It started with a question

A certain topic has been brought to my attention on many occasions recently.  After speaking to people at stalls, via email, on the telephone and face to face, this topic has continued to arise and it now needs to get out of my head.

This topic can be controversial, which has led to some interesting, open minded and sometimes heated conversations, and it all started with this simple, almost innocent question.

“Do you have any honey for sale”?

I am a beekeeper, I am not a commercial beekeeper, a conventional beekeeper or a natural beekeeper or any other name given to label a person who follows a set of goals or beliefs.  I firmly believe that I am and therefore anybody else who provides a home to a colony of honey bees is in fact a beekeeper.

This year we have gained several new colonies.  What I mean by this is colonies that are within their first year inside a hive with us, albeit collected by swarm collection, artificial swarm or have changed their landlord.

These colonies became our garden neighbours or non-paying tenants throughout the year, which to us means they are all in different stages of size and cycle of life.   It is often quite a challenge to ascertain how they are doing and if they are feasible to survive on their own accord.

Last year (2014) I removed 30kgs of honey from our hives.  The honey was sold very easily with a demand for even more eagerly seeking my attention; we even managed to keep a couple of jars for ourselves.  We ensured that the colonies had more than enough honey to get them through to this year.  But it got me thinking and asking myself many questions.

How much honey should be left inside the hive for them?
How much honey do they need to survive until next spring?

My usual answers to these questions were swallowed up quickly and needed recalculating by a load of what if questions

What if we have a really mild winter?
What if we have a prolonged spell of bad weather in spring?
What if they hadn’t made enough honey for themselves this summer?

This got me thinking about…

Do some beekeepers unintentionally take too much honey from their colonies?

Instead of answering this question I let it rest within the murky depths of my mind.

This summer we went to a beekeeping convention where one of the speakers, a respected and experienced beekeeper was presenting to a room of non-beekeepers, I sat in and listened to this different perspective.  The talk was holistic yet scientific and presented in such a way that stopped me in my tracks and brought to my attention my previous questions.

Basically what was suggested was…

A honey bee colony will create surplus honey to provide food for their colony to survive situations which include periods of bad weather and dearth of forage.  This we already knew but what was new to me was the proposal that we should dismiss the usual approach which measures honey production on a seasonal and annual basis and adopt the theory that the bees produce honey that may be needed across more than one season or year. Each eusocial organism endeavouring to ensure that the colony survives what nature throws at them, reduced nectar flow, extremes of temperature and weather without the measurement of a 12 month cycle as we understand it.

This leads me to considering that Honey Bees and Humans have different understandings of the term surplus. So there may be enough for them to survive this winter, but what if we have another cold and frozen 5-6 weeks until May like we had a few years ago? Say that was followed by 2 months of low temperatures and then six months where the rain did not let up… Extreme I know, but worth a thought.

Therefore do they ever really have surplus honey at any one time, maybe not, as they may not need the entire surplus to get through the winter and into Spring but may need their hard worked reserves the following year or year after that.

This different perspective has made me stop and think.

I looked back again to when people say Honey bees started having problems, then added when humans started moving more and more colonies of honey bees out from their chosen homes and locations and into man made hives.

I have considered how our climate and weather has changed over the past 200 years, and took into account the different rates that Bees and Humans are evolving and the current argument which debates whether our two species are evolving together at rates that are compatible and sustainable for both to survive?

The melting pot of arguments only scratch the surface and each needs further research and explanation, however, I am now asking myself as an individual beekeeper.

Should I be reviewing the way I keep my bees?…  Where I live the weather doesn’t fit into the seasons as we traditionally would expect it to…

Are we asking too much of them if we take any of their honey at all? Should we take little and often?

So when I am asked this year “Do you have any honey for sale”?

“No, I don’t sorry”… I have to admit the jury is out on this one today. Tomorrow I might know more to inform my final decision, but for now I will take my cup of tea out to the paddock to watch the bees while I ponder further…

The Compost Bin Honey Bees

This story begins with a message asking me to get in contact with them as there are Bees in their friends compost bin.  After an initial chat about what the bees look like, and how many of them there are, it was decided to pay them a visit.

The Compost Bins Honey Bees

On a Monday afternoon around 1515hrs we arrived at their address to see for ourselves who was living inside the Compost bin.  It was in fact a colony of Honey Bees and we decided to ask some further questions, to ascertain exactly what we were dealing with.  The family moved into their home in January 2014 with Bees already inside the compost bin.  In around March / April there was a lot of activity with at some point a swarm leaving the compost bin.  This reduced the amount of Honey bees and gave the residents some piece of mind.

The family had a second child recently and were a little anxious of raising a young child whilst living with Honey Bees in their garden, which is why I was contacted to remove them.

As I looked at the compost bin, the honey bees appeared active and healthy for a warm October day. The lid of the compost bin was shut, I was unable to see how big and what condition the colony was without removing the lid and disturbing them.

With the honey bee retrieval equipment at the ready, I turned the lid and carefully removed it.  Wow was the first word that sprung to mind at the initial sight of the colony.  The colony had made some beautifully shaped comb and they had a placid personality.

I managed to place the lid upside down on the floor so we could begin the removal of this colony.  We started by removing all of the honey comb and placing it inside a container, there was some honey inside the comb, but not enough for them to survive until the following spring.

Once the entire comb was removed, I shook the remainder of the Honey Bees into the container.  It was now time to retrieve the Honey bees from the compost bin, therefore it was time to use the bee vacuum.

I turned to the container which now contains the comb and honey bees.  I placed on a lid that had been adapted to take two vacuum hoses and prepared to remove them.  I turned on the vacuum and began sucking up any honey bees found on the compost bin and us, this process did not take long to complete and we were finished and ready to pack up and return home.

After a 45 minute return drive home, all that was left to do was to rehome this colony into their new home, which is my demonstration Warre, so after a little setting up, the beehive was ready.

I placed a queen excluder between the 1st and 2nd box which would contain the Queen inside the beehive.  Comb with honey stored inside was separated from the empty comb and placed on top of the queen excluder to give the colony their honey back to them.  The bees inside the container were then poured into the beehive before we closed up the hive and walked away.

The Compost bin Honey Bees new home

We just have to wait in anticipation to see how these honey bees take to their new Warre beehive.  As long as we see some new comb being built under the top bars, with Honey bees continuing to live inside, hopefully, just hopefully we will see them in the Spring of 2015 ready for another year.

50 Shades of Honey

I remember visiting a friend’s home when they were bottling honey from their beehives, the different colours of each jar was inspiring to me.

A few years later and it is my turn to harvest some honey.  I have only taken a little bit of honey from my hives in the past but this year was more than I was used to.

There are two hives at my workshop, one National and one Warre beehive.  After checking how much honey was there in September, it was decided to take 2 supers from the National beehive and 1 box from the Warre beehive.

Super frame

National super Warre box with honey comb

When the boxes made it home, it was decided to start on the National supers first.  From following the instructions carefully from various websites, we worked on one frame at a time cutting the honey comb out into a container and slicing it up into many pieces to help release the honey.  We then mashed the comb with a potato masher or a pestle.  Once the container was full of mashed up comb, we inserted muslin into the fruit press followed shortly after by our mashed up honey comb.  We continued this until the fruit press was full.

Slicing honey comb Mashing honey comb Honey Press

Before we even started pressing, honey began to flow through the muslin and was on its way.

We began to use the press and with the honey aided by gravity, it flowed through our 2 sieves before falling into a container.  We used sieves to catch any large bits that were not honey, this could have been wax, parts of bees or anything else, this process was repeated until both supers and Warre box were complete.

Honey Press Sieving honey

To my surprise, we harvested 10kg from super 1, 10kg from super 2 and 10.5kg from the Warre box.  What a fantastic surprise to have 30.5kg of pure honey from the most wonderful Honey bees living in Cwmbran, South Wales.

Now that we had a considerable amount of nature’s sweetener, it was decided to keep some and bottle some.  2 different types of jars were purchased and so began the bottling process, this was a most enjoyable experience on my senses.  The sights, smells and of course the tastes were fantastic, even awe inspiring and many other words that I would only find in a thesaurus, or that I make up like fan-dabbie-dosey.

Honey Jar

It was time to think about labels for these jars, it was quickly decided that we would design them ourselves and not pay for the quite frankly boring designs that are widely available or for the fees of a designer.  So after way too many hours learning about a certain design software, a design was chosen.  This however was not the end of the design story, as the printers who were to print them, needed slight modifications to the design for it to work.

Honey Jars

After many, many hours of work, from spending time with the Honey bees, research, cutting honey comb, using a press, bottling honey, tasting honey, designing labels and sending multiple emails to the printers.  This is something of which I thoroughly enjoyed, learnt so much, tasted so much, had so many headaches but would not change any of it.

Show me the Honey…

A time in the beekeeping calendar has arrived recently for GlastonBees.  It all started when taking 1 super filled with frames of Honey from Gwenyn Mêl 2 (the National hive).  

After taking up the kind offer from a friend, I had the use of his honey extractor for the weekend to speed up the process of collecting honey.  Gwenyn Mêl 2 (the national hive) have a brood chamber and a super to use for their colony development, so the other super filled with honey was considered excess by moi.  
  
This year I have gone from 1 lovely colony of honey bees to 3 lovely colonies of honey bees.  The 2 newer colonies arrived in June and August, and have yet to produce, what I deem the recommended amount of stores for them to survive through to the spring of 2014.  So without any hesitation, the Honey that was just taken from Gwenyn Mêl will be stored and used to supplement the others as and when required. 


This did baffle the minds of some people who were expecting to get honey from me as soon as some were available.  Well the way I see it is this…  These wonderful ladies have worked their little arses off at every available opportunity to make this Honey and it is the best possible food for them to feed on.  



Why another person would take most of this honey from the lovely honey bees and replace it with a sugar syrup or ambrosia, is something which I struggle with.  I understand that there is a potential financial gain to be made, but I believe that bees should only eat honey, and their own at that.  They should only be provided an alternative such as sugar syrup if it is the last resort, as a matter of survival. The benefits of the bees must be prioritised before the benefit of the beekeeper.

So far there has been only 2 jars of honey taken from the heavily laden container.  This wonderful Cwmbran honey tastes amazing, yes I may be biased but those who have tasted it have also agreed, that it tastes better than shop-bought honey.

For the time being the honey bees living in my hives will be closely watched to check on the amount of food stores that they have, with plenty of food in standby incase they need a help in hand.

Nos da bawb