Insights into conventional beekeeping
Overall: readability 8/10, usefulness to natural beekeepers 2/10 – not recommended – but some interesting bits of info, abstracted below
An account of how TV presenter Bill Turnbull took up the hobby of beekeeping and learnt through mistakes. He is a conventional beekeeper with perhaps 8 hives and very oriented towards honey yields, so this isn’t a book I’d have normally bought. But having been given this book for Christmas I found it very funny and readable, although I had the urge to hurl it at the wall in rage at least once, and found my mouth dropping open at his practices at other times.
This latter is actually a plus point for the book – he feeds the reader information as he builds up scenarios in such a way that the reader feels “I’d never have done that”, guerilla teaching. A non beekeeper comes away having unwittingly learnt a lot about the subject, and Mr Turnbull has done a good job in educating the public in that regard; and on the whole I have to say, wincing slightly, what he says is more right than wrong.
He is refreshingly honest about errors, but oddly makes out that he is most embarrassed by the kind of thing anyone could do when they are learning a new craft, through ignorance or clumsiness (such as squashing queens). I certainly got stung a lot in my first year as the bees trained me up, there’s no shame in that. I had to smile wryly at his point that where beginners rush in to sort stuff out, and get stung, old beekeepers tend to be patient. Mr Turnbull is the kind of guy who knows he should keep notes, but never gets round to it, so when he opens one of his hives he only has a rough idea of what he saw in there last time. Not a great beekeeper, but a good communicator. “Finding a queen in a crowd of bees is like a Where’s Wally book.”
I particularly enjoyed his point that if bees had no stings, there would be about as much fun in keeping them as in keeping flies. Stings are a recurrent theme in this book, as are weekly inspections and occasional dousing with harsh varroa treatments. I will let the reader draw their own conclusions there.
One of the most interesting facets of this book is the insight into how conventional beekeepers think. He goes on about varroa a fair bit. And how the bees require constant help to combat this. “There are, it’s feared, no feral bees in Britain any more. They’ve all been wiped out by varroa”. Then he mentions how he was asked to take over a hive which had been abandoned in someone’s garden. “One of the worst things you can do is to abandon your bees” [as he believes they won’t survive long term]. The garden owner explained the beehive keeper had not been to see it for 5 years. To Mr Turnbull’s amazement, the colony was thriving despite this lack of management! And it is his “best colony” which he now uses as a queen cell source when he wishes to requeen his others! Obviously, reading this, a natural beekeeper sees a different underlying pattern to the events than the author.
Another feature of conventional beekeeping which stands out from this author is how expensive it is. Apart from the recurring cost of foundation, there are endless gadgets and toys, many of which I’d never heard of. He needs a shed to keep it all in. The approach to biosecurity seems inconsistent even though they are aware re-used wax in foundation can spread disease. Second hand equipment is common. He also offhandedly mentions importing queens and how easy it is, though after trying this he’s concluded you’re best breeding a local bee adapted to local conditions. And it seems the community is quite competitive, particularly about honey production. I found this rather alien. The natural beekeeping community has some debates about what type of hive is “best”, but no outright bragging, except perhaps about how varroa resistant one’s colonies are?
He mentions at one point that he tried to go smokeless at first because every time you smoke “you lose three days’ production”. (Is that true? Well if they suck up honey and then don’t feel like going foraging for a while, perhaps.) He found he needs to smoke to calm them down. And checks his hives once a week. If the loss of production is true, that sounds like a contradictory and inefficient approach to me.
Apparently, if conventional beekeepers forget to put new frames & foundation in a hive in Spring, the bees build awkward brace comb every which way in the free space, forming an uninspectable mess. I found this highly amusing as it is a downside they like to quote about Top Bar Hives.
He mentions Aspivenin pens (a syringe-like suction device) as a good way to remove stings and most of the poison, minimising swelling etc. Google them if intrigued. They leave a bruise but he swears by them.
Touchingly, he finishes up his self-deprecatory book by making the point that in the end he does it because he finds looking after the bees is a very tranquil experience and it is clear he does care deeply for them.