Dan Basterfield was born into beekeeping, earning pocket money from when he was 6 years old clipping and marking queens in his father’s honey farm. Now many years later he has a National Bee Diploma and is a Master beekeeper and is a partner in that family business in South Devon. He lectures and publishes widely on all things beekeeping.
The George Theiry room at Shipham was packed, with extra seats required for the audience. Dan started by covering the usual advice for the approaching season: have a plan – what are your aims for the coming year - clean and repair equipment, and buy replacement frames and foundation at sale prices.
There was a fascinating insight into how Blackberry Honey Farm operates. His parents, Ken & Maureen, started the business many years ago, and Dan is now a partner. They have developed a particular way of keeping bees, which I have seen first hand during a club visit last summer. All their boxes, those intended for brood and those intended for honey, are the same size. They are mostly standard nationals (Dan doesn’t like 12 x 14s, he thinks they are “too long”). Somewhat unbelievably, they also use commercial brood boxes as supers. If the super is too heavy to lift – and this goes for any super – take out a few frames to lighten it! These arrangements give them great flexibility. For example, there can be foundation drawn in a brood box and then transferred to a super for rapid honey storage, or vice versa.
A very interesting point was that in the early part of the season they do not use queen excluders. It is often advised to put supers on early, to try to avoid swarming. If you do this and leave off the queen excluder, the queen feels less confined, and the swarming urge is reduced still further. Because the colony wants to retain the structure of the brood nest, the queen rarely lays up into the super. In effect the colony regulates the size of the brood nest. If it rises into two or even three boxes, then it will get larger and stronger and deposit more honey.
For varroa control they deploy formic acid (Formic Pro) in the summer and oxalic acid in the winter, using a heat gun. He is also considering using Formic Pro in the short time between the spring honey being taken off and the start of the summer flow.
Dan advised that all queens should be clipped and marked by the end of the season. They have found that if a colony supersedes their queen at the end of the season, they are likely to do it again – in better circumstances – at the beginning of the season. (For marking, they use a pot of Airfix paint and a matchstick.)
Select your method of swarm control and prepare in good time. Most methods involve colony splits and the Pagden is as good as any.
Unite weak colonies in the autumn after the honey is taken off. It is far better to have a smaller number of strong colonies. You can increase again in the spring. Do not try to requeen in the autumn; let the bees decide what they want. Heft the hives in the winter and feed fondant if necessary.
It was an impressively informative talk; one of the best I’ve attended. Dan gave us a great deal of solid advice, speaking with the easy manner and confidence of someone with a lifetime experience of keeping bees and studying beekeeping.