Category Archives: Imports

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.


 

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”.

Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Wake up and smell the coffee

The BBKA’s Worker Bee newsletter last week makes a brief reference to the health risks to UK beekeeping associated with importing bees infested with Small Hive Beetle (SHB) …

Worker Bee statement on SHB

Worker Bee statement on SHB

… a very brief reference. It’s particularly disappointing that they don’t even take the opportunity to emphasise their opposition to honeybee imports. This newsletter will have been distributed to the recently signed-up trainee beekeepers who have taken courses in the 2014/15 winter. These new beekeepers, quite understandably, want their own bees as soon as possible and may buy imports, perhaps unknowingly.

I have written extensively on the risk posed to beekeepers from the importation of SHB and the damage I think cheap imports do to the quality of UK beekeeping. If you’re a beginner reading this please try and source a local raised nuc, even if it means you have to wait a couple more weeks for bees. Ask the following simple questions:

  • do you know where the nuc originated from? Many nucs are exported from Southern Italy to France for subsequent selling-on.
  • wouldn’t you prefer bees adapted to the local conditions in your area? You’re also more likely to get advice and support from a local beekeeper you buy a nuc from.
  • do you really need bees in late March/early April? It’s often too cold to inspect them properly and a nuc acquired in mid/late May will build up just as well and may even give you honey from the summer nectar flow.

SHB has never been eradicated from any country it has been imported to. Where known, importation has previously occurred with queens, bees or bee-related products and equipment. The National Bee Unit reviewed the most likely route of importation to the UK and reported that – big surprise – it is with queens, bees or bee-related products and equipment.

Buy local bees … please!

 

Supply and demand

I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the quality of beekeeping in the UK. I think the beekeeping associations – national and local – should do more to discourage imports, that they should strongly encourage rearing local bees, and that they should have more emphasis on promoting the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping in the UK.

This post was going to be called something like “Benefits of a ban” but I think the present title better reflects the problems in UK beekeeping and my views that readily available imported bees actually reduces the standard of beekeeping in the UK. The ban mentioned in the provisional title refers of course to a (potential at the time of writing) ban on the importation of bees and queens due to the recent discovery of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) in southern Italy.

Will there be a ban on imports and is this post relevant if there is no ban?

The European Union allows free trade between member states. However, it might be possible to impose a ban temporarily under Article 36 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows import restrictions for “the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants”. However, whether there is a ban imposed to prevent SHB entering the country or not, I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the standard of beekeeping in the UK.

Executive summary

This is a longer-than-usual article, so here’s a summary in four easy-to-digest points:

  • Thousands of queens and packages of bees are imported into the UK annually to meet the demands of; i) newly trained beekeepers, ii) beekeepers who lose stocks overwinter, or iii) beekeepers wanting to increase of improve their stocks.
  • Our temperate climate provides a five month window for queen rearing. This creates a supply and demand problem, with maximum demand at a time when supply is limited. Cheap imported bees and queens act as a disincentive to rebalance this supply and demand.
  • If imports were not available we would have to become better beekeepers, raising more nucs for overwintering, managing and meeting expectations for newly trained beekeepers, improving colony health and hence overwintering success and raising many more quality locally bred queens. Conversely, if the supply and quality of local bees and queens was better in the UK there would be fewer imports needed. We are in a Catch22 situation.
  • Sustainable UK beekeeping (i.e. beekeeping that is no longer reliant on imports) does not mean reductions in numbers of colonies or numbers of beekeepers. Instead it requires, and would result in, an improvement in practical beekeeping skills.

That’s it in a nutshell … however, if you want the unabridged version, read on.

Beautiful ...

Local bees

Introduction and disclaimers

I would support a ban on the importation of bees and queens … not only from Italy, but from other countries as well. My primary reason in supporting such a ban is to restrict the chance that Small Hive Beetle (SHB) will arrive here. I fully appreciate that there are some commercial beekeeping operations that would likely be decimated by such a ban. In particular, it would destroy the business model of the commercial suppliers of early season queens and nucleus colonies (nucs). This is clearly undesirable on an individual basis and I regret the impact a ban would have on the livelihood of the individuals concerned. However, I consider this business model exploits underlying weaknesses in UK beekeeping and a ban would have long-term benefits in the creation of better beekeepers practising a more sustainable type of beekeeping in the UK.

My support for a ban is not to increase the number of queens I sell each season. My queen rearing is very much a hobby-sized activity, limited by my full-time employment, unpredictable deadlines and regular absences on the conference circuit. In many seasons – 2014 being a case in point – I barely generated enough queens for my own use. I would gain nothing from a ban on imports. In contrast, I think UK beekeepers and beekeeping have a lot to gain from becoming more self-sufficient.

UK imports of bees and queens

Annual imports

Annual imports …

Thousands of queens raised overseas are imported to the UK every year. In 2014 alone nearly 10,000 queens were imported from Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Cyprus (only listing the countries from which >1000 queens were imported). In addition a further 580 nucs and 1402 ‘packages’ were imported. I’m assuming that the National Bee Unit (NBU) defines a package in the same way they do in the USA – a mesh-sided shipping box containing 1-2kg of bees and a caged queen. 2014 saw the greatest number of imports of the last 8 years and there has been a steady increase since 2007, with queen imports only numbering less than 5000 in 2011. Why is demand so high?

Demand

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Beekeeping has seen a recent rise in popularity, with hundreds of new beekeepers being trained every year in associations across the country. Many courses recruit 30-50 trainees each winter. Not all these fledgling beekeepers will end up getting their own bees – some accompany partners, some discover they’re allergic to stings and some are horrified the first time they’re suited up and standing next to an open hive – however, many of them do. Inevitably this generates a large demand for nucs early in the season to satisfy the enthusiasm of these new trainees. I was no different … I completed a course between January and March and then waited impatiently for a nuc to be ready. I bought a 5 frame nuc headed by an imported queen from an association member and started my beekeeping in mid-May. Demand for imports is likely to be generated by new trainees, compounded by the recent increase in the popularity of beekeeping and the timing of ‘Begin Beekeeping’ courses.

Annual colony losses

Annual colony losses

Over the last 7 years overwintering colony losses in England have averaged about 20% with – unsurprisingly – the greatest losses during the hardest/longest winter (2012/13). Inevitably some beekeepers, particularly those who are inexperienced or who have only one hive, might lose all their colonies. The most significant cause of overwintering colony loss is high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and the consequent high level of pathogenic viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus. Understandably, enthusiastic beekeepers want to replace their overwintering losses, again driving up demand for bees early in the season.

I think there are additional potential causes of demand, though these are perhaps spread throughout the season. These are beekeepers a) wanting to increase their stocks or b) improve their stocks by replacement of an existing queen with a particular strain chosen for perceived docility, honey yield or a number of other reasons. There may also be additional demand to replace failing queens – drone layers for example – often identified when the colony is first opened in spring. Enthusiastic newcomers to beekeeping (perhaps entering their second year) as well as beekeepers who have had bees for many years probably contribute to this demand for imported bees and queens to increase or improve stocks.

In addition to the demand from ‘amateur’ beekeepers there is additional demand from some bee farmers, by which I mean individuals who make some or all of their living from honey production and pollination services (rather than individuals who import bees for resale). For example, £200,000 was provided by the Scottish government to import package bees after the 2012/13 winter. I know some bee farmers are entirely self-sufficient, raising queens and nucs to make increase, to replace their own losses and to sell if there is excess. However, with the exception of the large number of packages imported to Scotland over the last two years I have no idea how many bee farmers are reliant on imports. Since hobby beekeepers far outnumber bee farmers I will restrict the majority of my comments to this sector – a group that presumably also includes all newcomers to beekeeping.

Supply

Where do bees come from? In the absence of imports the demand for new queens, nucs and colonies would have to be met by taking advantage of the natural ways that bees reproduce i.e. by splitting strong colonies that are at risk of swarming, by capturing swarms that escape and by forcing the bees to raise one or more new queens by making a colony queenless (or at least think it’s queenless). Since splitting colonies reduces the foraging workforce it may impact on the amount of honey generated; in a normal season a beekeeper generally must choose between making new bees or making honey from any one colony.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

The rate limiting step in making new bees is the provision of newly mated queens. This generally requires warm, settled weather and fertile drones. In this area (the Midlands) we sometimes have suitable weather in April, but rarely have mature drones until May. In contrast, it’s not unusual to have both drones and good weather in September. Therefore home-grown bees – whether mated queens, nucs (and possibly swarms) – should be readily available in the five months May to September. Inevitably these dates cannot be precise – it’s good to let a newly mated queen demonstrate a good laying pattern which takes 7-14 days after she first gets going. Over the last five years the earliest and latest dates I’ve had queens mated on was about the 22nd of April and September respectively.

Mid- to late May or early June is probably 4-6 weeks too late for the peak demand for new queens and nucs. It’s during this critical early season period that overwintering losses and failed queens are detected, it’s the time when keen new beginners want their first bees and when the more experienced want to increase their colony numbers to exploit on the summer flows. The supply of locally-raised bees is currently unlikely to meet this early season demand due to weather restrictions on queen mating.

How can we better match supply and demand?

Or, more importantly, how do we match supply and demand without resorting to imported bees and queens every year? This is unlikely to be solved overnight, but there are several very obvious solutions that would help both meet the demand and improve local beekeeping.

Matching supply and demand requires a combination of increasing supply and reducing demand at critical points in the season. Effectively this should result in supply and demand balancing out over the course of the season. I suspect that the overall demand for new bees and queens could be relatively easily met from locally, or at least UK-raised, bees and queens. However, our temperate climate limits supply at the time of current highest demand. This needs to be addressed to achieve sustainability in UK beekeeping. Dealing with the four types of demand identified above in turn, here are some potential solutions:

  1. Bees for beginners. One obvious solution would be for associations to only train as many beekeepers as they can realistically provide overwintered nucs for the following spring. This would have a number of immediate benefits. It would generate revenue for the association members who provided the nucs. The revenue might also be shared with the association who trained the new beekeeper – they after all ‘created’ the buyer – potentially offsetting the financial losses of a reduction in the total numbers taking the training course. Furthermore, as established members recognise the annual demand from new trainees and invest in the equipment and skills needed to provide the nucs, increased numbers of beginners could again be accommodated on winter training courses. Since the nuc would be provided from locally-raised bees, they should be from a trusted and disease-free source, suited to local conditions and they could be inspected before purchase. If the nuc was overwintered the queen would presumably be well-established and her quality would be obvious. If the nuc was generated early in the same season the beginner would have to wait a little longer, but could be mentored during this period, even working alongside the experienced beekeeper to generate the nuc and monitor its development. Mentoring of beginners and their nucs (and in due course colonies) should then be extended throughout the first season to include the important preparation for overwintering, which takes us to the second cause of high early season demand for new queens and nucs.
  2. Bees to replace overwintering losses. Some losses are perhaps inevitable. However, they can certainly be minimised by good preparation for the winter. This starts as early as midsummer by careful attention to the following points; queen vigour, colony health, stores and the hive. Taking these in the reverse order, it goes without saying that the hive should be watertight, secure and protected against damage (for example, from grazing stock or woodpeckers). There should be sufficient stores present in the hive, either from syrup or fondant fed early enough and generously enough for the brood box to be stuffed at the beginning of winter. Knowing  when to start feeding requires experience – too soon and you’re needlessly increasing your expenditure (the bees will still be foraging), too late and the colony may not lay down enough stores and so starve overwinter. During the winter it is also essential to ensure that the stores are not exhausted, by regularly ‘hefting’ the hive and providing fondant as required. It’s critical that the health of the colony is good going into the winter. This primarily means monitoring the Varroa mite numbers regularly during the season, minimising the mite load in August/September – to help raise a generation of bees for overwintering with low viral loads – and treating again in mid-winter during the broodless period to further reduce mite numbers. Weak colonies in mid/late summer are unlikely to overwinter well – there’s little point in mollycoddling them and (assuming they are healthy) it is almost always better to cull the queen and unite them with a stronger colony instead. The stronger colony will benefit and the weak colony, even if it did survive, would have been slow to develop in the spring. Finally, young vigorous queens generally lay later into the autumn, overwinter better and lay earlier and more strongly the following spring. Therefore it makes sense to replace ageing queens in the summer, rather than risk losing the colony due to her failing in the winter. This doesn’t necessarily mean culling her … she could be moved to head a nuc for overwintering for example, keeping a desirable line going for queen rearing the following season. Ted Hooper (in Guide to Bees and Honey) was a strong advocate of the benefits of young queens for overwintering success, recommending requeening in early September.
  3. Making increase. With a little planning and preparation it is possible to exploit the natural tendency of strong colonies to swarm in April-June to make increase. Although this might reduce honey yield it works with the bees to increase colony numbers. With experience, it’s usually possible to split a well-timed nuc from a strong colony without significantly impacting nectar gathering, with the nuc likely to build up to a full colony for overwintering. In addition, any area with reasonable numbers of beekeepers (and just look on BeeBase to see how saturated your local area is … there are 207 apiaries within 10km of my main out apiary) is likely to yield a number of swarms that will need collecting or can be caught in bait hives. If you divide colonies about to swarm or collect/attract swarms you might end up with swarmy bees, and you have no control of the quality of bees you acquire. However, queen rearing is not difficult and it is easy to requeen swarmy colonies or swarms of dubious quality … which takes us neatly on to improvement of stock.
  4. Stock improvement. Why is an open-mated queen purchased in early May for £40 and flown 1600 miles from Southern Italy likely to be better quality than a locally-bred queen from an association member or group who have been rearing queens in the area for several years, culling their poorest stocks and breeding from their best? Which queen is more likely to raise brood that suits the local environment? Which queen is likely to head a colony with the correct balance of stores and bees to overwinter best? Which queen is more likely, in due course, to yield daughter queens that better suit your local environment, that are placid and exhibit other desirable traits? I have no doubt that a locally raised quality queen would usually be better than an imported queen. However, not all locally raised queens are of good enough quality. This takes us onto the benefits to UK beekeepers of practising sustainable beekeeping.
Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Benefits of sustainable (i.e. no imported bees) beekeeping

If an imported queen cost £500 and package was double that there would be a healthy market for local bees and queens. It would be too expensive to rely on imports to make up for overwintering losses. Beginners would happily wait a week or two or three extra for a locally-raised nuc. What if they were even more expensive than that? What if they were priced beyond the reach of any beekeepers? Or what if imports of any bees were banned entirely? If this were the case there would be real pressure for UK beekeepers to generate sufficient numbers of good quality nucs and queens to meet demands throughout the season. This would involve more beekeepers overwintering nucs to make up losses, to make increase or to sell on in the spring. It would result in more beekeepers learning some of the easy methods of queen rearing (not those involving grafting, mini-nucs or instrumental insemination), so they could become self-sufficient, and would encourage individuals or groups to undertake active stock improvement to raise much better quality queens.

Overwintering Everynuc

Overwintering Everynuc

Nucs are more difficult to overwinter than full colonies. But not much more difficult. They have limited space for stores and the winter cluster is smaller. However, high quality poly nucs are now available from a number of suppliers and provide much better insulation to the colony, reducing the rate at which stores are consumed and increasing overwintering success rates. With UK-raised overwintered nucs costing up to £195 in recent years from reputable commercial suppliers the cost of the actual nuc would very soon be recouped even if sold on within the association at a more reasonable cost. If more beekeepers learned how relatively easy it was to prepare and successfully overwinter a couple of nucs it would go some way to meeting the early season demand for bees.

Record keeping

Record keeping …

Most swarm control methods can be readily modified to split a colony, with the queenless ‘half’ raising a new queen in due course. All it requires is a minimum of additional equipment, an appreciation of the timing of the egg-larvae-pupae cycle and the necessary weather and drones for successful queen mating. It also requires reasonable quality bees to avoid propagating unpleasant stock. There’s no point in generating bees that run frantically over the frames, that have a lousy brood pattern, that are aggressive or – my least favourite trait – that follow for hundreds of yards. Any of these take the pleasure out of beekeeping, if combined they are a nightmare (but certainly not unknown). This requires that individuals improve their record keeping, they should improve how they judge their colonies and should then select from their best stock to raise new queens. This doesn’t mean they necessarily have to split (and so weaken) their best colonies … it simply means taking a frame of eggs from their best colony and placing it into a well-populated nuc, then ensuring that queen cells are only raised from the introduced frame of eggs. These small changes in beekeeping practice will enable individual beekeepers to make increase without resorting to imported bees and will – over time – improve both their stocks and their beekeeping.

Queen rearing diary

Tom’s Tables …

Finally, relatively few individual beekeepers keep sufficient numbers of colonies to undertake rational or large scale queen rearing and strain improvement. I certainly don’t. I don’t know how many colonies would be required to start this process off but would suspect it would be at least 50 or perhaps double that number. However, beekeepers with even a handful of colonies can improve their stocks year by year. By routinely selecting from bees with desirable traits for queen rearing and rigorously culling queens with undesirable characteristics – I’ve heard it suggested that the worst 25-30% of stocks should always be requeened – the overall quality of the bees will improve. However, a small group of like-minded beekeepers would easily be managing the 50-100 colonies between them necessary to start more ambitious stock selection. The resources for actually raising queens are relatively limited and could be undertaken in several different apiaries if needed. They would need to agree the quality criteria to judge their colonies against and would need to undertake some joint inspections to decide the desirable lines to keep and the undesirable lines to cull. Groups working together like this already exist, for example several groups work like this in the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

Conclusions

Soft set and clear honey

One of the end products

Beekeeping is not difficult. It’s a hugely engrossing pastime in which the best results are achieved by working with the bees, not against them or by forcing them. Quick fixes, such as importing queens early in the season, reduces the requirement for good bee husbandry and the need to be observant and gradually improve your stock. Although I think that imports should be banned to limit the chances of small hive beetle reaching the UK, I think a far greater benefit of such a ban would be the resulting improvements in the quality of UK beekeeping. These improvements are not achieved by taking more exams or qualifications. They are almost all practical skills, readily acquired by observation, good record keeping, talking with your friends and learning from more experienced beekeepers already practising sustainable beekeeping.

I would like to see national and local associations more actively promoting the benefits of locally-raised bees. These are the organisations that should be coordinating efforts to become less reliant on imported bees, that should be teaching the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping and that will eventually also benefit from improvements in beekeeping in this country.


Additional resources

Readers interested in some of the ideas above should consider attending one of the BIBBA-organized Bee Improvement for All Days this winter. The goal of these workshops is to encourage “beekeepers of all abilities to improve their bees, using simple techniques without the need for specialist equipment“.

Michael Palmer gives a great talk on sustainable beekeeping. You can watch his talk (The Sustainable Apiary) at the 2013 National Honey Show on YouTube or perhaps see him in person at the Somerset Beekeepers 2015 Lecture Day on the 21st of February.

Time to ban bee imports?

Small Hive Beetle

Small Hive Beetle

The West Sussex Beekeepers Association have proposed the following motion to the BBKA Annual Delegates Meeting (ADM) in January “Following the discovery of Small Hive Beetle, Aethina tumida, (SHB) in Italy in September 2014 this ADM instructs BBKA to urgently seek a ban on the importation of bees and unprocessed bee products into the U.K”. Further details can be found in their newsletter (under the heading Jim’s Jottings, from the illogically named Jim Norfolk, Chairman of the West Sussex BKA). The full proposition from West Sussex BKA, the supporting notes and the response from the BBKA Executive Committee can be found here on the Beekeeping Forum. The Executive Committee of the BBKA does not support the proposition – as summarised in the sentence “At this point in time the Executive does not consider it appropriate to seek or it be possible to achieve a ban on the importation of honey bees and unprocessed honey bee products and does not support the proposition“.

There is little justification explaining why the BBKA Executive Committee do not consider it appropriate to seek a ban on imports. As explained in a recent post, the National Bee Unit have conducted a risk assessment (in 2009) which concluded that “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction [of SHB] was the movement and importation of honey bees”.

Time is short … discuss this with your association

Please discuss the potential introduction of SHB and how it might be prevented with your own local association. If you feel strongly about it persuade your delegate at the January BBKA ADM to support the motion proposed by the West Sussex BKA. Remember that the UK imports thousands of queens and bees from Europe every year, many are from Italy, but others are from countries like France that also import thousands of queens and bees from Italy. Do you know where the nuc you or enthusiastic beginners purchased in April/May originated from?

The precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is that there “is a social responsibility to protect the [public or environment] from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result“. There is a plausible risk of SHB entering the UK during the importation of bees. Until evidence is provided to the contrary – presumably by the BBKA and others who do not support a ban on bee imports – the precautionary principle should be applied.

The Native Irish Honey Bee Society has “calling for an immediate ban on imports of honey bees on animal health protection grounds“. Malta has already banned imports from Southern Italy. The Local Association Secretaries of the SBA have discussed the threat of SHB where there was considerable support for the following proposition “The SBA urges that all possible measures are taken to prevent the introduction of small hive beetle into the UK. These should include a cessation of trade in live bees from the rest of Europe for 2015 until the true spread of the pest is better known“. The Welsh BKA are discussing the issue shortly.

Eradication after arrival …

With the exception of the introduction of SHB to Portugal in 2004, no country has managed to eradicate the beetle after it has been introduced. In Portugal the beetle was introduced as larvae with a single shipment of queens (illegally) imported from Texas to a single apiary. All colonies in the apiary were destroyed and the ground was ploughed up and soaked in insecticide. Rather than rely on the contingency plans and sentinel apiaries in the UK to detect the beetle after arrival we should use the age-old doctrine of prevention being better than cure … we should do our best to stop the beetle getting here in the first place.

Other benefits of a ban on imports

Decreased reliance on imported bees and queens is likely to significantly benefit UK beekeeping in the long run. We may have to alter the way we train beginners, we might have to do a lot more autumn requeening, we might have to improve our integrated pest management, we will have to increase local queen rearing activities … however, none of these are insurmountable problems and all are likely to improve the quality of UK beekeeping. Bees and queens might become more expensive, but only until local association queen and nuc rearing activities have geared up to cope with the additional demand. I would think that any increase would be insignificant if compared to the cost of lost colonies should SHB arrive and become established in the UK. I accept that there might be issues for commercial beekeepers, but am unconvinced that a business model that relies upon cheap imports is sustainable in the long-term.

Further details on the biology of Small Hive Beetle can be found in this recent Current Zoology paper (PDF download) written by NBU scientists.