It’s been a challenging year yet again. With the hot spring, flowers have produced less nectar for the honeybees to collect. In the summer we started hearing from other beekeepers that their bees were not bringing much in, and this continued throughout the summer. One Cambridgeshire beekeeper I spoke to at the end of the summer, who has around 300 hives, said his yield is 40% down on last year, and last year was not great either. Another Norfolk-based beekeeper urged all beekeepers in the UK to check their hives much earlier this year to start feeding them now, something that we have started to do and will do all winter and into early spring.
We invested in new hives this year and located them on a different farm location, so we have two farms with hives now. We also collected our first swarm earlier in the summer. We received a message from someone who was concerned about the bees as after 3 days the swarm hadn’t moved on. By the time we visited, two thirds of the bees were crawling on the floor under the remaining swarm above. We placed a box on the ground and immediately the bees marched in for protection. It was wonderful to see and we were able to relocate them in a new hive in a field next to bean crop. The swarm has done really well to grow from a small size. You can see the frame they had started to fill. It is still a small colony but we will continue to look after the bees during the winter and to help keep them flying and pollinating.
Part of the challenge of finding a new location for our hives was to find a good spot, ideally partially sheltered at the back of the hive and maximising exposure to the sun. We found a fantastic new spot close to some bean crop, with the prospect of acres more bean crop in 2018. One thing I’ve noticed as I was driving to different locations with the (extremely helpful and accommodating) farmer is that there is a lot of wheat and barley crops, acres of woodland too but light on fields of flowers for bees to forage. As far as the eye can see, it’s green and gold which dominates. When we’ve had such dry weather with less nectar being produced, fewer flowers also has a major impact. So this is something we need to think about as we introduce more hives. Lots of farmers will plant wildflower corridors near beehives but this will only provide food for a limited time.
Mike and I were really delighted to join the local Northamptonshire Beekeepers Association for a Bee Health Course. It was a first class day, superbly organised and extremely well attended with over 100 beekeepers joining for the day. The National Bee Unit were demonstrating many aspects of keeping healthy bees: spotting different types of diseases with real life frames as samples; best practise for cleaning hives and also a presentation from the scientist who dissected the Asian hornet nest found in Gloucestershire. Up until attending this course I hadn’t realised what a valuable resource the National Bee Unit is to all beekeepers. If you haven’t already done so, take a look at their website: http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/
2017: we decided in the New Year to invest in some new hives, book on some courses and to immerse ourselves more in beekeeping.
One piece of sage advice is: to get good at beekeeping, you need to have more equipment to grow your colony. That means: more hives, more supers (supers are the shallower boxes that sit on top of the brood box – the supers help provide essential room for a growing colony, they help with swarm control and it is where the surplus honey for beekeepers can be harvested).
We purchased new hives from Simon the Beekeeper. Our first hive was a beautiful cedar national hive, now well-worn, but still functional (and looks lovely too). We have just located one of our new hives on another farm and will post an update once we have established our bees there. Our new hives are called National Density Polyhives and are less expensive and thought to be healthier for bees as they offer good protection, so we wanted to try them out. Mike has been busy painting them and putting the frames together in readiness.
Back to our first hive on the farm nearby. This is our second Spring as beekeepers and still we have lots to learn. We had extremely warm weather this Spring and it has created some early swarms. A couple of weeks ago our mentor, Jeff, said he left the lid off our hive to see if we could attract a swarm. We decided to stop by today to see how the hives (our hive as well as Jeff”s) were doing. We had no intention of opening the hives as it’s too cold (around 15 degrees).
One of the many great things about beekeeping, is the beekeeping community are very generous with their knowledge and time. We always offer our time to Jeff to help out where we can as a way to thank him for his help and it also means we can get hands-on experience at beekeeping.
Today we travelled about 30 miles across the countryside, to a secret location! One that is home to a borage farm (borage flowers are loved by bees and the nectar produces the most delicate, light honey). The borage had just been harvested by the farmer and it was time to harvest the honey. The glorious golden frames, thick and heavy with capped borage honey is the most wonderful sight!
At the start of Spring, all seemed well with our hive. The hive had survived the winter and on a warm day we could see lots of activity outside the hive (we didn’t open the hive as we knew they had plenty of surplus honey to get them through the winter). Our queen had been a super-egg-laying queen. All last year she built her colony at a furious pace and we were delighted, albeit lucky, to have got such a brilliant queen from our mentor.
Shortly after our first Spring visit, we experienced two freak weather events in the space of a few weeks. The first was severe flooding around the farm, the second was a freak winter storm with heavy hail, snow and cold temperatures, which lasted only a day. It concerned me and we checked on the hives after the flood – all was fine. After the snow storm, the hive was quiet. No bee activity at all, the first time we had seen this. I called Jeff our mentor and he said not to worry too much as it was a cool evening and the bees were probably inside doing what they should have been doing – keeping inside and warm.
As it turns out, we did have problems with our hive. On subsequent checks, it became obvious that our queen had stopped laying eggs. Our super queen, had stopped building her colony and the bees were extremely depleted. The reason? It’s not clear. Some beekeepers seem to think it may be the quality of the drones. Queens rely on one mating in the first year to last a few years, and if the drone quality is poor, she may not continue to produce eggs year after year.
Where I live and work in Northamptonshire has been hit by high rainfall and flooding. I checked the weather forecast yesterday and, to be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the flood warning signs as usually they do not effect this area. How wrong I was! On the way to my work I pass by the village where our first hive is located and the flood plains on the road were scary. Then I arrived at work to find all access roads blocked. Add to this I didn’t have any wellies or network coverage, the only way in to work was through the burst stream, jeans rolled up and barefoot!
Here you can see the farm’s tractor blocking the road and how deep the flood waters got. On my way back home I wanted to check on ours and our mentor’s hives. However, the road into the village was completely under water for about a third of a mile. The pictures below show scenes of the road and an adjacent field completely submerged in water. I was forced to turn back and naturally worried about the hives which are located on the other side of the village. I called Jeff our mentor to alert him to the floods in the village. Bee hives are vulnerable to all kinds threats. Varroa mite is a parasite that causes huge devastation to hives as the parasite feeds from the larvae and impacts the bees growth. Habitat loss is another major impact on bee populations and farmers in the UK introduce wildflower margins to help provide nectar rich habitat in addition to the crops they grown. Jeff has lost hives to rats and floods in the past too.
A beautiful weekend at last, after what has felt like a really cool and wet summer. Jeff, our mentor and experienced beekeeper, had indicated that his hives on the farm where ours is, has been producing very little. He also said that ours is the best hive on the site, which means we have a fantastic queen bee, busy laying eggs and producing a growing colony of workers to forage for honey. Despite this, we are unlikely to get any honey this season, so the job today was simply to check the super and try out our new smoker! The ‘super’ is the box that sits on top of the hive and where the bees produce honey. If the super had some honey, Jeff advised that we swap the super and brood box around, thus preparing the bees for autumn and winter and giving them honey to feed on.
We were due to visit the hive this evening, but it was fairly cool so we decided to leave the bees as they would likely not welcome the intrusion as they prepared to cosy up for the night. Jeff invited us to his house instead as he wanted to show us how he extracts his honey and the process of ‘bottling’ or putting it into jars. I was so impressed with Jeff’s set up. He has invested in a sparkly new extractor this year, so it was great to see how the honey is extracted from the frames and a few tips that he gave us that only an experienced beekeeper would know (e.g. he gently heats the frames to remove some of the caps). Jeff has a 5 star rating from the Food Standards Agency and a really neat extraction and storage room. He also showed us how to make up our frames that we have bought, apparently we need some special type of pins, and they have to be put in a particular way. A job for over the winter.
So this is the aim. To have a healthy hive, with bees that thrive. Our bees live on the other side of this hedge, with fields of wildflowers in front of the hive. As you can see, the farmer has been busy. We left our bees for a couple of weeks as it is a young hive and it’s been raining a lot so they needed some time and sunshine to fill up on nectare. To be honest, I visited the bees today with Jeff, our mentor, with a little trepidation. Mike & I were worried about our hive as we didn’t see the queen last time and the wasps have been a real problem this year. Thankfully everything is ok with our bees but the wasps are a problem generally for honey bees and have wiped out an entire NUC (a small box for young bees) next to our hive, killing all the nursery bees who are too young to defend themselves.
A glorious Sunday, after a long period of very wet weather here in the UK. We’ve been on holiday in Norfolk for a week and before we left, Mike visited the hives with Jeff to place a ‘super’ on top of our brood box as our bees are thriving and expanding quickly. As we were still waiting for our new hive, Jeff has loaned one of his brood boxes and supers (the super is an additional section that sits on the first section called the brood box).
We suspected, given the weather, that the bees would not have been too busy. Jeff has said that his hives located near to us are not generating a lot of honey, whereas other hives located elsewhere in the county are doing really well and seem to be enjoying the flowering borage. For us, our expectation from what we have read, is that we will not generate much honey this year.
While we were away our new hive arrived, so today we installed it. Jeff was busy with his grandchildren and Mike and I felt confident enough to move the hive into place. We borrowed Jeff’s smoker and hive tool as we are yet to buy ours.
On arrival at the farm, we met Tim the farmer who is in full harvest mode and today, he said, catching up on a few jobs in between ‘combining’. I introduced myself and he said, “oh you are the bee people!”