Written by Clare Densley, Beekeeper, Buckfast Abbey, Devon

I have been keeping bees since 1992 and now look after the bees at Buckfast Abbey with my friend and colleague Martin Hann.  When I first worked at the Abbey as an assistant beekeeper, we had about 400 hives in 17 different apiaries. There were around 25 colonies in each site and our main objecive was honey production. 

Today, we have about 30 colonies on four sites at the Abbey, but we are looking for another so that we can keep fewer colonies in each place. Each colony has a name and our focus has shifted from honey production to education for ourselves and others. The honey taken is used in the monastery for the monks and Abbey guests. We no longer sell it in the shops. We also favour locally adapted bees over the Buckfast strain developed by Brother Adam. I will explain the reasoning behind that decision later in the year.

Our ethos today focuses on gentle and intelligent beekeeping. We try to teach people about the bees first so that they have a better understanding of the creatures they will be working with. Then we try to marry this with a flexible system of management that takes into account the needs of the bees as much as the requirements of the beekeeper.

When I began beekeeping, I remember feeling totally confused by the seemingly conflicting advice offered by different beekeepers in answer to my earnest and anxious questions. Who do you believe? Is there a right way to do beekeeping and a wrong way? Why isn’t there a definitive answer?

On our ‘taster’ days at the Abbey, I offer this advice: if you like to be in complete control with a rigid timetable and an unwavering agenda, get another hobby because keeping bees will drive you crazy!

I see the beekeeping year as a journey on which the bees navigate using all of their innate collective intelligence and skills, with us as beekeepers jogging alongside, trying to keep up and support them when they need it. Appropriate feeding in times of dearth and help with parasites and disease are some of the ways we can lend a hand. By subtly managing the bees’ natural instincts, of hoarding honey or swarming for instance, we can finish the season together – intact and with mutual benefits. Anyway, that’s the plan!

Keep it simple

As a beginner, it is better to keep your management style simple, using methods which you can understand and imagine doing easily. Keeping good records will help you to reflect on what is happening in your colony. My biggest mistake as a beginner beekeeper was of being too impetuous and making disastrous snap decisions. It took me years to learn to slow down and to go away and have a cup of tea while I thought about the best way to deal with the situation. Even after 27 years, I still like to weigh up a puzzling scenario and consider my options before making a management decision. There are usually many ways to approach a problem; the trick is to find one which suits both you and the bees.

Each colony follows an annual cycle roughly determined by the seasons. Like plants, bees rest up during winter; grow and propagate in spring and early summer; and then stash food and consolidate in late summer and autumn. However, there are always considerable weather variations within each of the seasons in the British Isles. Our weather is not as predictable as in many other parts of the world, and it isn’t unusual to experience very odd unseasonal aberrations, such as snow in April or mild sunny days in February. Of course, Cornwall conditions will differ from those in Northumberland.

The day-to-day weather patterns impact hugely upon the finely tuned moment-by-moment activity inside the hive. The colony is always in a state of flux and constantly adjusting. When we look inside the hive, we perceive only the most obvious changes, such as population growth or brood pattern shifts. Gradually and increasingly, you will be able to tune into how the sunshine and the rain affect the behaviour of your colonies. Keeping bees is a great way to connect and engage with the natural world.

Understand your bees

A basic knowledge of some of the behaviours and mechanisms which the bees have in their survival kit will help you to make sense of some of the weird and wonderful things they get up to. It will also enable you to give support when needed. I love engaging with the bees and trying to work out why and how they behave. Even when they are bumbling along with everything going to plan, it’s good to feel secure that this is indeed the case and that everything is OK.

In January, there is not a lot to be doing with the bees. If you fed them sufficiently in September, food shouldn’t be an issue. If you are in any doubt, place a lump of candy (also called fondant) over, or to the side of, the feed hole and place an eke or an empty super atop the crownboard but below the roof, so that the candy is protected and the bees can access it easily. If you left them on a brood box with a super above that may now be empty, it would be better to remove the super and place the candy closer to the bees. If it is cold, they won’t travel across an empty super to reach a block of candy. If the super is mostly of ivy honey, you can scratch the cells with your hive tool and spray some water on the comb so that the bees can access the honey more easily. Ivy honey sets hard and the bees may starve if it is too cold for them to collect water.

If you didn’t treat for varroa in December, there is still time to do so in January. You can use an approved oxalic acid product, either as a 3.2% solution (already mixed from suppliers such as Apibioxal) trickled between the frames, or as a vapour puffed into the hive entrance. Both methods need to be understood thoroughly before you start and appropriate safety gear should be worn. Your local association may give a winter demonstration of one or both methods.

Personally, I use VarroMed, a mix that combines oxalic acid and formic acid, squirted down between the frames. It seems just as efficient as the other two products.

Whichever treatment that you choose, apply it quickly! It may seem a bit brutal to open your hive in the cold but, because there is very little sealed brood, more varroa mites are exposed to the treatment. Each colony can be treated in a matter of seconds. Your colony should then start to grow in spring starting with a much lower population of varroa. I think that it is well worth it.

This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of Bee Craft


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