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5th Annual Bipco Bee Improvement Day at Dobwalls, Cornwall

on 6th February 2016



Firstly, I would like to thank like-minded folk who attended the 5th Bee Improvement Day (BID) held at Dobwalls on a very wet, miserable day. The atmosphere inside was far from dull with trade stands and kitchen volunteers beavering away long before most of us had even left home.


So how did it go? Nick Bentham-Green, our Chairperson, made sure things moved at a steady pace, keeping his ‘beedy’ eye on the clock and giving a short introduction to the various speakers.  The order of the day would unfold, trusting the technology would behave itself.


Willie Robson was our first speaker. He is a commercial beekeeper from ‘up country’ at Chain Bridge Honey Farm, Berwick- upon Tweed. We would like to thank Willie and his wife Daphne, for making the long trek down by train on the Sunday prior to the conference to enjoy a little sightseeing of Cornwall and Devon. They also joined a few of the BipCo members and partners for a very enjoyable evening meal at the Hayloft, Liskeard. The food and conversation was excellent and gave everybody a chance to get to know each other a little better ready for BID.


Willie's presentation was very informal, taking the form of a reflection on his journey and experiences in the very precarious business of making a living from producing honey and it's by-products in the inclement Northumbrian weather. Willie soon realised that lady luck had a vital part to play on his journey with so many variable's and mother nature throwing all she could to upset the apple cart. Determination and a strong survival instinct drove him on. Today the hard work has paid off and Willie has a very successful business employing 10 part time and 10 full time staff and over a long time has established a very highly regarded brand name. His 1600 hives continue to do their magic, making their produce which has already been spoken for. Questions were taken from the floor, which prompted Willie to change ‘tack’ at will to answer each subject raised; you can't put this man off his game! His presentation is totally unscripted, very relaxed and was enjoyed by all.


The coffee break gave us all a chance to catch up with those who had ‘gone to ground’ for the winter and to, once again, cross paths with those we seldom meet.


Maureen Wakefield (NBU) travelled down from York by train, hats off to GWR that three people that made it to Cornwall on time, came by rail.


Maureen is, by her own admission, not an expert on apiculture but obviously an accomplished and experienced entomologist and project manager. Some of what she said went a little over my head at times, but that's no reflection on the quality of a really interesting Project, namely SMARTBEES, which she explained with clarity and left us knowing it is in a  safe pair of hands. BipCo is developing an apiary at St Cleer to be actively involved in this European project which should assist us in identifying and protecting our native bees, whilst working together with some structure, which I believe is welcome and timely.


Rodger Dewhurst, a local bee keeper, is actively working with Andrew Brown and Nick Bentham-Green on an ongoing project named B4 (Bring Back Black Bees). He informed us of their work and successes thus far.


B4 have been tirelessly and painstakingly collecting local samples of near native, look alike and bees judged to show real promise. Initially morphometry was used on bees from Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. These samples have then been sent out to Switzerland to obtain the analysis of their DNA to establish the purity of AMM.


Rodger presented the results which confirmed that small pockets exist of near native purity, and he now intends to expand the project and create areas flooded with near native bees. Because there are so few populations of this Cornish Amm, he said that it is vital that we take positive action to increase the numbers of this very rare honeybee.


Eric James, newly appointed Seasonal Bee Inspector for our area, took the opportunity to introduce himself and remind us of the precautions relating to biosecurity both in our clothing and hive tools as well as apiary hygiene.


Lunches were made available and promptly served.  Many thanks to Bev, Steph, Vicky and Ollie for doing such a great job. There was also an abundance of gorgeous cakes, which disappeared almost as quickly as they were put out on the serving counter.


Jo Widdicombe was our last speaker, and informed us of the long awaited mechanism to link the national organisation of BIBBA to more localised needs in different regions across England, Wales and Scotland.  Ireland have formed their own bee improvement group. I think it is fair to say that if BIBBA is to survive and more importantly to have a role to play in conserving the local Amm, then it has to be much more proactive than it is at present


Jo asked for suggestions and opinions to make the way forward to modernise BIBBA and invited all the breeding groups in the South West to keep their own identity but exist under one united banner.  

I feel that this could be a discussion point at our next AGM to be held at Duloe Marquee Bar at the village hall on 25th February at 7.30pm. All are very welcome to have your ‘two penny's worth’ and if you feel you want to be involved a little more you can put yourself up for election onto the committee or volunteer to help on some of the forth coming events.


Raffle completed, Nick thanked all concerned in the organisation of such a great day, he thanked the spaeakers, thanked the Trade stands - Beekeeping Supplies, BBwear, and Northern Bee Books for their support, and concluded with a summing up of an enlightening and very enjoyable day. Finally he thanked the 80 (yes 80!) or so Beekeepers who braved the elements to come along.


Chris Rose

Breaking news from The MOD sustainability magazine



July 2014

BIPCo Visit to Pembrokeshire













In January 2014 BIPCo (The Bee Improvement Programme for Cornwall) held its 3rd Annual Bee Improvement Day. All three annual events have been stimulating days, inspiring and encouraging beekeepers to set about selecting and improving their bees. At the most recent event Robert Jones, bee farmer and champion of the native bee, came to talk to us about his methods of improving and breeding the honey bee. The farming background to the methods used was obvious, and the use of ‘stockmanship’ with bees as with any other livestock was a revelation.


Stockmanship in farm animals involves the management of breeding stock to produce the qualities that we are looking for. In sheep, for example, one would look for a ram with a certain quality that may be missing or weak in the flock. By crossing with this ram, this particular quality can be introduced and then selected for in the sheep produced in the next generation.


Most of us thought that bees were different as we have resigned ourselves to having less than perfect control over the male line, unlike in farm animals where the breeding male is of such importance. In January we were told that the emphasis on improving our bees should be on the drone. It is easy to focus almost entirely on the selection and rearing of queens but until we appreciate the important role of the drone, and how to manage it, our progress will be limited.


An explanation of how we can manage our drones and achieve the matings we require was given but, as in any lecture, there is a difference between explanation and actually seeing and understanding it for ourselves. The obvious answer was for use to take a trip up (or down) to Pembrokeshire and see for ourselves how things work, and also to see the results that were being achieved. We were kindly invited to visit for a weekend.


A date in July was settled on and seven of us made the journey in two vehicles. The whole weekend was made extremely pleasant by the hospitality shown to us and by a series of visits to some of the best eating houses in the County. However we were here to see the bees and perhaps more importantly to see how the system worked and what was being achieved. As in the lecture in Cornwall, the whole emphasis was on the drones and how to get the queens mated with the right drones. We were taken to various viewpoints to study the topography and to be given an explanation of how, through the use of microclimates, matings will take place with the selected drones in the area.


The general principle is that a site is selected within woodland in a steep valley and where high winds are common above the shelter of the valley. A clearing in the valley together with the height of the trees provides a flying area for the queens and drones like a 50 foot high funnel. The queen’s mating flights take place within this area and excellent control of the drone line is achieved. The principle seems to be quite different to that of the drone congregation areas which we are told form in spells of warm settled weather, presumably this makes use of ‘apiary vicinity mating’, something not recognised on the Continent.


The qualities of the bees are maintained and improved by the use of different apiaries specialising in different characteristics. For example one apiary may be dedicated to ‘non-swarming’ bees, another to ‘docility’ and so on. There was even one apiary with slightly more defensive bees as this may be a useful quality (as bees do need to defend themselves at times). By having one main quality to maintain and refine, results become much more achievable. Each line is maintained separately but is also used to cross with other lines to strengthen a particular characteristic within the bees. So the resources are there to develop a balanced bee which will perform to a high standard.


So, what were the bees like? It has to be said that we were all very impressed with their qualities, docile, low-swarming and very productive – and the queens maintained productive colonies for 4 or 5 years. It was a tremendous advert for the native bee and what could be achieved. One was left wondering why anyone would advocate the importation of bees.


Overall, it was a real eye-opener. I feel as though I have got to grips with the basics of bee improvement but this showed me that we can take things to another level and actually carry out ‘bee breeding’ with our bees, as with farm animals, and without any high-tech methods.











Jo Widdicombe


2nd May 2014

  • April was a good month for the bees with average weather allowing bees to collect nectar and pollen from willows, cherry, dandelion and so on. Now bluebells, horse chestnut and, in particular, sycamore are in full swing. Most colonies are prospering but a few drone layers have cropped up. It is interesting how queens seem to get the colony through the winter and start to expand, and when all seems to be taking off, drone laying sets in. Are these winter losses or spring losses?
  • With colonies building up well, there have been a few early swarms around. I have had a couple of colonies, in Nationals, rearing queen cells before expanding into the super. I consider this a poor trait for queens to have but It could be argued that the queens have run out of space to lay. One wonders whether the same would have happened in a Commercial hive in which case perhaps I am being too hasty in condemning these queens.
  • In previous years I have been happy to split swarming colonies to make increase, particularly early in the season, but now I am anxious to propagate from low-swarming bees. When queen cells are found I am putting old queen in brood box at top of hive with own entrance and above a queen excluder. I reduce queen cells to one open cell and leave at bottom of hive so can mate and start laying. Supers can be added in between. The hive can eventually be united around new laying queen. The aim is not to increase stocks of swarmy bees whilst also producing a good crop of honey.
  • Queen rearing is underway now and should continue on a weekly basis for 8 to 10 weeks. More details later.


21st March 2014

  • First day of Spring, for some. A good week or two for the bees, weatherwise. At first hazel and gorse, now willow but going a bit cold and wintry with northwesterly wind.
  • Have been checking all the apiaries to see condition of bees. Can range from needing more space to needing more food. Last year more of the latter during the spring as too cold for bees to get out. This year more of the former with few hungry bees but some strong colonies. Not sure about the theory of bees eating a lot more in a mild winter.
  • Feeding bees with candy from Christmas onwards has become a very popular technique with many beekeepers. When I first moved to this area in the seventies, the local beekeeper did not feed his bees at all. He said that they got plenty of stores from the ivy to last them all winter. Reading an old book (Swarm Control Survey by E.R. Bent, 1946), I found the following quote from the Bee Departmentof Rothampstead Experimental Station, ' a result of five years' trials of methods of feeding it is concluded that the spring "stimulative" feeding of syrup is not effective, and that winter candy feeding is unnecessary and undesirable provided the colony has ample stores'. Clearly many of our bees are quite different now to what they were then.

  • Rather than supers, I like to add a second brood box to a couple of colonies in each apiary, for queen rearing and nuc making. This is an opportunity to ultimately get rid of a couple of colonies that are not favoured for bee improvement, thus improving the average quality of bees in the apiary without wasting resources. They will be selected if their temper is not good or they are clearly not a near-native stock. As soon as they are strong enough they can be used for rearing queens (larvae from a breeder queen) and then broken up to make 6 nucs..

Jo Widdicombe


6th March 2014

  • Spring is upon us (March 1st?) and the worst of the winter should be behind us, unless we have a repeat of last year when it was bitterly cold well into May - an exceptionally mild but stormy winter. The next few weeks are critical to the bees when we find out if they have been able to turn the corner and we see the colonies expand again. First impressions are that the bees look good with pollen being taken in. One fatality so far which you could blame on the stormy weather, or bad management - a roof was lost off a polynuc, and although replaced again, the bees had been thoroughly drenched and did not survive.
  • Varroa treatment. I normally treat the bees late-summer with Apiguard and late December/early January with a trickle of dilute oxalic acid. Last year Varroa levels were exceptionally low, probably due to the shortened breeding season (long cold spring). Late summer treatment was carried out as normal, but with the low varroa count and the very mild weather I did not do the oxalic treatment as normal. We will have to see what this season brings.

Jo Widdicombe



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