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Vita Bee Health Global Honeybee Health Experts

Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects

Yes, it really was an extraordinary season

IMG_4139“Oh, it’s been a strange beekeeping season.” I’ve heard beekeepers say that every year that I’ve kept bees. So I will say it this year and claim that it really has been the oddest of years … in this part of southern England at least.

It started with extraordinary rains (the wettest December/January in 248 years) that raised the water tables in the chalk downlands so high that the road past one of my apiaries was a fast-flowing river for several weeks.

After a very mild winter, I discovered in April a completely unexpected Varroa infestation. The colony recovered well after drastic management through shook-swarming and the application of Apistan.

Spring was waterlogged and sluggish to start. Parts of the oil seed rape fields around my apiaries had been washed out and blossom was limited, so the spring harvest wasn’t huge.

Then came summer — and it was a real one, one of the hottest of the century! The season caught up so rapidly that it concertinaed and there was an early June gap (when there are few flowers and little nectar). Suddenly, bees were sniffing around the bee-shed as if it was August.

With such a high water table, the nectar flowed and the summer harvest was bountiful, with the flow lasting much longer than normal.

But there was payback in August when it was the coolest in a century and the bees decided to stay home and prepare for winter.

However, there were yet more tricks in the seasonal arsenal. September and October blossomed. September was one of the warmest and driest ever.  A big second flush of dandelions turned many fields yellow and the ivy (producing honey only the brave can enjoy) gave bumper yields.

The bees took note and started expanding colonies again — to such an extent that uniting colonies became very problematic. I united two only to find that the resulting single colony swarmed and the stay-at-homes were unable to get a new queen mated, leaving me with a drone-laying colony in October. It’s one way of reducing colonies, I suppose!

It was a record-breaking season for weather and for my honey harvest too. I’m now left with too many colonies going into winter as they are still rather too strong to unite. I’m getting to sound like the archetypal farmer.

And now we await what is expected to be the warmest Hallowe’en in decades with the UK expected to be hotter than Istanbul! Spooky!

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger





Remember your first season?

Up on the roof. BCOT beekeepers Lauren, Tim and Vanessa with Pete of the local beekeeping association (left)

Up on the roof. BCOT beekeepers Lauren, Tim and Vanessa with mentor Pete of Basingstoke Beekeepers (left).

On a rooftop less a few hundred metres from Vita’s HQ, Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) has installed two hives. We have been watching their progress with great interest. The BCoT beekeepers were very well prepared for their first season having taken a course with their local beekeeping organisation, Basingstoke Beekeepers.

So, what did they think of their first season? Lauren McCann tells us …

How many colonies did you start and finish with?
Two and two – although we lost one swarm.

Where is your apiary?
On the college roof – in a sheltered west-facing position. A special mesh has been erected around the hives to make sure that any roof repairers don’t have an unwanted surprise!

BCOT's first year efforts showing great presentation skills.

BCOT’s first year efforts showing great presentation skills.

What was your favourite moment of your beekeeping year?
Discovering that we would have a harvest this year – in our very first season! Tasting the honey too – delicious!

What was the biggest surprise of your beekeeping year?
How placid the bees have been and that we’d harvest some honey. We were very excited to discover this!

What did you think of your first sting?
It was unexpected and it hurt more than I would have expected! I’ve only been stung once though, so I can’t complain too much!

What was the most challenging task you undertook?
Judging how much to burn in the smoker to keep it alight during inspections. And lifting the super off when the frames were full – they were quite heavy!

What was your proudest beekeeping  moment?
Seeing our first labelled jar of honey. Magic! We also made beeswax with lavender polish and students used some honey to make honey cake to sell alongside the products.

Basingstoke's finest?

Basingstoke’s finest?

What do you aim to do better next year?
Get quicker at inspections to minimise the stress caused to the bees. And to improve swarm control: one colony swarmed despite our vigilance and anti-swarming actions. Students will be involved next year too.

What most impressed you about your bees?
Just how docile and focused they’ve been in their community on the task in hand. People could learn a thing or two from our little buzzing friends!

Bee invasion

An unexpected cluster in October.

An unexpected cluster in October.

It’s a cool showery day in October, so what’s happening here? This little nucleus colony is unexpectedly busy.

I think this is an invasion in progress. The observation hive in the office, a few metres away has turned into a drone-laying colony and some of the smarter bees must have realised there’s no future in it.

It seems that the observation hive is suddenly being abandoned and there’s a queue at the nuc.

I have not seen this before, but it’s probably quite a common occurrence and shows just how Varroa might  spread. If the colony being abandoned has a high level of Varroa infestation, guess what happens next!

Fortunately this colony is currently being treated for Varroa with Apistan, so it should be safe from invading mites.

Not directly related, but a recent paper showed that Varroa know how to stay in a colony by being able to detect the nurse bees by their slightly different wax coating. But as a colony declines, the differences between nurse bees and foragers becomes undetectable to Varroa and so they will hop aboard foragers and find themselves in a different home, ready to wreak havoc in a once healthy colony.

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Bee Survey shows the importance of proper Varroa treatment

A fascinating new survey from the USA has focussed on over-wintering losses and the effect of honeybee treatments or lack of them. These are the early results and the researchers will try to tease apart the factors to give a cleaer picture early next year.

The results contain some surprises, but the over-riding message is expected and very clear:
if you don’t treat for Varroa with approved treatments, expect higher losses.

The survey which was confined to the USA and undertaken by the Bee Informed Partnership represents 564,522 colonies, 21.7%  of the USA’s 2.6 million colonies.

Beekeepers not using registered Varroa control products lost  27% more colonies than those who treated with registered products.

Beekeepers treating with Apiguard did even better, losing 27.8% fewer colonies than those who didn’t treat with known products.

Beekeepers treating with Fluvalinate products (like Apistan) also did better and lost 31.1% fewer colonies

Using powdered sugar,  mineral oil or other herbal concoctions produced no better results than not treating.

Drone brood removal and screen bottom boards or small cell-size comb did not show lower losses.

The results of using Vita Feed Green and Vita Feed Gold were inconclusive because of the very small sample size. The raw data suggested fewer losses with the feeds, but the difference was not statistically significant because the sample using the products was tiny (14 respondents using Vita Feed Gold).  It is expected that the wider availability of the products this year will show a conclusive and beneficial result in future surveys.

Roman Ralph 1945-2014

Roman Ralph 1945-2014

Dr Roman Leon Ralph (Roman Leon Rafalski) 1945-2014

Vita is very sad to report the passing of Dr Roman Leon Ralph, Business Manager at the company from 1997 to 2009.

Roman was born in Lincoln to a Polish father, a World War II RAF pilot, and an English mother, a Royal Navy Wren. When he was two and a half years old, the family moved to Poland where he was educated and learned to dance, play the piano, learn to fly a glider and was by family accounts “a little tearaway climbing roofs and roaming the streets of Katowice”. The family say that he just managed to scrape through school, but when it came to the final exams he had such high marks that the tutors couldn’t believe it was the same boy!

Roman went on to study agriculture at the University of Olsztyn where he won a scholarship and became a very popular student, a key organiser of the student rag week and President of the Students’ Union. It was at University that he met Mira who was later  to become his wife.

After university, Roman moved back to England, found his biological mother (who had left Poland some years before) and took a job as an Industrial Microbiologist. In 1971 he was joined by Mira, they married and moved to Cambridge where Roman studied for a doctorate at Wolfson College. During this time their two sons were born.

Roman held several posts including Crop Research manager at  Imperical Chemical Industries and in 1992 joined Sandoz as Country Manager for Poland going on to work in logistics at Sandoz Agro. It was at this time that he met Jeremy Owen and Max Watkins.

Max Watkins remembers a long association with Roman: “Both Jeremy and I had known and worked with Roman in our previous employ at Sandoz/Novartis Animal Health in Camberley. Roman joined us as Business Manager when we formed Vita in Basingstoke in 1997. By then we had known each other for several years. He was always affable, always willing to help and he was extremely well-liked by everyone who had contact with him – and there were very many, over the years. He found the world of bees and beekeeping fascinating, so he was happy and authoritative when chatting with beekeepers and other customers alike. On occasion we wondered if Roman needed a telephone at all, as his booming voice could often be heard from long distances.”

Jeremy Owen recalls Roman’s work: “Roman was meticulous in all that he did and, as the business grew, he developed his own complex logistics programme that tracked all components and products in and out. Without doubt it was Roman that kept the Vita products flowing and ensured that Vita complied with the export regulations that became more stringent as the years went past.”

In 2007, Roman was diagnosed with cancer but defied his prognosis of surviving for three years and refused to let the illness dominate his life. He continued to work at Vita until he retired in 2009.

Always with a sense of humour, Roman was asked on his hospital bed how he felt and replied: “according to my age”.

Roman is survived by his wife Mira, two sons, Adam and Richard, and two grandchildren.

Roman’s family requests that if anyone would like to make a donation in memory of Roman, it be made to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Dr Roman Leon Ralph (Roman Leon Rafalski)
12 December 1945 – 1 September 2014

Vita is grateful to Roman’s family for permission to use excerpts from Roman’s Memorial Service about his life.


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