Winter survival surveys show ‘treatment-free’ works

Each May OxNatBees surveys our members for information on winter losses. This graph shows losses year by year, compared with other surveys. The stand-out point is that our losses for untreated hives populated by local bees (blue “ONBG” line) are essentially the same as for heavily managed colonies (the red “BBKA” line).

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ONBG meeting, July 2020: a Bee Tea at Dee Cottage

This was the first ONBG gathering this year as our normal annual cycle of events was interrupted by lockdown. Our last meeting was in October last year! Precautions were taken: access to handwash, masks, social distancing, everyone took their own mug etc.

Examining a TBH – photo courtesy of Patrick

11 of us gathered for a lovely day with tea, cake and bees in the delightful Oxford garden setting of our hosts Jane and Patrick (thank you!)

Many of the group had done an orthodox beekeeping course but had gingerly stepped back from the process of serial housebreaking of their hives.

Everyone admired Patrick’s construction skills: his bait hive, Freedom-style hive, Top bar hives. We were allowed a peek into his Freedom-style hive and its colony indeed compared favourably with photos of Matt Somerville’s Freedom hive at Waterperry.

Jane demonstrating bee DIY (embedded pine needles) at the centre of the table and different coloured / scented wax of different ages. We had lovely day in a delightful Oxford garden setting.

We discussed the perennial problems of cross combing and Jane showed us some comb where the bees had somehow dragged up long pine needles/sticks she had packed deep in to the ecofloor of a TBH. They had incorporated these as reinforcement into one of the combs at its lowest part. Clearly this had been a team effort to drag the sticks up and embed them into the comb. We were enchanted by their ingenuity.

It was agreed that removing only a few frames from a Warré led the bees to create extraordinary comb, reminiscent of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. The take home message (as Paul has already reiterated):

  • If harvesting a comb or two at a time: use the TBH.
  • But if taking a whole box: use the Warré.

We discussed the ancient practice of “tanging” i.e. banging loudly and rhythmically on a metal object (like clapping the NHS!) for swarms.

Several of us noted its use to (apparently) settle a swarm or even encourage them back into their hive, if caught early enough. This is not something we are likely to wish to do. The suggestions were made that it might be to claim ownership of the swarm or simply warn the neighbours.

This led to the discussion of drumming a swarm of bees up into a skep, etc. Gareth does this successfully but even the legendary Helen said it had failed for her.

Helen explained how her modifications to her TBH and its “Warrification” i.e. Warré cloths above plus an eke had made for a more tranquil life both for her bees and for her.

Zsolt regaled us with tall tales but true of his father’s and his grandfather’s industrial level beekeeping back in Hungary and their harvesting pollen using a screen, a little like a queen excluder allowing the pollen to fall into a small box below.

Enjoying the garden and each other (c) Patrick 2020

Bait hives including Patrick’s were discussed. Jane told us that theirs, placed just over two metres off the ground was often inspected by scout bees but never actually populated. We noted that the Great Beasts of Homeopathy had advised they should be five metres off the ground, as in nature. This was a ”hive too far” for the group to contemplate..

A lovely day and a great meeting.

Posted on behalf of the author, Eric

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Book Review – Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe

I won the book Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe in a draw and so, although it is most definitely NOT in tune with natural beekeeping, I decided to read it and thought I would share a review as it does include some tidbits any beek may find of interest.

The author himself imports Carniolan and Buckfast queens, raises more queens from these and sells them around the UK, diametrically opposite to my interest in promoting a focus on local bees. The interviewees are, or were, all large scale breeders or bee farmers from the UK, France, USA and New Zealand – so, well outside my usual reading orbit, which is exactly why I did read it.

It is an excellently written book packed with fascinating information and the interview format works well, but I found it a really uncomfortable read: the tone can be gathered from the author’s comment on p.50, “there’s no room for sentimentality in farming” – something though that perhaps some other bee farmers, like Tim Malfroy for example, might take issue with.

Although this article is partly a book review, this blog is primarily for hobbyist natural beekeepers, so the first part of this post covers useful and interesting things I learned from the book for our core audience. In the second part I will briefly deal with some of the more upsetting aspects, commercial necessities and ethics but do not intend to cover that in any detail given the nature of this blog.

To cut to the chase: if you are a natural beekeeper I do not recommend that you buy this book. If you are, or wish to be, a commercial bee farmer (unlikely on this blogsite), it is a five-star volume packed with distilled information from experts who share an immense amount of their experience. Perhaps the real value of the book, though, is that there is no other book like it as it gives a snapshot of where commercial beekeeping really is right now, and I expect will be a core reference for researchers of the commercial field long into the future.

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Look up during lockdown

Our hives among flowers

This picture shows how we tend to think of hives – among flowers, because we humans tend to notice flowers at our level, and some colours ‘pop’ more to our eyes.

However, if you look up in Spring you can see lots of trees in blossom, and not just fruit trees – and the amount of nectar they produce can dwarf that from garden flowers. Continue reading

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Preparing for swarm season

Swarm on grass walking into box with queen

Swarms begin around late April in Oxfordshire, first in the warmer southern part and the heat islands of the towns and cities, then a couple of weeks later in the rural parts.

In earlier years we’ve written on this blog about how to attract swarms to bait hives, how to catch, and how to hive them. Rather than re-write from scratch, I’m going to simply point at a few exceptionally useful OxNatBees articles from times of yore:

  • This article covers the key info you need to know: tools, baiting hives, etc.
  • This post has some juicy stories about how things can go horribly wrong. Learn from our fails.
  • Here are some useful tips about dealing with the public.

Hope that helps. Any other stories, folks?

A detachable swarm lure on a post at an apiary. Placed where the swarms head anyway, it provides a convenient way to pick them up and place them in a box.


…It has just occurred to me that with everyone locked down right now, they might see more swarms from their hives than they expected… and be surprised by just how many got away while they were usually at work.

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Covid-19: evolution in action

Ferals under slate roof, entrance below gutter. Picture enabled by handy scaffolding!

I can’t help wondering if the lockdown will make people reassess high-intervention beekeeping.

This lockdown is going to exert heavy selection pressure for colonies that can fend for themselves.

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A new hive design: the Drayton hive

A new hive design has just been launched by OxNatBees member Andrew Bax – the Drayton Hive.

Overwintering Drayton hives nestle behind a screening bush

His new design consists of a deep horizontal hive which combines some of the best features of modern apicentric hive design such as excellent insulation and a window for non-invasive inspection, with convenient features like no heavy lifting and (foundationless) frames. What stands out about this design is that you aren’t tied to either interventionist or hands-off beekeeping, but instead you can experiment and find the style balance that appeals to you.

I asked Andrew about his beekeeping experiences and the story behind the hive.

How did you get into beekeeping and how long have you been keeping bees? Continue reading

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