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Bee Blog December

01 December 2018

I am Gerald Bushby (pronounced bush bee!) a beekeeper in Weston on the Green, a small village in Oxfordshire. I am going to be writing a monthly blog about the bees in my apiary. I hope you will find it interesting. I should start by saying that I am not an expert, having only kept bees for three years. Anything I say is my own personal opinion; I accept that there may often be other views and opinions.

Its turning out to be a very mild autumn here in Weston on the Green. Activity in the bee colonies is much less now but on some days when the sun shines the girls are out an about in large numbers enjoying the mild conditions. They were able to collect a lot on nectar and pollen from the late flowering ivy this year, which hopefully will sustain them through winter into spring. I will still feed them with fondant just to make sure that they don’t run out of food. There is little for the beekeeper to do at this time of year. Make sure the hives are wind and water tight, fix on mouseguards and feed if necessary. I probably wont be opening any of the hives again until spring.

I will use fondant to feed the two nucleus colonies but on my original hive I intend to not follow conventional teaching but to experiment by feeding them plain sugar. I watch a lot of beekeeping videos on YouTube. It is so useful to be able to acquire knowledge and experience from beekeepers all over the world. How did we survive without the internet?

A large proportion of the videos on the internet are submitted by beekeepers in America. They may use slightly different types of hives and have slightly different strains of bees but the process is broadly similar. A very noticeable difference between many of the American beekeepers who post videos and my practice however is their attitude to protective clothing. Maybe their bees are calmer and friendlier than my bees are or maybe American beekeepers are tougher characters who feel no pain but many beekeepers can often be seen surrounded by clouds of bees wearing only a t-shirt and shorts! Some may wear a baseball cap but that’s probable just to keep the sun out of their eyes.

One of the beekeepers I follow is “David” from Barnyard Bees near Atlanta Georgia. The climate there is not very much different from ours. “David” says he has had great success feeding his bees dry sugar rather than fondant. This is more readily available and easier to do so I thought I would try out his method. “David” is a commercial beekeeper with hundreds of hives so he should know what does and what does not work. Conventional thinking often changes over time. Time will tell if feeding the bees dry sugar will work as well in Weston on the Green as it seems to in Atlanta.

Conventional thinking was being challenged at a lecture I attended a few weeks ago given by a commercial beekeeper who operates in Buckinghamshire. He and his daughter run 110 hives as their full time business. They transport their hives around the country to pollinate fruit trees in Kent in the early season and to produce heather honey from the Yorkshire Moors in the late season.  In between they produce honey in Buckinghamshire.

Commercial beekeepers have a different view on beekeeping to hobby beekeepers and their methods are driven by commercial constraints. Their usual aim is to produce as much honey as possible as efficiently as possible with a few inputs as possible. Conventional thinking says that in the honey producing season hives should be inspected every 7 days to see if the bees are intending to swarm and if they are to carry out procedures so that half of the bees in the hive are not lost. The reason for this 7 day check is that it takes 8 days for a new queen cell, a prerequisite of swarming, to be formed and capped. If the hive is checked every 7 days therefore is should be possible to always spot a queen cell before it is fully formed and act accordingly.

There is obviously a lot of labour and time required to check 110 hives every 7 days particularly when they may be at out apiaries in another part of the country. Driven by wanting to be more efficient this commercial beekeeper had decided to challenge conventional thinking and instead of checking for queen cells every 7 days he had analised the reasons for the bees wanting to swarm and had manulipuated the management of his hives so as to discourage the bees from wanting to swarm in the first place. His practice was to open the hives in spring to check for the health of the colony and then not to open the hive up until the autumn. His management regime centered on two main planks; ensuring every hive had a young queen and providing sufficient space, in time, for an expanding colony. It has been known for some time that the tendency of colonies swarming if the queen is no more than two years old is low. The commercial beekeeper therefore re-queened every year or every second year. Providing sufficient space means ensuring that supers are placed on the hives well before they are needed. The commercial beekeeper may have had to invest in more equipment but he calculated that this was less than his labour costs for frequent inspections.

This winter, I will try the non conventional thinking and feed one colony on dry sugar and hope “David” from Barnyard Bees near Atlanta is giving good advice. Next year I may also try to keep using young queens. I kept my first queen too long and suffered by being too sentimental. I think there is a lot to be said for not opening up the brood box and disturbing the colony in the season unless absolutely necessary. This should be possible if my proposed queen rearing works out. Lots to look forward to next year.

Happy Christmas.

I am a proud supporter of the ‘Bees for development’ charity, my love of the bee drew me to this wonderful UK based charity and the great work they do around the world with Bees and the impact they can have on people’s lives. Please help me support this wonderful organisation, as 2BScientific will be doing with donations to this hard-working charity. 

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