Plus, the perils of hybridisation illustrate the importance of Queen rearing
With families on their summer holidays, and many places in the UK and Europe having experienced serious heat over the past weeks, it seems strange to be thinking about winter… but, such is the beekeeping year! As we look to the Autumnal season ahead, we’re trying something a bit different this year in terms of our colony management and preparation for the following season.
After having been so inspired by our visit to master beekeeper Andrew Abrahams on the isle of Colonsay; back in July we made steps to increase focus on our Queen rearing. We took the decision to make up extra nuclei of bees from our very best breeding stock of beautiful, gentle and productive Welsh black honeybees, sited in hives at our remote mating apiary.
These nucs, all with newly mated 2022 Queens, will spend August and September at our heather moor apiary, stuffing full their stores with nutritious heather honey to see them through the winter. On our recent visit to check on the progress of the nucs, it was wonderful to see such abundant forage, with all kinds of pollinators including bumble and solitary bees, hoverflies and of course our honeybees all taking advantage of the hills awash with dusty purple flowers. Conditions must be just right for the heather to flower and secrete nectar in such profusion, and old timey beekeepers say that when the heather comes right like this, a strong hive can fill up a super a week! It’s said that heather honey is the Champagne of the honey world, and it’s easy to see why. This pungent, amber honey has a unique and delicious flavour and is reportedly high in antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties. It is so thick, that it cannot be extracted via the usual, centrifugal method used for wildflower honey, and must be pressed, or else agitated with a special machine to encourage it out of the cells.
However, delicious as it may be, our focus here is not on honey production, but on rearing the best lines from excellent Queens. The heather honey will stay tucked safely in the brood boxes over the winter, acting as both nourishing food and insulation and helping these small colonies to emerge healthy and ready for a new season in Springtime.
The reasoning behind our expanding our provision of overwintered nucs is multidimensional, giving us the management options a surfeit of Queens and workers affords, making a limited number of nuclei available to other beekeepers next Spring, and taking a step towards setting up a Queen rearing arm of the business. Since Brexit, and the change in legislation around the importation of whole colonies of honeybees, there has been a real sea change in how many people are approaching beekeeping, and the choices they make about which kinds of bees they wish to keep, and from where and whom they wish to source them.
It’s been so interesting this year to have suddenly seen such an increase in requests for mated Welsh black Queens. Previously, we have only ever sold nucs (miniature colonies with a mated Queen and five frames of worker bees), however, it’s becoming clear that there is a huge demand for Queens, sold separately from the colony to be carefully introduced into existing hives. These can be used to re-Queen colonies whose Queen has died or disappeared, or those showing undesirable, even aggressive qualities. There was no better example of why and when this might be appropriate, than the situation our friend, actor, filmmaker and fellow beekeeper Amer found himself in recently, which he articulates so eloquently below…
Whilst a little dose of cross breeding in honeybee populations can afford hybrid vigour, and help create resilient populations, too much of a good thing can cause unpredictable and undesirable results in terms of temperament. It’s a curious alchemy that produces a honeybee more than the sum of its parts… crossing the docile Welsh black bee with a European cousin seems to produce bees which are noisy and easily agitated by human behaviour and proximity, often resulting in apparently unprovoked aggression. Not nice to have at the bottom of your garden!
It's an unfortunate, unintended result of Amer's altruism - through removing swarms he has been helping out his neighbours and concerned members of the public. Luckily, we were able to locate the troublesome Queens in Amer’s hives, which had visibly hybridised and were bright yellow, with curiously truncated abdomens compared with our Ceiriog Valley Queens. These were, I'm afraid, unceremoniously dispatched, and replaced with Queens of desirable breeding.
It is with this example in mind that next year, we will be embarking on a new project in Queen rearing, to help beekeepers like Amer, who had a problem that needed dealing with urgently, and to spread the word about the benefits of the Welsh black bee that is part of our heritage, so well adapted to our UK climate, and such a joy to keep.