Now we're just a few hours into a new decade, it's time for one of those new year looking-ahead posts. But first, looking back. I've really enjoyed beekeeping this year — it's gone better than I ever could have expected given how late in the season our swarms were. As well as being a combination of ourdoors and cerebral work, it's brought me, Dave, Ⓓ, Jen, Ⓑ, Hannah and Ⓒ closer together. My dad and Uncle Richard have got involved, as have visiting friends — thanks to Curly and Ralf for their help. Many more, including Jonny, Pinny, Rick, Paul, Ⓤ and Adam and his family have shown an interest in coming to help next year.
Before Thomas brought our first bees and started our careers as real beekeepers, I'd been on two courses (Leeds and Walworth) and gained experience through volunteering, but it wasn't until actually keeping them that the learning experience started in earnest.
In November, Dave and I confided in each other that we felt that, given the odds that this introduces, we were doing pretty well at beekeeping. We'd been warned by several people not to be too heartbroken if the colonies didn't make it, so the fact they've made it this far makes us both happy. This sort of hubris often comes before disaster, so let's balance it out by reflecting on the lessons learned in 2019.
- States of mind. First and foremost, I learned a lot about my attitude as a beekeeper. I've spoken with Dave and Daniel about a state of mind to tune into when beekeeping. Many of my creative endeavours have involved computers. With tasks like programming, you are often either right or wrong. You follow a method and things generally go okay. When keeping bees, at least from our point of view, you are dealing with a system that's chaotic but also ordered. You accept you ultimately cannot completely control the colony, and that there's no absolutely right way to do most things. Rather than a master, you're a caretaker. They can swarm at any time, they can attack you, they can die, they can lay or not lay. You don't have control. Accordingly, nobody can be a guru or claim total expertise. Part of the game is knowing when you don't have control. When we've asked experienced beekeepers questions, the very best advice is often 'I don't know, but it sounds like a good idea'. I like the culture of not being experts, of it being acceptable to not understand things, and of knowing the colony is too complex to be able to control like a machine. You have to say sometimes that the bees know what's best, that there's no need to worry simply because they aren't conforming to your inferior expectations of what a hive should be like. And this takes your mind somewhere else when you're keeping bees.
- Leave it alone. Related to this, we've often discussed the right intervention when we see something is — from our point of view — 'wrong' with the colony. There's perhaps a tendency to panic over observations that the colony is queenless or that there are signs of disease, and then a week later we invaiably see that the bees have managed the problem themselves. Such panic and overthinking can get in the way of enjoying the beekeeping. Several times over the course of our beekeeping in 2019 we've intuited that the interference caused by an intervention would likely do more harm than good, and we've simply chosen to observe. Nearly every time, a week later, this has been the right thing to do. New beekeepers are often very excited about what's happening inside the hive, but opening it up disturbs the bees for a day or two, so we leave them alone if we can.
- Don't underestimate the abilities of children. The core members of our apiary includes two eight-year-olds. I admit I thought at first we would be spoon-feeding them bee knowledge forever. Thinking this was a mistake and I gave them much too little credit. Inspections are busy times, but with a bit of pointing things out to them, and a bit of involving them in the inspection process — like trusting them with a hot smoker or a brood frame — they've blossomed into beekeepers in their own right in six months. They're more engaged, skilled and autodidactic than I thought possible, and each in their own way. I must stop thinking of them as children to be educated, but instead as members of our beekeeping team who can also educate me. This is a useful lesson in humility.
- Suit up and use a smoker. I was stung twice this year. Both were an unnecessary waste of a bee's life, both involved obvious errors in beekeeping method, and both involved inadequate protection. The lesson here is clear; take a couple of minutes to put on a suit and gloves before entering the apiary, and follow good practice.
- Have more than one colony. A lot of websites and books tell the novice beekeeper not to start with just the one colony. That might be to prepare for colony management like handling a queenless colony, or just that it's a case of playing the odds, and ensuring one of the colonies will survive into the next year. We found that almost from the day that we got two colonies going, they had two distinct personalities. Behaviours differ greatly, whether it's aggression, foraging behaviour, tendency to build brace comb, speed of building stores, and so on, and so on. You learn more than twice about beekeeping from having two colonies.
- Team up with others. Related to this, teaming up with other beginners to start an apiary seems to be a great thing to do. I was lucky with Dave. When we're discussing plans he's flexible and considered, he doesn't tell me I'm wrong or mock me when I make mistakes, and he has a wealth of understanding about all kinds of stuff related to beekeeping, which he applies with a kind of gentle but focussed intelligence to come to some great solutions. I can see us working as a team for a long time to come.
- Connect with other beekeepers. There are local associations up and down the country full of very knowledgable people who will gladly educate you on the hobby. Several members of Burnham Beekeepers — Thomas, Neville and others — have been really helpful in advising us. Some associations even run mentoring schemes for new beekeepers. Meanwhile, on the internet, I've been lurking in the /r/Beekeeping subreddit to understand how things are done worldwide, and I've also found that putting podcasts on in the background is a good way to hear about other beekeepers' experiences. You can also drop into ##lhs-beekeepers, one of London Hackspace's IRC channels. I'm usually there and I'm usually happy to chat.
- Have a goal in mind when inspecting. When inspecting, there can be so much to see on the comb that it's really overwhelming. Often, you'll see some new miniature wonder on there that will distract you. In these situations I usually close up the hive and can't remember most of what I set out to look at. I try to have a goal when I inspect. This can be related to disease control or evidence of the queen, or just something I'm curious about at the time.
- Blogging. Very few people read this blog, but that doesn't matter to me. It's really helped to get my thoughts down about beekeeping, keep resources together, and to record the fun we had together looking after the bees. I'd really recommend doing it yourself if you're a beekeeper, even if it's just a few notes on a blogging site somewhere. You can share your thoughts and other people can give you specific advice and opinions. I would be happy to link to you.
- Appreciate your surroundings. Beekeeping involves being outdoors with fascinating insects and excellent friends, looking at miniature wonders of nature. Be in the moment, and enjoy the sights, smells, sounds, the sunrises and sunsets.
I asked Ⓓ what she had learned in 2019. As well as bee facts such as how worker bees are all female, and bees can see in ultraviolet, she was quite struck by the realisation that colonies have personalities. This is a regular theme of the chats we have when we're finishing up after an inspection, and Dave suggested that the supersedure of the late summer, and the resulting chaos (e.g. burr comb) of the colony was down to the emergency queen — a queen formed from a developing worker bee. He mentioned the idea of a false queen, when a worker is laying but can't lay drones, simultaneously continuing and dooming the colony.
Ⓑ and I are pretty much agreed that we'd like another hive for the 2020 beekeeping season, and I know Ⓓ and Dave feel the same way. Our apiary will have four colonies in it and I'm sure we'll learn a lot more next year as a result. After last year's positive experience with swarm bees, we've both been on the swarm list since mid-November. I'm going to go for another Thorne Bees on a Budget National hive — it was easy to put together and has worked out well in 2019. This time, I'm going to stain the hive with something with no VOCs, maybe sage, not only to give it more protection but to distinguish it from the first hive.
My father is keen to visit the Quince Honey Farm with Ⓑ and me in South Molton, Devon in February. Perhaps not the most active time of year to go, but nevertheless a good opportunity for Ⓑ to see a bit of beekeeping somewhere else. The Farm has a branch of Thorne, my favourite supplier. From there we're planning to pick up the stain and other supplies, and the hive, so it won't be damaged in transit.
Dave is a much better carpenter than me, and he's going to be making another hive stand for the two new hives. These things are very sturdy indeed and lift the hive up to a height which makes inspections easier. He spaces them so that they can hold frames during inspection.
For all the talk this year of hive scales, I haven't yet chosen one that I can get excited about making into a telemetry analysis project, so I think I'll leave that for next year. Maybe it's possible to over-automate beekeeping, anyway.
There have been other goals talked about, including:
- Dave's desire to wear a bee beard. Rather him than me.
- Some of us want to make novelty hives which look like spaceships, Daleks, flowers, giant bees etc.
- Making a bee kite based on general plans from Greger's Kites for Everyone.
- The children want to set up a stall selling honey, with lots of outlandish names. Examples of names suggested at the brainstorming meeting included: Boogie Bees; Bees in Space; Space Honey ('may contain stardust'); Disco Bee; Captain Buzz's Special Reserve; Astrobees; ∞ Bees; Funky Bees. However, the best names have not been disclosed for the time being in case we want to actually do this.
So, that was 2019. Thanks to anyone out there who's reading along. Best wishes for an excellent start to the twenties!