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.
I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ with my fifteen year old son this week and there’s a great line uttered by Frederick Forrest after he goes to pick mangoes and encounters a tiger in the jungle. “Never get out of the boat.” Well, beekeepers, never get out of the suit. Today when I inspected North hive I had no smoker and they were feisty. I made the mistake of wearing dark jeans to inspect in (bees don’t like dark colours) and I got stung on the knee fairly quickly. I covered the hive up with a hive cloth and walked away so that I could scrape the sting off with the hive tool down the inside of my jeans and eventually got free enough of the following guards to do so. Then I went back to the hive opened it up again and I nearly completed the inspection before I realised I was having the beekeepers nightmare: a bee inside the suit. I don’t really know how it happened. Maybe it crawled under the waist band as I moved to undo my belt. And now I couldn’t just drop everything because I couldn’t leave the hive open, so with the ominous angry buzzing somewhere behind my right ear I had to reassemble everything and put the roof back on. Then a second sting. Bees in my damn pockets. They were really going for it today. That’s when you get paranoid. Are they inside my jeans too? And you have to shake free of all the guard bees following you first - or you’re just letting more in. More high pitched buzzing behind my right ear and then I saw it crawling inside the mesh hood. I got her before she got me, so I escaped with a weak sting on the knee and a great pulsing one in the groin. Afterwards when I took off the suit and pulled my trousers out of my socks I found another one inside the suit and a dead one dropped out of my trouser leg. All in all I have to reckon that I got off lightly.
So how are we doing in the middle of the summer mischief? When the populations soar and new queens are made and the hive can swarm. South is still too small for that. Two or three frames have good brood and pupae, but the food stocks are low and they have plenty of space to expand if the queen picks up her work rate. North is teeming. The deep brood chamber is being filled and hatched in text book fashion and the super that we added to give the queen some extra room is filled with honey and extra brood in equal measure. So far the honey super on top of that is not being filled, but everyone knows the plants are late this year because of the long winter, so that should change when the nectar flow begins. As ever, we’ll have to wait and see.
I saw in the paper that a third of the nation’s bee colonies died this winter. That makes us statistically average: two out of three of ours survived.
Almost every time I see acquaintances in the street now, they ask me “How are the bees?” In fact at the Tricycle cinema last night someone I barely said to me “The last time I saw you, you had bees down your pants.” As she walked away with her two friends one of them said “that’s a very odd thing to say to someone.” It’s true though (see June 16th post).
So how are the bees? Well, we amalgamated the two hives that came through 2013 into a large one to make sure the weaker colony got through the winter. For now they are still balled up inside the hive, hibernating. The Queen will start laying sometime in the next 6 weeks, although the people who send me my seed catalogues did say to expect a late cold snap like last year. I did feed the hive some sugar fondant for Christmas but they don’t seem to have touched it. When I looked in last Friday there were a few bees lying dead in the sugar, but hardly any signs of eating it. This is probably a good sign and suggests that the colony has enough in the way of honey stores. As I snapped back the ratchet on the webbing that holds the roof down, three or four guard bees came flying out to see what I was up to. Their swift response can be read as a good sign too. I talked to Stephane about all this and he suggests that we move the entrance bar (which closes down the entrance to a tiny opening that is easier to defend and keeps things warmer) and clear away any dead bees that have accumulated behind it. Dead bodies and all this rain in the air are not a good combination. At least their water buckets are full nearby and they don’t need to bother the nearby houses searching for a drink.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly noticed an upswing in the bird song in the past two weeks. In the cemetery yesterday two robins were having a song show down that was really lovely and I heard my first blackbird song of 2014 at the weekend. The site still looks very exposed before the trees come into leaf, but the sycamore saplings are getting bigger in that corner of the cemetery and will be thick cover once the leaves arrive. On the path behind the apiary I noticed that the elders are already coming into leaf. Last year there was a fantastic crop of flowers and berries. I’ve only just finished the last of my blood red cordial from the freezer.
April 25th Now I’m confused. This is an easy state to reach when you have livestock numbering in the tens of thousands under your care, but it all started so well…
A week ago Stephane and I decided we would do our first joint inspection of the year. Our colonies had been amalgamated into one tall stack to get them through the winter and it seemed to have worked. In the sunshine there was much activity from the entrance. In fact as I waited for Stephane last week I sat and watched the bees zig-zagging their way upwards from the hive, dodging the bees zig-zagging their way back home: to and from the big patch of blue sky that faced them in the east.
When we inspected Stephane was delighted at the amount of laying the Queen has done in the two weeks since he last looked inside. Both brood chambers (one atop the other) had plenty of brood and food. There were also some promising looking queen cells. Promising in two senses; one this promised a swarm and two this promised the chance to split the colonies by doing an ‘artificial swarm.’ An artificial swarm is when you leave the young hive-bound bees with the queen cells and split off the flying and foraging bees in a new location with the existing Queen. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. Some we went for it. First we smoked them to get them to go down into the bottom of the double brood boxes. Then we put the queen excluder back in and let the nurse bees regroup around the new laid eggs and larva in the upper brood box. It also gave us a chance to get rid of some of the damper (mouldy) comb that had sat on the extremities of the hive through the winter and put some new foundation in too. We marked the frames with the queen cells by sticking drawing pins in them and then moved the upper brood box to the side. Then we put supers back onto each brood box and moved the lower one (hopefully with the existing queen) from its ‘north’ position to its new ‘south’ position. This meant that any flying-foraging bees would fly out of ‘south’ to forage, but on return they would go back to the hive now in the ‘north’ position. Why? Because that’s what bees do. Once they have a map of how to get home in their system, then that’s where they go. So this would winnow the foraging bees back to north and any bees graduating from hive duty to foraging duty (which they do at 21days old) would fly out of south and get the ‘south’ map in their systems and then fly back there. Meanwhile over in ‘north’ the population would be greater (as it always has been) because it would have a mixture of some nurse bees and all the older foraging bees.
Good plan. It seemed so to us. So then I went back yesterday to see how things were doing, along with Miko as new assistant, bravely delving into a hive for his first time. So what did we find? In North the Queen cells (two of them) were big and healthy and capped, so a new queen will emerge in about a week. The one that hatches first will kill the other before it hatches. Then she’ll get her strength up, get her bearings and go on a mating flight before a lifetime (that’s two or three years) of laying. Meanwhile in South some of the nurse bees have indeed graduated to foraging and we could see them flying in and out. The brood is still thick in the brood chamber and there were even some uncapped larva still visible, which means the queen is probably there and laying. How can I be sure without actually seeing her? Well I’m not 100% sure, but if we moved the brood box last Friday, then our search yesterday was six days later. Since eggs become larva after 4 days and get capped after 9 days the larva I saw are likely to have been laid as eggs since we inspected. That’s not a certainty, but a probability, so if I see larva again when I inspect on Sunday or Monday that should clinch it. That she was there and laying after we moved the hive.
Now here’s why I’m confused. Will this all work? Will we get two viable colonies? It sounds okay on the face of it. And yet… and yet… when a colony swarms naturally then the old foraging bees take the old queen and fly off to a new home. That’s old + old + new home. The bees that are left behind are new bees with the new queen in the old home. That’s new + new + old. But we did something different. We manoeuvred things so we got the old bees with the new queen in the old home (old + new + old home) and we got the new bees with the old queen in the new home (new + old + new home). That’s not how they do it on their own. See what we did there? We messed with the natural order of things and now we must simply wait to see if it works.
Every day I go to the cemetery now I think spring has really arrived. Passed me by, like smoke up a chimney in fact. All the leaves are out. No, not quite. The poplars are still wooden bones, waiting to burst into leaf. Pretty much everything else is out; the horse chestnuts are in flower and the beeches are uncurling from their buds. My son tells me that chlorophyll is so hard to synthesise, something to do with the magnesium involved, that a tree cannot afford to jettison it with its leaves in autumn. What it does, he tells me, is suck it back out of the leaves and store it in the trunk for winter. So when spring comes and the leaves unfurl they don’t do it with the chlorophyll already in them. The tree will pump it back from the trunk to its new leaves. It pumps its type ‘a’ chlorophyll and its type ‘b’ chlorophyll (different colours) at different times, and this is why the leaves of a copper beech start out green before they go deep red. It’s the different chlorophyll arriving in ancient sequence. I don’t know about you, but I like the thought of that. It appeals to my own sense of emerging from the winter. My own precious resources packed inside my trunk, too complex to synthesise afresh each year. Now it’s spring and time to pump it back into my leaves.