2020 in retrospect

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote my retrospective review of the 2019 season.

At the time I was thinking “What a nightmare! If I never again have a year like that it’ll be too soon.”.

This was due to a major fire in my research institute which terminated a 30 year research programme and drowned me in a tsunami of administration.

The little beekeeping I did in 2019 kept me sane. Insurance issues and a new research facility took every waking hour. There was no ‘active’ queen rearing and my swarm control involved littering half of Fife with bait hives.

I piled on the supers, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

And got away with it 🙂

But by February 2020, the anniversary of the fire, it was looking as though those problems were just the hors d’oeuvres.

Coronavirus (Google Trends search terms, 12 months to mid-December 2020)

‘Coronavirus’ was a word transitioning from white-coated virology nerds with expansive foreheads to everyday, and then every minute, usage.

Covid and stockpiling

The word ‘Covid’ was first used in 1686. For its first 333 years it referred to an Anglo-Indian unit of linear measurement 1. On the 11th of February it appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and today it features a dozen times on the BBC homepage.

By early March it was clear that major societal changes were going to be needed to control virus transmission. A couple of days after spring talks to Oban beekeepers, Edinburgh and District BKA and the SNHBS the country went into lockdown …

The wild west

… by which time I was jealously guarding my panic-bought toilet rolls 2 on the remote west coast of Scotland.

The national beekeeping associations negotiated travel arrangements for animal husbandry purposes and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve already written about the practicalities of the small amount of long distance beekeeping I did in 2020. I won’t rehash the gory details here, but will make a few more general comments.

Highs and lows

It was a pretty good beekeeping start to the year. The spring was significantly drier than the 30 year average. This meant that the bees could get out and exploit the oil seed rape (OSR).

Spring 2020 rainfall anomaly

Consequently the honey yield per colony was the best I’ve had in the five years I’ve been back in Scotland. I think it would have been even better had I been present to add the supers in a more regulated manner … and to remove them before they crystallised.

In contrast, the summer was characterised by a series of lows … low pressure systems, bringing more rain than usual.

This probably reduced the time available for foraging, but perhaps was compensated by better nectar flows. My two main production apiaries performed very differently.

One generated almost no honey per hive, the other again generated record yields of outstandingly flavoured summer honey.

Summer honey

Guess which apiary contained more production hives?

Typical 🙁

Putting the control into swarm control

Swarm control usually involves careful observation of colony development coupled with a timely intervention to split the colony and prevent swarming.

The timely intervention is often at different times for different colonies, even in the same apiary.

There was none of that this year.

With only about four inspections all season I implemented swarm control  in the majority of colonies well before queen cells developed.

The method should be termed something like split and hope 😉

In practical terms it involved preemptive application of the nucleus method of swarm control.

The only decision I made for each colony was whether to apply swarm control or not.

I then made up the queenright nucs all on the same day. The nucs were made significantly weaker than usual to delay the time when I’d have to expand them up to a full colony.

Overall the approach worked very well, at least in terms of swarm control, as none of my colonies swarmed 🙂

The colonies that weren’t split were given lots of room and a combination of inspired judgement a long June gap and some iffy midsummer weather meant they stayed together.

Hieroglyphics

I need to go back through my notes to determine how individual colonies performed in terms of honey production. Other than the absence of any summer honey from one apiary, were there differences in terms of the amount nectar collected between colonies that were split or not?

Unfortunately, the (frankly) manic beekeeping that resulted from compressing everything into a few inspections over the season meant my notes are, in places, rather sparse 3.

Too weak to split

+3 supers Q+ good

WMCLQ WTF?

Grrr 4

Deciphering my hieroglyphics will necessitate a large glass of shiraz and a long winter night – two other things, along with the loo roll, I have an abundance of at the moment.

Varroa management

The other reason I need to review my notes is to look at the relationship (if any) between the in-season colony management 5 and end-of-season mite levels.

I do have some reasonably good counts of the mite drop during late summer and midwinter treatments 6. These are particularly reliable for the colonies in the bee shed because the floors I use have a tightly fitting Varroa tray, meaning that anything that drops, stays dropped 7.

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

In addition, I’m confident that the colonies received their ‘midwinter’ treatment – in mid/late November – when totally broodless.

There were significant differences between the mite drops of colonies in the bee shed. Some dropped 250-500 8 while others dropped less than 75. Those figures are totals over 8-9 weeks with Apivar plus the fortnight or so after oxalic acid treatment.

All other things being equal I’ll use the colonies with lower mite levels for queen rearing next season. For whatever reason, those colonies appear better able to manage their Varroa levels. Perhaps this is due to increased grooming or better defence (e.g. turning away potentially mite-laden drifting workers 9). If their temperament is good and they overwinter well they will be a good choice to rear queens from.

Inevitably all things will not be equal, but at least I’ll have tried.

And I’m hoping to be doing a reasonable amount of queen rearing in 2021 … though after a devastating fire and a global pandemic I wouldn’t be surprised if the Earth was obliterated by an asteroid just as I start grafting 🙁

Going Varroa free

I’ve spent almost all year on the west coast, and will be spending increasing amounts of time here in the coming years. The area is remote, very sparsely populated and Varroa free.

It also has spectacular sunrises …

Red sky in the morning …

… and scenery …

View from Ben Laga to Mull

Actually, until I imported 10 a couple of colonies, it appeared to be completely honey bee free. I’ve sourced Varroa-free colonies from an island off the west coast of Scotland.

I’ve often written about the importance of being ‘in tune’ with the local beekeeping environment. It’s already clear that the east and west coasts of Scotland 11, despite being separated by only ~120 miles, have distinct climates, nectar and pollen availability.

What? No oil seed rape?

On the west coast there’s no OSR. In fact, there’s almost no arable farming at all. I’ll be interested to see what the bees access for spring and mid-season nectars. With mixed woodland, and more being planted, and lots of native flowers they should have a good selection.

Early season primroses

There are some huge lime trees just down the road. These need rain to generate good levels of nectar, and rain is something else we have in abundance 😉

The main source of nectar is the heather. This is something 12 I have almost no experience of. In the Midlands I was always too busy to transport hives to Derbyshire for the heather. Fife, despite being in Scotland, has very little heather moorland and most beekeepers have to take their hives to the Angus Glens. I never bothered.

Now there’s acres of the stuff just up the hill at the back of the house. Not particularly good quality heather moorland, but lots of it.

I’ll return to this when I discuss planning for the season ahead, sometime in the New Year.

The Apiarist – online and offline

This is the 51st post of the year.

Regular as clockwork

With a bit of luck I’ll also scribble something for the 25th, so completing a ‘full house’ for 2020. It’s too soon to look at any year-end statistics, but it’s clear that lots of people had lots more time for lots more reading this year.

I wonder why?

Everything came to a grinding halt in mid-June when a post featured on one of the Google news sites. In one afternoon the server was inundated with people eager to read about the June gap.

Thousands and thousands of them 🙁

Since most of them didn’t look elsewhere on the site I suspect the topic was a bit too niche for the majority of the internet illiterati.

After a couple of hiccups and a faltering stagger the server collapsed under the onslaught. I spent an afternoon moving it to a host with four times the capacity (at four times the cost) and it’s hung on gamely ever since.

Not only have beekeepers been doing lots more reading, they’ve also doing lots more listening and watching.

Online beekeeping talks

Many beekeeping associations – both local and national – have developed online winter talk programmes.

I’ve attended lively SBA Q&A sessions, BIBBA webinars by Adam Tofilski on preserving native bees, and I spent yesterday evening learning all about distinguishing Apis mellifera mellifera from ligustica or carnica or Buckfast or mongrels, care of the SNHBS.

And I’ve delivered more talks to bigger audiences this winter than in all of the last few years combined.

These talks – not mine specifically, but all of those available – fill the void between September and April. Although perhaps not the easiest way to establish new friendships 13 they are an excellent way to keep in contact with people from all over the country. In that regards they’re much better than ‘in person’ evening talks, and much more akin to the annual beekeeping conventions.

Though, unlike the conventions, my wallet doesn’t return emaciated from an hour or two going round the trade stalls.

Online talks are also good for keeping in contact with people on the other side of the county, let alone the country. It’s not unusual for my talk to be sandwiched by friendly banter between beekeepers separated by both distance and Covid.

Will this continue? I expect so. I don’t expect in person talks will start until 2022 at the earliest. However, I think – just as remote working will increase – online talks will be a regular feature of the winter beekeeping calendar. The benefits outweigh the slightly impersonal format, and many people appreciate the convenience of not having to travel 14.

Science aside

The enforced downtime, with labs closed and staff furloughed, has enabled me to finally write up a backlog of papers on honey bee virus research. A few of these have featured on this site already, in discussions of whether DWV replicates in Varroa, or in bumble bees, and in the inexorable rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as an emerging pathogen of honey bees.

I’ve yet to find time to write about our green bees because I want to include a really elegant experiment we have yet to complete. These bees are infected with a virus that expresses a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. When visualised under UV illumination the individual cells and tissues in which the virus replicates are easily detected. More about this next year.

Green bees

Several more papers are in the pipeline or in preparation, on rescuing hives with catastrophically high mite loads, on competition between different variants of DWV and on the landscape-scale control of Varroa.

Lessons learned

Considering the paucity of beekeeping this year I’ve still managed to learn a few new tricks and improve a few old ones.

I’ve learned how little intervention is required to manage colonies adequately (defined by good health and no swarms, though undoubtedly at the cost of maximising the honey yield).

‘Adequately’ because I also learned how unrewarding it was keeping bees without beekeeping.

For the first time I used air freshener to unite lots of colonies during a particularly busy long weekend when I requeened the majority of my hives. It’s a new trick to me, though widely used by others. Having used it, I’m now confident it works. I’ll use it again if I’m similarly rushed for time, but expect to usually rely on uniting over newspaper.

I’ve gained more confidence in accurately guesstimating how weak I can make up nucs, without them succumbing to robbing, wasps or starvation. Undoubtedly I was aided with reasonable weather and good nectar and pollen availability, but it will be a skill I’ll be able to use again in future years.

I also learned  – or at least reinforced my appreciation of (as I’ve done this previously) – how to hold back the nucs, so preventing them swarm, by removing lots of brood 15. The brood was used to boost honey production colonies which were requeening themselves. With some good judgement, and a big slice of luck, this all went very well.

The importance of regularly checking bait hives was also emphasised when I found this …

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bee shed …

This season was unusual as I didn’t attract a single swarm to a bait hive, probably the first time that’s happened for a decade. Partly this was because I set so few out, but presumably it also reflected my dalliance with waspkeeping.

Finally, I’ve learned there are quicker ways to prepare spreadable ‘soft set’ honey that the interminable Dyce method. I’ve recently acquired a new honey creamer and the first fifty jars have been distributed to friends and family for Christmas. I expect very positive feedback 16 due to the extensive product testing and quality control applied during its preparation 😉


 

Footnotes

  1. Of 14-36 inches in length (how could that be useful?) … no wonder it’s now obsolete.
  2. Since this site has no sponsorship I hope you’ll take my promotion of Who Gives a Crap (Toilet paper that builds toilets) as a strong recommendation.
  3. By which I mean unintelligible.
  4. Actually, this was a different four letter word, resulting from my discovery of a queen that had filled three supers of drawn drone comb with brood.
  5. Or possibly mismanagement … ?
  6. With thanks to Luke, one of my long-suffering PhD students, for ‘volunteering’ to do some of this.
  7. Rather than being eaten by ants, or blown away by a gust of wind.
  8. With one outlier dropping almost 750 … eek!
  9. I’m not suggesting they can discriminate between drifting bees carrying phoretic mites and those that are unencumbered, just that they are better at preventing ‘foreign’ bees from accessing the hive.
  10. I’m a big fan of local bees, but if there are none they have to be introduced. Mine were from ~40 miles away, rather than a ‘factory (bee) farm’ in Cyprus, Greece or Italy.
  11. Almost at the same latitude ~56ish°N.
  12. Something else!
  13. That really needs copious amounts of hot tea and homemade cakes.
  14. If your investment portfolio includes lots of draughty church halls and cold community centres I’d recommend selling promptly.
  15. Up to three frames from the strong ones.
  16. Though, let’s be honest, does anyone not appreciate being given a jar of local honey?

22 thoughts on “2020 in retrospect

  1. Elaine Robinson

    Hi David
    just a brief note to say thank you for the last year of posts. I started reading your posts about a year ago & now look forward to the latest arriving into my inbox on Friday. Love all the science, the detail and your clarity of communication. Our association has booked you for an on-line talk in Feb around preparing for the season ahead, so will be good to put a face to a name.
    Merry Xmas & thanks again for sharing your experience in 2020
    Best wishes
    Elaine

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Elaine

      I’m preparing for the season ahead … partly by preparing the Powerpoint ‘deck’ for that talk 😉 Almost whatever happens it must be a better season than the one that’s just finished.

      Surely?

      ‘See’ you soon and Happy Christmas
      David

      Reply
  2. Stephen tompsett

    Thanks for your posts David. Always interesting and readable and something to look forward to. I’ve done a lot of vicarious beekeeping this year.

    Reply
  3. Terry

    Hi David
    Just to say I have only taken my bees to the heather once, and that was to the new forest, I had quite a good harvest but when the honey was bottled it started to ferment I don’t know if this is something that you will have to look out for, as all the frames I extracted were capped. Keep up the good work.
    Merry christmas and a happy new year.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Terry

      Heather honey has a higher water content. The honey selling regulations reflect this … normal honey must not have a moisture content above 20%, but heather honey can be as high as 23%. Perhap I’ll have to make sure it’s all sold or eaten well before it ferments 😉

      Which, of course, assumes my bees manage to collect any in the fist place.

      Happy Christmas
      David

      Reply
  4. Trish Harness

    Oh please – a post on holding nucs back would be great! At some point early in beekeeping I learned that a frame of brood becomes 2 frames covered with bees. If the nuc is already full of bees… they aren’t losing half a frame of bees a day to forager deaths! No room!

    Actually that reminds me – I have 6 frame nucs, I’m going to use a queen excluder and keep her on 6 frames. We shall see if that helps… but I’d like to hear your lessons!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Trish

      It’s not rocket science. I simply ‘rob’ frames of brood and give them more foundation (or foundationless frames). You can take just the brood or the adhering bees as well, mixing several of the latter and adding them to another colony, or giving them a mated queen. My plans for next season involve lots of nucs, so I’ll make sure I take some suitable photos and will post something in due course.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Janet Wilson

    A lovely, reflective and interesting post, David! Thankyou. I would love to have you expand on “Several more papers are in the pipeline or in preparation, on rescuing hives with catastrophically high mite loads, on competition between different variants of DWV and on the landscape-scale control of Varroa.”

    This year our area had a stellar bee year. Perfect, early weather after a mild winter and record honey flows. This drove unprecedented reproduction and swarming. What a lot of us missed was it drove unprecedented mite expansion in spite of many splits, and so we saw an unusually high number of good colonies crashing in the first cold snaps, preceded by unusually early “deadfall” (that rain of dead bees on the bottom board in cold weather/winter).

    It seems the Varroa are getting harder and harder to control, even with switching up treatments and employing various IPM strategies. Any advice on rejuvenating those highly infested colonies?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Janet

      I think your description of the season emphasises the importance of regular mite monitoring – either by direct observation, by uncapping drone brood to look at the infestation rate, or by conducting some sort of phoretic mite screening using an alcohol wash or ‘sugar shake’. If mite levels are high it’s important to then act promptly. I can’t preempt publications my research group need for their career development, but will be providing more information as soon as I can. Since these are mid-season interventions, there are several months before they’ll be applicable.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Not yet … still on the “To Do” list … along with about a million other things left over from all the free time I’ve not had during lockdown 😉

      Maybe I’ll watch it one of these long winter evenings when I’m really missing the beekeeping, and it feels like an age until the season starts again. Too many other things to do at the moment, like building Morris boards for queen rearing.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. vince poulin

    David – thank you for 2020 and 51 posts – soon to be 52. You have enlightened all of us with your knowledge and enthusiastic treatment of bee keeping. I’m heartened to learn you are not “infallible”. Here I imagined this thoughtful virologist with meticulous methodologies who keeps records likened to my immaculate son – the mechanical engineer whose notes leave no observation, thought or fact behind. Those notes in contrast to my scribbles that require a dram of scotch and 2.5 readers to decipher. I saw a crack in your armour – notes – that in periods of weakness (Covid) – look like mine! “too weak to split”, “3 supers”, “Q+good”, “WTF????”, “Grrr” – they reminded me of my own “we have eggs”, “stores good”, “added top box”, “dead bees!”, “queen good”, “35% infestation!”. All fun, thanks David. Lastly, we enjoy your world beyond bees. The occasional glimpse of Scotland we see in your images such as today’s early season primroses. It is a primrose+ image. Fragments of bracken fern, a sprig of peavine, maybe a tad of wintergreen. Bit of Scotland ecology we can enjoy from afar. May this be a very Merry Christmas for you, family and friends.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Vince

      Just putting the finishing touches to #52. I’m the diametrically opposite of infallible. If it can go wrong, it probably will. Not always, and not always catastrophically, but enough times that I have ample opportunity to learn from my mistakes 😉

      The west coast of Scotland is very special and it’s an area famed for its mosses and lichens, and for its ancient Atlantic oakwoods. With no arable farming and little grazing (apart from the damn deer) there are lots of flowers. If you walk along the lochside in mid-June there are a huge number of flowering plants (which I’m hopeless at identifying) …

      Rock garden

      … and there are thousands of orchids on the hillsides …

      Orchid

      With Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year
      David

      Reply
  7. Edward

    The pandemic also gave me time to weed out those blogs that were a nuisance find some others on topics i was interested in and a chance to delve into some of your older posts, still the best beekeeping blog i follow keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Edward

      Pleased to hear that I made the cut 😉 I periodically review some of the older posts, and refer back to them as needed. However, it’s clear that some sink and never resurface, wherever others stand the test of time and are widely read. Next week I’ll be highlighting a few of these.

      Cheers,
      David

      Reply
  8. Fred

    Against the background of a truly awful year your faithful Friday posts have been an ongoing delight, there’s always something to learn and I liked your comment somewhere way back about beekeeping practice needs continual incremental improvements. Also the footnotes always raise a smile (particularly during the heavy science weeks, usually a bit beyond me).

    Thanks so much (now tell us how the book is coming on?!)

    Have a great Christmas

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Fred

      I enjoy writing the footnotes and sometimes wonder how many of them are read. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous I also add a few meaningless or cryptic page tags for fun as well.

      By next week I’ll have written ~130,000 words (plus a few thousand more in comments) here and precisely zero on the book. What I need is a reason not to go out, a reason to stop gallivanting around, something that will keep me locked down at home … so I can focus.

      But when does that sort of opportunity every arise?

      😉

      Happy Christmas
      David

      Reply
  9. Archie McLellan

    Hi David

    Your blogs usually take ages to read. I never skip a footnote (love the jokes), I at least visit every link, reading some of them in full (and sometimes getting sidetracked by other links) before searching through the history to get back to the original post. (Yea yea, I know I how to open in another tab; doesn’t mean I always do it.)

    Sometimes, the encores are even better than the concert. I return to the post after a few days to read the comments and replies. There I find gems which perhaps aren’t significant enough to find a place in the original post, but can be written about when the context is more specific. And which aren’t going to inflate the word count of the main post!

    Anyway, it’s all a joy. I hope you have a lovely festive break. Merry Christmas!
    Archie

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Archie

      It sounds to me like I can reduce the year-end visitor count by 50% 😉

      I’m pleased the posts take time to read but more pleased that they don’t always take ages to write ( 😉 ), though I often struggle over the opening few sentences. After that it’s more or less a stream of consciousness. I’ve got about 50 part-written posts lurking in the drafts folder, but some are little more than a title or a couple of web links, so there’s no shortage of topics worth covering (that’s using my definition of ‘worth’, which is not necessarily the same as that of the readers of the site). I’m also well aware that some of the older posts need revamping – because the advice is wrong (rarely, and I usually go back and re-edit it) or has been superseded.

      There are also some glaring holes in my coverage, and those in queen rearing will be getting some attention in the year ahead. Whatever … it keeps me out of mischief and means I’m better read than I would otherwise be.

      Some big changes are planned for the year or so ahead, with some new challenges and some new methods to try.

      With Best Wishes for Christmas and 2021 … may your supers be heavy, your queens well-mated and your swarms no more than head-high 😉
      David

      Reply
  10. Michael

    David

    Thank you so much for keeping going so reliably through the year. Not just keeping going but writing such an interesting blog. I look forward to Fridays in 2021 with further enlightenment anticipated.
    I hope that your replacement for Dyce has been successful and that you will share the results with us. My production of soft set honey has variable results with it frequently being firmer that desired, so any help would be invaluable.
    With very best wishes for the New Year!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Michael

      My last few jars of super-smooth creamed honey are being distributed today and tomorrow. Despite the best before date of late 2022 I expect them all to be finished by early January 😉 Those won’t have had a chance to show any frosting, so I’m conducting my own tests on that separately. Once I know things work (for better or worse) I’ll write about it here.

      With Best Wishes for Christmas and the season ahead,
      David

      Reply

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