2016 was a rollercoaster for me and my beekeeping, thanks mainly to the unreliable weather, a shortage of queens, and general disorganisation on my part (when will I learn that winter should be used for cleaning equipment, making up frames etc.?!).
Lesson one: get my act together, plan properly and use winter to prepare equipment for the coming season!
My key goal for the year was to increase the number of colonies to produce more honey for the land owner I work for.
Things didn’t start well as I broke my ankle and by April it was still in plaster and I was on crutches. Instead of accepting the limitations of this I tried to carry on regardless, on one occasion causing complete mayhem in my apiary by dropping a full brood box. Luckily no damage was done (except to my nerves), and my beekeeping friends stepped in to help get things back on track by the end of April.
Lesson two: fellow beekeepers are always ready to lend a hand, so ask for help!
My apiary is colder than other areas in South London so my bees are always a couple of weeks behind. After a burst of late March sunshine and pollen, the bees were preparing to swarm. I have my swarm prevention and control process pretty much worked out thanks to years of trial and error. But last year’s spring had a sting in its tail with weeks of cool, wet, miserable weather meaning that the emerging queens mated poorly (some turning into drone layers all too quickly) and others simply went stale.
While I had some over-wintered nucs, I simply didn’t have enough mated and laying queens banked to replace all the failing/poorly mated queens. I had fall back on uniting some colonies. So my goal to expand my apiary wasn’t unfolding as planned!
Lesson three: rear enough queens to ensure that young, mated and laying queens are always to hand.
In an act of desperation, I decided to buy in some nucs with extensions. Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with buying nucs from a reputable source. And I used a reputable source. But I failed to factor in that I had been selecting my bees for years and that they were mostly good tempered, productive, prolific colonies that I knew and (mostly!) loved. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the bees that I brought in and found that they weren’t exactly friendly and seemed to only produce bees. The new colonies got bigger and bigger but there was no honey to harvest, and their temperament got worse. In the end a passer-by was stung and I had to remove them. I should have simply taken my best colony and split it into six as advised by other beekeepers.
Lesson four: increase stocks by using your own well-tempered bees or bees whose traits are known to you.
All was not lost, I managed to make up some nucs from my best colonies. But I learned the hard way that I was not going to achieve an increase without an organised queen rearing programme to support it. One for 2017 – watch this space!
The main flow when it began wasn’t as strong as the previous year because local forage was affected by the long wet spring. However I did harvest almost as much honey as the previous year so at least that was something.
Varroa populations were high at the end of summer. I often do shook swarms in spring to help manage varroa but I couldn’t in 2016 as the weather was so rubbish and not ideal for drawing new comb. In September I treated some colonies with Apiguard and some with MAQS (depending on the nature of the colony – small ones that needed a lot of feeding got MAQS). In recent years I have been finding that varroa can then build up again going into December. I treated all colonies with Apibioxil trickle method (in 1:1 syrup) in late December. In 2017 I’ll use the vaporisation method as it has been found to have higher efficacy.
2016 had one final lesson for me in the form of robbing: it was unbelievable and on a frenzied scale that I’d not seen before. I had to put in some serious detective work to find out who the robbing bees were. Late one night I closed up all my hives and came back to my apiary the next morning to find it full of bees trying to rob the closed hives. So the robbers must have been someone else’s bees, from another apiary! I learned how to make robbing screens which helped a lot and everything calmed down, although damage had been done to a few smaller colonies.
Lesson five: prevent robbing before it happens – fit robbing screens before autumn feeding and carefully following guidelines around feeding e.g. feed all colonies at the same time, feed at night, don’t spill syrup etc.!
In the end I came out of 2016 with 10 strong colonies and four large nucs. While 2016 didn’t go according to plan, I learned a lot and became much more confident in handling and clipping queens.
And while it wasn’t the easiest of beekeeping years, I still enjoyed those magical moments when you are working with the bees and you think “How amazing are these creatures, and how lucky am I to be working with them.”
I hope your bees are overwintering well and that the season to come will be a good one for us all.