CBKA ‘Bit of a Do’ 2018 – Skep beekeeping

The final talk of our annual joint Cornwall Beekeepers Association & West Cornwall Beekeepers Association Bit of a Do day this September was Chris Park on skep beekeeping.

Chris keeps bees on organic farmland around the Oxfordshire / Wiltshire border and the Upper Thames valley. After researching and experimenting with varying styles of skep beekeeping, Chris teaches and lectures on skep making, beekeeping and beekeeping heritage / history around the UK. He says that the practice of skep-beekeeping is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be educational, rewarding and bee centred, in his experience creating healthy and happy stock.

Chris comes across as quite a romantic character, into folklore and going back to old ways of doing things. He told us that before Britain was inhabited it was called the ‘sea-girt green space’, or ‘Clas Myrddin‘. And then after it was inhabited it was called the ‘Honey island’, or ‘Y Vel Ynys’. Chris has written online about what that name means to him: ‘The Honey Isle by Chris Park‘.

The history of skeps – ‘skep’ means basket and is an old type of woven beehive which is rarely used nowadays apart from for catching swarms. They were made from many materials in the past, with wicker and straw being popular options. Skeps need to be placed under a shelter to stop them getting wet and rotting. Rich men used ‘bee boles’, alcoves in a wall. Poor men used wooden shelters. To try and make them more weatherproof, skeps were dressed with cows dung and hog saliva!

Bee boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Bee boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

He made some observations about the benefits of skeps to his bees:

  • The comb is renewed every 2-3 years when it collapses or the bees die out/move on, so the bees are on fresh, chemical free comb
  • There is less manipulation and hive inspections involved, so less stress for the bees
  • The bees possibly seem a bit calmer in skeps – a visiting bee inspector remarked that they were the calmest bees he’d ever seen
  • Skeps have fewer winter losses, he finds

And also about the disadvantages:

  • Time spent (my notes didn’t cover time spent on doing what – maybe on making the skeps?)
  • Difficult to inspect brood comb
  • You lose any swarms
  • More etiquette involved in where you site skeps, as you can’t predict when they’ll swarm

There are some practical things which can be done to improve on the basic dome shaped traditional design. Putting cross sticks inside supports the comb, otherwise it can fall out when you look inside the skep and then put it down again. Chris learnt this the hard way the first time he put a skep down and then heard a thump as the comb landed down too. You can use an open mesh floor or tray underneath for ventilation and catching varroa. You can also make a multi-layered brood skep with a removable super skep on top, to make harvesting honey less intrusive.

Not many beekeepers use skeps other than for swarm collecting nowadays, but there are a few people out there doing skep beekeeping still. The Dartford association have bee boles in their apiary walls. (While writing this post I discovered this 2013 article: ‘Dartford beekeeper recounts his war ordeal‘, which has a picture of William Mundy, the Chair of Dartford beekeepers, with the bee boles and skeps. He was held as a prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation of Singapore; after managing to catch a swarm he was able to donate honey to the prison hospital so that it could be used to treat wounds and burns).

If you want to read more, check out these articles by Chris for the Dave Cushman website:

Bee bole and skep at Heligan gardens, Cornwall

Bee bole and skep at Heligan gardens, Cornwall

Emily Scott, CBKA member

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Creating Asian Hornet Action Teams (AHATs)

Asian hornet sighting in Cornwall

The National Bee Unit confirmed on 4th September that a suspect specimen caught in a beekeeper’s monitoring trap in the Fowey area of South Cornwall is the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina. More information can be found in the Defra press release, Asian hornet identified in Cornwall.

Asian Hornet Action Teams guidance for local groups

Cornwall Beekeepers Association has put together Guidance on creating Asian Hornet Action Teams for the Association’s local beekeeping groups. This includes an ‘Action Flow Chart’ of actions after a suspected sighting by a beekeeper and advice on how to collect a specimen.

Message from Mary Trace, CBKA President:

Dear CBKA members,

This is a message to all beekeepers so if you know any who are not registered please alert them too.  You will know that the Asian Hornet is confirmed in Cornwall.  Be sure that you know what to look for and spread the word.

Observe, not just in your own apiaries but also where any pollinating insects are gathering eg ivy flowering.  If you can, download the posters from the National Bee Unit and distribute – garden centres, farmers etc.  The insect is a real threat to all our pollinators.  Nests need to be found before the young queens disperse.

Mary Trace
07/09/18

Asian hornet/European hornet/Giant woodwasp comparison - BBKA diagram

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‘The Cornish Bee’ – notes from a talk by Rodger Dewhurst, Gwenen Apiaries

By Emily Scott, CBKA member:

On August 12th I went to a ‘Bee Fayre’, which is an annual weekend event held at Enys Gardens in Penryn, Cornwall. It was a haven for bee fans, filled with stalls selling every bee themed product you can think of, from honey ice-cream, breads and cakes to soaps to cosmetics to beekeeping equipment.

There were also short talks… I’m a bit sad I couldn’t go on the Saturday too, as I missed an eclectic set of talks about making Truro bee friendly, the Help for Heroes bee project, Cornish cider, encouraging young people to become bee farmers and beekeeping in the Scottish borders (presumably from a beekeeper on holiday!).

Enys Gardens

Anyway, here’s my notes from Rodger Dewhurst’s talk. Rodger and his wife Carol run Gwenen Apiaries (Gwenen is the Cornish word for honey bee). Rodger started beekeeping all the way back when he was a twelve year old school boy, in the Lizard peninsula. He told us beekeeping was different back then, as there was more unimproved grassland around. Now more honey bees are imported and many more pests and diseases have been introduced.

Rodger’s beekeeping has changed over the years too. Nowadays he aims to breed Cornish dark bees, Apis Mellifera Mellifera. He has also mainly stopped using smoke and gloves.

He looks for a variety of characteristics in the colonies he breeds from – hygienic cleaning and grooming behaviours, including biting him! – which he takes as a sign that they will bite varroa too. Also good temper, good honey production and flying characteristics – ‘maritime bees’ that will fly in wet weather.

Another anti-varroa trait he looks for is what he calls the ‘geriatric shuffle/shiver dance’ – a motion in which the bees agitate their abdomen to dislodge varroa mites. On the monitoring boards under the hives he looks for dented varroa mite shells, a sign that the mites have dropped through after being bitten at by the bees.

Rodger’s breeding plan is to:

  • Identify best stocks
  • Build these up to strength, with plenty of healthy nurse bees
  • Get them to produce healthy drones (he sometimes treats for varroa so that the drones aren’t carrying viruses)
  • Grafts into pre-prepared cups smeared with royal jelly – about a 90% success rate
  • He squishes any that show signs of varroa poo in the cups
  • He puts the cells in ‘apidea’, special little hives for queen-rearing, containing a mugful of nurse bees which happily rear the queens. These go to mating apiaries in a few different Cornish locations.
  • Once the queens are mated, he will sometimes put multiple caged queens on top of a colony to see which virgin most of the bees prefer to cluster round. He makes a note of those as ‘Alpha’ queens to breed from.

Endearingly, apparently the best drones have “big hairy bums”, because the native Apis Mellifera Mellifera drones are larger. They also fly later in the year than other imported sub-species of Apis Mellifera.

Celebrity beekeeper John Chapple

The day finished with a Bumblebee Safari led by staff from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. It had been sunny up till the end of the day when the Safari started, at which point the Cornish mizzle began coming down.

That didn’t put the hardy bumblebees off though, and we found plenty of them enjoying a large lavender patch. It was good to see small children getting to stroke a male bumblebee and overcome their previous fears.

Have you been to a talk or event recently which you’d like to write about for the website? If so get in touch, we’d love to feature more posts by members. 

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Opportunity to get your bees DNA tested

Ever wondered whether your bees are Italian, Buckfast, Carniolan or near native? Researchers are offering Cornish beekeepers a unique opportunity to have their bees DNA tested, with the option of also taking part in a citizen science project.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth are aiming to take DNA samples and analyse colony characteristics of nearly 300 Cornish Bee hives. This is an opportunity to take part in one of the most detailed DNA testing and phenotypic surveys of bees ever conducted in England.

For more information please email Victoria Buswell: beesurvey@plymouth.ac.uk

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GDPR and BBKA membership procedures update

General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) and BBKA membership procedures – effective from 25 May 2018

All members are to be aware that the procedures for renewals and new membership will change on the 25 May 2018. BBKA have issued a warning letter outlining the proposed changes due to the new GDPR, this document is available here for members to peruse: GDPR BBKA Membership database update

Once firm details are known then group secretaries and members will be informed accordingly as to the new procedures. Change will undoubtedly cause confusion, be patient!

I am happy for members to liaise directly with myself.
Les Buckley
Treasurer/Membership

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