ONBG meeting, June 2022 – Unlearning beekeeping

25 folk gathered at Gareth’s rural apiary to listen and learn from his 50 years’ experience and experimentation. We were honoured to be joined by Filipe Salbany (of Blenheim Woods fame) with a different set of 50 years’ experience, and everyone left with their heads buzzing with new concepts and hard facts contradicting conventional wisdom.

This outdoors meeting was the first for a couple of years where we shared food, which is always a jolly, bonding experience. Intermittent showers sent us scampering towards cover and huddling.

Major topics were hive design and tradeoffs compared to natural nests, swarm behaviour and genetics, spinning off into many side topics like wax moth and propolis.

It’s worth mentioning how this meeting was arranged around the bee lifecycle. Gareth chose June because in July, his bees will be in a mild forage gap and opening hives without protection would be inadvisable. He never opens hives in August, because it triggers robbing. In September another flow (ivy) begins and it is safe to open them again without hordes of starving wasps descending. Even so, he judged the day too breezy to open the hives safely and after gently peeling back a couple of top cloths to check temper, he chose not to pull out any combs. So, yes, the photo shows us among hives without protection, but not recklessly, and avoiding flight paths.

Hive evolution

Gareth has built and compared various hives and had prepared a presentation to show why he migrated from one type to another, often trialling pairs differing in one detail to determine the effect of various factors like solid floors, multiple entrances, insulation etc.

He moved from Nationals to Top Bar Hives, then Warrés, then thick walled Warrés, octagonal Warrés and finally double walled Warrés. All but the last (which was impractically complex to make) suffered from black mould on cold walls in winter, away from the warm cluster whose heat activates the anti-fungal properties of propolis. The bees can lick it off, but it’s not healthy.

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He is now focusing on Einraumbeutes, a kind of double walled, deep horizontal hive (his first ones were single walled and still had a little mould), and has a lot of legacy Warré variants, a skep, Freedom Hive and probably others dotted about the apiary.

True, most of us don’t have the skills to make custom hives. But the take home point here for me was to keep an eye on the colour of my hives’ internal walls, and will scorch any black mould I see (“with a hot air gun until it smokes” advised Gareth, “rather than a blowtorch “).

Apiary walkabout

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As we walked among the hives, Gareth would stop and discuss observations he’d made, such as how he has several times seen apparently queenless colonies reboot. “The first time you see this, you think you must have missed the queen when you inspected it. After a couple of instances you watch queenless colonies like a hawk. The longest I’ve known is a colony lasting 8 months without a queen” (I was amazed at this but Filipe told us they can last a year) “and then suddenly they had a laying queen again. I originally thought they were stealing eggs from another colony but another possibility is thelytoky – Filipe?”

Now, Filipe knows all about thelytoky, or spontaneous cloning, because it’s a big problem in Southern Africa, where he studied beekeeping. He explained that whereas European workers can become drone layers, the Cape Bee (Apis mellifera capensis) workers can be worker layers. Normally laying a female egg requires mating but they lay a clone of themselves (parthenogenesis). The Cape Bee has been living harmlessly in one area with a natural buffer zone around it of other species for millenia, but some genuius moved 200 hives of Cape Bees beyond the buffer zone and they ran rampant, taking over beehives and filling them with queens. Of course you can have too many queens, like too many drones, and these hives collapse. About 10% of South Africa’s hives died, entire apiaries were torched with flamethrowers to stamp them out. Google “the capensis calamity” for more info.

The relevance here is that it does occur very rarely in European bees… about one in 750,000 workers can do it (rather than every one). Gareth has about 15 hives, let’s say 30,000 workers per hive, so 450,000 workers at any one time…

Will asked “but how do you know they’ve not just attracted a queen returning from her mating flight?”

“Good point – that’s a third possibility, as is a swarm moving in and merging when I was not present. I just don’t know. What I do know is, colonies sometimes reboot, but if you immediately requeen every queenless hive you will never see this.”

This paradigm of being interested in bee behaviour, rather than honey, is at the heart of natural beekeeping. If you have multiple hives, you can afford to watch and learn.

Swarm behaviour

Gareth has caught a dozen swarms so far this year from his apiary, too many for his hives, and routinely merges casts – though he wouldn’t dare with a prime (too much sense of identity). He uses the German method of storing swarms in a cool, dark garage for at least 2 days – this gives them time to gel as a community and lose the impulse to scout for a new home. He then tips them onto a sheet and walks them into a hive, often in the morning: no need to wait until evening if they are no longer in swarm mode. He never has problems walking one cast into a hive occupied by another cast. He prefers walking in to tipping them in, because this transfers the scent of thousands of feet walking in the hive entrance and marking it as ‘ours’.

[I would add that swarms typically only carry about 3 days’ food in their stomachs. If you catch one which has been hanging in one place for days, hive it as soon as practical.]

He pointed to one hive and explained this was a failed colony, they were queenless after he tried a blind swap (walk away split). “So I suppose you’ll get lots of honey?” asked Jane, as queenless colonies tend to just accumulate it with no brood to eat it, unless they become drone laying workers. We saw this in one of her hives at the last meeting.

Stores being methodically emptied (round holes, not ripped open by robbers)

“Ha! No! Because they are relocating their stores back to their mother hive! Look,” he said, opening a window. “This honeycomb is being emptied and moved ‘home’. By Autumn the cast will be all back in the mother hive, reinforcing her with workers and stores, leaving THIS hive empty of all but empty white honeycomb – which wax moth won’t touch, because they only eat brood comb. Comb takes a lot of resources to build, and next year this hive will be rapidly occupied by a prime swarm, because every colony here is keenly aware of the state of the other hives. It’s not true swarms won’t enter a hive near their origin: I see it all the time, with my bees.”

This was perhaps the take home lesson of the meeting. He allows the bees as much time as they want to express natural behaviour, watches and gains insights commercial beekeepers don’t make time to see. Obviously you need a reasonable number of hives to afford to wait and watch like this.

Dana suggested there was an unnatural density of hives here, distorting behaviour. Gareth accepted this, though Filipe volunteered that in Blenheim woods he knows of 9 small colonies within 200m of each other.


Gareth’s starter colonies were swarms from local roofs and walls, which became darker over a few years. Further down the valley, the bees are darker yet – purer Amm. Lately though a farmer 2 miles away is using Buckfasts, and another neighbour Carniolans. Gareth shrugs this off. “What works will survive. In warm years I see my bees getting somewhat yellower. In bad weather years they get darker as the Amm outcompetes the warm weather ones.”

Dana asked if Gareth knew where the nearest DCA (mating site) was. “It’s this apiary, and I’m only half joking. Amm does local apiary mating, if the summer is wet. Some years, there’s a break in the weather and for half an hour drones (and some queens) pour out of every hive for a quickie and cover everything in the vicinity. They’ll land all over you too, it’s mayhem. Half an hour later they’re back inside. The neighbours’ bees can’t get here.”

Many thanks to Gareth and Lynne for their extreme hospitality and the very tasty soups, and to everyone who brought breads and cakes!

P.S. Writing this up, it has just struck me we never once mentioned varroa in the entire meeting – it’s a non issue. Gareth switched from miticides to natural selection around 2007.

This entry was posted in Apiary visits, Ecology, Hives, Log hive, Meetings, ONBG, Skeps, Sun Hive, Swarms, TBH, Warré and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ONBG meeting, June 2022 – Unlearning beekeeping

  1. Bridget Tennent says:

    I was sad not to join your visit to Gareth and Lynne, thank you for such an interesting report!

    I was planning on opening my hive on my return, but will now wait until august!

    Thank you Bridget

    Sent from my iPhone Bridget Tennent



  2. hunneybun says:

    It was a great meeting and Paul’s post explains some of the things I didn’t manage to grasp on the day! Thanks to all.


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