Our amateur bee supplier had gone radio silent and we were getting anxious about where this year’s colony was going to come from, when we were rescued with news of a prime swarm in Willesden. I was working all weekend so we decided to house them on Tuesday and I hurried down to the cemetery with the stand, the brood box and a super to house our new tenants. The apiary area had changed beyond recognition since the winter. Knot weed, nettles and cow parsley are vying for space on the ground and the Lime trees are sending out a low canopy of new leaves. Soon the Lime flowers will bloom, which is a wonderful nectar source for our bees.
Friday February 17th
While we were arranging a beekeepers meet up, by e-mail, Stephane asked me if the bees were eating the fondant? I haven’t looked since February 1st so curiousity got the better of me. With the weather as warm as it is it seemed like a good day to cycle down there. As I free wheeled down the path to the apiary there was a big distant funeral on the west side of the cemetery and a crowd of mourners was in full voice, singing proud and rousing hymns. You can feel spring is on its way, because the birds are also bursting into full voice. Not the reedy plaintive songs of winter, but a loud announcement that the days are growing warmer and the light is stronger and longer.
North hive was really busy. Lots of bees flying in and out. I peeked under the roof and they were showing some interest in the fondant, but more interest in building a propolis rim to the hole in the crown board. There is still loads of fondant left and I can only assume this means their own honey stores are still in good shape.
South hive had a few bees coming in and out. I suppose I counted about 12. On the ground there were 24 dead or dying bees, (which compares with none at North hive). I lifted the roof briefly. The fondant was absolutely covered with bees and a couple of them flew out to see what the hell I was playing at - although they left me alone as soon as I put the lid down. There’s still plenty of fondant for them, but it will be something to keep an eye on in the lean months between now and the first nectar flow.
At the end of last season South hive seemed much more robust than North hive, but today North hive seemed more vigourous. Perhaps they have wintered better. I guess there’s no real way of knowing until we do our first inspection when it’s much warmer.
Tuesday February 28th
Another warm day and lots of activity. As I walked down to the apiary one of the dog walkers I know told me the bees had been out in force at the weekend.
“Clouds of them, there were,” he said.
I took a peek into both hives and North hive has finally developed a taste for the fondant candy. The trays of it in both North and South hives were covered by workers collecting it and carrying it back down to the comb below. This month’s BBKA magazine tells me (in ‘Notes for beginners’) that the Queen has been laying since late January. Given that it takes 21 days for a worker to hatch and 24 for a drone, this means the first bees of 2012 will be hatching already. The same article tells us that these new bees will soon be outside the brood box, hovering about 20-30cm from the entrance facing the door in order to fix the pattern of the entrance, including it’s height from the ground. They do this as a basic form of orientation before they venture further afield.
Some are already foraging. A lot of bees are returning with dark ochre pollen on them. I went hunting for the crocuses and daffodils that are already in bloom, to check them out, and I think it comes from the crocuses. Although, as a result of looking properly for the first time ever, I did realise that daffodil stamens are a lot darker than I would have guessed.
One of the lovely features of the bee book I use as my bible (Allan C Waine ‘Background to Beekeeping’) is that he does not describe the yearly cycle of the honey bee colony in terms of months of the year. Instead he explains what you should expect in terms of when different flowers are in bloom; crocus, plum tree, apple tree, hawthorn, lime tree and so on. A much nicer way to measure the passage of time.
Thursday March 8th
I thought it was cold today. Bright but cold. The bees don’t seem to think so. There were clouds of them coming in and out of both hives in the sunshine.
I had a quick look under each roof and they have demolished the fondant. There’s only about 150g in each one now, so I slipped the containers out and peeled the small slabs of fondant off into smaller plastic trays so I could re-charge the bigger ones. The bees that came out with the fondant were really dopey and I wondered if they are juveniles that haven’t ventured outside yet. They certainly didn’t seem bothered by me at all.
We are planning an apiary clear up day on Saturday March 31st, so we’ll be there from 10am if any one wants to come along. I imagine we’ll only be a couple of hours; pulling up the early nettles, weeding the young hedging we planted last year and banking up the twig fencing to keep the dogs out - now that the bees will be more active.
Today I noticed that the very first leaves of our young hedging plants are coming out. Tiny bright hawthorn leaves. The cemetery was also really noisy this morning with Blackbirds trilling and Robins joining in from the lower branches. A friend recently told me that Robins are the guardians of the woods because they keep an eye on what is going on at low level. Robins and Wrens too. He also told me that if there’s a bird song you can’t place there’s an eighty per cent chance it’s a Tit or a Chaffinch. Given that I can’t place most bird song, that suggests eighty per cent of the population are Tits and Chaffinches.
The cemetery was filled with sunshine, birdsong and the cheerful shouts of children drifting over the wall from Salusbury and Islamia schools and it definitely felt like spring.
Friday March 15th
I went to the apiary late. We haven’t made our first inspection inside yet, but I felt it was time to put a super on each hive simply because in the sunshine I have seen so much activity. That suggests lots of collecting and the possibility of a shortage of space for stores. Today the clouds made the light dim so it seemed perfect for taking off the crown board, putting on the queen excluder and adding the super so that they have more frames for storing food. When I arrived there were only one or two bees coming in and out but they perked up and came to see what the hell I was doing as soon as I started to unscrew the mouse excluders. These should have come off the entrance already but I simply hadn’t got round to it. Several insistent workers checked me out with an agitated buzzing that is very different from the sound they make when they are simply flying in and out. Time to put on the veil.
All suited up I took the lid off south hive, prised the crown board up and put it aside while I worked quickly to put the queen excluder on. Our Queen excluders don’t have edging so if you’re not careful you squash some of the bees on the frame tops. I was working quickly so as not to cause too much heat loss and I suspect a few bees got trapped. Not ideal, but better than letting the whole hive get cold. The super went on top of the queen excluder and then crown board and roof. I decided we could wait for warmer weather to clean off the winter build up of propolis. There seemed to be a good stock of bees. Quite a few came to examine the veil and my gloved hands. I was reminded that it can be quite nervy when they settle on you and crawl around to make sense of what you are. That said, they seemed watchful rather than angry.
When I did the same thing for south hive I noticed that they had built wild comb up through the opening in the crown board. I cleaned it off, but this suggests I was right to add extra space. North hive reacted with the same degree of watchful curiousity and I soon had them all closed up again.
Then it was time for my first school boy error of the year. I walked away from the apiary and took off my gloves, veil and smock. I tidied up the bits I’d brought with me, like the hive tool and plastic lids for the fondant and suddenly felt a sting on my hip. My first of the year, due entirely to wearing my shirt outside my jeans and leaving space for a bee to crawl under. I had completely failed check the smock or shake it to see if there were any bees on it and one had clearly crawled down to my jeans. As stings go it wasn’t too bad. More like a mosquito bite. As I walked home it suddenly started to hurt more, so I scraped it with my finger nail to make sure the sting was out – and it was a second sting from a second bee! That made me stop to shake out my shirt and check every where. This time I was in the clear, except for one more that I found crawling around on the veil. One of the Harrow beekeepers who trained us told me he’s done that several times and found himself in the car with bees he brought in on his smock. Note to self for the coming year: Hurry less, check more.
Friday March 30th
The first taste of honey. When made our first inspection (and saw the queen in North hive) we swapped one old, short frame for a new and deep one. The old one appeared, at first glance, to hold no brood so it seemed like a good idea to remove it and put the right size in. Stephane and Mark both took a bit of comb and honey, but I took the frame home. Once I cut the comb off the frame I could see that there was some larval brood there after all. The larvae smell very distinctive, the way honey might smell if it fermented, sweet and rotting together. There was also a fair amount of pollen in the comb, and by cutting through it you can see how it has been layered. It looks like a geological diagram, with different strata in different colours as the pollen clearly comes from a variety of flowers. The remaining comb had honey in it and by letting it drip into a bowl I managed to get about half a teacup full. Delicious. All the more so because it came straight to us from the bees with no middleman.
Wednesday March 28th
[Intended to post this earlier, but apparently forgot...]
What unbelievable weather. 20 degrees today so it made perfect sense to have the first look inside of the year without worrying about them getting cold. The cherry tree at the cemetery entrance has exploded into blossom in the past five days and is now a glorious cloud of white to greet you as you go in.
On the way to the apiary I met my young second cousin trying to throw cones back up into a large pine. He called it natural Velcro and managed to get several to stick. As we stood underneath we could hear the pine cones still on the branches cracking open, presumably to release their seeds. Perhaps they have been confused by the dry weather and heat.
The bees were very active. I suited up and opened south hive and looked in the super. No sign yet of drawing out the comb, but there were plenty of workers in there showing interest. Under the Queen excluder in the brood comb I could see that all of the frames were full, confirming I was right to put the supers on. Lots of stores of honey and pollen on the outside frames and visible larvae closer to the centre. That’s what I wanted to see. Signs that the Queen is laying. I didn’t keep the hive open for long but South hive has always been more feisty and I soon had a cloud of bees flying around my head trying to figure out what I was up to.
They even followed me over to north hive. North hive is still less busy than South, but certainly much busier than it was last year. They are starting to draw comb in the supers and some of the comb cells even had honey in them. That’s a good sign for an early harvest. They were much less bothered by my intrusion. I had a look at two or three brood frames and realised that we still had some short frames in there from last year, and therefore a bit of wild comb at the bottom. The relevant frame had no brood in it, so it may make sense to take it out, carefully clear the wild comb at the bottom, scavenge the honey and put a new frame in for them to draw out. I saw plenty of larvae. It would seem that both hives came through the winter in good health and are now poised for their new year. As are we.
Tuesday April 10th
One of the bee magazines that I get, along with my association subscription and hive insurance, recently had an article on swarming. Swarming, it said, is like puberty. It is painful to go through, but must be experienced by us all. Today as I walked my dog down to the apiary, planning to feed south hive with some syrup, I encountered a cloud of bees swirling across the path and hovering above a knot of dried and twisted vines. Right there in the centre was a ball of bees. Small, certainly, but showing all the signs of being a swarm with the Queen at the centre. Over by South hive a cloud of confused bees was still circling, apparently uncertain about whether to stay or go.
Here it was, then, my first swarm. No mistake about it the adrenalin was pumping. I knew I needed my bee suit, some gloves a box and some advice. I phoned Stephane. No answer. I phoned our other local experienced keeper, no answer. So I phoned KC up in Harrow. Have you got a box he asked? Yes, a nuc box. Okay, then get your suit. Get the box, shake them into the nuc box then wait and watch. If the Queen is in the nuc box all the others will go in after her. So I hurried home with the dog. Rain was threatening and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. Maybe it would help the flying bees ball up faster.
At home I couldn’t decide if I should take a brood box and put them straight into that, but I didn’t. I stuck to plan A. Suit, gloves, bee brush, nuc box, comb, frames, secaturs to cut the vines and one last phone call to ask if I could move the nuc box. There’s this strange fact about bees that if you move their hive you should move it a meter or a mile. If you move it two or three meters they can’t find it. So, did this apply to the nuc box? Don’t worry about it, KC told me, just get the swarm in the box. Then it should stay in one place for long enough for all the flying bees to find their way in. Bees around the entrance would be fanning the Queen’s smell out into the surrounding area and simply letting that happen was the most important thing.
Running three quarters of a mile with a polystyrene nuc box, frames, gloves, a bee suit and bee brush is more taxing than you might think. You get a few funny looks too. Still, the adrenalin helps. Except when I got there… they’d all gone. Maybe twenty or thirty bees were still where the ball had been, clustering around the scent the Queen had left behind. Possibly fifty or sixty were still balled up on the hive, clearly still not sure what the plan was. Just in case, I brushed the hive cluster open to see if by some miracle the Queen was in the centre, but she wasn’t. There were lots of workers around the entrance, all fanning like crazy, but in spite of walking in a large spiral around the apiary there was no sign of the main swarm.
It was so exciting to nearly collect it and so disappointing to miss it by such a short time. Actually seeing the swarm made it all the more frustrating. Now South hive will be set back by a month and we must be extra diligent about North hive. When they say you must inspect every 7 days from April to July, I guess they aren’t kidding. And somewhere, out there, our bees are making a new home.
My name is Michael. Great to hear about the new swam. Are you going to be up at the hives this weekend.
I would like to come see them and learn a bit beed keeping.
Wednesday April 11th
It was warm after lunch today and I was worried about how many Queen cells we might have in South hive, so I did an inspection with George (my son) helping me. I used a couple of towels to keep the heat in and checked both hives frame by frame.
South hive still had plenty of bees in it, in spite of swarming, so there must have been lots! Food didn't seem to be in short supply (a couple of frames full, some capped, some uncapped), there was larvae, sealed brood, but my eyes are too poor without glasses to spot any eggs. There were about 11 capped Queen cells and 4 uncapped. I destroyed them all, except the 2 best looking Queen cells which I left in the centre. Now we hope for the best like last year - although at least we are a bit earlier.
North hive was less populated. I saw the Queen on frame 3 and moved that frame in slightly to position 5. There were 14 uncapped Queen cells in North hive and I destroyed them all. There is sealed brood and larvae (same problem with not being able to see eggs due to eye sight). If the colony is determined to replace the Queen we've got I am sure they will build more Queen cells.
I had already fed north hive with syrup last week. I added an empty super and rapid feeder for south hive today. Both hives are building comb in the supers. Are our brood chambers too small? I know some bee keepers think National brood chambers are too small, but we have deep brood chambers so they shouldn’t be.
Tuesday April 17th
I saw Sharon, another local bee keeper, last week and she said she’d be interested in a Queen cell if we had one. She planned to pin it to an existing frame and build a starter nuc with it. This confused me because I knew that once a Queen cell is capped you get a swarm, but we don’t want to allow a capped Queen cell in North hive because then we’ll lose the flying bees (who swarm with the old Queen) out of North hive too.
So I was really surprised when I did a North hive inspection today and found new (uncapped) Queen cells and one capped one… wait for it… AND the old Queen happily going about her business.
What I did was to carefully cut the sealed Queen cell out with a scalpel, pop it in a jam jar to give to Sharon, and destroy all the remaining Queen cells.
Then I went home, really confused. Why was the Queen still there as well as a capped Queen cell? That broke all the rules. Until KC e-mailed me. This is what he said.
I have just checked my record, the North hive was produced from a colony I kept in West Harrow Allotment. The queen of the colony has a property of not to swarm even when there are sealed queen cells in the colony.
Last year the queen stayed in the colony after 4 queen cells were sealed for 3 days. This year (a week ago) the same queen (marked blue) again stayed put after a sealed queen cell was found in the brood nest. I hope this good character will stay with further generations of hers.
It looks like that’s exactly what’s happened. We appear to have one of this surprising breed. Queens that don’t swarm when other Queens would. In a later e-mail KC even said that he saw a Queen and her daughter laying eggs on the same frame, which is unusual. Like, VERY unusual.
Saturday April 21st
We really don’t want North hive to swarm so we did an inspection on Saturday (not Sunday – sorry to anyone who came to find us). South hive we left alone, assuming that the Queen would be hatched by now and either out on her mating flight, soon to go out, or back from her mating flight.
North hive was teeming. Again we saw the Queen and again we found new capped and uncapped Queen cells. They obviously mean business, so we made a decision to create an artificial swarm. In the beekeeping magazines there are two versions of this. Both systems involve engineering it so that there are two brood boxes, old Queen in one and new Queen ready to hatch in the other. The version we chose allows you to leave the old Queen and the flying bees in the old position. Basically you take a new brood box, with new foundation frames and into that you put a frame from the established hive, full of brood with the old Queen on it. It took some looking but we found her, so into the new box she went, along with an extra frame of brood for good measure. All Queen cells on these frames were destroyed. This new brood box goes in the old hive position. On top goes the Queen excluder, then a super with food in it, crown board and ON TOP OF THAT goes the old hive brood box, capped off with another crown board and roof. The principle is the nurse bees with the Queen cells then stay at the top. All the flying bees migrate downwards to the old Queen in the new brood box at the bottom. Basically they separate themselves out into two colonies. Clever. The advice is to leave it three days for all the flying bees to travel downwards and then you can lift the top box off (nurse bees and Queen cells) and put it in a new place. We’ll call it East. The old flying bees can come as go as before from North hive, which now has plenty of space on the new brood frames, so they give up on the idea of building Queen cells and swarming. When the nurse bees in East hive reach the point in their life cycle where they go out and forage, they do so from the new position and return to the new position.
Ta-da. If all goes well we have split the North colony without losing any bees and now have two colonies. North behaves as if it has swarmed so now it has to build lots of comb and the Queen has to lay lots of eggs to get new nurse bees into the system. East hive, meanwhile, has a big population of nurse bees and new brood to hatch, but it has a small foraging population, so we’re feeding it. East hive also has to wait for the new Queen to mate and start laying. Lets hope that's how it works out.
Tuesday April 24th
(Apologies for the deluge of e-mails, but it’s been a busy two weeks). So today Nadezdha and me moved the top box to its new position. Now have East hive as well, to add to North and South. North and East colonies both looked pretty healthy.
While we were there one of the dog walkers told us what happened to the swarm a couple of weeks ago. Apparently they went into one of the gardens on Tennyson Road. Then they went into the boiler grate. Then I don’t know what happened. The people in the house it happened to are dog owners, so I guess we’ll see them in the cemetery one day. When I find out how that story ended I’ll post it. We definitely owe those people some honey.