Eighteen folk met at Gareth’s apiary in West Oxfordshire, where he experiments with hive variations and populates them with free mated bees descended from the extensive population of local ferals. Gareth is a trustee of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, has over 40 years’ experience in keeping bees, and offers training in natural beekeeping.
Three attendees had come over from the Wye Valley Natural Beekeeping group, in Wales – they were here to network and swap ideas. They felt we Oxfordshire beeks are very lucky to have Gareth nearby to mentor us.
We began with a bring-and-share meal and a general chat. Among others, the following topics were discussed:
- Gino mentioned that he has been reading about why too much oilseed rape is meant to make bees grumpy, and discovered a more general principle – apparently a glut of any monofloral honey eventually makes bees grumpy. Perhaps they get bored with a monotonous diet!
- The question arose, how often should one do an open-hive inspection? Our consensus was, only when you suspect problems from external observation, and think you can solve the problem by meddling. Which isn’t very often!
- The Wye Valley group have noticed intense speciation / differences between their mountain plateau bees and those 800 feet lower just a few miles away. They approved of our swarm-distribution practise, where a spare swarm goes to the nearest available hive.
- Warré windows are generally on one side of a box and offer views of either the flat side of comb, or the edges. I prefer to view the edges to see how full a box is, which helps me gauge if it is time to nadir; but after seeing Gareth’s set-up I’ve ordered a custom Warré box with windows on 2 sides for both views.
Gareth described some work the Natural Beekeeping Trust is doing in Spain, rewilding a mountain valley by reintroducing untreated bees, and training locals. They have started with 30 colonies in Layens hives supplied by a local conventional beekeeper who is enthusiastic about the project, but up to now has followed standard practices of treating for varroa mites. Curiously, the bees in these mountains seem to be A.m.m. (the north European Black Bee) rather than the Spanish bee Apis mellifera iberica. The local beekeeper confirmed this seems to be the case, but no one believes him so he shrugs and uses them anyway. A big problem there is it becomes so dry in summer, that there is no nectar and the hives need feeding. It will take 3-4 years to see if the bees survive without treatment.
Gareth then walked us round his own apiary. He’s been no-treatment here for several years, and his bees no longer have an issue with mites. This year has been exceptional for Oxfordshire swarms, they’ve been larger and earlier than usual due to a huge early nectar flow – by mid May he had already seen 20 swarms, many of which he had to give away. And on these, he has seen just 3 mites while hiving 7 swarms: so he knows he can see the mites, but has very few. At this point Ingo pointed out it’s good to have a low level of a pest: you need some so you don’t lose immunity! On a related point, swarming results in a brood break in the nest, which is crucial in preventing mites from getting established, which is one reason natural beekeepers permit swarming.
He has been experimenting with Warrés with an entrance one third of the way up the hive instead of at the bottom. Internally, he finds the bees arrange brood near entrance and honey above and below. His initial impressions are that the bees prefer this arrangement.
Colonies in his octagonal hives haven’t thrived despite their shape being theoretically more thermally efficient than a rectangular hive. He has built a couple of double-walled super-insulated Warrés which have been a huge success, with very vigorous colonies, so he is focusing on these.
He went off shallow Top Bar Hives concluding they were not well suited thermally to bees’ requirements (natural nests in cool climates tend to be vertical, and circulating air due to heat rising is integral to their functioning). But he is experimenting with a German hive type called an Einraumbeute which is essentially a TBH which is deep enough for convection to occur. It’s too early to say if it’s a success yet (having been populated with a swarm caught just 2 weeks earlier) and the bees in it are acting oddly. Their roaring could indicate queenlessness, or processing honey (they already have lots of capped honey). It has queen cells. They may be superseding. “I have no idea what’s going on in here” he laughed.
Gareth described how he saw two queens “fighting” once. A swarm was flying in his apiary and not settling. He saw a queen alight on an empty hive… and then a second queen. The workers did not interfere as the queens circled, then one froze and permitted the other to sting her to death. After this the queen entered the hive and the workers followed. It was as if the queens had mutually decided which was fitter to lead the colony, and the other had sacrificed herself. There is a lot we don’t know about bees.
Gareth finished by demonstrating dowsing, and how his hives are sited on lines of whatever-dowsing-rods-detect. He doesn’t know how or why it works, but it seems to help him find positions his hives thrive on.
Many thanks to Gareth and Lynne for opening their house and garden to the massed hordes of beekeepers!
- ONBG has a display stand at RSA Motivate in Oxford Town Hall on Saturday, June 10th
- We are having a group meeting at an Oxford apiary on July 15th