Telling the bees

There is a tradition, seemingly one that goes back hundreds of years or more, of telling the bees of family bereavements or weddings.  Sadly, my stepfather passed away recently so I have dutifully told the bees.  They didn’t seem to be too bothered, but somehow it made me feel a little better for having followed tradition in a suitably somber manner.

There are varying interpretations of the tradition. Some regard it more as a superstition where if the bees were not told of their keepers demise, they would abscond or ‘refuse’ to produce honey. (There are even tales of bees being sold without telling them of their keepers death and them becoming very poorly and then recovering once their new keeper had draped their hive with black crepe so they could mourn suitably.) Some involve very specific rituals of knocking on the hive and reciting a rhyme. Again, lots of variations here but one such was “Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress.” Another variation involves inviting the bees to the funeral, although it’s not clear whether the beekeeper was supposed to actually take them or if they were supposed to find their own way there.

For my part, the simple act of telling the bees was enough. I think this is something I might actually do more of – simply telling the bees what’s happened in my world, what’s upsetting or stressful, what’s exciting and good. Births, marriages and deaths, maybe birthdays and suchlike. I’m not sure it will make the bees closer to me, but in a way it might make me closer to them.

RIP – David Lloyd

I think you would have appreciated this.

Flow Hives

This article was originally written for Surrey Bees newsletter and is a general summary of my first year with a Flow Hive.

Imagine, honey flowing directly from hive frames into a jar. No uncapping, spinning and cleaning up required, just fresh, clean fabulously tasty honey.  What makes it even better?  It’s not a marketing gimmick on a video but my own hive, in my own back garden, and I’m having fresh honey on toast before it’s even hit the jar!

It’s felt like a long road getting here though.  The Flow Frames are made out of plastic, partially prebuilt honeycomb that can be ‘split’ open when the honey is ready to harvest and allows the honey to flow down through the frame and out of a tube in the back of the hive. Having seen this fantastic looking contraption on a crowdfunding site and been intrigued enough to go back and have a look more than a few times I decided to invest in a hive back in March 2015.  For those not familiar, crowdfunding is a way of raising capital for startup businesses before they’re established.  The Flow Frames themselves had been developed and tested by the Anderson family in Australia over a period of about 10 years and the Andersons now needed capital to set up production. Initially looking for $75,000 the campaign clearly appealed to a lot of people. The target was hit in less than 5 minutes and ran into the millions shortly after. With this amount of interest, the Andersons had their work cut out for them getting hives and the Flow Frames built and shipped.
In the meantime, it was time for me to start learning about bees.  A quick investigation online told me it was going to be best to start my hive in the spring – a good thing as the hive only arrived in January.  My lovely girlfriend got in touch with Surrey Bees and bought me the beginners theory course as a gift for Christmas. What a great gift that was – having a basic understanding of bees and how to keep them before you start is probably the best recommendation I could make to anyone interested. Every week taught me more, and every week I left realising how much more there was to learn. I’m sure it will take me a lifetime and then some!
Within the first week or so I’d signed myself up for the practical beginners course and was eagerly looking forward to handling bees for the first time.
Having joined a number of beekeeping groups on Facebook it was clear that the Flow hives were somewhat controversial.  Lots of people were sceptical about them working and how practical they would be and some strong opinions were being thrown around. Whilst on the theory course I’d kept quiet as I didn’t want to get into discussions I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have. Once the practical started though, my hive was obviously different as it’s based around an 8 frame Langstroth rather than the more usual 10 frame size. It also has ‘Founding Supporter of the Flow Hive’ etched on the side of it – there was no hiding from that!  Sure enough, opinions from established beekeepers ranged from “it’s a load of bollocks” to “it’ll be interesting to see if it works”. My hive went home with me as soon as the nuc had been installed. As a keen gardener with space it will certainly help with pollination in the local area, and give the kids an exposure to bees that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In the brood box, nothing changes with the flow hive. We still check through regularly making sure the hive is Queenright, that brood is Building Up, that there’s Room, no Disease and that the colony has Stores (QBURDS – a very useful mnemonic). Long story short, the brood built up nicely and it was soon time to put a super on. Or not. The weather was awful and it was tricky to tell what the right time was to add the super and when I did, the bees didn’t seem to want to touch it. Was the Flow a failure?
A few weeks later and the brood had built up further, still weren’t using the super and were building queen cells!  A worrying moment, but my theory course had shown me the Pagden Method of swarm control and I went with that (having bought spare equipment knowing I’d need it at some point). 3 weeks later again and it was clear both queen cells had failed and only one hive was queenright so I had to recombine (paper method). This worked a treat and the combined colonies were clearly desperate to store nectar from what was now a strong flow. They were building up the cells in the Flow super the week after recombining – success was almost certain!
Once they’d started building it was business as usual until the frames were ready. One of the potential challenges of the Flow Frames is honey crystallising in them. Oil Seed Rape at the beginning of the season and Ivy at the end are the most likely to cause this so at the beginning of August I decided to harvest and then store the Flow Frames over winter. I’ve now added a ‘regular’ super so the bees can continue to make stores for the winter and I’ve no plans to take this from them.
That brings us right back to the start, on a sunny Saturday in August, watching honey flowing directly from my hive into jars. The bees undisturbed and still foraging at the front of the hive while I held a bit of buttered toast under the flow and tasted the best honey I have ever had.  Lovely.
I only took about 10Lbs of honey this year, but as a first year and the bees having to build everything from scratch I personally don’t think that’s bad as I know some keepers who haven’t had any harvest this year.
Pros and cons in a nutshell?
Pros – No mess, simple easy extraction, no bother to the bees
          No additional extraction equipment required
          It got me, and hundreds of other beekeepers around the world, started in keeping bees
          It’s a great discussion point
Cons – It’s costly (about £500 for the whole hive)
           Crystalising honey needs to be avoided so different supers and a different method of extracting is still required if you want to take these harvests
            Some of the discussions can get quite heated as people write off ‘the new fangled technology stuff’

In the beginning

P1150092In the beginning, there was Flow.

By Flow I mean the Flow Hive. Like many others I saw the videos advertising the Flow Hive and was entranced by it’s message. Honey on tap. Amazing! Bees. Amazing! and bees are on the decline so it’d be good if I helped, and I’m a gardener, so pollination and all that. The button had been pressed an I’d ordered a full Flow Hive.

Knowing it was going to be a while before it was delivered, I told a few people and started looking forward to it. In fact I was looking forward so much I’d almost forgotten about it by the time Christmas came around and I was gifted a beginners beekeeping course by my girlfriend.    That course was fascinating. Every week I went along and learned that there was more to learn and that I really didn’t know anything. Not just about bees, but about how much they do and how their societies reflect a somewhat idealistic (in some ways), nihilistic (in other ways), and communistic (in many ways) version of our own.

The Surrey Beekeeping Society also gave me an opportunity to purchase my first bee colony. (Before that I had no clue how bees were even acquired and had visions of a package being posted through my letterbox by a terrified postman.) It was only when my bees were ready (around May) and my hive was populated with a nucleus of bees at the club apiary, that I realised how much anti Flow Hive sentiment was to shape my early beekeeping activities.  Beginners were interested, and often fascinated. Longtime beekeepers were generally extremely sceptical, very opinionated and very vocal about how their new way would never work. Sometimes so much so that the Flow Hives would not only not work, but they might actually bring about beemageddon itself. The Dark Bee (or Bee Who Shall Not Bee Named) would arrive and destroy all the honey, making breakfast everywhere a bleak and hopeless meal.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by that much. The strong and very vocal opinions  that the internet makes so easy to shout about seemed to be getting into the real world, leaving me with only one option… Take my bees home.

So my bees arrived in my back garden and have remained there ever since. It saves me a 45 minute drive to the training apiary, but also means that I have to work a lot of stuff out myself so I read a lot, online and in print, and do my best to understand rather than just taking an answer as gospel.

The old adage of ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers doesn’t really apply to beekeepers. Often you only have to ask one beekeeper to get ten different answers.


The expansion

At the beginning of 2017 I was presented with an opportunity.  A (relatively) local beekeeper was relocating from the UK to Italy and needed to find new homes for all of his kit.

All of the hives were BS Nationals, all fully populated with 2 year old colonies and all seemed pretty strong. It was too cold to do a full inspection on the hives so I had to take a leap of faith and bought four full hives and a whole bunch of spare parts. Frames, an extractor, loads of supers etc.  A deal was made and I had to make a couple of trips to get all of this kit back to my place. (BTW – Moving beehives in the car is a nerve-wracking experience.)  Once back at mine, the reality of what I’d got myself into kicked in. My garden was fine for a hive or two, but five??  That just wasn’t practical. The space is there, but working in my vegetable beds could have got a lot more exciting than relaxing. They needed a new home.

An exercise ensued whereby I racked my brains as to where might have space locally. Emails were sent to hotels, golf clubs, bee clubs and Facebook groups. There weren’t as many responses as I thought there might be but luckily a local golf club came back to me and after a quick exploratory visit we established what seems to be a pretty great location. It’s a little windy on a ridge but there’s a growing hawthorne hedge on one side and a beech tree which should provide some shelter from the worst of the wind.  Over time I can add some other screening if required. As Storm Doris has whipped through since the hives have been there and hasn’t caused any problems, all seems OK so far.

A bit of gardening – making a hole in the hedge, clearing some weeds etc – and adding a few breeze blocks for hive stands, and the site was ready. Two trips and three hives were in place. Five Hives (two in my garden and three at the golf club) new apiary was up and running.  Exciting times 🙂

Naming hives, apiaries and queens

At the beginning of 2017 I have five hives.  Two in the garden, and three at an out apiary at a local golf club. A naming convention is required so I can keep records effectively and know what’s going on with each hive. To keep it simple (at least at the beginning), it will start off with the apiaries being ‘Garden’ and ‘Windlesham’, respectively. The Flow hives will be Flow 1 and Flow 2.  The National hives will be National 1, 2, 3. The queens should probably also be tracked so good performing lineage can be taken advantage of, so from now I’ll have Q1,2,3 etc.  The current queens are in hives, but the naming will not be linked to hives.   That leaves us with.

Garden – Flow 1 – Q1

Garden – National 1 – Q2

Windlesham – National 2 – Q3

Windlesham – National 3 – Q4

Windlesham – National 4 – Q5

For expansion requirements I have an additional Langstroth hive which will become Flow 2, and an additional National hive. All of the National hives will be used with traditional supers, of which I have about 10. The Langstroth hives will be flow supered for the main harvest, but for anything near Oil Seed Rape (OSR) (none of mine right now), or heather (all of mine right now), the Flow supers will be replaced with regular supers to avoid complications with thick set honey.

Hive records will be kept with each hive, and additional notes will be made here.