30 January 2016

Messing with hard and fast beginners rules

When we learn something new we're often told there is only ever one way to do a certain thing, and we're often expected to perfect that method before trying a different way of achieving the same result.

Beekeeping is like this, to some extent, in that many instructors tell new beekeepers that there is one way, and only one way, of keeping bees - their way - and they can get really annoyed if their trainees don't do as they're told.

There are a lot of examples, let's have a look at a few :-

A new beekeeper must buy a standard National Hive.
Some say this is because that's what most people will be using, so it's easy to get spares and borrow a frame of
eggs - but due to the risks of disease it's not recommended to transfer comb between apiaries. Who could ever forgive themselves if their kind donation turned out to carry foulbrood to a new beekeeper's apiary?
The reality is that once a new beekeeper has two colonies, and enough equipment to carry out swarm control, they should be self-sufficient for equipment.

Making a mistake is expensive; buying the wrong stuff in the first year means selling second-hand boxes at perhaps half the original price - only the supplier wins.

In this area the 'local bees' need more space than a standard national can offer, which means that most experienced beekeepers will house their colonies in brood and a half (brood box plus a shallow) or double brood. It's fine for them, but for a new beekeeper to work through 24 frames during an inspection takes far too long.

All in all It's more sensible these days to buy bigger boxes from the outset - 14x12 National, Commercial or Langstroth.

A new beekeeper should buy Carniolans, they're gentle, productive and easy to learn on.
Carnies may be gentle, and they may be productive - but they are a bit like a Leylandii so will quickly grow to fill their allotted space, and will continue to grow until they are ready to swarm. Will a brand new beekeeper know how to deal with a colony that wants to swarm during their first months of keeping bees, or will they phone their swarm liaison person and ask if their bees can be collected from the top of the nearest tall tree?

Once the original queen is lost her daughter will mate with local drones, so the still-fairly-new beekeeper will have a hybrid queen. Some hybrid queens, especially second generation hybrid queens, can be quite nasty so it's better, surely, to get a truly local colony from either another beekeeper or from a truly local supplier that doesn't buy in the cheapest queens available from dealers in other countries.

A new beekeeper should buy the most expensive beekeeping clothing available.
It would be wonderful if we all had equally deep pockets, but we don't, and so there have to be economies. Beekeeping clothing comes in many shapes and forms, from just a hat and veil to a full zipped suit.

The most important thing is to buy the right size - not too small - and to have confidence that whatever is worn will provide adequate protection if something goes wrong, or if the bees are having a bad day.

The absolute minimum protective clothing should be a veil, to protect the eyes from that one guard bee that takes a dislike to the beekeeper, and decent footwear in case one of those heavy boxes slips from your hands.

A new beekeeper should buy bees from the nearest supplier.
It depends on where the nearest supplier sources their bees!

A new beekeeper should expect to go gloveless within the shortest possible time.
Why? It isn't brave, and it isn't smart, to pressurise others into doing something they don't want to do, and anyway bees tickle and propolis leaves nasty stains - which is why this beekeeper has no intention of ever going without gloves.

If somebody wants to inspect my bees bare-handed then they're more than welcome to do so, but I don't expect them to feel superior when I pull on my nitriles!

Apiaries must be close to water.
Okay, so bees do need water to dilute their stored honey, but does the average beekeeper really need to provide a source or water within a yard or so of their hive?

Look around you, and look at a map of the British Isles. How far away is the nearest drainage ditch, shady mossy area beneath a tree, or blocked house gutter?

Our small apiary's bees will drop to the ground just outside their hives and collect water from the bottom of grass stalks and from moss. They will also take water from a neighbouring garden pond, so I've never felt the need to give them their own special birdbath filled with pebbles.

If in doubt, give your bees some syrup.

During an inspection a beekeeper should check that a colony has enough stores to last until the next inspection. This applies at any time of the year, and includes Spring, Summer and Autumn. In the autumn a colony may need to have enough stores to last for five or six months, but in Spring and Summer it's more likely to be only a week.

Adding a light (1:1) syrup can be useful once a swarm has been without food for three days, and it can be necessary to feed a split or a shook swarmed colony to help speed up wax making, but how much food does an average colony eat in a week if it can't get outside to forage? - About 5lbs, and if you add up everything that's in the top corners of brood frames there should be enough.

In late summer or early autumn a colony may need to be given heavy (2:1 sugar:water) syrup, to top up their stores once a beekeeper has removed supers, but no responsible beekeeper will take all a colony's stores. Don't forget that ivy tends to flower from September onwards, bees have evolved to take this bounty home and use in their winter larder - where will they put it if their home is full of stored syrup?

Fondant can be useful during the colder months. It won't ferment or go mouldy and can be left on the top bars right through to Spring.

Pollen and pollen substitute can be fed to encourage brood rearing, especially useful to build up colonies that will be taken to an early crop of Oil Seed Rape - but a dodgy thing to do in most apiaries, because the bigger colony will need more food than nature provides in Spring.

A queen almost always needs somewhere to lay, and a 'brood-blocked' colony - caused by overfeeding - can abscond, leaving a puzzled beekeeper with an empty hive.

Buy x book, I read it when I was a new beekeeper so it must be good.
Why? Why is something that was written ten, twenty, thirty or forty or so years ago 'good'? Has beekeeping changed since it was published, and if so how?

Carefully used, and the key word is 'carefully', the internet can be a brilliant resource for beginner beekeepers, and also non-beginners who want to keep their beekeeping knowledge up to date.

It really is a case of caveat lector though, because not everything on the internet is true, although some things on the internet are there to encourage readers to question 'facts'. This blog post is one of those!

Always do exactly what your mentor says.
Please, no, not unless you trust your mentor absolutely otherwise the consequences can be disastrous for you and your bees.

The most important thing a new beekeeper needs to learn is to think things through, to do nothing with or to their bees without fully understanding the consequences, and then have the courage of their convictions to know that what they are doing is the right thing to do - for them, and for their bees.


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