Wisborough Green Beekeepers Association

a Division of West Sussex Beekeepers Association


Book Review

We are often asked about which books to read and at meetings often hear "what the book says". At one meeting there was a discussion about our library books and it was suggested I read and review a selection to go in the newsletter and on the website, hence the following list.

In my view beekeeping books should fall into three categories:-

1. For beginners and non beekeepers.

This is actually quite difficult to satisfy as the books in this category will very quickly be outgrown by a potentially good beekeeper. It is very difficult to write a book that a non beekeeper will understand without explaining in too great a depth and confusing them, yet at a high enough level for the new beekeeper to get something from it.

2. Reference books of a general nature.

For those who have grasped the basics and are able to progress further. These will be aimed at the vast majority of beekeepers and should cover most of the issues that will be presented in a normal season. The vast majority of books will be in this group.

3. Advanced with specialist or technical subjects.

The study of bees in greater depth would be an advantage to most beekeepers as the answers to a lot of questions are found in this group. As they are at a higher level and usually written by experts the information found in most of this section should be reliable.

As the vast majority of beekeepers are amateurs with only a few colonies many of the writers are as well. This often means they don't have the experience needed to write an authoritative book. I am sure many write about things they have little or no knowledge or experience of and perhaps this is why many mistakes appear in several books, simply because they have been copied by successive authors. The problem then is the same information appears in several places and the reader understandably assumes it is correct. I think beekeepers have a right to expect that books are written by people with a high degree of knowledge and experience. For that reason I may appear to be over critical of some books. Some beekeeping books are incredibly badly planned and written, with many being easily dated by the inclusion of such things as prices, legislation and names and addresses of organizations. It will always be the case there are many ways of dealing with the same problem and it doesn't matter how that information is conveyed, whether verbally, via the internet or a book. Very often there will be advice on a subject with no explanation why a particular approach is taken. This just confuses the reader and leads to problems. In general I think non - UK books should be avoided because such things as the conditions and legislation are often totally different. There may well be some items that are relevant, but much won't be. I have been teaching beekeeping since the early 1970's and have seen many beekeepers follow "what it says in the book" only to be disappointed with the result. My own methods have largely been formed by understanding how a colony works and learning the "basics". This simple approach has served me well and makes me wonder why there are so many strange theories and methods promoted in some books. This overcomplicates what should be an enjoyable hobby. In reviewing books I have tried to be as honest as possible and taken the book as a whole. I fully understand there are many ways of keeping bees and that methods I don't use can still be sound if used in the intended way. There may be some where I agree with a large part and disagree with a small part and others where I disagree with most of it. I have not confined reviews to books in the Wisborough Green BKA library as they are constantly changing, but have broadened it to include others as well. All the reviews are by me unless otherwise stated and I hope you find them helpful.

Roger Patterson

Book List

The Buzz about Bees - Biology of a Superorganism. By Jurgen Tautz.

This is a new book that has little to do with practical beekeeping, but about the bees and what goes on in a colony. It explains why bees do what they do, and you can easily work out why management techniques that have been used for a long time are effective. I think this is a really good book that is easy to read, yet in places is in great depth. In my view the author has done a splendid job in turning what would normally be seen as a reference book into a highly readable one that will suit all beekeepers whatever their knowledge level. The photographs are superb and there are plenty of them. My one slight concern is that it is known that different sub-species of bees behave in slightly different ways, and it's clear the author is familiar and works with apis carnica, the carniolan bee, so there may be a few slight inaccuracies. This book would make a nice present, and I can see it becoming a best seller as far as bee books goes. In hardback it can be bought for around £20, which I think is tremendous value.

Sixty Years With Bees. By Donald Sims.

As the title suggests the author has a vast experience of beekeeping. He has kept around 40 colonies in seven counties varying from Devon to Northumberland, and has mainly kept his bees in out apiaries, some 200 miles from home. This needs a different type of management from bees at home, and he has developed his own techniques to suit semi commercial beekeeping with a demanding job. Smith hives are used, and this suits the migratory beekeeping that has been used throughout his beekeeping life. Prolific bees are favoured and multiple brood chambers are obviously needed.

This is probably not a book for a beginner, but any progressive beekeeper will understand why the circumstances dictate the methods employed, and will get a lot from it. There is a large amount devoted to heather honey production and this is not relevant to a lot of beekeepers, but certainly interesting, and perhaps may spur some on to try it.

There are references to other writers, mainly by way of confirmation which I found unnecessary. I found this book very easy to read and follow, if perhaps a bit repetitive in some areas. He stresses the value of working with others, and although the number of hives is way beyond the average beekeeper much of it has a relevance to all. A very good read.

Bees at the Bottom of the Garden. By Alan Campion.

I was very impressed with the introduction in this book. It gave me good positive thoughts, and if I was a non beekeeper I would be encouraged to find out more. I found it was written in a very readable style, and the author didn't make the mistake of so many others in making beekeeping appear complicated. It caters for that very difficult category of potential beekeeper, or those who have only just started. This is not easy to achieve because competent people will soon move on and leave it behind. It is definitely not a reference book as there is little on colony management or problem solving. Throughout there was just enough information to explain something in a way it could be understood, but left you wanting to find out more, and I liked that aspect of it. I found the advice given was very sound and based on the experience of the author. If there was criticism it was that some information that was given such as addresses would quickly be out of date, some of the drawings were not relevant to the text being decorative rather than instructional, and there was a description of brood spreading that I thought was way too advanced compared to the rest of the book, especially as it was suggested beginners shouldn't attempt it! I think this is a superb book to get someone started, and the size was just right as you could get through it in an evening, and probably read it again the next evening and not be bored. I am often asked what books to read, and it's difficult because some are just plain awful, and others are far too advanced. I thoroughly recommend it, and if every beekeeper had a copy they could lend it to non beekeepers. It will probably not be relevant past the first season, but it should be retained for that purpose.

The Complete Guide to Beekeeping. By Jeremy Evans.

I have always understood the author took a short beginners course in beekeeping and wrote the book at the end of it, in conjunction with Sheila Berrett who ran the course. I am often asked what books to read, and I have always taken the attitude that someone with this lack of experience is probably not in a position to write a book that is any better than what is already in existence, although it is claimed that is what the author is doing.

Until I started reading it for this review I had previously done no more than glance at it, but on reading it I quickly realised I hadn't missed anything. Quite frankly I have got about a third of the way through it and have found it so poor I won't be going any further, assuming it won't improve. Although some information is acceptable it would need a reasonably knowledgeable beekeeper to sort the wheat from the chaff, and I can't see an experienced beekeeper reading it. In some key places it is factually incorrect, the terminology is poor, and there are some absolute howlers with a scrub queen being referred to as a "scrubber"!! In some places it seemed that a child had written it after visiting a beekeeper on a school trip. I had been told that Jeremy Evans was a journalist so I Googled him, and found that he is credited with writing many books including some on cycling, sailing and windsurfing! I hope he hasn't written a book on parachute jumping.

As this is entitled "The Complete Guide to Beekeeping" I think it reasonable to assume that it will cover all aspects of the craft and be a serious reference book, but no it isn't, which I think is misleading. It is claimed to be for those with up to three years experience - that from an author with so little experience himself. There are chapters on Beekeeping in History, African "Killer Bees" and Commercial Beekeeping which seems a bit daft considering how shallow the rest of it is.

In my view beekeeping is a serious hobby, with potentially dangerous insects, and as it is natural for beekeepers and potential beekeepers to read a book, then I think they have a right to expect something that is reliable, and from an author who has good experience and knowledge. As a long time teacher of practical beekeeping I am aware that in the first year or so many habits are formed, both good and bad, and the bad ones once learnt are often difficult to get rid of. It is therefore crucial that the information received in the early stage is sound, and for that reason I won't recommend this book. In my opinion the best part of it are the photographs, but I wouldn't spend time on the rest of it just for them. At meetings members occasionally come up with some strange points, usually with the comment "The book says....". Now I know which one they have been reading. I could have used one word to indicate my view on this book, but I feel I ought to justify my reasons for not encouraging anyone to read it, hence the lengthy review it doesn't deserve.

An additional note from WGBKA Chairman Tom Moore:-

Before submitting the review above, Roger asked me to have a look at this book in case he was unduly harsh on it. I have to say that I agree that there are serious problems with it - my cries of "oh, no!" were echoing round the house. The book was published before varroa arrived in the UK, and this is behind some of the problems (for example, the recommendations on minimal hive inspections), but there are to my mind greater concerns. In particular, the instruction to move the hive some distance from its normal position before every inspection (so that the flying bees all go away, back to the hive site) and the use of all sorts of cover-cloths and magic-tablecloth whipping out of these from between boxes; and what to me seemed a thoroughly confused and confusing chapter on requeening. There are some good bits of sound beekeeping information buried amongst the other stuff, but for me, the dubious practices and misinformation made the whole book more one to avoid than to read, particularly for the target audience of beginners.

Better Beginnings for Beekeepers. By Adrian Waring.

I have been recommending this book for some time, but to refresh my memory to write this review I read it again. I wasn;t bored and didn't feel I had to skip anything. Adrian Waring is a very experienced beekeeper and as a former County Beekeeping Instructor he is aware of the needs of beginners. This is a small book and he himself refers to it as a booklet, but it's bigger than that. The information is sound and easily understood with explanations where needed. He points out there are many ways of keeping bees and tells you what works for him, which is not the same approach as some other writers who have a far more dogmatic approach based on far less experience. This is not intended as a reference book and shouldn't be treated as such, but the basics are here that will provide enough information from which to progress.

In my view it is a splendid book for the non beekeeper and beginner and I shall continue to recommend it. I think every beekeeper and library should have a copy.

Background to Beekeeping. By Allan C Waine.

The first edition was published in 1955 with the second in 1975, and it doesn't mention oil seed rape or varroa, but many other books are out of date in a similar way so there is no problem providing the reader is aware of that. I think this is a very good book with the actual beekeeping content very sound. It is suitable for someone who has never kept bees until perhaps one full season has been experienced. This has never been one of the fashionable books, but I think it is incredibly good. It can often be seen on eBay and bought for a very reasonable price.

The Beekeepers Manual. By L.A. Stephens-Potter.

This is not one of the better known books and is probably why I have never read it, but Im glad I did. The author is not known to me, but has a very good grip of what is needed for a beginner. I would pitch it very much in the bracket of someone who is in their first couple of years beekeeping. The information is very sound and you won't go far wrong by using this for reference, although the keener beekeeper will soon move on.

Considering this is a fairly modern book, being published in 1984, the photographs are black and white and many are very poor, and that was the only fault I could find with it. If this book is available it would be a good addition to the library of someone just starting, or about to.

The Beekeepers Garden. By Ted Hooper & Mike Taylor.

As the majority of this book concentrates on plants Tom Moore will be reviewing that section

Originally published in 1988 (under the title above, the book in our library) this title was superseded in 2006 by an altered and revised version under the title 'The Bee Friendly Garden', and in this guise it claims to be a guide for gardeners looking for the best bee plants.

The original book suffers from something of an identity crisis, being neither a beekeeping book, nor a gardening textbook, but trying to do a bit of each. I feel these sections distract from the plant list, which makes up the bulk of the volume. Roger will review the beekeeping section, which in the later publication has been moved from the front of the book to the back, with the illustrations removed. The contents of the book have been re-arranged and slightly revised to modernise the language, garden plans and a rather thin section on pruning has been removed, and it is now little more than a plant list, which I think it should have been in the first place. For beekeeping the reader is referred to Ted Hooper's 'Bees and Honey' which is, of course, a leading beekeeping textbook.

The plant list is quite broad, but sadly lacks information on what exactly the benefit of any plant is to bees. Plants considered of most value are marked, but for the rest we just have to take it on trust that their inclusion means they are of some use to bees. I got a feeling that the list has been padded out with minor plants in order to make up enough bulk to produce a book. Descriptions have been altered very slightly for the 2006 version, but there does not seem to have been any attempt to include more recent cultivars and varieties, so to anyone with their finger on the pulse of modern plants it feels a rather dated list.

Despite the reservations above, I should point out the value of the book. It is a good check-list for any gardener thinking of adding plants to their garden. Used as a basic source of inspiration, it will guide you towards suitable plants even if you then need to look out for more modern varieties that may be in garden centres. Of course, a few plants to attract bees in your garden will not result in noticeable differences in honey crops, but every little bit helps, and what could be nicer than a garden buzzing with bees, as well as observing which plant they prefer at any one time. The cost of the book is not high (I found it cheapest at W. H. Smith Online when I bought my copy) and it just might make your garden more interesting. If you are borrowing the library copy of the original title, I suggest you ignore all the trimmings and just browse through the main plant list. Good gardening!

Tom Moore

The beekeeping content is only 14 pages and for obvious reasons is very shallow. It seemed to me to be primarily a garden plants book with the cynic in me thinking that Ted Hooper's involvement was to make it attractive to beekeepers. The beekeeping content is sound, but will certainly not be used for reference. Presumably this is why it has been relegated to the back of the later version.

Beekeeping for Dummies. By Howland Blackiston.

Considering the title I was quite surprised at the content of this book. It is American with much of it irrelevant to beekeeping in the U.K. which is a pity, as I think it would be very useful for American beginner beekeepers with much sound and well explained information. If only there was a U.K. equivalent! I would not recommend it for use in the U.K. as it would teach a lot of things to a non beekeeper or beginner that could very easily lead them down the wrong track.

Guide to Managing Apidea Mini-nuc's. By Albert Knight.

Apideas are widely sold and recommended by some speakers for use by amateur beekeepers for the mating of queens. The main attraction is the small number of bees used for the purpose. In my view they need a lot of preparation and sound management for the mating of queens, because such things as weather have a great bearing on their success. I am sure many have been bought and either never used, or perhaps only once or twice simply because purchasers don't know how to deal with them. There are few good instructions available and I have found those from the suppliers are inadequate.

This booklet is excellent and covers virtually everything you need to know. It is a complete guide on setting up and using Apideas and even deals with the overwintering of queens, something that may appeal to a lot of beekeepers. In my experience there can be problems with all kinds of mini-nuc's, and Albert Knight addresses some of those related to Apideas.

In my view this would be a very useful addition to any BKA library and should be read before purchasing an Apidea.

Field Notes on Queen Rearing. By Oliver Field.

Oliver Field has vast knowledge of commercial beekeeping and queen rearing, and this booklet is taken from a talk he gave. He managed a bee farm with around 1000 colonies before setting out on his own with 500. He worked with good beekeepers such as R.O.B. Manley and his queen rearer Harry Wickens, as well as David Rowse - all successful commercial beekeepers. The information is very sound and he dislikes the use of imported queens, much preferring the local bees, and as he was earning his living from bees perhaps more people should take notice of his advice.

I was disappointed there is little on any methods of rearing queens, which I feel would have made a great improvement to what is still a very useful booklet. You certainly can't read this and rear queens without getting some information from elsewhere, which is a pity.

The Honeybees of the British Isles. By Beowulf A Cooper.

This is one of my favourite beekeeping books. It was edited by Philip Denwood from some of the many notes made by Beowulf Cooper, and it has been done very well.

The book concentrates on native bees and covers their characteristics, supersedure, management, breeding, selection and mating behaviour, including an explanation of apiary vicinity mating and the formation of drone assemblies. There is a list of a few known drone assemblies and it would be interesting to know if they still exist.

This book is a welcome change from the usual beekeeping book and can easily be understood by a beginner.

Bee-Keeping for Recreation and Profit. By J. Harold Armitt.

This book was published in 1952 and although I have known of it for a long time had not had the opportunity to read it before. Considering its title I was rather disappointed. There are some good chapters where the author concentrates on what the colony does naturally, and encourages you to use that information in developing your colony management methods. This was very forward thinking for the time.

I found it short on beekeeping methods, but there were lots of facts and figures relating to particular years, and several graphs which I thought were almost meaningless.

The Bee Book Book. By Geoffrey Lawes.

Geoff Lawes is one of our long standing members and has been a keen collector of bee books for a long time. This is not a book about beekeeping although there are many very useful snippets. The main content is about collecting bee books and I found it absolutely fascinating. The reader is given advice on many things including how to collect books, sources, restoration and repair, price determination, their care and what to do with duplicates you may acquire as part of a lot. It also tells you how early books were made and there are many interesting illustrations. The Bee Book Book has been incredibly well researched and is a complete history of bee books, as well as beekeeping itself.

A real gem and very well written.

Beekeeping - A Seasonal Guide. By Ron Brown.

This book as the title implies tries to indicate what beekeepers should be doing at certain times during the year. I found the content very good and apart from a couple of howlers I would recommend it as a reliable general guide up to the Intermediate stage. It gives advice for beekeepers of different levels, and although I can see what the author was trying to achieve I found it made it rather confusing and disjointed.

Considering it was published in 1985 all the photographs were disappointingly in black and white, which gives the impression the book is rather old fashioned. There is a description of driving bees which is a technique the old skeppists used to avoid sulphuring bees, and is no use to the modern beekeeper.
Overall I think this is a useful book and far better than many.

Beekeeping Up - To - Date. By Joseph Tinsley.

This was one of my guides when I started beekeeping. It was published in 1945 so no longer up to date. The author was previously Beekeeping Lecturer at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, but I believe when he wrote the book he was apiarist to E.H. Taylor Ltd of Welwyn who were appliance manufacturers.
The content is sound, but of course does not include managing for oil seed rape or varroa. As with a lot of these older books there are some good things if you search for them, and I believe a beekeeper with a reasonable understanding will get quite a lot from it. On looking at it with a critical eye there are several obvious gaps, but I still think well worth reading.

Roger Patterson

The Principles of Bee Improvement. By Jo Widdicombe.

Below is the review I wrote for the BBKA News

The improvement of honey bees is a subject that is not often taken seriously, but in my opinion is a topic that should be given much more attention by all beekeepers. Bees are effectively livestock, but how often are beekeepers encouraged to assess their colonies with a view to improving them? How often do we see articles in magazines? How many lectures do we hear about improving bees? How often is it taught (or even discussed) at local BKA meetings? How many books are there on the subject? At best it is mentioned briefly in a general beekeeping book, with the often advised "breed from your best colony", without much indication of what that might be. Apart from a few enthusiasts giving lectures, demonstrations and workshops that is about it.

"The Principles of Bee Improvement" is a recently published book that fills much of that gap. The author is Jo Widdicombe, who has over 30 years beekeeping experience, 5 of them as a Seasonal Bee Inspector. Jo is a bee farmer running more than 100 colonies in Cornwall, so with his own colonies, combined with his experience as a bee inspector he has had the opportunity to inspect a large number of colonies with a wide variety of characteristics. He has probably seen the extremes of good and bad, which many beekeepers don't have the benefit of.

This is not a large book, but I found it very readable and packed with good sound information that is delivered in a way that makes it difficult to lay it down. It covers much that will interest all beekeepers, however many colonies they have, which is some achievement considering the topic.

Quite sensibly it starts with the theory of bee improvement and asks the question "Why bother?" As you would expect from the title, the reader is encouraged to raise their own queens rather than relying on buying them, which often means imported ones that may not suit our conditions, or running the risk of importing diseases - both issues that concern the modern responsible beekeeper. The point is made that many beekeepers simply buy in queens, rather than raising their own, in the belief they are making improvements. Their ability to perform well in our conditions is untested and their docility is often lost in succeeding generations, as many beekeeper have experienced. The question is raised of whether the high losses amongst beginners are due to them being sold bees headed by imported queens rather than the fault of the beekeeper.

The content is well thought out and in a logical progression, with the assessment of stock quite rightly being treated as important by being towards the front of the book, not hidden away at the back. There is a short list of selection criteria and I was delighted to see temper as an important characteristic, before the more usual and predictable productivity.

I like the simple style, with content that I find difficulty arguing with. The kind of bees that are kept is one of the most argued topics in beekeeping, but the author deals with any possibly contentious issues by well argued justifications.

As the title suggests, this book tends to concentrate on the principles of bee improvement, but in my opinion that is it's strength. The techniques required to produce queens with which to make improvements to your bees actually takes up a small part and is very brief, probably not even enough for the beginner to be successful, but as the author states, there is a bewildering amount written elsewhere. I quote from the last paragraph of the preface. "This book deliberately offers a "low-tech" approach, relevant to, and achievable by, all beekeepers" and it does -brilliantly!

In my opinion this book is an absolute gem and is a very good addition to any beekeepers collection. Once read, I believe it will be well thumbed, as the enthusiastic beekeeper will keep referring to it. In a short time I expect it to be seen as a classic and in my view it should be in every local BKA library.

Roger Patterson

Beekeeping A Practical Guide. By Roger Patterson.

This is not to be confused with another book of the same title. I know this book was written by me, but I have had so many positive comments about it that I feel justified in including it here.

It was written to provide good sound information based on working with and observing a fairly large number of colonies over half a century. It was intended to appeal to those who are thinking of keeping bees, so they know the "basics" and to give continued help for several years after they have started. I'm delighted to say that I have been told by some that I inspired them to start, yet others with 20 or more years experience telling me they have learnt a lot.

I quote some online comments from readers:-

"This is a small book primarily aimed at beginners / thinking about-ers.
I have been keeping bees 19 years so why do I need another book? This one is full of ideas which are the Authors own and not a Sheep's regurgitation of an earlier book. I picked up loads of good ideas and embarrassingly for Me, I should go back and re-learn some of the ways I do things.
Dear Roger.
Please write a book for beekeepers who know the basics but need to advance.
Thank You, Derek."

"Ignore the ridiculous comments of one reviewer here. Roger is a dedicated passionate beekeeper, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, who cares for his bees and fellow beekeepers. This book was written to help you enjoy the craft of beekeeping by explaining the fundementals and their importance. I`ve been keeping bees for two years now, and found Roger`s book an invaluable guide. It was and still is one of my favourite beekeeping books, the other being Ted Hooper`s "Guide to Bees & Honey".
If you are seriously thinking of becoming a beekeeper buy this fabulous little book, its how a beginners book should be written."

"Although quite a small book, this could be all you want for beekeeping. This man knows what he's talking about and puts it in simple words."

"I have kept bees for 36 years, this book keeps bee keeping simple for beginners but for the old hands there are still a few useful tips.
A good buy for a beginner or someone who is thinking about starting beekeeping.
A very good read with nothing technical and no opinions"

"The author has been keeping bees for nearly 50 years and I suspect what he doesn't know isn't worth knowing. He covers everything a beginner will need along with a lot that the more experienced will find helpful.
I love the way he writes as well, his sense of humour pokes out and you can see the laughter in his pen. Which is important, because enjoying the book means the knowledge sinks in better. I've read a few books on keeping bees and this is the one that will not be going to the second hand shop.
Having just finished reading this book I can say that I thought it was probably the best written and most accessible beekeeping book I have read. The author has a very practical approach to beekeeping, as well as a wealth of experience. This book would be an excellent choice for anyone considering keeping bees, or anyone just starting out. There are more comprehensive books out there, but this book is much more accessible and practical than any other book I've come across."

"This is a really good book for someone who is starting Beekeeping, it is basic and practical just what's needed for a beginner."