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Breaking news: member of the High Weald Beekeeping Association wins first prize for their honey at the National Honey Show

Those of you who read my topical tips will be aware that in 2016 Helen Hadley and I took honey up to the National honey show and exhibited our honey there for the very first time. We also took up honey from other members of our association ; in 2016 Helen Searle managed to get a second prize for her lovely Ashdown Forest honey and Helen Hadley managed to get a highly commended for one of her honeys. One of the benefits of showing honey at this level was we were able to ask one of the judges what we should have done to have produced a better entry.
This year I had been as disorganised as usual as I was relying on our chairman, Helen Hadley, to remind me about the National honey show. I had meant to send out an email to everyone at the beginning of September to remind them about the National honey show. When I eventually got online to check about entries I had missed the deadline. However it was possible to make a late entry if one was prepared to pay a fee of £10, which I did. It seemed to me to be important that someone from the Association was entering some of the classes at least.
Armed with the knowledge Helen and I had gleaned last year I decided I would enter class five and several of the other Sussex classes. Class 5 is for honeys from all over the world and the judge tastes and comments on every single entry. This is helpful if you are unsure what it is you should be doing to improve your entry. I had decided to enter runny honey but knew that I would have to use a warming cabinet as my honey in my two buckets had granulated and set hard. I phoned Helen and asked to borrow her warming cabinet. She made this herself and the heat comes from two electric light bulbs.
I took the warming cabinet down to Lesley’s in Saint Leonards and we put my bucket of set honey into the warming cabinet on the Friday night. On the Monday evening we had a look at it and about a quarter of it had started to melt. The rest of the bucket was still fairly solid, so I put it back into the warming cabinet saying to Lesley that I would have to deal with it the next weekend and could she check if it started to melt. The next weekend came and it was still in a fairly solid state. Radical measures were therefore called for. So we took a Pyrex dish and spooned quantities of the honey into that, and then gently microwaved the honey. This made it soft enough (it was still granulated) to put into the settling tank. We were therefore able to get it into jars. Jars, of course, that had been checked for any imperfections. The result certainly wasn’t runny and the granulation was fairly coarse , so I assumed that my entries were going to be a complete fiasco. After all it isn’t very sensible to enter coarsely  granulated honey under the runny honey category! You can imagine the discussion between Lesley and myself: this honey is not runny honey, the granulation is coarse, your honey is cloudy, there are bubbles in the honey, there are fingerprints on the jars and on the lids, have you removed the scum on the top of the honey with clingfilm, is the jar full enough or perhaps is it too full. This is so stressful, why are we bothering to enter the National honey show at all ? However Helen had gone to such trouble last year to get members of the Association to enter, so I felt I really had to at least make the effort of taking my honey up to the show. And at least I had also entered Lesley’s honey so there were going to be at least two members showing their honey in London.
My nine jars and Lesley’s seven jars were put into cardboard boxes and placed into the boot of my car to go back to Crowborough. The warming cabinet also went back to Crowborough as I was unsure when Helen was going to want it next. Once back home in Crowborough I placed the jars on one of the kitchen surfaces and looked despairingly at what we had managed to produce. I thought to myself, to help with this malarkey, I am going to do something really radical. So I placed my nine jars into the warming cabinet and placed them really near the one electric light bulb that was still working. After all by this stage I had nothing to lose. And I went off to work. When I returned that evening the jars were really really warm and the honey had completely cleared. As I said to Lesley over the phone, it now looks like ‘urine’. I knew that this was not going to be sufficient to meet the requirements of the Judge as we had been clearly told that there should be no gap between the honey and the bottom of the lid. This is because this is the only way a judge can guarantee that the right amount of honey has been put into the jar. I could see gaps, so I needed to do something. I opened a jar only to see scum ( a Swedish friend calls this scum the cream as he says it contains more pollen) on the top of my nice runny but warm honey. Of course, I thought to myself, my honey was granulated when it went into the settling tank so any bubbles could not rise to the surface and it was only now that it had been warmed up that the air bubbles had risen to the surface.
So now I also had another problem because I knew that the scum would mark down the honey. This was Tuesday night and I was taking the honey up early on the Thursday morning. So I took a teaspoon and labouriously skimmed off the scum and bubbles and carefully tried to clean the inside edge of the glass. A nightmare! I was sweating by the time I had finished and cursed my rashness in ever having entered the National honey show. Was this going to be a case of hubris before the disastrous nemesis of the actual show? It certainly felt like it! Why is it that I get myself into such scrapes, I muttered to myself?
Now that I had spooned out honey from the top of the jars, they were now even emptier than they had been before. So I carefully spooned three or four teaspoonfuls of honey from one of the jars into the other jars to make sure there was no air gap.  I put an extra jar of coarsely granulated honey into the warming cabinet so that I could have the full number of entries. And the next morning repeated the removal of the bubbles from that extra jar and spooned in some more honey  to top up that jar  to the correct level. I did wonder whether I should put Lesley‘s jars into the warming cabinet but by this stage so much time has been spent titivating my own entries that I just did not have the energy.
The die was cast and the next morning I took the entries up to the National honey show, arriving in Esher at 8:30 in the morning. Judging takes place on Thursday and you know the result sometime during the afternoon. I was most interested by class five because the judge comments on your presentation and on your honey. I took the list and searched for my name among the 48 entries. It took me about 30 seconds to realise that in fact my name was at the top of the list and I had won first prize. It made me inwardly laugh! This particular judge seems to have favoured flavour above everything else because my presentation of the honey was only classed as good and there were several other entries where the presentation was excellent. However the taste was, according to her, beautiful. A lot relies on the tastebuds of an individual judge because I had the same honey entered in several Sussex classes and the honey was not even classed. I did, though, get very highly commended in one of the Sussex classes and, to my satisfaction, beat Harold Cloutt.
Now we have our own honey show on 18 November and it is a much simpler affair. Below are the categories for honey:

  1. CLEAR HONEY    - 1 Jar.   Plain, no labels
  2. SET HONEY         - 1 Jar.   Plain, no labels
  3. CUT COMB         - 1 piece.             Plain pot, no labels
  4. NOVICE CLASS   - 1 Jar of Clear or Set Honey.       Plain, no labels

Novice class is for beekeepers who have never won a 1st or 2nd in a Honey Show.
The Vera Becvar Honey Cup will be presented to the Honey judged to be the overall winner from classes 1, 2 & 3.  To be kept for one year.
If you have honey (congratulations), you should enter. It really is a triumph if you get honey, and it hasn’t been an easy year. If your honey has granulated you can warm it up to get runny honey and that means you will be able to enter one jar of clear honey and one jar of set honey. If you have incipient granulation, a minute or even less in the microwave will get rid of the cloudiness. Or if you prefer, you can warm the honey up carefully in a saucepan surrounded by warm water. Jean Greer does it all completely on taste but smudgy jars and lids and cloudy honey will, I am sure, count against you.
Stuart and Colleen’s husband, Bob, said last year that they were going to enter a honey cake so I have found a recipe that I think may win against them. And of course we no longer have Johannes so anyone who makes candles stands a good chance of winning a prize. Remember also that you can enter the novice class if you have never won a first or second prize in the honey show. We are not even asking for it to be in pound jars. We will be tasting all honeys entered in the novice class. It was such fun last year and I hope you will all enjoy it this year too. Presentation of honey is fairly much like my handling of bees, you never quite know what is going to happen. Look forward to seeing you all!
If in previous years you have been put off by the fact that this is also the AGM, don’t worry. Reports are emailed out to you beforehand and the business of the club only lasts a very short time. This honey show is more like a social event and there is plenty of time to have tea and eat cake.

Malcolm Wilkie 30th October 2017

This is an email I sent out last year. Hope it helps.

Preparing for the Winter - Feeding

It is considered that for overwintering, hives should have at least 30lbs of honey on them, preferably more.  If this is not the case, then you will need to feed your bees.

A full national frame weighs about 5 pounds and a 14 x 12 frame full of honey weighs 7 pounds. If this all gets too confusing then bear in mind that if you can easily lift your brood box up, then the bees do not have enough honey. If the hive weighs a lot and you find it difficult to lift up, then the chances are they will be alright for food.

We still are not at the end of September so you still have time to feed the bees if necessary. A thick syrup is recommended. You can make this up easily by using a 1 kg bag of sugar and a litre of near boiling water (or 2lbs of sugar to one pint) and then multiply up the quantities for the extra weight you want to put onto your hives. The weather is still warm enough for them to be able to convert this sugar into stores.

I have started to see bees with K wings in my hives. This is an indication of acarine mite. However I am not too worried as I treated the bees with Api life Var and so the varroacide will have killed the Acarine as well.

Malcolm Wilkie August 31st 2017

Notes on some of the beginners group apiary setups

Last Saturday Keith, myself, Lesley, and Steve Davies went to see some of the beginners and their apiary set ups. I asked Steve to write down some comments. These you will find below, together with any further information that I have felt relevant. This will be useful not only for our beginners but also for anyone who is new to beekeeping. Also a reminder to those who are more experienced but have forgotten.

These were Steve's concerns.

1) Apiary locations - although several had taken into account prevailing wind etc, some apiaries could be improved with a little effort.

People forget that winter sun should hit the hive for at least two hours - preferably longer. They site a hive in a cold part of the garden. If it is cold in summer, then it will certainly be cold in winter. A cold damp hive will lead to the bees developing fungal infections.

2) Hive locations - the position of some hives within the apiary need to be reassessed. Some are too close together and others in flower beds making it awkward to work on. As well as providing the best for the bees, the beekeeper needs some TLC as well.

Make sure there is enough space around your hives so that you will be able to place the roof on the ground and then any supers on top of the roof. Make sure there is plenty of space for you to stand behind the colony or to the side of the colony. Make sure there is space to put a second colony.

3) Hive entrances - several hives had the entrances completely open which is harder for  small colonies. I've just had to reduce the entrance on one of my small hives as I discovered a wasp repeatedly going in without being challenged!

We are into wasp season and temperatures have now gone down, so think about reducing the entrances. Small units will find it much more difficult to defend their stores. If you are feeding, you don't really want to be feeding the wasps.

4) Queen excluder - some hives had queen excluders in place with no super above. Perhaps a reminder on when to use them and when to remove?

One of our beginners had the Queen excluder above the frames and no crown board. This is not a good idea particularly as this was an extremely small unit. The bees need the crown board in order to be able to keep the brood warm. A queen excluder should only be added when the bees require a super to put the nectar into. A super should only be added once nearly all the frames in the brood box have been drawn out. Beginners in their enthusiasm to get honey add supers too early.

A lot of our beginners were making this mistake, so I assume a lot of you who are starting out are making this mistake too. If you are now in the scenario where all the frames in your brood box have not been drawn out, and you have a super on top of your brood box, remove the super from the bees and feed sugar syrup (the super can be given back to them once the frames in the brood box have been drawn).Add one piece of fresh foundation  (and I mean fresh foundation, not some stale wax that has been kicking about in the bee shed all summer) at the edge of the brood nest. Place this fresh foundation nearest the sunniest side of your hive next to the brood as the bees will find it easier to draw it out in that position. Once they have drawn this one out, add another piece of fresh foundation next to the brood. This will be an uphill struggle as the bees are less keen to draw out wax for you now that we are getting further away from the summer solstice.  Perhaps the following sentence will help you remember what it is that you should do in future :

"Always make your bees go outwards before you let them go upwards"

In other words, don't put a super on the bees until they have drawn out the frames in the brood box. Or rather almost all the frames in the brood box.

A word of warning - don't add lots of frames of foundation because the bees will just chew them up. Lesley calls them hooligans. Add a frame each time you inspect, and only add a frame if they are working on the previous one that you added.

5) Supers - some hives had one, or more, supers in place even though the brood frames hadn't been drawn. I know both Helen and yourself sent out emails earlier in the year about this but perhaps it needs to be mentioned again (and how to get the bees to draw stores down from a super that will be removed).

This has been partly dealt with in my answer above. If you want the bees to draw down stores into the brood box, then place your crown board above the brood box, reduce the holes in the crown board (where you would place the porter bee escapes if extracting honey),  place an empty super on top of the crown board, add another crown board on top of the empty super and then add your super of stores. And of course another crown board on top of your stores before you put the roof on. You can never have too many crown boards ! The bees think that the super is not part of the hive and so they rob it out. You may need to score a few frames. This doesn't always work but it does most of the time.

6) Small colonies in full hives - what to do if they don't build up in time for winter? Reducing the hive size using large dummy boards etc and why.

Our beginners are still finding it difficult to judge what is a big colony and what is a small colony. Those who attended the whole day of the bee safari will have now learnt what a large colony looks like as we saw two large colonies at the end of the day. If you have a small unit now, you need to work hard. I would make a cellotex dummy board and put that next to the frame of foundation that I was adding next to the brood nest. This will help the bees raise the temperature so that wax can be drawn out. I would place a piece of cellotex in the roof to try and help them keep warm. I would feed, and then not feed, and then feed again. Your work will be cut out.

 Hope this gives you all food for thought. My timely reminder from Bee Craft suggests we should all look for disease in our colonies. If you have a beehive with less than five frames of brood you should consider combining it with another unit if it is disease-free so that you have a large enough unit to get through the winter.

A final word about honey. Unless you are in a particularly good area for forage, you are probably not going to get any more honey. The exception is if you live in or near the Ashdown Forest. Heather has just come into flower and it is possible that you will get a crop from that although it'll be very difficult to extract. Lesley in Saint Leonards on Sea got a late honey crop but I suspect there are a lot of exotic trees and these were expressing nectar. She also had a super strong colony. Beginners, please remember that you are only going to get honey if you have got loads and loads of bees. This is the challenge of beekeeping. You need lots of bees to get honey but when you have lots of bees they want to swarm. However the one comforting thought for all of us is that the swarming season is now over. This doesn't mean that the bees won't swarm but they are much less likely to do so! Remember what Keith says :

                      "Bees never do anything invariably". 

They are, after all, wild creatures. And we are trying to artificially make them do what we want them to do!!

The following are Steve's final comments.

Hope I don't sound too officious and the info is relevant. It would be nice to get feedback from them all next spring to see how they coped with their first winter.

Please thank all of those who opened their apiaries for us, it was immensely rewarding and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing everything (except the rain).

Hope the BBQ went well and I'm sorry not to have been able to join in. Look forward to catching up on Tuesday.

Kind regards

Steve Davies

Malcolm Wilkie July 27th 2017

The crazy nectar flow continues

This is the first time since I began beekeeping seven years ago that I have experienced such a huge nectar flow for such a sustained period of time. When I am out and about gardening there is still moisture in the soil and weeding is not difficult. This is unusual for me as a gardener at this time of year and is a clear indication that plants can get hold of moisture and express nectar. Coupled with high temperatures this is leading to a huge nectar flow.

What is the consequence for our bees? On opening up hives yesterday I have discovered that the bees are chucking nectar into the brood nest. For me this is of concern because I know that if this continues that is going to trigger swarming. Why wouldn't a hive want to divide given the perfect ideal conditions that we have got at the moment? I have already lost a swarm from a really good box of bees and I am just kicking myself. They were congested and I should have known that that was the case. I was also silly in that I left them for one week without checking. A mistake given how strong a hive they were.

So what can you do? As usual you need to respect the adage that the brood box is for brood. Remove frames of stores and place foundation into the brood box. On a hive that is not too strong, place the foundation at the edge of the brood nest. On a hive that is very strong, place the foundation into the brood nest. Remember this is a sin but given the current conditions we had all better sin than not. Then you need to check your supers and, of course, give the bees  a super with foundation so that they can be kept busy drawing out wax.

I refer you all to Willy Shaw's article about how to renew comb. This article is in the current BBKA magazine. On a strong hive he is removing four frames of stores and splitting the brood nest four times. In a week, given the current conditions, a strong hive will draw out those four frames of foundation (Lesley and I have done that on her strong hive and they certainly drew out the foundation no problem. In fact they drew out four frames of foundation placed in the brood nest and a whole super of foundation placed just above the brood box). And that should take their minds off swarming for the week. The other thing that you can do is to extract the honey you have on the hive. This, of course, will give the bees more space. However if these conditions continue, the challenge of  (a) how to prevent them swarming and (b) making sure that they are not congested, is going to continue. Good luck and try not to lose a swarm as I did, particularly as she was my best queen.

Malcolm Wilkie 6th July 2017

'The current crazy nectar flow'

Just a word of warning to everybody with a big prosperous colony. Evidently a lot of nectar has been going into large hives and this has been causing a problem. Do make sure that your bees have enough space. You may have to do as Helen has done below and add a frame of foundation into your brood box

Here is Helen's message sent to me this morning.

On checking my brood boxes yesterday, they were all full of nectar, so I removed a frame and gave them all a frame of foundation to draw out. Nectar everywhere!!! Queen cells also in amongst the nectar, brood pattern a mess as they have filled every vacant cell with nectar!!! I did say there was a massive nectar flow on. I think I got it wrong last week when I realised there was a crazy nectar flow I should have given the bees more to do, i.e. Given them frames to draw out.

Remember bees need a lot of space to process nectar and convert it into honey. Being a good beekeeper involves trying to be aware of what is going on in the environment and what the conditions are like and then responding accordingly. These high temperatures have made the clover express nectar(temperatures need to be above 70degrees Fahrenheit) and the bees have been collecting this in quantity. Extremely high temperatures make plants express nectar like crazy as long as there is moisture in the soil ; that is currently the case.

Do remember Margaret Ginman's advice : 'Keep your bees busy and then that will take their minds off swarming'. She says that if you treat your bees like a bunch of adolescent boy teenagers, then you won't go far wrong. A responsible parent would never leave a bunch of young teenage boys with nothing to do, because if they did so there would be trouble. In other words make sure you give your bees something to do because, just like teenage boys, if they have nothing to do then at best you will have a sticky mess, and at worst you will have to cope with swarming.

So that means putting in a frame of foundation into the brood box, and adding supers, preferably with foundation in them. If your bees are busy making wax, they won't want to swarm. And making wax will use up some of the excess nectar they are finding in the environment during this current nectar flow. If today you are one of the people where there is a heavy downpour, watch out as that will make the nectar flow even more.

Malcolm Wilkie 22nd June