While we’re only just into autumn here in England and there are still more than a couple of weeks left of 2019, the beekeeping year has come to an end. Suddenly activity on the farm shifts its focus from almost constant bee-related work, to broader maintenance, improvements and our other workshops (and my favourite time of the gardening calendar!).
When the temperature drops below 14 degrees and the colder, wetter weather sets in, we no longer inspect our bees so as to help them maintain the critical, consistent core brood temperature of 36 degrees celsius. Having me poking around in there doesn’t help them with that when it’s cold and wet outside!
But, my, what a year it’s been… and not by any means all positive. As the rest of the year for us is about repairing hives, cleaning equipment as part of our integrated disease management program and preparing for the Spring when it all starts again, I thought I’d do a wrap up of the year so far…
We do check on the bees and treat them against varroa and the viruses that the varroa mite spreads, but both of these are done without opening up the hives, so it doesn’t make for especially interesting updates! I will record a video showing how and why we treat against varroa, using organic, natural methods (as opposed to chemical), when we do so later in the year.
Sadly we have already lost a couple of colonies to varroa this year. Some beekeepers believe it is a sign of weakness to admit when you have issues with disease, however, one of the key things I’ve learnt from studying the Master Beekeeper program with Cornell University in NY, is that honesty is a much safer policy. I hope that our honesty encourages others to share best practice; to be transparent when the potential for spreadable diseases occurs, and to bring the beekeeping community closer together. Far too much focus is put on the size of the operation (“how many hives do you have?”) and not nearly enough about the health and strength of the bees themselves. That’s an important distinction to make because all honeybees are struggling with more diseases than ever before.
Varroa is a host mite that finds its way into a hive on the back of a honeybee. Once inside it finds an open cell with a recently hatched egg and developing larvae inside and hides in the brood food. When the honeybees cap (or cover) the cell with wax to allow the larvae to pupate, the mite bites into the developing pupae to feed off its developing fat reserves. The result is a weakened bee but also a bee that because of the bite wounds is infected with various viruses. The varroa mite lays multiple eggs inside that cell in order to procreate and when the honeybee emerges, the mites are released and the virus is spread throughout the colony. Now imagine this one example on a scale of thousands at any one given time.
It’s a challenging situation to manage and one that the honeybee itself has ways of self regulating, to an extent. However, it quickly gets out of control and that is when our intervention is critical. Studying the Master Beekeeper program puts me in a wonderful position to be learning the very latest results from scientific studies and also from some of the most respected and intellectual contributors to the bee and insect community, to help continually improve our operation. Remember that I didn’t become a commercial honeybee farmer for honey; rather to help reverse the decline of the honeybee in Britain – my intention was entirely environmental. When our efforts result in the opposite effect; when colonies die, it is especially distressing.
To balance some of the health struggles, we now have all of our colonies installed with native, British honeybees with extremely strong progeny to the original, dark, English honeybee. I made the decision to stop using imported honeybees earlier in the season because of the potential biosecurity risks; the carbon footprint issues but also the nonsensical use of honeybees from other countries when we have a native honeybee that is adapted to our climate, but because it fell out of favour by beekeepers preferring exotic imports, is now quite rare. We’re looking forward to championing these native bees and to proudly showing them to those visiting the farm in 2020. Unlike what most people think of when they think of honeybees (orange and black), the native honeybee to Britain is almost entirely black – a very dark bee. I suspect we’ll see more of them flying in the colder days, too.
We welcomed Cat to the farm! Our new Farm Manager is called Cat so you may well speak to her on the phone or by email if you’re booking a workshop, or ordering corporate gifting honey.
I’ve been doing much more TV again this year and as a result have been able to showcase wonderful, British honey as a product worth sourcing. In fact, when James Martin and Brian Turner tried our Velvet Set honey on ITV’s Saturday Morning with James Martin and viewers saw and heard on their faces just how much they loved it, we sold out within 15 minutes!
Fortunately we had a great Spring honey crop, which is used to make our Velvet Set, velvety soft set honey, so there is plenty in stock now!
Time is something that has been a challenge this year. An unseasonably warm start to the year meant the size of the colonies started growing much quicker than usual as the queen began laying as early as February. This was followed by a wet April, which kept the (now quickly growing) colonies inside the hives for longer periods of time and so by the time the weather warmed again, they were quick to swarm as they had run out room. On one day I collected nine swarms when I had only gone to do a couple of general inspections.
Then of course we had hot – and I mean HOT – days. Stood dressed in a boiler suit, head to toe, inspecting colonies, lifting heavy 30kg honey boxes and hive parts was not pleasant. They were long days and when so much work goes into ethically caring for our bees, helping them to manage diseases, and then processing the honey (see below), it surprises me that people will happily spent £10 or more on a bottle of wine, or £15 or more on artisan chocolates, yet will baulk at a jar of honey that costs more than £5.
We’ll be reducing the size of our honey jars slightly, in order to bring the cost per jar down in the hope to help support the sale and consumption of 100% British honey; a taste like no other – it really is some of the world’s most delicious honey.
This also meant that for the first time this year we weren’t able to keep up with the individual adoption update videos and so, reluctantly, we have removed them as an option, making our hive adoption plans more accessible because the price is now lower yet the benefits are almost all the same as before. Without worrying about letting our clients down, it means we can still offer our hives for adoption; still provide you with the many CSR benefits (and honey!), but gives us more time to focus on the bees and getting the British honeybee operation fully up and running.
2019 was an odd year for honey. We didn’t harvest as much honey as 2018 because of focusing on changing the breeding to the native honeybee but in the long term I believed that this was ethically and environmentally the right thing to do. It’s also the more expensive, but as I learnt when we first started this environmentally friendly journey, being kind to the planet can be insanely expensive. But it’s the right thing to do.
A very quick overview of what is involved in the honey you see in your jar might be useful here as bring this update to a close. Throughout the beekeeping season when the bees are active, from around late March through to the beginning of October, I check them roughly once a week. This is critical and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise – it is our responsibility as beekeepers to check for disease and prevent the spreading of it; to ensure honeybee health. That can take as little as 10 minutes, or as long as 40 minutes depending on what needs to be seen or done in response to what’s going on in the hive. Multiply everything you’re reading out by 80 hives at the beginning of the year! As the season goes on, more equipment is added to each hive in order to provide the growing colony with the room it needs, and that extra room is where honey is stored. Those boxes can weigh upwards of 30kg each and need to be lifted off one by one each week in order to continue to check the main colony in the box where they live, underneath. Then replaced.
Almost every colony requires treatment for Varroa and some require additional food because, for a number of potential reasons, they may be weaker. That’s my responsibility, too. All of this time and equipment is additional expense. When the honey is ready to be harvested, a clearing board is placed onto each hive, which acts as a one-way valve helping to clear the bees from the box with the honey in it. I return 36 hours later to remove those honey boxes, taking them back to the farm.
There we cut away the wax mappings, spin the honey out of the frames and take those wet and sticky, honey-less frames back to the beehive for the bees to clean them up. I return to those beehives several days later to take those empty boxes away again to prevent potential pests such as wax moth from taking up residence. Back in the honey barn, that honey is filtered, pumped into a settling tank and several days later jarred. Unless it’s early Spring honey, in which case it gets stirred for 15 minutes, every 4 hours, for at least 24 hours – and then jarred. All of the equipment now needs cleaning down ready for the next harvest later in the year and the wax pieces that were removed to get to the honey are melted down and filtered and used by candle makers. That equipment then needs cleaning, too.
This is a very quick overview – and it already feels laboured! Love your raw honey, enjoy it for its amazing taste and myriad health benefits and please be proud to pay more for your jar.
I know we had more problems this year shipping honey out but I think, right at the end, we finally cracked it. There’s a particular box and packaging method we’ve started using and since then we haven’t had any breakages! Yet!! Here’s to no more sticky messes arriving at your offices!
It’s been an exhausting year; probably the hardest I’ve known.
If our efforts weren’t resulting in something so beneficial for the environment, I would have stopped this year. Our clear purpose drove me forwards and I’m glad it did. Cat and the team are all working to improve things for next year and we’re excited to share with you some of the changes and new things in place!
We’ll be enjoying a slower pace and I’m really looking forward to completing my Master Beekeeper program, which culminates in a practical exam and a written exam over in Ithaca, New York. It’s been really enjoyable passing my knowledge on to new beekeepers and especially enjoyable for my geeky science brain to learn new thing about these, remarkable insects.
I cannot thank you enough for your support, helping us to instal 250 new honeybee hives across the UK and to sow 250 acres of bare land with organic, bee-friendly flower seeds.
Your involvement is important to me and the team and it’s just joyful to hear how much you love hearing about your adopted bees and tasting their delicious honey, too. Thank you.
Stick with us, it’s going to be an incredible 2020 with some truly remarkable things planned – I’m excited to share them with you soon!