Driving up to the Quantock BKA’s apiary in sight of Wales today, I noticed that in Somerset the elder is in full bloom while home in Dorset it’s still at the green bud stage.  Is that because, being further north and thus nearer the midnight sun they get more hours of daylight than we southerners?

There weren’t many of us there, only 8.  Apprentice Sarah of Bee Happy Plants had intended to be there as she is a pollen enthusiast but looking after her Mum rightly took priority so she asked me to blog about the day so she would learn what went on.

The apiary site covers about an acre and there were about a score of active hives scattered about and lots of nucs which are to get beginners started.  When I arrived a learner was being shown how to move his bees from their nucleus to a full sized brood box as they were too crowded.  I slipped on a veil and watched until it started to rain.

While eating my picnic lunch before the start of business I leafed through the BBKA Pocket Guide to the Honeybee and noticed on page 22 that honey is composed of fructose and sucrose and on page 34 that drones are infertile!  I wonder who does their proof reading!

Glyn Davies was taking the lead today on examining and identifying pollen samples.  There were several microscopes and also other techie stuff such as coffee cup warmers, plugged into a computer for a power supply which Glyn uses to warm glass microscope slides so the gel melts.  I was impressed by what looked like a torch attached by cable to a computer which was a hand held microscope magnifying up to 500x and displaying the picture on the computer where it could be saved if desired.  I shall look on Ebay for one!

I was also impressed by a new (to me) book: Pollen Microscopy by Norman Chapman which has excellent photos of flowers alongside those of their pollen.  Rex Sawyer’s and Dorothy Hodges’ books were also present, but I already have those.

Glyn performed his trick of dissolving a spoonful of honey in a cup of warm water and then very gently trickling the solution through a coffee filter folded to fit a small funnel. Doing it gently ensures that the pollen grains are concentrated in one spot.  This is then rubbed onto a blob a glycerine jelly on a slide before being warmed. The cover slip is warmed at the same time to avoid problems when it is placed over the gel.

When observed through a microscope several pollen grains could be examined but not identified.  Glyn then delved into a bag of hazel pollen that he had collected earlier.  Hazel pollen grains are recommended as size markers as they are consistently 25 microns across.  His pollen grains didn’t look very much like the illustrations in the books though. He then went out into the apiary and come back with a comfrey (Symphytum officionale) flower and dabbed the stamens onto jelly to make up a slide. Again, although certain of the identity of the pollen, it didn’t look much like the illustrations.

It seems as if we shall have to do more work and training if we are to have a successful pollen identification project next year!

While we were there, there was a massive deluge onto the tin roof of the big shed we were in and it was so noisy that for several minutes we couldn’t hear anybody speak!

In the apiary was a swarm on a post that had been there since yesterday which, fortunately, had a skep on top of the post acting as an umbrella. I took a photo of them and would like to post it here but don’t know how!  If anybody knows how to upload photos onto a WordPress blog site, please let me know.

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Sumer is i’cumin in!

We had our first warm sunny day today. It was a pleasure this morning to sit in the garden with my back to a cotoneaster abuzz with bees, both bumbles and honeybees.  A few were investigating an empty hive close by.

I wasn’t idle as I was assembling National frames that were given to me by John Molyneux who, approaching 90, had retired from beekeeping. That was about 1985!  He told me that he had received some training from Herrod Hempsall, who was a prominent beekeeper and bee-author in the 1930s. The frames were of a type seldom seen nowadays with a split top bar which is eased apart to slot the foundation in.

The phone rang.  It was my first swarm call of the year.  I chucked a skep and other kit in the car and headed for Preston, on the outskirts of Weymouth, finding the address without difficulty.  The bees had taken over a dustbin, probably yesterday as there was a piece of comb about the size of the palm of my hand that dislodged when I lifted the lid to which the cluster was hanging.

I shook them into the skep but, as the day was warm and many bees were out foraging I placed it on top of the bin with the black wrapper loosely about it and left it with the intention of collecting them in the cool of the evening.  The owner of the house and bin wanted to pay me for my efforts but I refused, suggesting instead that he went on-line and made a donation to Bees for Development.

I went to Greenwood Grange, a holiday village where I already have three hives with bees and also a couple of empty ones and prepared one of them for the bees. I don’t normally keep that many hives on one site but it’s lovely and convenient and Zoe, the manager, buys lots of my honey to sell on to her visitors. If it’s produced on-site it should enhance the value.

I returned to pick up the swarm in the evening when my cotoneaster had gone quiet.  All but two bees were in the skep and I took and wrapped it without protection, even showing the owner the cluster in the skep.  I drove them back to Greenwood Grange, took the roof and crownboard off the hive and shook the bees in.  At first they covered the entire top over the frames to a depth of maybe a couple of inches but they soon went down and I was able gently to add the crownboard and roof without (I hope!) squashing any.

I’d better check my bait hives soon.  Yesterday I was at a frolic at Shepton Montague in Somerset: a party to promote the apple juice and cider from the orchard where I have two bait hives set up.  I counted 11 eggs in the top bar hive!  Unfortunately they were laid not by a queen bee but by a blue tit!  The other bait hive, a National, was being inspected by waspishly-striped honeybees.

On my way home I diverted via Chantmarle Manor where I have a bait hive set up with the intention of obtaining bees from the feral colony that has been occupying the Manor for approaching 80 years.  I saw some bees inspecting the hive and, by contrast to those described above, they were large and black.  I hope that there’s a chance that they may be largely our native bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.  Counting chickens, I should be able in due course to check their wing veins which are an indication of race. I don’t have the resources to do a DNA check though.

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I’m just back from a week in SW Wales on the border of Cardigan and Carmarthen and not far from Pembrokeshire in the little village of Hellan.  I was staying in a caravan in the yard of the winery of Celtic Country Wines and have just opened a bottle of their Welsh Elderport (aka Portysgawen Cwmraeg) to finish off the evening. At 20% alcohol it’s gently warming as well as being full of flavour.  The bottle was a present at the wedding reception of the son of the family, Richard Shipp, which is the reason I was there.

There were 4 National hives on the far side of the yard, unsupered and on sloping pallets.  The beekeeper isn’t local and I didn’t meet him.  Bees were flying strongly from one of the hives in the latter part of the week when it had warmed up a bit and weakly from the other on the same pallet but the other two hives were beeless.

During a week of exploring that part of Wales I saw only a couple of other hives in gardens, and they may just have been ornaments.  I saw no ‘Honey for Sale’ signs at all nor any bees apart from those I have mentioned.

This is strange as the countryside would be brilliant for beekeeping as there is very little industrial agriculture and lots of small fields, hedges and woodland and masses of wild flowers with just the occasional field of rape.  I’d love to keep bees there.

The local enterprises sell each others’ products, for example the winery sells spirits from a local distillery (have you tried seaweed gin?) which has a cheesery and dairy attached to it.  It was a pleasure to sample cheeses or butter made by the person selling them to you.  I did mention that my Mother got her certificate in cheesemaking back in 1931. I bought many small cheeses from two such mongers and had some for my supper this evening.

If there had been a local beekeeper I’d have expected these places to have the local honey on their shelves but there was none to be seen.

Last night I was in a pub, the Red Lion, where most of the conversation was in Welsh. As always, the subject of beekeeping came up and I was told that honey is ‘mel’ in Welsh.  Many other languages, French and Irish spring to mind, also use that or a similar word. I think it comes from Latin but I don’t know where they got it from.  I guess we got the word ‘honey’ from the Saxons as the Germans call it ‘honig’ but what’s the root and why is it different?  Is there a linguist reading this who can enlighten me?

I’ve now been enlightened by my clever linguist friend, Isabel, who tells me that the words are different because they do not describe the same thing.  The Latin mel and Greek melis come from the proto Indo-European word for honey, melit.  The German branch of the family for some reason began to describe honey by its golden yellow colour – k(e)neko, which became ancient Germanic huna(n)go, which became Old Norse honung, which became Old English hunig. Voila!

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I mentioned a while ago that my TBH at Ourganics was apparently queenless and, if that proved to be the case, I would transfer a comb of young brood from another TBH a couple of miles up the road. That was Plan A.

My post brought a response from another Dorset beekeeper, Roland Prakel, with whom I had corresponded but never met, who offered me a queen, the daughter of a Jonathan Getty AMM queen that he had acquired last year for breeding from.  I went to Portland to meet him and get the queen.  He has about 50 colonies on various sites on the Island and the mainland.

He opened a nucleus and went through it to find and cage the queen, together with a few workers to tend her. They were very docile and the queen was large, dark and lovely.  I had brought along some Candipolline that I was given as a free sample at the Spring Convention to block their exit.  Roland opened a few other nuclei, all good tempered, which is good as his site is on allotments.

I took the caged queen and workers to Ourganics and introduced them to the hive.  I couldn’t see a sensible way to fix the cage to the comb without blocking their entrance so I placed it on the floor a couple of inches below the densest patch of bees.

Three days later (yesterday) I went back to check that all was well and had gone according to plan.  It hadn’t worked!  The bees were ignoring the cage and the Candipolline had barely been touched.  I opened the cage (once I had worked out how to do so!) and found that the workers were alive and they soon joined the residents with no problem. The queen, however, was dead!

She was placed on a comb and dozens of workers came and tried to revive her.  I picked her up and cuddled and breathed on her to try to warm her, all to no avail so, after the biggest part of an hour, I gave up and removed her and closed the hive.  Plan Bee had failed.

Back to Plan A.  The top bar hive in the manor orchard up the road yielded a bar with comb containing brood in all stages including eggs and very young larvae.  I brushed off most of the bees but left a few, at the suggestion of a friend who was helping me, in order to tend to the brood as the broodless bees might take a little time to get their organs in gear.

We wrapped the comb and bees in her coat for the journey back to Ourganics.  I had to trim the comb a little to fit it into the hive as the TBH at the manor is of the silly trapezoidal shape so the comb was too deep.  For the first time that afternoon I used a little liquid smoke to confuse the scent of the hive and reduce the chances of the bees fighting each other.

I shall leave them for a few days and then be nosy to see whether they are rearing queen cells.

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Recently there has been internet chat suggesting that smoking the entrance of a hive is a bad idea as it drives the bees inside and upsets them.  Instead, the hive should  have smoke wafted over the top of the frames once the hive has been opened.

I haven’t lit a smoker for years, instead using a sprayer of liquid smoke and for the last few occasions I have adopted the method suggested above with no problems.

Today I visited my apprentice, Sarah, at Bee Happy Plants where I have a new top bar hive into which the bees were transferred a month ago from its rotting predecessor.  After much chatter about plants and bees and a project she has in mind to install indoor hives in a yet-to-be-built barn for pollen collection and study, we set up again the top bar hive I built a couple of years ago with a mesh floor so she could check fallen mites and (her speciality) pollen.  She had found that bees occasionally found their way beneath the mesh and became trapped so she has been adapting it to make it bee proof.

Then we opened my occupied top bar hive.  I had my liquid smoke sprayer with me but, without mentioning it to Sarah or my friend Ann who was with us, I deliberately left it hanging unused on my belt.  We went through the hive comb by comb.  It is the most prosperous hive I’ve seen this year but there was little space at the rear of the hive so we moved everything forward so, effectively we went through it twice without using ‘smoke’.  They were very calm and nobody was stung. We all had bare hands.

Sarah spotted the queen, large, dark and unmarked.  Last time I saw the marked queen she was about 3 years old so I presume she was superseded last Autumn and have now made a new record card for that hive.

While there, we also went through Sarah’s TBH, again needing to shuffle the bars. We used the same smokeless technique at first but on a couple of occasions the bees became a little agitated and so I applied the spray.  Again nobody was stung.

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This afternoon was Dorchester & Weymouth BKA’s auction, presided over as usual by Chris Donaghy.  There were fewer items for sale than usual, 97 I think, with somewhat random numbers assigned to the lots.  57 people were there with numbered bidding cards, quite a few of whom had also been at last week’s West Dorset BKA’s auction. It seems odd and inefficient to have two auctions competing/overlapping. Perhaps we should cooperate and have a joint event.

I saw a chap from my village whom I didn’t know to be a beekeeper. I’ll keep an eye on his garden as I walk by to see if there are any fliers.

There was free tea and coffee with scones anointed with jam and cream with partakers being encouraged to make a donation to Bees for Development. I indulged twice, purely to support BfD, you understand.

My bidding succeeded with Lot No. 192, a National hive for £20; Lot No. 214, a National hive of which the roof owes a lot to duct tape for £15; Lot No. 215 a 5 frame nucleus/travelling box for £3.  These are now occupying yet more space in my garden until I can shift them to an apiary. First I must find and assemble a lot of frames and use up some of my stash of ancient foundation.  I ought to make the effort to do so this coming week so I can make up any shortfall by buying more at the BBKA Convention next weekend.

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I had an unexpected gap in my diary this afternoon so I finished off my restored 20 year old Top Bar Hive by drilling holes in the supporting fence poles about a span down from the top and loading everything in the back of my car.  As an afterthought I rearranged everything to make space for a trolley.

I sent a text to my apprentice, Jane, hoping she could meet me there and help and then I set my sat nav for what I guessed would be the road nearest the new apiary site at Shepton Montague near Wincanton and Castle Cary in darkest Somerset.  It’s 27 miles away so it took a while to get there, the latter part via narrow country lanes.  I found it ok and parked not far from the road as I didn’t fancy driving across fields.  The phone works slowly in Somerset and Jane got my message and replied just after I had arrived.  Unfortunately she was tied up for a while but hoped to join me later.

I unloaded the car and filled the trolley and started towing it for about half a mile around the edges of the fields full of apple trees, heading for the newly planted hillside close to a wood.  The trolley tipped over and spilled its load twice during the trek.

I used my compass and aligned the posts so the entrance to the hive would face SSE to get the morning sun.  The wood should reduce the prevailing wind from the SW and, being more than halfway up the hill, it would be out of the frost pocket. The stream in the valley will provide water when needed. The farm is organic so there should be plenty of natural forage.

I used a spirit level to ensure the post tops were at the same height then wiggled wire through the holes and secured it.  Then I placed the hive on the wire supports and checked again with the spirit level.  After adding the first few top bars, one with comb, I placed the bait in the hive: a blob of cotton wool with a few drops of lemon grass oil, about a foot back from the entrance as the queen won’t go in if she scents a rival close by.

I added the rest of the bars, then a rubber backed carpet, upside down, for the roof to keep the rain off and add insulation.  I secured it with elastic hooks.

It was then that I heard a hoot and saw Jane waving in the distance.  She drove the farm Land Rover around the fields much quicker than I had managed the route and I had to undo part of what I had done in order to show and explain it to her. She took a photo of me next to the hive, using my mobile phone to do so and told me that I’m ‘photogenic’ a thing of which I’ve never been accused before!  If I knew how, I’d post it here.

Conveniently, we loaded my trolley and tools into the back of the Land Rover and she drove us back to the village where she showed me a Warre hive (beeless) in a friend’s garden.

Then we drove in convoy to the farm for a cup of tea and a natter.  She kindly gave me a large slice of veggie pie and organic salad leaves to take home for my dinner.  She intends to visit the hive every couple of days (weather etc permitting) and let me know if bees are showing an interest.

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