellows who decided to rip the robber screen from the front of the nuc and eat through most of the combs in the bottom box. Luckily this nuc was made up of two boxes, and the bees were up in the top box clustered and seemingly fine.

My beekeeping jobs so far this year have been to dismantle dead hives, check on the amounts of fondant on those still living, and change the floors. There is pollen available to the bees, and I’ve seen them bringing it back home when it is warm enough for them to fly. It will be such a relief when the warmer weather arrives, and the frantic bee activity can commence once more. In the short term I have to store frames of drawn comb without letting the wax moth get at them, so I’ll be spraying them with Certan.

Langstroth Floors
New hive floors for a new season

It is easy to focus on my losses of five colonies over Winter (38%), but I started out after the last Winter with seven colonies. Year on year I’m actually up by one colony! The media often report on honey bee losses but forget to mention that many beekeepers make increase throughout the year too. We get to hear about the ones that died but not the new ones brought into this world. Oh well. Is it not the job of journalists to report only the bad news? It seems so.

Having said all that, I’m embarrassed and a bit sad at my losses. All I can do is learn from it and have my bees in better shape going into next Winter. This will be significantly helped by having bees that want to stay in their hives and be kept by a walrus, rather than continually making queen cells and trying to bugger off.

I sadly had to postpone my trip to California to meet Randy Oliver and Ray Olivarez due to the poor health of my parents, but I’ll be able to get that organised later in the year. I am also very much looking forward to interviewing Richard Noel in Brittany, France sometime this year. He is early on in his commercial beekeeping career but has done the right thing by visiting very successful honey farmers, to learn from them and see how they do it, so it will be interesting to get the perspective of somebody at that stage. I will also be asking about Asian hornets which are a problem in France that is heading our way. I suspect that he has many more warm sunny days than me, so Mrs Walrus will no doubt wish to accompany me on my trip across the Channel.

I have three more interviews with beekeepers to do before I can write my book, which I’m still hoping to have in print by the end of this year, just in time for Christmas. I love transcribing the interviews; there is so much knowledge and humour in there, I’m sure it will result in a book that will be an excellent read for beekeepers everywhere.

Finally, Randy Oliver did a fantastic assessment of the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on honey bees for the University of California; well worth a read 😉

2 thoughts on “When the going gets tough…

  1. Sorry to hear of your losses.. seems that this winter has been bad for many, (I lost 2 nucs out of total of 12 hives and nucs,, but there are stories of 50% or more losses:-(

    1. Thanks, not sure if it’s over yet. It looks like the cold weather is set to continue, so I’m off to check my hives today to see if they need feeding

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.