Queen Rearing on Colonsay Island with Andrew Abrahams
Updated: Jul 6, 2022
Our journey to the inner Hebrides to visit a living legend of the beekeeping world...
Andrew at work, tending his bees. He didn't don a glove the entire weekend... his bees are so gentle, and Andrew so attuned to their moods and movements that he feels no need even for his veil most of the time.
A couple of hours by ferry from Oban on the West Coast of Scotland, you will find the island of Colonsay. Dotted up and down this 7 mile long island of roughly 120 inhabitants, in woodland, meadows and on heather moors, you might spot some very special apiary sites. These colonies of Scottish black honeybees are tended by the one and only Andrew Abrahams. Andrew has made it his life’s work to rear this rare, dark honeybee subspecies, native to our British Isles, ensuring it’s future in the face of multiple challenges.
Two days on the island took on a timeless quality as we immersed ourselves into Andrew's world. Despite the weather not always being wholly in our favour, he knew it's patterns and foibles like the tides, and was able to capitalise on windows of warm sunshine to open his hives and demonstrate the art and science of Queen rearing.
This process involves significant skill, a head for strategizing, and a deep knowledge of the both the bees, and the islands which they call home. Andrew’s passion, care and understanding for his hardy stock, the result of decades of work, was really quite special to behold, as was his incredible foresight and long-term planning for the sustainability of Colonsay’s bee population, a journey he embarked on over 40 years ago.
One of Andrew's well chosen apiary sites, this one takes advantage of a huge bank of gorse (out of frame), providing an early source of bright yellow pollen in Spring, and masses of nectar soon afterwards
We were privileged to see his honey shed (a hallowed space next to his home, accessible only when the tide is out on his own private, tidal peninsular) in which he extracts, processes, jars and labels the rich, dark, and delicious Colonsay honey. The texture is so luxurious and thick that we could barely believe it had not been creamed post-extraction. The mix of forage to be found on the island results in a beautiful, complex, multifloral honey, with heather the star of the show, giving it a taste evoking the unspoilt wilds of the Hebrides. Suffice it to say, a jar of two of this liquid gold came back to the Welsh hills with us...
Left to right: the view from Andrew's vegetable garden which he enriches with sea weed taken directly from the shore below, a jar of Colonsay honey, rocky outcrops frame the shoreline, driving over the strand, Andrew's antique smoker, visiting a woodland apiary
The weekend provided a fascinating window into the inner workings of commercial beekeeping in a climate and season quite different to our home, 400 miles south in the Ceiriog Valley. Whilst we may keep the same subspecies of honeybee, the challenges facing Andrew on Colonsay are almost the exact inverse of our own. With no verroa destructor or foul brood on the island, Andrew has a strict no-imports policy where bees are concerned, so as not to introduce the parasites and disease so potentially problematic for beekeepers on the mainland. This extends to beekeeping clothing and equipment, and we were forbidden from bringing our own for the course, and rightly so. However, cut off from the option of supplementing his stock with that of other beekeepers, this policy also means he must guard against inbreeding in his bee population. Quite different from our stock in the Ceiriog Valley, where we are constantly working to ensure our dark honeybees are not subject to undesirable levels of hybridisation with imported and non-native bees.
Over two unforgettable days, Andrew has certainly given us food for thought, and equipped us with the knowledge to develop Queen rearing as a new and exciting area of The British Bee Company. We’ve returned to our hives here in Northeast Wales with renewed drive and dedication to rearing exceptional, native dark honeybees that are resilient, calm and gentle, and have all the best and most sought after qualities of their species. We have already begun to put our strategy into action here in the valley, and we are very much looking forward to having beautiful, dark Queens both for use in our own hives, and available for sale.