Category Archives: Economics

Cut more losses

This is a follow-on to the post last week, this time focusing on feeding and a few ‘odds and sods’ that failed to make it into the first 3000 words on reducing overwintering colony losses.

Both posts should be read in conjunction with one (or more 1 ) of my earlier posts on disease management for winter. Primarily this involves hammering down the mite levels before the winter bees are produced, so ensuring their longevity.

But also don’t forget to treat your colonies during a broodless period in midwinter to mop up mites that survived the autumn treatment, or have reproduced since then.

Why feed colonies?

All colonies need sufficient stores to get the colony through the winter until suitable nectar sources and good enough weather make foraging profitable the following spring.

How much the colony needs depends upon the bees themselves – some strains are more frugal than others – and the duration of the winter. If there is no forage available, or the weather is too poor for the bees to fly, then they will be dependent upon stores in the hive.

A reasonable estimate would probably be somewhere around 20 kg of stores, but this isn’t a precise science.

It’s better for the colony to have too much than too little. 

If the colony has stores left over at winter’s end you can always remove them and use them when you make up nucs later in the season. Just pull out the frames and store them safely until needed.

Unused winter stores

In contrast, if the colony starts the winter with too few stores there are only two possible outcomes:

  • the colony will starve to death, usually in late winter/early spring (see below)
  • you will spend your winter having to regularly check the colony weight and opening the hive to add “emergency rations” to get them through the winter

Neither of these is desirable, though you should expect to have to check the colony periodically in winter anyway.

Feeding honey for the winter … and meaningless anecdotes

By the end of the summer the queen has reduced her laying rate and the bees should be backfilling brood comb with honey stores. If you assume there’s about 5 kg of stores 2 in the brood box then they’ll need about another 15 kg. 

15 kg is about the amount of honey you can extract from a well-filled super. 

Convenient 😉

Some beekeepers leave a full super of honey on the hive, claiming the “it’s better for the bees than syrup”

Of course, it’s a free world, but there are two things wrong with doing this:

  • where is the evidence that demonstrates that honey is better than sugar-based stores?
  • it’s an eye-wateringly expensive way to feed your colonies

By evidence, I mean statistically-valid studies that show improved overwintering on honey rather than sugar.

Not ‘my hive with a honey super was strong in spring but I heard that Fred lost his colony that was fed syrup’ 3.

That’s not evidence, that’s anecdote.

If you want to get this sort of evidence you’d need to start with a lot of hives, all headed by queens of a similar age and provenance, all with balanced numbers of brood frames/strength, all with similar mite levels and other pathogens.

For starters I’d suggest 200 hives; feed 50% with honey, 50% with sugar … and then repeat the study for the two following winters.

Then do the stats 4.

The economics of feeding honey

If I were a rich man …

The 300 supers of honey used for that experiment would contain honey valued at about £80,000.

That’s profit, not sale price (though it doesn’t include labour costs as I – and many amateur beekeepers – work for free).

The honey in a single full super has a value of £250-275 … that’s an expensive way to feed your bees 5.

Particularly when it’s not demonstrably better than a tenner or so of granulated sugar 🙁

But there are more costs to consider

The economic arguments made above are simplistic in the extreme. However, there are other costs to consider when feeding colonies.

  • time taken to prepare and store whatever you will be feeding them with 6
  • feeders needed to dispense the food (and storage of these when not in use)
  • energetic costs for the colony in converting the food to stores

Years ago I stopped worrying (or even thinking much) about any of this and settled on feeding colonies fondant in the autumn.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

Fondant is ~78% sugar, so a 12.5 kg block contains about 9.75 kg of sugar.

This year I’m paying £11.75 for fondant which equates to ~£1.20 / kg for the sugar it contains.

In contrast, granulated sugar is currently about £0.63 / kg at Tesco.

The benefits of fondant

Although my sugar costs are about double this is a relatively small price I’m (more than) prepared to accept when you take into account the additional benefits.

  • zero preparation time and no container costs. Fondant comes ready-wrapped and stores for years in the box it is purchased in
  • no need for jerry cans, plastic buckets or anything to prepare or store it in before use
  • no need for expensive Ashforth-type feeders that sit around for 95% of the year unused When I last checked an Ashforth feeder cost £66 😯 
  • it takes less than 2 minutes to add fondant to a colony
  • no risk of spillages – in the kitchen, the car or the apiary 7.
  • fondant is taken down more slowly than syrup, so providing more space for the queen to continue laying. In addition, in the event of an early cold snap, fondant remains accessible whereas bees often stop taking syrup down

Regarding the energetic costs for the colony in storing fondant rather than syrup … I assume this is the case based upon the similarity of the water content of fondant to capped stores (22% vs. 18%), whereas syrup contains much more water and so needs to be ripened before capping to avoid fermentation.

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation to be added on top.

Whether this is correct or not 8, the colony has no problem taking down the fondant over a 2-4 week period and storing it.

What are the disadvantages of using fondant? 

The only one I’m really aware of is that the colony will not draw fresh comb when feeding on fondant (or at least, not enthusiastically). In contrast, bees fed syrup in the autumn and provided with fresh foundation will draw lovely worker brood comb. 

Do not underestimate this benefit.

They fancied that fondant

Brood frames of drawn comb are a very valuable resource. Every time you make up a nuc, or shift a nuc to a full-sized box, providing drawn comb significantly speeds up the expansion of the resulting colony.

Nevertheless, for me, the advantages of fondant far outweigh the disadvantages …

Finally, in closing, I’ve not purchased or used invert syrup for feeding colonies. Other than no prep time this has the same drawbacks as syrup made from granulated sugar. Having learnt to use fondant a decade or so ago from Peter Edwards (Stratford BKA) I’ve never felt the need to look at other options.

Let’s move on …

Ventilation and insulation

Bees can withstand very cold temperatures if healthy and provided with sufficient stores. In northern Canada bees may experience only 120 frost-free days a year, and cope with 3-4 week periods in winter when the temperature is -25°C (and colder if you consider the wind chill).

That makes anywhere in the UK look positively balmy.

Margate vs. the Maldives … a similar temperature difference to Margate vs. Manitoba in the winter

I’ve overwintered colonies in cedar or poly boxes for a decade and not noticed a difference in survival rates. Like the honey vs. sugar argument above, if there is a difference it is probably minor. 

However, colony expansion in poly boxes in the spring is usually better in my experience, and they often fill the outer frames with brood well before cedar boxes in the same apiary get there.

Whether cedar or poly I take care with three aspects of their insulation/ventilation:

  • the colonies have open mesh floors and the Varroa tray is only in place when I’m actively monitoring mite drop
  • all have insulation above the crownboard in the form of a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan (or Recticel, or Celotex), either integrated into the crownboard itself, placed above it or built into the roof
  • I ensure there is no upper ventilation – no matchsticks under the crownboard, no holes etc.
  • excess empty space in the brood box is reduced to minimise the dead air space the bees might lose heat to

In my experience bees actively dislike ventilation in the crownboard. They fill mesh with propolis …

Exhibit A … are you getting the message?

… and block up the holes in those over-engineered Abelo crownboards …

Exhibit B … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

Take notice of what the bees are telling you … 😉

Insulation over the colony

I’ve described my insulated perspex crownboards before. They work well and – when inverted – can just about accomodate a flattened 9, halved block of fondant.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

Finally, if it’s a small colony in a brood box 10 then I reduce the dead space in the brood box using a fat dummy

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

I build these filled with polystyrene chips.

You don’t need this sort of high-tech solution … some polystyrene wrapped tightly in a thick plastic bag and sealed up with gaffer tape works just as well.

Insulation ...

Insulation …

I’ve even used bubblewrap or that air-filled plastic packaging to fill the space around a top up block of fondant in a super ‘eke’ before now.

However, remember that a small weak colony in autumn is unlikely to overwinter as well as a strong colony. Why is it weak? Would you be better uniting it before winter starts?

Nucleus colonies

Everything written above applies equally well to nucleus colonies.

A strong, healthy nuc should overwinter well and be ready in the spring for sale or promoting to a full colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

Although I have overwintered nucs in cedar boxes I now almost exclusively use polystyrene. This is another economic decision … a well made cedar nuc costs about double the price of the best poly nucs

I feed my nucs fondant in preparation for the winter, typically by adding 1-2 kg blocks to the integral feeder.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

Because of the absence of storage space in the nuc brood box it’s not unusual to have to supplement this several times during the autumn and winter.

You can even overwinter queens in mini-mating nucs like Apidea’s and Kieler’s.

Kieler mini-nuc with overwintering queen

This deserves a post of its own. Briefly, the mini-nuc needs to be very strong and usually double- or triple- height. I build fondant frame feeders for Kieler’s that can be quickly swapped in/out to compensate for the limited amounts of stores present in the brood box.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

My greatest success in overwintering these was in winters when I provided additional shelter by placing the nucs in an unheated greenhouse. A tunnel provided access to the outside. However, I know several beekeepers who overwinter them without this sort of additional protection (and have done so myself).

Just because this can be done doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

I’d always prefer to overwinter a colony as a 5 frame nuc. The survival rates are much better, their resilience to long periods of adverse weather is significantly greater, and they are generally much more useful in the spring.

Miscellaneous musings

Hive weight

A colony starting the winter with ample stores can still starve if the bees are particularly extravagant, or if they rear lots of brood but cannot forage.

The rate at which stores are used is slow late in the year and speeds up once brood rearing starts again in earnest early the following spring (though actually in late winter).

Colony weight in early spring

As should be obvious, this is a Craptastic™ sketch simply to illustrate a point 😉

The inflection point might be mid-December or even early February.

The important message is that, once brood rearing starts, consumption of stores increases. Keep checking the colony weight overwinter and supplement with fondant as needed.

I’m going to return to overwinter colony weights sometime this winter as I’m dabbling with a weather station and set of hive scales … watch this space.

An empty super cuts down draughts

Periodically it’s suggested that an empty super under the (open mesh) floor of the hive ‘cuts down draughts’, and is therefore beneficial for the colony.

It might be.

But like the ‘overwintering on honey’ (and being a pedant scientist) I’d always want to see the evidence.

There are two claims being made here:

  • a super under the floor cuts down draughts
  • fewer draughts benefits the colony which consequently overwinters better

Really?

There are ways to measure draughts but has anyone ever done so? Remember, the key point is that the airflow around the winter cluster would be reduced if there are fewer draughts. 

Does a super reduce this airflow significantly over and above that already caused by the sidewalls of the floor?

And, even if it does, perhaps the colony ‘reshapes’ itself to accommodate the draught from an open mesh floor.

What shape is the winter cluster?

For example, in an uninsulated hive (including no insulation over the cluster) with a solid floor the cluster is likely to be roughly spherical. They minimise the surface area.

With an open mesh floor are they more ellipsoid, so avoiding draughts from below? If so, is this improved much by an empty super below the open mesh floor? Does the cluster change shape or position? I don’t know as I’ve not compared cluster shapes in solid vs. open mesh floors plus/minus a super underneath.

And anyway, an open mesh floor looks very like a baffle to me … how much better can it get? How draughty is it in the first place?

Is this example 8,639 for my ‘Beekeeping Myths’ book?

I do know that top insulation tends to flatten the cluster against the warm underside of the crownboard.

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

Having worked out that draughts are (or are not) reduced … you still need another couple of hundred hives to test whether overwintering success rates are improved!

More winter bees

Finally, always remember that the survival of the colony is dependent upon the winter bees. All other things being equal (stores, disease etc.), a colony with lots of winter bees will overwinter better than one with fewer.

This is one of the reasons I stopped using Apiguard for mite control in autumn. Apiguard contains thymol and quite regularly (30-50% of the time in my experience) stopped the queen from laying, particularly in warmer weather. 

Apiguard works well for mite control, but I became wary that I was potentially stopping the queen at a time critical for late-season colony development. I worried that, once treatment was finished, a cold snap would shut down brood rearing leaving it with suboptimal numbers of winter bees.

I never checked to see whether the queen ‘made good’ any shortfall after removal of the treatment … instead I moved to Scotland where it’s too cold to use Apiguard effectively 🙁


 

Rational Varroa control

It’s the end of July … in the next two to three weeks the first eggs will be laid that will develop into the winter bees that get your colonies through to next spring. Protecting these winter bees is necessary to prevent overwintering colony losses.

I’ve written and lectured extensively on Varroa control and related topics for at least 5 years. The following article is published in August’s BBKA Newsletter and The Scottish Beekeeper. It provides an overview of what I term rational Varroa control.

I define this as effective mite management based upon our current understanding of the biology of bees and Varroa. The goal of this control is to minimise winter losses due to Varroa and viruses.

It is not a recipe with easy to follow if this, then that instructions. Neither does it provide a calendar-based guide of what to do and when to do it.

It does not even tell you what you should use for mite control.

Instead it focuses on the principles … understanding these will enable you to implement control strategies that help your bees, in your environment, survive.

This version is hyperlinked to additional, more expansive, posts on particular topics, is slightly better illustrated than those that appeared in print and contains some additional footnotes with caveats and exceptions.


Introduction

Despite almost 30 years experience of Varroa in the UK, this ectoparasitic mite of honey bees remains the greatest threat to bees and beekeeping. With the exception of those fortunate to live in mite-free regions, all beekeepers must manage the mite population in their hives or risk losing the colony to the viruses transmitted when Varroa feeds on developing pupae. 

Fortunately, Varroa control is relatively straightforward; there are a range of approved and effective miticides that – used appropriately – reduce mite infestation levels significantly. The key words in that last sentence are ‘approved’, ‘effective’ and ‘used appropriately’. In reality annual colony losses, primarily occurring in the winter, often exceed 20% (Figure 1) and may be significantly higher in long or harsh winters 1. Many of these losses are attributable to Varroa and viruses. It is therefore clear that many beekeepers are not successful in managing Varroa; either they are not treating at all, or they are treating inappropriately.

Figure 1. BBKA winter survival survey – larger studies (COLOSS and BIP) often show much higher losses

This article is primarily aimed at relatively inexperienced beekeepers, but may also help the more experienced who still suffer with high levels of winter losses. It emphasises the importance of two, correctly timed, appropriate miticide treatments per season that should ensure colony survival. It is not going to deal with treatments of questionable or minor efficacy. These include the use of small cell foundation, drone brood culling or sugar dusting. These may reduce mite levels, but insufficiently to benefit colony health. Nor will it discuss the use of any miticides (or application methods) that are not approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. I will also not discuss treatment-free beekeeping, selection of mite-resistant bees or advanced colony manipulations like queen trapping. In my view any or all of these could or should be tried … but only once a beekeeper can routinely successfully overwinter colonies using strategies similar to those described here.

The problem

Varroa is an ectoparasitic mite that feeds on developing honey bee pupae. During feeding it transmits a range of honey bee viruses, the most important of which is deformed wing virus (DWV). DWV is present in honey bees in the absence of Varroa. In our studies, using sensitive PCR-based detection methods, we never detect bees – even those from mite-free regions of Scotland – without DWV. The virus is transmitted horizontally between bees during trophallaxis, and vertically from drones or the queen through sperm or eggs. These routes of transmission are rarely if ever associated with any significant levels of disease and virus only replicates to modest levels (perhaps 1-10 thousand viruses per bee). However, when Varroa transmits DWV the virus bypasses the bee’s natural defence mechanisms and replicates to very high levels in recipient pupae (billions per pupa, 1 – 10 million times higher than in unparasitised pupae). Studies from our laboratory have shown that ~75% of pupae with these high virus loads either do not emerge, or emerge exhibiting the characteristic “deformed wings” that give the virus its name (Figure 2; Gusachenko et al., Viruses 2020, 12, 532; doi:10.3390/v12050532). The ~25% of bees that do emerge and appear ‘normal’ exhibit a range of symptoms including reduced fitness, impaired learning and reduced foraging. However, most importantly they also exhibit reduced longevity. During the summer this is probably not critical; the lifespan of a worker is only ~6 weeks and, assuming the queen is laying well, there are thousands of half-sisters around with more being produced every day.

DWV symptoms

Figure 2. DWV symptoms

But during the winter, brood rearing either stops completely or drops to a very low level. The bees reared from late summer onwards are physiologically very different. These are the ‘winter bees’, also termed the diutinus bees (from the Latin meaning long-lived). Physiologically these bees resemble juvenile workers and they can survive for many months. And they need to … it is these bees that get the colony through the autumn, winter and into the following spring. They protect the queen, they thermoregulate the hive and, usually around the winter solstice, they start to rear small amounts of new brood for the season ahead.

The longevity of the bees in the hive in winter is critical to colony survival. If the winter bees have high DWV levels their longevity is reduced (in addition to the reduced numbers due to overt disease or non-viability). This means that the winter cluster shrinks in size faster than it would do otherwise. With reduced numbers of bees it cannot keep brood warm enough and so the colony fails to expand early the following season. In cold spells it may be unable to reach the food stores resulting in the colony perishing from ‘isolation starvation’. It may not be able to maintain sufficient warmth to protect the queen, or may simply freeze to death.

The goal of rational Varroa control

Successful overwintering requires lots of winter bees. The size of the winter cluster is directly related to its survival chances. Therefore the goal of rational Varroa control is to prevent the winter bees from being exposed to mites and mite-transmitted viruses during their development. Winter bee production is induced by a range of factors including photoperiod, nectar and pollen availability, brood and forager pheromones. Together these induce slowed behavioural maturation of the winter bees. This is not like flicking a switch, instead it is a seamless transition occurring as late summer segues into early autumn (Figure 3). Winter bee production is also influenced by the queen. Young queens lay later into the autumn, so increasing the numbers of winter bees. 

Figure 3. Colony age structure from August to December.

It is important to note that these events are environment-driven, not calendar-driven. It will not happen at precisely the same time each year, or at the same time in different locations (or latitudes) each year.

To protect these winter bees the colony needs to be treated with an effective miticide before the majority of the winter bees are produced. This ensures that the developing winter bee pupae are not parasitised by virus-laden mites and so do not suffer from reduced longevity. 

When are winter bees produced in the UK? 

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any direct studies of this. Scientists in Bern (49.9°N) in 2007/08, where the average temperatures in November and December were ~3°C, showed that the Varroa- and virus-reduced longevity of bees was first measurable in mid-November, 50 days after emergence. By extrapolation, the eggs must have been laid in the first week of September. 

Doing large scale experiments of Varroa control is time-consuming and subject to the vagaries of the climate (and, as a molecular virologist, beyond me in terms of the resources needed). I have therefore used the well-established BEEHAVE program of colony development (from scientists in the University of Exeter; https://beehave-model.net/) to model the numbers of developing and adult bees, and the mite numbers in a colony. BEEHAVE by default uses environmental parameters (climate and forage) based upon data from Rothamsted (51.8°N). Using results from this model system, the bees present in the hive at the end of December – by definition the diutinus winter bees – were produced from eggs laid from early/mid August (Figure 4).

Whatever the precise date – and it will vary from season to season as indicated above – at some point in September the adult bee population starts to be entirely replaced with winter bees. Large numbers of these need to live until the following February or March to ensure the colony survives and is able to build up again once the queen starts laying.

When to treat – late summer

The numbers of pupae and adult bees present in the colony are plotted in Figure 4 using dashed lines. Adult bee number decrease in early spring until new brood is reared. The influence of the ‘June gap’ on pupal numbers is obvious. Brood rearing gradually tails off from early July and stops altogether sometime in late October or early November. The shaded area represents the period of winter bee production – from early/mid August until brood rearing stops. 

Figure 4. Winter bee production and mite levels – see key and text for further details

Mite levels are indicated using solid lines. The impact on the mite population of treating in the middle of each month from July to November is shown (arrowed and labelled J, A, S, O and N) using the colours green, blue, red, cyan and black respectively. The absolute numbers of bees or mites is irrelevant, but bees (pupae and adults) are plotted on the left, and mites on the right hand axis, so they cannot be directly compared. The miticide treatment modelled was ‘applied’ for one month and was 95% effective, reproducing many licensed and approved products.

Mite levels peak in the colony in late September to October. If treatment does not occur until this time of the season then the majority of winter bees will have been reared in the presence of large amounts of mites. Unsurprisingly, the earlier the treatment is applied, the lower the mite levels during the period of winter bee production. 

Rational Varroa control therefore involves treatment soon after the summer blossom honey is removed from the hive, so maximising the winter bees produced in the presence of low mite numbers. If you leave treatment until mid-September, you risk exposing the majority of winter bees to high levels of Varroa in the hive. If your primary crop is heather honey, which is not harvested until September, you may need to consider treating earlier in the summer – for example during the brood break when requeening or during swarm control.

Why treat in midwinter?

A key point to notice from Figure 4 is that, paradoxically, the earlier the miticide is applied, the higher the mite levels are at the end of the year. Compare the August (blue) and October (cyan) lines at year end for example. This is because mites that survive treatment – and some always do – subsequently reproduce in the small amount of brood reared late in the season. This is what necessitates a ‘midwinter’ treatment. Without it, mite levels increase inexorably year upon year, and cannot be controlled by a single late-summer treatment. Beekeepers bragging on social media that their mite drop after the winter treatment was zero probably applied the summer treatment too late to effectively protect their winter bees.

And when is midwinter?

Historically beekeepers apply the ‘midwinter’ treatment between Christmas and New Year. This is probably too late. The usual miticide used at this time is oxalic acid, a ‘one shot’ treatment that is ineffective against mites in capped cells. For maximum efficacy this must be applied when the colony is broodless. Brood rearing usually starts (if it ends at all, again this is climate-dependent) around the winter solstice. By delaying treatment until a lull in the Christmas festivities or even early January some mites will already be inaccessible in capped cells. 

Figure 5. Biscuit coloured (or a bit darker) cappings indicating brood rearing in this colony

I check my colonies for brood – either by looking for biscuit-coloured cappings on the Varroa tray (Figure 5) or by quickly inspecting frames in the centre of the cluster – and usually treat in November or very early December. If I cannot check visually I apply the treatment during the first extended cold spell of the winter. By treating when the colony is broodless I can be certain my intervention will have maximal effect.

What to treat with?

I have deliberately avoided – other than mentioning oxalic acid – specific miticides. Rational Varroa control involves the choice of an appropriate miticide and its correct application. Examples of incorrect or inappropriate miticide choice include; use of Apistan when resistance is known to be very widespread, use of Apiguard when the average ambient temperature is below 15°C (which makes Apiguard of little use for effective control in much of Scotland) or the use of Api-Bioxal when there is capped brood present. In addition, use of a half-dose or a reduced period of application will both reduce efficacy and potentially lead to the selection of resistance in the mite population. Used correctly – the right dose at the right time and for the right duration – the majority of the currently licensed miticides are be capable of reducing mite levels by over 90%. If they do not, use one that does. Miticide choice should be dictated by your environment and the state of the colony.

All together now

Most beekeepers grossly underestimate the movement of bees (and their phoretic mites) between colonies. Numerous studies have shown that drifting and (to an even greater extent) robbing can result in the transfer of large numbers of mites from adjacent and, in the case of robbing, more distant colonies. 

Gaffer tape apiary

Figure 6. Gaffer tape apiary …

Rational Varroa control therefore involves treating all colonies within an apiary, and ideally the wider landscape, in a coordinated manner. In communal association apiaries (Figure 6), where beekeeping experience and therefore colony management and health can vary significantly, this is particularly important. Coordinated treatment is only relevant in late summer when bees are freely flying.

Swarms

Swarms originating from unmanaged or poorly managed colonies will have high mite levels. The bee population in a swarm is biased towards younger bees; these are the bees that phoretic mites preferentially associate with. Studies have shown that ~35% of the mite population of a colony leaves with the swarm.

Figure 7. Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

Since swarms contain no sealed brood until ~9 days after they are hived oxalic acid is the most appropriate treatment. I usually treat them using vaporised oxalic acid late in the evening soon after they are hived (Figure 7). Even casts get this treatment and I have not experienced any issues with the queen not subsequently mating successfully. I’d prefer to have a queenless low-mite colony than a queenright one potentially riddled with Varroa.

Midseason mite treatment

The text above describes the mite management strategies I have used for several years. I apply Apivar immediately the summer honey is removed and treat with oxalic acid when broodless before the end of the year. Doing this has almost never required any additional midseason treatments; if mite levels are sufficiently low at the beginning of the season they cannot rise to dangerous levels before the late summer treatment. I still get winter colony losses, but they are almost always due to poor queen mating and rarely due to Varroa and viruses.

Figure 8. Queenright splits and the window(s) of opportunity

However, if midseason treatments are required – either because there are signs of overt infestation, because regular mite counts have shown there is a problem, or to have low mite colonies after the heather honey is collected – then there are two choices. Treat with MAQS which is approved for use when there are supers on the hive and, more importantly, is effective against mites in capped cells 2. Alternatively, treat during swarm control. With care, the majority of splits (e.g. the Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method) can be performed to give a broodless period for both the queenright (Figure 8) and queenless partitions. That being the case, a single application of an oxalic acid-containing miticide can be very effective in controlling the mite population.

Costs

Many beekeepers complain about the cost of licensed and approved miticides. However, some perspective is needed. A colony with low levels of mites will be more likely to survive overwinter, so reducing the costs of replacement bees. In addition, a healthy colony will be a stronger colony, and therefore much more likely to produce a good crop of honey (and potentially an additional nuc). Over the last 5-6 years my miticide costs are equivalent to one jar of honey per colony per year. This is an insignificant amount to pay for healthy colonies.

Summary

Rational Varroa control requires an understanding of the goals of treatment – protecting the winter bees and minimising mite levels for the beginning of the following season – and an appreciation of how this can best be achieved using miticides appropriate for the environment and the state of the colony. Like so much of beekeeping, it involves judgement of the colony and will vary from season to season and your location. I’ve applied my midwinter treatment as early as the end of October or as late as mid-December, reflecting variation in timing of the broodless period. Rational Varroa control also involves an understanding of the biology of bees and an awareness of the influence of beekeeping (e.g. crowding colonies in apiaries which increases mite and disease transmission) on our bees. However, none of this is difficult, expensive or time consuming … and the benefits in terms of strong, healthy, productive colonies are considerable.


 

Brexit and beekeeping

The ‘oven ready’ deal the government struck with the EU in the dying hours of 2020 was a bit less à la carte and a bit more table d’hôte.

The worst of the predictions of empty supermarket shelves and the conversion of Essex into a 3500 km2 lorry park have not materialised 1.

But there are other things that haven’t or won’t appear.

And one of those things is bees.

Bee imports

There is a long history of bee imports into the UK, dating back at least a century. In recent years the number of imports has markedly increased, at least partially reflecting the increasing popularity of beekeeping. 

Going up! Imports of queens, nucs and packages to the UK, 2007-2020 (National Bee Unit data)

Queens are imported in cages, usually with a few attendant workers to keep them company. Nucs are small sized colonies, containing a queen, bees and brood on frames. 

Packages are the ‘new kid on the block’ (in the UK) with up to 2500 per year being imported after 2013. Packages are queenless boxes of bees, containing no frames or brood.

Empty boxes after installing packages of bees

They are usually supplied in a mesh-sided box together with a queen. The bees are placed into a hive with frames of foundation and the queen is added in an introduction cage. They are fed with a gallon to two of syrup to encourage them to draw comb.

Installing a package of bees

It’s a very convenient way to purchase bees and avoids at least some of the risk of importing diseases 2. It’s also less expensive. This presumably reflects both the absence of frame/foundation and the need for a box to contain the frames.

But, post-Brexit, importation of packages or nucs from EU countries is no longer allowed. You are also not allowed to import full colonies (small numbers of these were imported each year, but insufficient to justify adding them to the graph above).

Queen imports are still allowed.

Why are were so many bees imported?

The simple answer is ‘demand’.

Bees can be reared inexpensively in warmer climates, such as southern Italy or Greece. The earlier start to the season in these regions means that queens, nucs or packages can be ready in March to meet the early season demand by UK beekeepers.

If you want a nuc with a laying queen in March or April in the UK you have two choices; a) buy imported bees, or b) prepare or purchase an overwintered nuc.

I don’t have data for the month by month breakdown of queen imports. I suspect many of these are also to meet the early season demand, either by adding them to an imported package (see above) or for adding to workers/brood reared and overwintered in a UK hive that’s split early in the season to create nucleus colonies.

Some importers would sell the latter on as ‘locally reared bees’. They are … sort of. Except for the queen who of course determines the properties of all the bees in the subsequent brood 🙁

An example of being “economical with the truth” perhaps?

Imported queens were also available throughout the season to replace those lost for any number of reasons (swarming, poor mating, failed supersedure, DLQ’s, or – my speciality – ham-fisted beekeeping) or to make increase.

And to put these imports into numerical context … there are about 45,000 ‘hobby’ beekeepers in the UK and perhaps 200+ bee farmers. Of the ~250,000 hives in the UK, about 40,000 are managed by bee farmers.

What are the likely consequences of the import ban?

I think there are likely to be at least four consequences from the ban on the importation of nucs and packages to the UK from the EU:

  1. Early season nucs (whatever the source) will be more expensive than in previous years. At the very least there will be a shortfall of ~2000 nucs or packages. Assuming demand remains the same – and there seems no reason that it won’t, and a realistic chance that it will actually increase – then this will push up the price of overwintered nucs, and the price of nucs assembled from an imported queen and some ‘local’ bees. I’ve seen lots of nucs offered in the £250-300 range already this year.
  2. An increase in imports from New Zealand. KBS (and perhaps others) have imported New Zealand queens for several years. If economically viable this trade could increase 3.
  3. Some importers may try and bypass the ban by importing to Northern Ireland, ‘staging’ the bees there and then importing them onwards to the UK. The legality of this appears dubious, though the fact it was being considered reflects that this part of the ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal was not even table d’hôte and more like good old-fashioned fudge.
  4. Potentially, a post-Covid increase in bee smuggling. This has probably always gone on in a limited way. Presumably, with contacts in France or Italy, it would be easy enough to smuggle across a couple of nucs in the boot of the car. However, with increased border checks and potential delays, I (thankfully) don’t see a way that this could be economically viable on a large scale.

Is that all?

There may be other consequences, but those are the ones that first came to mind.

Of the four, I expect #1 is a nailed-on certainty, #2 is a possibility, #3 is an outside possibility but is already banned under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol which specifically prohibits using Northern Ireland as a backdoor from Europe, and #4 happens and will continue, but is small-scale.

Of course, some, all or none of this ban may be revised as the EU and UK continue to wrangle over the details of the post-Withdrawal Agreement. Even as I write this the UK has extended the grace period for Irish sea border checks (or ‘broken international law’ according to the EU). 

This website is supposed to be a politics-free zone 4 … so let’s get back to safer territory.

Why is early season demand so high?

It seems likely that there are three reasons for this early season demand:

  1. Commercial beekeepers needing to increase colony numbers to provide pollination services or for honey production. Despite commercials comprising only ~0.4% of UK beekeepers, they manage ~16% of UK hives. On average a commercial operation runs 200 hives in comparison to less than 5 for hobby beekeepers. For some, their business model may have relied upon the (relatively) inexpensive supply of early-season bees.
  2. Replacing winter losses by either commercial or amateur beekeepers. The three hives you had in the autumn have been slashed to one, through poor Varroa management, lousy queen mating or a flood of biblical proportions. With just one remaining hive you need lots of things to go right to repopulate your apiary. Or you could just buy them in.
  3. New beekeepers, desperate to start beekeeping after attending training courses through the long, dark, cold, wet winter. And who can blame them? 

For the rest of the post I’m going to focus on amateur or hobby beekeeping. I don’t know enough about how commercial operations work. Whilst I have considerable sympathy if this change in the law prevents bee farmers fulfilling pollination or honey production contracts, I also question how sensible it is to depend upon imports as the UK extricates itself from the European Union.

Whatever arrangement we finally reached it was always going to be somewhere in between the Armageddon predicted by ‘Project Fear’ and the ‘Unicorns and sunlit uplands’ promised by the Brexiteers.

Where are those sunlit uplands?

And that had been obvious for years.

I have less sympathy for those who sell on imported bees to meet demand from existing or new beekeepers. This is because I think beekeeping (at least at the hobbyist level) can, and should, be sustainable.

Sustainable beekeeping

I would define sustainable beekeeping as the self-sufficiency that is achieved by:

  • Managing your stocks in a way to minimise winter losses
  • Rearing queens during the season to requeen your own colonies when needed (because colonies with young queens produce brood later into the autumn, so maximising winter bee production) and to …
  • Overwinter nucleus colonies to make up for any winter losses, or for sale in the following spring

All of these things make sound economic sense. 

More importantly, I think achieving this level of self-sufficiency involves learning a few basic skills as a beekeeper that not only improve your beekeeping but are also interesting and enjoyable.

I’ve previously discussed the Goldilocks Principle and beekeeping, the optimum number of colonies to keep considering your interest and enthusiasm for bees and the time you have available for your beekeeping.

It’s somewhere between 2 and a very large number. 

For me, it’s a dozen or so, though for years I’ve run up to double that number for our research, and for spares, and because I’ve reached the point where it’s easy to generate more colonies (and because I’m a lousy judge of the limited time I have available 🙁 ).

Two is better than one, because one colony can dwindle, can misbehave or can go awry, and without a colony to compare it with you might be none the wiser that nothing is wrong. Two colonies also means you can always use larvae from one to rescue the other if it goes queenless.

And with just two colonies you can easily practise sustainable beekeeping. You are no longer dependent on an importer having a £30 mass-produced queen spare.

What’s wrong with imported bees?

The usual reason given by beekeepers opposed to imports is the risk of also importing pathogens.

Varroa is cited as an example of what has happened. 

Tropilaelaps or small hive beetle are given as reasons for what might happen.

And then there are usually some vague statements about ‘viruses’. 

There’s good scientific evidence that the current global distribution of DWV is a result of beekeepers moving colonies about.

More recently, we have collaborated on a study that has demonstrated an association between honey bee queen imports and outbreaks of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). An important point to emphasise here is that the direction of CBPV transmission is not yet clear from our studies. The imported queens might be bringing CBPV in with them. Alternatively, the ‘clean’ imported queens (and their progeny) may be very susceptible to CBPV circulating in ‘dirty’ UK bees. Time will tell.

However, whilst the international trade in plants and animals has regularly, albeit inadvertently, introduced devastating diseases e.g. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (ash dieback), I think there are two even more compelling reasons why importation of bees is detrimental.

  1. Local bees are better adapted to the environment in which they were reared and consequently have increased overwintering success rates.
  2. I believe that inexpensive imported bees are detrimental to the quality of UK beekeeping.

I’ve discussed both these topics previously. However, I intend to return to them again this year. This is partly because in this brave new post-Brexit world we now inhabit the landscape has changed.

At least some imports are no longer allowed. The price of nucs will increase. Some/many of these available early in the season will be thrown together from overwintered UK colonies and an imported queen.

These are not local bees and they will not provide the benefits that local bees should bring.

Bad beekeeping and bee imports

If imported queens cost £500 each 5 there would be hundreds of reasons to learn how to rear your own queens. 

But most beekeepers don’t …

Although many beekeepers practise ‘passive’ queen rearing e.g. during swarm control, it offers little flexibility or opportunity to rear queens outside the normal swarming season, or to improve your stocks.

In contrast, ‘active’ queen rearing i.e. selection of the best colonies to rear several queens from, is probably practised by less than 20% of beekeepers.

This does not need to involve grafting, instrumental insemination or rows of brightly coloured mini-nucs. It does not need any large financial outlay, or huge numbers of colonies to start with.

But it does need attention to detail, an understanding of – or a willingness to learn – the development cycle of queens, and an ability to judge the qualities of your bees.

Essentially what it involves is slightly better beekeeping.

But, the availability of Italian, Greek or Maltese queens for £20 each acts as a disincentive.

Why learn all that difficult ‘stuff’ if you can simply enter your credit card details and wait for the postie?

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And similar arguments apply to overwintering nucleus colonies. This requires careful judgement of colony strength through late summer, and the weight of the nuc over the winter.

It’s not rocket science or brain surgery or Fermat’s Last Theorem … but it does require a little application and attention.

But, why bother if you can simply wield your “flexible friend” 6 in March and replace any lost colonies with imported packages for £125 each?

Rant over

Actually, it wasn’t really a rant. 

My own beekeeping has been sustainable for a decade. I’ve bought in queens or nucs of dark native or near-native bees from specialist UK breeders a few times. I have used these to improve my stocks and sold or gifted spare/excess nucs to beginners.

I’ve caught a lot of swarms in bait hives and used the best to improve my bees, and the remainder to strengthen other colonies.

The photographs of packages (above) are of colonies we have used for relatively short-term scientific research. 

I’m going to be doing a lot of queen rearing this season. Assuming that goes well, I then expect to overwinter more nucs than usual next winter. 

I then hope that the bee import ban remains in place for long enough until I can sell all these nucs for an obscene profit which I will use to purchase a queen rearing operation in Malta. 😉

And I’m going to write about it here.


Notes

BBKA statement made a day or two after this post appeared. The BBKA and other national associations are concerned about the potential import of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) into the UK via Northern Ireland. Whilst I still think this breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol, it doesn’t mean it won’t be attempted (and there’s at least one importer offering bees via this route). It’s not clear that the NI authorities have the manpower to inspect thousands of packages.

It’s worth noting that SHB was introduced to southern Italy in 2014 and remains established there. The most recent epidemiological report shows that it was detected as late as October 2020 in sentinel apiaries and is also established in natural colonies.

With a single exception – see below – every country into which SHB has been imported has failed to eradicate it. As I wrote in November 2014:

“Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed.”

And Italy has failed.

The one exception was a single import to a single apiary in the Portugal. Notably, the illegal import was of queens, not nucs or packages. Eradication involved the destruction of the colonies, the ploughing up of the apiary and the entire area being drenched in insecticide.

The Beekeepers Quarterly

This post also appeared in the summer 2021 edition of The Beekeepers Quarterly published by Northern Bee Books.

Preparing honey

Whisper it … Christmas is fast approaching.

It may seem premature to be discussing this at the end of November, but there are some things that require a bit of preparation.

I presume you’ve already made the Christmas cake? 1

I sell more honey in the few weeks before Christmas than almost any other time of the year … and I also jar a lot as gifts for family and friends.

Jarring 2 honey is one of those topics that hardly gets a mention on these pages, yet is one of the few ‘real’ beekeeping activities we can do in depths of winter.

Although I’ve written a few posts about jarring honey in the past, they’re scattered around the place and are several years old, so it seemed timely to revisit the subject again.

Quality and quantity

Let’s deal with these in reverse order so you appreciate the scale of things.

The average number of colonies managed by UK beekeepers was about 5. There are about 45 to 50 thousand beekeepers managing a quarter of a million colonies, with a few tens of thousands over that number managed by a small number of bee farmers 3.

BBKA surveys report the average honey production per hive varies from ~8-31 lb per year 4. Let’s assume, as I’ve done previously, that the ‘average’ hive produces 25 lb, so the ‘average’ beekeeper generates 125 lb of honey a season.

However, these averages probably obscure the real distribution of hives and honey. The majority of BBKA survey respondents run only 1-2 colonies, with others running ten or more. The real distribution of hives therefore resembles a U shaped curve.

More experienced beekeepers, running more colonies successfully, will produce disproportionately more honey. Annual averages of 50 – 75 lb of honey per colony are readily achievable with good management and good forage. Honey production is more likely to resemble a J shaped curve.

I’m a small scale beekeeper with 10-12 (honey) production colonies and the same number again for work, queen rearing etc., most of which usually produce little honey.

In a good year I produce enough honey to make jarring and labelling a bit dull and repetitive, but not enough to justify anything more automated than my trusty and long-suffering radial extractor.

No fancy uncapping machine, no automated honey creamer, no computer controlled bottling line and no bottle labeller.

In my dreams perhaps … but in reality just about everything is done manually.

Whether it’s 10 lb or 1000 lb anything I discuss below could be done using the same manual methods, and with the same overall goal.

And that goal is to produce a really top quality honey – in appearance and flavour – that makes an attractive gift or a desirable purchase.

Extracting

In Fife there are two honey harvests. Spring, which is predominantly (though not exclusively) oilseed rape (OSR), and summer which is much more variable. Some years we get an excellent crop from the lime, in other years it’s the more usual Heinz Honey containing 57 varieties of hedgerow and field nectars.

Heinz Honey

My production colonies are in two main apiaries and I extract each separately. That way, distinctive nectars that predominate in particular areas remain separate.

If customers want identical honey, jar after jar after jar, they can buy any amount of the stuff – often at absurdly cheap prices – in the supermarket.

Conversely, if they want a unique, high quality product they buy locally produced honey and expect variation depending upon the apiary and the season.

I run the extractor with the gate open, through coarse and fine filters, directly into buckets for storage. Warming the supers over the honey warming cabinet makes extraction and simultaneous filtering much easier.

I almost never get single crop honey and don’t harvest mid-season.

If you look at different frames it’s not unusual to have dark honey stored in one and lighter honey elsewhere, or as two distinct areas within the same frame. I know I’m missing the opportunity to produce some wonderfully distinct honeys, but pressure of work, queen rearing and a visceral loathing for cleaning the extractor restricts me to two harvest per season.

~90 kg of honey from my home apiary

Wherever possible entire supers are extracted into single 30 lb plastic buckets. Each is weighed, and the water content measured using a refractometer. Both numbers are written on the bucket lid and in my notes (an Excel spreadsheet). This becomes relevant when preparing honey for jarring.

Storage and crystallisation

Honey is stored in a cool location (~12-15°C), sealed tightly to avoid absorbing water from the environment.

High-glucose early season OSR honey crystallises rapidly. It usually sets rock hard well within a month of extraction.

Summer honey is much more variable and often takes many months to fully crystallise. I’ve just checked a few buckets that were extracted in early August and all are still liquid. However, if you looked carefully 5 you would almost certainly find micro-crystals already present.

All good quality honey will eventually crystallise. Tiny impurities – which are different from contaminants – such as pollen grains, act as nuclei onto which the sugars attach. These tiny crystals sink through the viscous honey to the bottom of the bucket.

Over time the honey at the bottom of an undisturbed bucket can be cloudy or gauzy in appearance with diffuse crystals. For the optimal appearance of the final bottled product these will need to be removed.

Clear summer honey

Clear summer honey is warmed and fine filtered again before jarring. I usually filter it through a nylon straining cloth. If you don’t do this then there’s a good chance it will crystallise relatively quickly in the jar.

Clear and not so clear honey

This spoils the appearance (and texture) but has no effect on the flavour.

It will still sell, but it will look less appealing, particularly to customers who are used to the homogenous unwavering bland sameness of supermarket honey.

Soft set honey

Well prepared soft set or creamed honey is a premium product. The fact that it can be prepared from large quantities of predominantly OSR honey is a bonus.

Honey warming cabinet. The Apiarist

Honey warming cabinet …

Many customers automatically choose clear honey. There’s certainly a greater demand for it. However, it’s worth always having a tester jar of soft set available. Disposable plastic coffee stirrers are an efficient way of sampling the tester and avoid the coarseness on the tongue of wooden stirrers.

A surprising number who try soft set honey, buy soft set honey … and then return for repeat business 🙂

The key points when preparing soft set honey are:

  • Have a suitable soft set ‘seed’ prepared. You can use shop bought for this, or grind a crystallised honey in a pestle and mortar 6. You need ~10% by weight of the seed.
  • Warm the set bucket of OSR honey sufficiently to melt the crystals. The honey should be clear and, when tested, leave no grittiness on the tongue. Mix periodically to aid heat transfer. I do this in my honey warming cabinet, but a water bath is much more efficient.
  • Cool the OSR honey to ~36°C and warm the seed honey to the same temperature. Do not melt the seed … you’re dependent upon the crystal structure of the seed to create the final product.
  • Add the seed to the melted OSR and mix thoroughly.
  • Allow the mixed honey to gradually cool to ~12-14°C, with regular stirring (at least twice a day). You can do this with a spoon, but as the honey crystallises and thickens it becomes very hard work. An electric drill and corkscrew or spiral mixer works well 7. This mixing may take several days.
  • Warm the honey to ~36°C and jar it 8.
  • Keep some of the seed for the next batch. If you’re jarring more in the next week or two, just leave 2-3 lb in the bucket. If longer, I store it in clip-seal containers.

Small batches

Honey keeps for years if stored in buckets at a cool temperature.

I tend to bottle honey in relatively small batches. This allows me to be certain the honey will look its very best for the short time it sits on the shelf.

This applies whatever the location of the shelf – by you door, if selling directly to the public, or in an artisan cafe or food store if selling via a third party.

Or even if the shelf is in your cupboard before you give it away to friends or relatives.

Preparing one or two buckets at a time for jarring makes sense. It’s a manageable number of jars (no more than 120 x 227g, or a smaller number of 340g or 454g jars) so I don’t die of boredom when subsequently labelling them. That number also fits into the dishwasher and on the worktop without too much of a problem.

Ready for delivery

I use the stored buckets in order of decreasing water content. Whether this makes a difference I’m unsure as all of my stored honey is below the 20% cutoff when measured. Interestingly, some seasons produce honey with consistently low water content. Spring 2018 was ~2% lower than this season averaged across 10-15 buckets.

Bottling it

I wash jars prior to using them and only use brand new jars. When jarring honey I dry and heat the jars in a 50°C oven so that, by the time they’re under the honey tap, they’re still warm.

Honey bucket tipper

The actual process of bottling honey is made much easier with my honey bucket tipper. I built this several years ago and it’s been used for thousands of jars in the intervening period. Amazingly, for something I built, I got it almost perfect from the start 9. I’ve changed the size of a couple of the wedges to tip the bucket, but that’s about all.

Almost always I can process the full bucket of honey, leaving only one final (incomplete) jar with the remnants of the bubbly scum from the surface of the honey.

The dregs

These are the jars I use for honey to go with my porridge 🙂

It’s worth noting that you can remove excess bubbly scum from a bucket by overlaying it with a sheet of clingfilm, then swiftly and carefully removing the clingfilm. Take care to avoid drips. It requires some deft handwork, but is remarkably effective in leaving just jarrable honey in the bucket.

Settling in, or out

Inevitably the process of jarring honey can introduce bubbles. Even if you take care to run the honey down the pre-warmed side of the jar you can end up with very obvious bubbles in clear honey.

And invisible bubbles in the opaque soft set honey.

These bubbles reduce the attractiveness of the finished product.

I therefore add lids to the jars and return the honey to my honey warming cabinet set at ~35°C for a few hours. The bubbles rise to the top and … pfffft … disappear, leaving the honey bubble free and crystal clear.

Settling out

Except for soft set honey of course. This is full of tiny crystals which produce that magic “melt on the tongue” sensation. However, I think that this final settling period helps minimise frosting in soft set honey.

After a few hours in the warming cabinet the jars are removed, allowed to cool to room temperature and labelled, ready for sale or gifting.

Labelling

The honey labelling regulations are a minefield. I’m pretty confident my labels meet the requirements but – before you ask – will not provide advice on whether yours do 😉 Mine carry a unique batch number, the country of origin, a best before date (two years after the date of jarring), the relevant contact details and the weight of the metric jar contents in a font that is both the right size and properly visible.

Honey label

All my labels are home printed on a Dymo LabelWriter. I’ve got nothing to hide and want the customer to see the honey, rather than some gaudy label covering most of the jar. This works for me, but might not suit you or your customers. I’ve certainly not had any complaints, either from shops, or customers who buy from the door as gifts for their friends or family, and plenty of people return time and again for more.

I always add an anti-tamper label connecting the lid to the jar. Even purchased in rolls of 1000 at a time these are the most expensive of the three labels – front (with weight and origin), anti-tamper and rear (batch number, best before date and QR code). DIY labels cost less than 8p/jar in total.

It should go without saying that the outside of the jar should not be spoiled with sticky fingermarks! If you use black lids, as I do, it’s worth wiping them before attaching a clear anti-tamper seal to avoid fingerprints being preserved forever under the label.

Provenance

The batch number is a unique five character code that allows me to determine the jar weight, bucket (weight and water content), apiary and season/year. If there was a problem with a particular batch 10 this would help recover any sold through a shop. The information is vaguely interesting to me; for example, looking back over the records it shows the inexorable rise in popularity of the 227 g jar as the proportion of these used increases year on year.

However, particularly in times of social distancing and when selling through a third party, this information on the provenance of the honey can be of interest to customers.

How many times did you sell a jar ‘at the door’ and get into a long conversation about whether the long avenue of limes north of the village produced nectar this year? Or whether the bees from my apiary could have pollinated the apple trees in the customers orchard?

Remember … many of the people who purchase local honey, or indeed any honey not carrying the dreaded Produce of EU and non-EU countries warning label, care about the origins of their food or the gifts they are making.

I’ve therefore been exploring linking the batch number to an online information page for the honey. By scanning a QR code on the jar 11 the customer can tell where and when the honey was produced. They can read about the area the bees forage in, the types of forage available and even the pollen types present in the honey. New Zealand beekeepers selling specialist manuka honey have been doing this sort of thing for a few years. My system is not ready for ‘prime time’ yet, but all the coding is done to get the information in and out of the backend database. Some customers already use it.

Even if the customer has no interest whatsoever, I still need to record the batch number, so it’s an example of added value to what I hope is perceived as a premium product.


 

Locally adapted bees

This is a follow up to the last post on Strong hives = live hives which was written in response to the oft-repeated mantra that ‘local bees are better adapted to the local environment’.

In that previous post a study of the overwintering survival of colonies headed by queens from very different locations was discussed. There was no difference whether the queen (and consequently all the workers she subsequently mothered) had come from Vermont or Florida.

Instead, the primary correlate of overwintering success was the strength of the colony 1 going into the winter.

Migratory beekeeping

Despite the size differences between the US and UK (or Europe), the honey bee population structure is actually more distinct on this side of the Atlantic.

In the USA the huge impact of migratory beekeeping causes considerable mixing of the bees on the continent. Those on the east and west coasts are distinct, but those in the north and south, or across smaller geographic scales, are really rather similar.

It’s not only commercial migratory beekeeping that enforces this, it’s also some of the very large-scale queen rearing operations. These ship queens all across the USA ensuring that there is less genetic diversity than you’d expect from the vast geographic (and climatic) differences.

Bee caravan

Bee caravan …

So, perhaps the study I discussed last week was not particularly surprising after all … ? 2

In contrast to the US, beekeeping activities in the UK and Europe are rather more localised.

In the UK we still import thousands of queens, but we don’t move our hives across the continent – often more than once a season.

We might take a dozen hives to the heather moors 150 miles away, but we never take them 2500 miles to pollinate almonds.

‘Local’ bees in Europe

Probably as a consequence of less large-scale migratory beekeeping, and less ‘centralisation’ of commercial queen rearing, there is genetic evidence for ‘local’ strains of bees in Europe.

In addition, there is evidence that these genetic differences result in changes to the individual proteins that the bee expresses … and that these may result in local ecological adaptations.

However, this still doesn’t get us to ‘local bees are better adapted to the local environment (and this explains why local bees survive better)‘ …

Andalucian apiary

Local Andalucian apiary

But there is even some evidence to support this last statement as well.

So let’s look at each of these points in turn 3.

Genetically diverse bees

Biologists use the terms genotype and phenotype to describe the genetic makeup of an organism and its appearance. Most beekeepers are familiar with the different phenotypes of honey bee – the dark ‘native’ bees, carniolans, Buckfast etc.

The phenotype is defined and determined by the genotype, but we don’t necessarily know which genes determine which physical characteristic. Population geneticists therefore often use different genetic features to discriminate between different groups or populations.

Microsatellites are DNA markers that contain variable numbers of short tandem repeat sequences. In honey bees, microsatellites are abundant and highly variable. They are therefore very useful for differentiating between populations or groups of populations, though how this is done is outside the scope of this post.

In 1995 Arnaud Estoup and colleagues reported the microsatellite analysis of 9 populations of honeybees from Africa (intermissa, scutellatacapensis) and Europe (mellifera, ligustica, carnica, cecropia), previously distinguished phenotypically. In their enticingly titled paper Microsatellite Variation in Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera L.) Populations: Hierarchical Genetic Structure and Test of the Infinite Allele and Stepwise Mutation Models 4 they support the earlier morphometric (phenotypic) definition by Ruttner of three distinct evolutionary branches of honey bee.

In a series of particularly impenetrable tables and phylogenetic trees they also demonstrate the the European lineages are genetically distinct and, importantly, that sub-populations could be readily identified 5.

Ecological adaptation of bees

Microsatellites are essentially non-functional genetic markers that we can use for analysis. They are carried alongside the thousands and thousands of genes that encode the proteins that make the wings, eyes, guts, feet etc. of honey bees. Other proteins also influence the behaviour of bees – how and when they swarm, their cold tolerance, there longevity.

We can now measure genetic variation of individual genes easily through so-called ‘next generation sequencing’ of the whole genome of the honey bee. However, the variation we see is one step removed from the variation at the protein level that directly influences how the bee copes in (or is adapted to) different environments.

But, it turns out, we can measure the variation at the protein level as well using a technique termed proteome profiling.

If distinct genetic populations of bees have adapted to particular environments (through selection, either natural or by beekeepers) we would expect the proteins they express – that both make the bee and determine its behaviour – should be different.

For example, simplistically, if a bee had evolved to live in a very windy environment we might expect the proteins forming the flight muscles would be stronger, enabling the bee to fly on windier days 6.

Collect the data, decipher what it all means …

Alternatively, you could turn the analysis around:

  • Identify the differences in the proteins that are expressed
  • Work out (or look up) what those particular proteins do and …
  • Conclude that those adaptive changes are required by that sub-population of bees in a particular ecological environment.

And, using proteome profiling, this is exactly what Robert Parker and colleagues reported in 2010 7. They compared proteins from adult bees sourced from geographically dispersed locations (Canada, New Zealand, Chile, USA).

They then grouped proteins into particular pathways e.g. energy metabolism, and observed significant differences.

Pathway analysis of honey bee midgut proteins across the populations studied.

As far as we’re concerned here – which is evidencing that locally adapted bees are actually different from each other in a meaningful way – the precise differences Robert Parker and colleagues aren’t too important.

But … if you insist.

Cold-adapted bees e.g. those from Saskatchewan (SK1, SK2), exhibited much higher levels of proteins involved in heat production in the mitochondria. In contrast, bees from warmer climates e.g. Hawaii (HI), showed higher levels of proteins involved in biosynthesis/folding and degradation of proteins.

Importantly, distinct populations of bees from geographically-distant regions exhibit differences that, logically, could be expected to make them better adapted to that environment.

But, there’s a bit still missing …

The key phrase in that last sentence is ‘could be expected’.

What was not shown in these two studies is that the differences observed are responsible for the better performance or survival of those bees in those environments.

Which finally brings me to a study by Ralph Büchler entitled The influence of genetic origin and its interaction with environmental effects on the survival of Apis mellifera L. colonies in Europe 8.

Local bees do survive better

This was an ambitious and large scale study of the survival of ~600 colonies in 21 apiaries in Europe. The colonies included 5 sub-species (carnicaligusticamacedonia and mellifera) and 16 different genotypes of bees.

In each of the 21 apiaries a local genotype was tested in parallel with at least two non-local genotypes. The large team of scientists/beekeepers involved used standardised management protocols which excluded any form of disease management e.g. no control of Varroa or other diseases. Consequently (many) colonies were lost to Varroa and were removed from the study once infestation levels had reached 10% (i.e. 1 in 10 workers carried phoretic mites) or bee numbers dropped below 5000.

The study started in autumn 2009 and ended in March 2012. During this ~2.5 years 84% of the colonies perished. Almost half of these losses were attributable to Varroa … not a particular surprise.

There are a lot of variables in this study – sub-species (5), genotypes (16), apiaries (21) – so the statistics and analysis are a bit of a minefield.

Count the corpses

Essentially the researchers ‘counted the corpses’ (i.e. colonies that died). They then looked at the survivors and tried to determine the characteristics they shared.

Unsurprisingly, survival of colonies in different apiaries was not the same. Graphed below is the percentage of colonies that survived (vertical axis) in each of the 21 apiaries against time (horizontal axis).

Trajectories of colony survival for the different locations.

These differences are presumably due to local forage availability, colony management, climate etc. We know that bees do better in some places than others 9.

When survival of different genotypes was compared they were much of a muchness, with two outliers.

Trajectories of colony survival for the 16 different genotypes

But, very significantly, colonies headed by local queens did significantly better than colonies headed by non-local queens.

Trajectories of colony survival for the origin of the queens

Why do local bees survive better?

The differences between the two lines – local and non-local queens – in the Kaplan-Meier survival curve above may not look particular good … they both drop disconcertingly quickly, indicating lots of dead colonies.

But it is.

The authors unequivocally demonstrate this statistically, but for beekeeping purposes it’s perhaps even more convincing to simply state that:

“colonies with local queens survived on average 83 ± 23 days longer than those with non-local queens”

That’s a key quote from the paper. It also probably explains why colonies headed by local queen survive better.

In a follow-up paper to Büchler et al., 2014, the same authors did a more in-depth analysis of a range of colony parameters that correlated with survival 10 which contains an additional piece of the jigsaw explaining why colonies headed by local queens survived better.

“colonies of local origin had significantly higher numbers of bees than colonies placed outside their area of origin”

And, by significantly higher, I mean ~20% higher.

Which finally completes the story and brings us back to the Strong hives = live hives from last week.

Local queens head up colonies that survive better in the local environment to which they (and their workers) are adapted.

The colonies survive significantly longer because the colonies are significantly stronger.

Caveats and conclusions

There are a number of caveats to the ‘count the corpses’ study conducted by Büchler and colleagues.

For example, the local bees might have actually been adapted to the local beekeeping management practices. In future experiments there might be ways to control for this 11.

The absence of Varroa control meant colonies were always weaker in the second year of the study. For the majority of beekeepers this is not a sustainable way to manage colonies. A fourth year would have been impossible as they would have run out of colonies.

Nevertheless, under the conditions tested, this is confirmation that ‘local bees are better adapted to the local environment (and survive better)‘.

But as a scientist there’s always another ‘Why?’ question.

Why are the colonies stronger? Is it increased longevity of worker bees? Perhaps it is better foraging skills, meaning more brood can be reared? Is it an adaptation of the queen to the chemicals in the local pollen that increases her fecundity?

Question, questions, questions …

I can think of at least two additional compelling reasons why local bees and queens are preferable. I’ll cover these at some point in the future.


 

Income and outgoings

I discussed beekeeping economics a couple of weeks ago.

I used some potentially questionable survey data on hive numbers, winter losses, honey yields and pricing, together with ‘off the shelf’ costs for frames, sugar and miticides.

Even ignoring the costs of travel and depreciation on equipment the ‘profit’ was not substantial.

Actually, it was just £102 per colony.

Consider the hard work involved, the heavy lifting, the vagaries of the weather and the amount of honey given away to friends and family.

You are not going to get rich fast (or at all) and the Maldives will have to remain a dream.

What a fantastic beekeeping year that was …

Most of us 1 keep bees for pleasure. However, a small profit from our endeavours can’t do any harm, and may actually do some good.

It might pay for a “sorry I was late back from the apiary … again” crate of beer/bunch of flowers 2 or for the new smoker to replace the one you reversed the car over.

Smoker still life

Smoker

So how do you fund the purchase of a crate of beer/bunch of flowers and a new smoker?

How do you increase the profit per colony from that rather paltry £100 to something a little more substantial?

It’s clear that to do this you need to reduce your outgoings and increase your income.

Income and outgoings

I’m going to restrict myself to the same range of outgoing costs and sources of income to those I covered on beekeeping economics.

I’m ignoring most equipment costs, depreciation, petrol, honey gifts to friends etc. All these reduce ‘profit’.

Here is the summary table presented earlier. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum 3.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Cutting your food costs

Not a whole lot of leeway here I’m afraid.

Granulated sugar is probably the least expensive way of feeding your bees for the winter. Other than shopping around for the best price there’s not much option to reduce your outgoings.

However, before buying sugar it’s always worth asking your local supermarket for any spoilt or damaged packets. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce waste and can usually be persuaded to support something as environmentally-friendly as local bees.

It costs nothing to ask.

Many beekeeping associations will arrange bulk purchases of either Ambrosia-type invert syrup or fondant. I’ll comment more extensively on this later.

Cutting your medicine costs

There are even fewer opportunities for savings if you want to use VMD-approved miticides.

I’ve discussed miticide costs extensively in the past. The figures are now a bit dated (and they omitted Apivar which was not available off-prescription at the time). However, it remains broadly true that the annual cost per hive is about the same as a jar of honey 4.

If you’re using Api-Bioxal for midwinter trickling remember that you can safely dilute it to a final concentration of 3.2% (w/v), rather than that recommended on the label. Historically the UK has used oxalic acid at 3.2% and there’s no increase in efficacy at the higher strength. Full details are provided on the preparation of oxalic acid elsewhere.

At 3.2% w/v a 35g “10 hive” pack of Api-Bioxal will treat 15 hives.

There … at £11.95 a packet I’ve just slashed your midwinter treatment costs from £1.20 a hive to  80p.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves 😉

Frames and foundation

First quality ‘off the shelf’ frames with foundation cost about £3 each. Obviously it makes sense to shop around and/or buy in bulk.

However, much more substantial savings are possible if you do three things:

  • re-use frames after steaming and sterilising
  • use second quality frames bought on supplier ‘sale days’
  • use foundationless frames

If you nail and glue frames during construction they usually survive at least a couple of trips through a steam wax extractor. Yes, there’s some work involved in cleaning them up afterwards, but it’s no more work than building new frames each year.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Second quality frames are sold in packs of 50 for about £37.50 5. Of the hundreds I’ve used I’ve had few (~2% or less) that were unusable due to knots, shakes, splits or other weaknesses.

Foundationless frames take a bit longer to build and you have additional expenditure on bamboo or wire/nylon. However, this outlay is insignificant when compared with the saving made on foundation.

Remember that foundationless frames built with bamboo supports can go through a steam wax extractor and be put back into service. Don’t use wax starter strips. Use lollipop sticks or tongue depressors fixed with waterproof wood glue.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Purchased premium foundation is lovely stuff but freshly drawn comb on a foundationless frame is even better. Contamination-free, robust once fully drawn and much easier to clean from the frame when it eventually goes through the steamer.

Taken together – re-use, second quality and foundationless – I calculate that frames cost me ~25p each. This equates to a saving of £36.75 over a year 6. Remember also that additional outlay on brood frames is needed to produce nucleus colonies (see below) where the savings would be £13.75 per nuc produced.

That’s more like it 🙂

A co-operative association intermission

Beekeeping associations often have co-operative purchasing schemes. Bulk purchasing reduces both individual item costs and (often substantial) P&P costs. These schemes are often organised to pass on the majority of the discount and retain a small amount of the savings for association activities.

The larger the association the greater the savings that can be made, and there’s no reason why neighbouring associations or regional groupings cannot act together.

Yes, of course, it takes some organisation. If your association doesn’t have such a scheme either find one that does or set up your own.

My beekeeping alma mater (Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers) offered excellent discounts on jars, honey buckets, foundation, Ambrosia, fondant and gloves … and probably a load of other things I didn’t take advantage of when I was a member 7.

Products of the hive

That’s enough about outlay, what about income?

Honey bees make honey and bees.

Both are very valuable.

You can maximise income in two ways.

You can make more of either (or both) or you can sell them at a higher price.

You might even be able to achieve both.

I’ll deal with these in reverse order …

Maximising the prices of honey and bees

I’ve discussed honey pricing recently. If you’re producing a unique, high quality, well packaged product (and if you’re not, you should be) you need to price it accordingly.

More local honey

That’s not the £4 a pound charged for the imported, blended, filtered, pasteurised, uniform, dull, available-by-the-tonne-anywhere rubbish stuff sold by the supermarkets.

Look in the delicatessens and local artisan outlets … you might be surprised.

£10 a pound is not unreasonable.

£10 a pound is readily achievable.

But let’s not be greedy, let’s assume a very conservative £7.50 a pound.

Local honey

At £7.50/lb the average UK yield of 25lb of honey per hive equates to £687 (for the four hives) after paying out £63 for jars and labels 8

Two factors contribute to the price you can realise for bees (which, for this exercise, means nucleus colonies):

  1. Timing – to maximise the price you need to sell when demand is the highest and supply is limited. This means early in the season. You therefore must overwinter nucs and ensure they are strong and healthy in mid-late April. Four to six weeks later there’s a glut of bees available as colonies start swarm preparation … prices drop precipitously. Nucs are easy to overwinter with a little TLC.
  2. Quality – with a small number of colonies it is not easy to improve your stocks. However, by judicious replacement of poorly-performing queens/colonies you should be able to produce perfectly acceptable bees for sale. Don’t try selling bad bees – chalkbrood-riddled, poorly behaved, patchy brood or diseased (high Varroa, overt DWV etc.).

If you are selling one or more nucs you should expect to allow them to be inspected before the sale. Just like honey tasting, nothing is more convincing than trying the product.

Maximising the amount of honey and bees

All other things being equal 9 stronger colonies will produce more honey and generate more ‘spare’ nucs.

Compare a productive commercial colony and an unproductive amateur colony at the height of the season. What’s the difference?

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

The productive colony is on a double brood box underneath three or four full or rapidly filling supers. There are 16+ frames of brood and the beekeeper has already split off a nuc for swarm control.

In contrast, the unproductive colony has about seven frames of brood in a single brood box topped by an underwhelmingly light super. There’s little chance of producing a spare nuc this season … or much honey.

But at least they might not swarm 🙂 10

Generating these strong colonies requires good genetics and good beekeeping.

With further good management the productive colony could produce another couple of supers of late-season honey and at least one more nuc for overwintering.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

How does that help the bank balance?

Let’s assume an ambitious-but-not-entirely-unrealistic one nuc per colony and 75lb of honey per annum in total (being sold at £175 per nuc and £7.50 a pound for honey). Honey ‘profit’ for the four colonies in our hypothetical apiary works out at £2061 11 with a further £700 for the sale of four nucs at £175 each 12.

That works out at a very much more impressive £690 per colony.

Minimising losses

But wait, surely we have to use some of those valuable nucs to make up for the 25% overwintering colony losses that the average UK beekeeper experiences?

No we don’t 🙂

If you have the beekeeping skills to manage strong colonies you almost certainly also have below average overwintering losses.

And that’s because strong colonies are, almost by definition, healthy colonies which have low mite and virus levels. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, low virus levels means reduced winter losses.

This minimises the need for nucs to maintain overall colony numbers and so maximises the nucs for sale 🙂

For the sake of finishing this already overly long post, let’s assume overwintering colony losses are 12.5% (because it makes the maths easier … 10% or lower is readily achievable) rather than the 25% national average.

That being the case, for our four hive hypothetical apiary, we’ll need one replacement nuc every two years. Therefore, over a four year period we might generate 16 nucs and use just 2 of them to replace lost colonies.

Kerching!

Here are the figures for our hypothetical four colony apiary. These assume good bees, good beekeeping, low winter losses, good forage, good weather and a following wind.

I’ve assumed savings are being made where possible on frames and foundation, but also increased the number of frames (and miticides) needed to reflect colony size and strength.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 7.50 13
Miticides 76.00 14
Food 52.00 15
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 189.00 16 2250.00 17
Nucleus colony 5.00 18 612.50 19
Sub totals 329.50 2862.50
Profit 2533.00

Per colony the overall profit is £633/annum (cf £102/colony/annum for an ‘average’ hive and beekeeper).

These figures are not unrealistic (though they’re not necessarily typical either).

They won’t be achieved every year. They are dependent upon good forage, good weather and having the beekeeping skills needed to maintain strong healthy colonies.

They might be exceeded in some years. With good forage and a good season 100+ pounds of honey per colony can be achieved.

You have no control over the weather 20, but you can influence the other two factors. You can place your bees on better forage and you can continuously try and improve your skills as a beekeeper.

And learning how to maintain (and keep!) really strong healthy productive colonies is demonstrably a very valuable skill to acquire.

E & OE

Just like in the previous article, I’ve made all sorts of assumptions and cut all sorts of corners.

Managing big strong double-brood colonies producing a nuc each every year and topped by at least three supers inevitably means investing in lots more brood boxes, supers and nuc boxes 21.

It also means a lot more work.

Extracting and jarring hundreds of pounds of honey takes time. It also benefits from some automation … an extractor, a creamer, settling tanks, a honey processing room, a warm room for supers etc.

But that lot is not needed for our well-managed four hive hypothetical apiary.

The other things I’ve deliberately omitted are alternative ways of managing colonies for profit. For example, as suggested by Calum in a previous comment, propolis is a very valuable product of the hive. You can split a strong colony very hard to generate 6-10 nucs (but no honey). You can rear queens (very easily) and you can sell wax.

You could even produce Royal Jelly …

And it’s that endless variety and options that make beekeeping so fascinating.


 

 

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Honey pricing

The best way to start beekeeping is to learn by example.

Join an association, go to a Beginning beekeeping’ course over the winter and browse the catalogues.

Get a mentor, buy a nuc of well-behaved local bees in May/June and enjoy yourself.

And talk beekeeping with other beekeepers.

Ask questions, lots of them

In case you’ve not noticed, if there’s enough tea and digestives available, beekeepers can talk a lot. Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get at least five answers 1.

They’ll talk about swarming and queen rearing, about how imports are ruining beekeeping and about hive designs.

They’ll discuss how imported queens head calm and productive colonies and why ‘brood and a half’ is the solution to most beekeeping problems 2.

Some will enthusiastically talk about half-assed DIY ‘solutions’ to barely existent problems or why comparisons between treatment-free beekeeping and anti-vaxxers is unfair 3.

Local honey

They’ll talk about anything, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure.

Well, not quite anything

The observant tyro will notice that there are a few topics on which experienced beekeepers are a bit less opinionated or, er, helpful.

Could you help me requeen my ‘colony of sociopaths’ this weekend?

Can you give me the phone number of the farmer with 40 acres of borage?

How did you prepare that prizewinning wax block for the annual honey show?

How much do you charge for your honey?

And not just unhelpful … they can be downright evasive.

Healthy competition

Topics like these are where beekeeping becomes a competitive pastime (except for the requeening one, which is simply self-preservation).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want the best forage for our bees so that colonies are strong and healthy. We want good nectar sources so that supers are heavy and numerous. We want to win ‘Best in Show’ so we can add the magic words ‘Prizewinning local honey’ to our labels which – for some at least – means we’ll be able to charge a premium for our honey.

Vulture

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But think back to when you were a beginner.

That first year you had a real surplus of honey 4.

After the circling vultures of friends and family had had a jar or two for their porridge/tea/toast or acne 5. After you’ve sold half a dozen jars at the village fete, or to colleagues at work.

When you’ve actually got quite a few jars left over you’d like to sell ‘at the door’, or through an excellent local organic cafe or outstanding artisan cheese shop 6.

How much do you charge for your honey?

Firstly, if you’re in precisely this situation, don’t expect any simple answers here.

But also don’t necessarily expect any straight answer from your beekeeping colleagues.

Assuming you’re not actually dependent upon the income, in a way it doesn’t really matter what you charge. As long as you recoup your costs – jars, labels, petrol, Apivar, fondant etc. – you’ll have a hobby that pays for itself and gives you enjoyment 7.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Except you can.

If you charge £3 a pound and cover your costs you might be able to charge £4.50 a pound and buy a new hive tool.

Or hive.

In your dreams

Or something totally unrelated to beekeeping that you’ve always wanted.

Like a Harley Davidson Softail Fat Boy 😉

Or you could charge £9 a pound and have a busman’s holiday in New Zealand every winter with the Manuka honey farmers.

Or you could charge £12.50 a pound … and sell virtually none of it because the beekeeper down the road is only charging £3 and you can buy *&%$£’s Everyday Essentials honey for 99p 8.

Tricky.

What is the competition?

Not inexpensive

With few exceptions, supermarket honey is cheap. Where there are exceptions it’s because the honey is either inexpensive … or exorbitantly priced Manuka.

Cheap and inexpensive aren’t the same thing at all. The former is produced down to a price, like the jar mentioned above priced just below the psychologically important £1 threshold.

I’d bet that any almost honey produced by a local beekeeper, whatever the forage available, however poorly it had been filtered or presented, would be better than most of these cheap supermarket honeys.

I should note in passing that any comments I make here assume the honey is actually honey (it’s not corn syrup for example) and that it’s not fermenting and hasn’t been overheated during preparation. The first of these regularly occur in the millions of tons of ‘honey’ traded globally each year, whereas the other two are more likely to be problems encountered – or caused – by inexperienced amateur beekeepers.

The inexpensive supermarket honey is (usually) bought and sold in bulk, blended, often nicely labelled and attractively packaged. It’s perfectly good honey. It’ll probably taste OK and it might sell for £3 to £4 for 340 g.

The exorbitantly priced Manuka honey is an oddity. It might well be fake and it tastes pretty awful in my view. It’s a marketing triumph of hype over substance.

So is £4 a jar the baseline?

It depends upon the size of the jar 😉

It also depends upon the effort you are prepared to make on the bottling, labelling and marketing 9.

But you’re not bottling, labelling and marketing bulk produced, blended, imported ‘Produce of EU and non EU countries’.

What you have is a far, far more valuable product than that.

You’ve had complete control over its production from start to finish – from siting the hives, through extracting, storage and jarring.

Local apiary, mid-July 2018

The provenance of the honey is without question.

There’s very few products sitting on supermarket shelves that you could say that about.

It’s very rare. This doesn’t in itself make it valuable. After all,  Ebola is thankfully very rare in the UK. However, for some people (actually many people) buying something that’s not available in every supermarket across the country is a distinct plus point.

It’s rare and its availability is limited because it’s local honey. You’ve not got 5,000 colonies spread over half a dozen postcodes in the county 10. There aren’t barrels of the same stuff in warehouses across the country 11.

What you’ve got is a few buckets of mixed floral honey from about 9 square miles (at most, probably significantly less) of the countryside around your apiary.

Known provenance

And local honey should attract a premium price.

Many people want to buy local produce and eat local food. Their definition of local and the one I use above may not align perfectly. For me, local might be the two shallow valleys and the arable farmland my bees forage in.

For the potential buyer, ‘local’ might be anything within Fife (about 500 square miles).

And Fife has a population of about a third of a million people. Which is a lot of potential customers wanting ‘local’ honey. Which means demand should or could be high.

Which, in turn, increases the price you could sell your honey for.

So, I reckon that £4 a jar is about the lowest amount you should charge.

If you can find small enough jars 😉

The £10 ceiling

But what about slightly larger jars? After all, small jars are a pain to fill. How much can you realistically charge for a one pound (454 g) jar of honey?

At the moment the upper limit seems to be about a tenner.

If you look at ‘high-end’ outlets selling good quality local produce you’ll find that there appears to be an upper price limit of about £10.

Remember that this price includes a shop markup of perhaps 20-30%. After all, they have staff, rent, insurance and other costs to cover.

Which perhaps finally gets near the answer to How much do you (or can I) charge for honey?’

Go and look in local outlets and see what they are charging for truly local honey. Not the (perfectly fine quality) honey from the larger regional suppliers (this isn’t local, it’s regional at best and, more likely, national), but the stuff from individuals within 10-15 miles or so.

Take off the guesstimated markup and that’s a reasonable guide to the price 12.

What?

There isn’t any on the shelves?

This can only mean one of three things:

  • They’ve already sold out because demand is so high = opportunity 🙂
  • There aren’t any local beekeepers selling local honey = opportunity 🙂
  • The shopkeeper has yet to realise the benefits of selling local honey = (yes, you guessed it) opportunity 🙂

I’m going to return to this topic several times over the winter.

In the meantime, back to the borage and that prizewinning wax block …

Oh dear, I’ve just reached 1500 words which is my (oft-ignored) self-imposed cutoff for waffle each week.

Those subjects will have to wait 😉


Note

This post first appeared in October 2019. Please note that the prices quoted are now significantly out of date. Fred on the allotment is still selling his honey at £3/lb but with a little effort he should be selling it at £11-12/lb 😉

The end is nigh

A brief triptych of items this week as I’m struggling with an intermittent broadband connection on the remote west coast 1.

Great view but no signal

There are worse places to be cutoff …

Summer honey

There are no significant amounts of heather in central Fife and there’s none within range of my colonies. Work and other commitments mean it’s not practical to take my colonies to the Angus glens, so when the summer nectar flow finishes so does my beekeeping season.

The summer honey I produce is clear, runny honey. It is best described as mixed floral or blossom honey. In some years it has a significant amount of lime in it.

Lime honey has a greenish tinge and a wonderful zesty flavour. In other years it lacks the lime but is no less delicious.

Honey

Honey

Last year it was “Heinz” honey i.e. 57 varieties. I looked at the pollen content during the excellent Scottish Beekeepers Microscopy course and there was a very wide range of tree and flower pollens, most of which remained unidentified.

What was striking was the relative abundance of pollen in contrast to the ‘control’ samples of supermarket honey. Most of these had probably been subjected to significant filtration during processing.

I’ll return to pollen in honey, and more specifically pollen in local honey shortly.

Following a judicious amount of ‘on the spot’ testing (i.e. dipping my finger into broken honey comb and tasting 😉 ) some of the honey this year has the ‘lime zest’ and, with the flow over, it’s now time to collect it for extraction.

Clearing supers

Towards the end of the summer colonies should be strong. A double brood National hive with three or four supers contains a lot of bees.

To remove the supers it’s first necessary to remove the bees.

Porter bee escape

Some beekeepers use smelly pads to achieve this, some use modified leaf blowers and many use a crownboard with a Porter bee escape (a sort of one-way valve for bees).

I’ve never liked the idea of putting a non-toxic blend of natural oils and herb extracts (the description of Bee Quick) anywhere near my delicately flavoured honey. I know most is capped. However, I want to avoid any risk of tainting the final product.

A leaf blower seems pretty barbaric to me. Shaking bees off the super frames leaves a lot of disorientated bees flying around the apiary. Blasting them halfway to the other side of the field is a poor way to thank them for all their hard work over the last few weeks.

I described the Porter bee escape as a ‘sort of’ one way valve. That’s because they don’t always work dependably. Big fat drones (why were they in the supers anyway?) get stuck, they get jammed with propolis and they’re very inefficient.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I use a simple clearer board with no moving parts, two large ‘entrances’ and two very small ‘exits’. These clear a stack of supers overnight.

I don’t have enough for all my hives 2 so clear a few at a time.

I stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet set at 34°C. This delays crystallisation 3 and significantly improves the efficiency of extraction as the honey flows much more easily.

Honey filled supers

Honey filled supers …

Before leaving the subject of clearing supers it’s worth remembering that colonies can get a bit tetchy once the flow is over. Don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for pinching all their hard earned stores.

In addition, it is very important to avoid spilling honey from broken comb or exposing colonies – particularly weak ones – which may induce robbing.

I prefer to  add the clearers in good weather and then remove the supers in poor weather the following day, or early or late the next day. Both ensure that there are fewer bees about.

Local honey

I get a lot of requests for ‘local honey’. Many of these are to alleviate or prevent hay fever. This is based on the belief that the pollen in honey primes the immune system and prevents the adverse responses seen in hay fever.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting any beneficial effect, the repeated anecdotal evidence is reassuring … and certainly helps honey sales 😉

Le client n’a jamais tort4

And, whether it helps hay fever or not, it certainly tastes good 🙂

I only produce local honey, but am regularly asked for more details.

Where do the bees forage? How far do they fly?

What is local anyway?

British?

Scottish?

Fife?

Certainly not the first two, even if we do all now live in the global village 5Local means ‘the neighbourhood’ or a particular area.

Area, of course, isn’t defined.

It might not even mean Fife. The honey produced from the town gardens in St Andrews or Dunfermline will be different from the honey produced from the small villages in the flat agricultural land of the Howe of Fife.

Fife and Kinross Shires Civil Parish map

And the honey produced in the spring is very different from summer honey, or in different years.

There’s a lot of interest in eating locally produced food. Just consider the millions of posts using the hashtags #eatlocal on Twitter or Instagram.

Artisan shops that sell local produce tend to sell it at a significant premium. That’s something worth remembering 😉 Customers are prepared to pay more because they know something about the provenance of the produce, or they want to be reassured it has not been transported half way across the globe.

For those who want more information about ‘local’ honey, it would be good to be able to provide it – even if they purchase it in a shop 6. For those who don’t, who aren’t interested, or who just want to spread it thickly on toast 7 then the information is superfluous and should not spoil the appearance of the jar or label.

I’ve been toying with solutions to this over the last couple of years. It provides a bee-related diversion during the long winter evenings.

Some of the commercial Manuka honey producers already have a labelling system that incorporates links to this sort of additional information. With a bit of interweb geekery, a suitable server and a functioning broadband connection it should be relatively straightforward to engineer.

Watch this space …

But for the moment this will have to wait … I have honey supers to collect and no functioning broadband 🙁


 

Line ’em up

Honey sold via a third party needs to carry a label with all sorts of information on it 1. A well-labelled jar of honey looks good on the shelves and undoubtedly helps sales.

However, an attractive label does not need to be fancy, printed in colour or expensive to produce. I firmly believe that the contrast between a simple black and white label and the rich golden colour of the honey enhances the appearance of the end product. This helps sales.

Honey

Honey

If you are selling via a shop they are often have more than one type of honey on display. Your honey might well be next to a row of brightly labelled, mass produced (Product of EU and non-EU countries … and we all know what that means), factory packed jars … all looking uniformly – though perhaps blandly – identical.

In contrast you’re selling a top-quality, artisan product that is probably being sold at a premium price.

And if it’s not, it should be.

Artisans and amateurs

Remember that artisan does not mean amateur. It means traditionally produced, high quality and handmade by a skilled tradesman.

Therefore, your honey should not look amateur. If the jar contents look attractive, with no antennae or obvious wax crumbs, and the label is good then the individual jar should be very appealing.

But how do they look half a dozen at a time? All lined up in a row?

If the labels are all higgledy piggledy 2, neither being level on the individual jar or level with its neighbours, then you might not be conveying the impression you want.

Or if you are, you might be able to convey a better impression 😉

Line ’em up

With a steady hand, good lighting and a convenient ‘guide’ it is easy to reproducibly label jar after jar after jar after jar after jar 3 of honey.

I use offcuts of wood laminate flooring as the guide 4. These are available in a range of thicknesses from about 8 to 15mm. For the sizes of jars I use these represent a suitable distance to place place the label from the bottom of the jar.

I ‘offer up’ the label just touching the wood ‘guide’, check that it’s level and centred on the jar, then press it into place with my thumbs.

Labelling honey jars

Labelling honey jars

Four things that help in getting a reproducible finished effect:

  1. Easy peel labels that can be removed and reattached if you get it wrong
  2. Working at a reasonably high table to help with the lateral alignment
  3. Using square rather than round jars
  4. Practice

The square jars really help. More specifically it’s the guide butting up against the side of the jar that helps. If I routinely used round jars I’d cut a semi-circular hole in the edge of the guide – in a choice of sizes reflecting the diameter of the jar – to help align the label.

Once the front label is in place it’s a simple (but repetitive) task to turn the jar around and add the anti-tamper label, unless you’re the type who prefers to ‘trap’ it under the front label … in which case it obviously has to go on first.

Alternative approaches

There was a prize awarded recently at one of the large conventions (perhaps the National Honey Show?) for a lovely handcrafted wooden ‘cradle’ that held the jar and aligned the label. The principle was identical to that described above … just implemented much more elegantly. I thought this was made by Thomas Bickerdike who also produces lovely handcrafted wooden spoons. However, my Google-foo has failed to find it, so if you remember seeing it please post a link below.

Or, for a few hundred pounds, you could buy a labelling machine …


Colophon

Nice to see you ...

Nice to see you …

Line ’em up was a game from US version of the eternally popular game show The Price is Right. Amazingly (have you ever seen it?) this was recently voted the fifth best gameshow of all time.

Extraordinary … but not in a good way.