A LATE SWARM SEASON

Some years ago, when I had more time, I went through my records of swarms I’d gathered, lost, or helped others with over nearly 40 years. The earliest was in the first week of April and the latest was a tiny cast in September but the graph made a very sharp peak in the few days around the 21st May.

This strange year I heard of no swarms around the usual time but there have been lots in the last week or two. Thinking about it: April, although sunny was cold and dry so there wasn’t much nectar coming in, May was record-breaking wet. If bees aren’t flying they’re not wearing themselves out (or being swallowed) and dying. Therefore there would have been a lot of bees crowded in hives, trees, attics etc with not enough queen pheromone to go around and keep them in order.

I mentioned a while ago that several long established wild colonies on the local ley line had perished. They’ve been replaced! There are now bees, one again in Cattistock, Chilfrome and Maiden Newton Churches and they’re also flying once again from a friend’s attic in Maiden Newton. I have recently been given a swarm that arrived in a bait hive very close to Chantmarle Manor which has been occupied by bees since before I was born.

I must do some map reading and look out for other likely sites along the line.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

BRITAIN’S INSECTS

I have a tome at home! I’ve been given Britain’s Insects: a field guide to the insects of Great Britain and Ireland, by Paul D Brock, published by Princeton University Press. I wouldn’t really use it as a field guide unless I was having a picnic in a wild flower meadow as it weighs 3lb 5oz!

In over 600 pages there are over 2,500 photographs of nearly 1,500 species together with written description of the relevant identification features and maps showing where they live.

I think the easiest way to use the book is to leave it at home, or in the car, and use your mobile phone to take pictures of interesting insects then see what pictures in the book match your photo.

I’ve already used it to identify a bumble bee of which somebody posted a photo on Facebook. It isn’t perfect however as, being a beekeeper, I tried to look up the Greater and Lesser Wax Moths without success.

At £25, it isn’t the cheapest of books so I suggest you visit your local library and ask to borrow a copy to assess whether you fall sufficiently in love with it to buy your own copy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

THINGS DON’T ALWAYS GO WELL!

A couple of days ago I had a swarm call, the first for a couple of years, so I put a skep in the car and headed for Lyon’s Gate a couple of valleys away and managed to find the house without difficulty. It has a Victorian letter box and a long, steeply sloping garden. The bees were about 8 feet up in a tree. With the help of a stepladder and brush I managed to get nearly all of them into the skep eventually, after several attempts.

I placed the skep into a large Ikea bag then tied it round with rubber bungees. There were still a few bees on the outside of the skep so I put the whole thing into a plastic sack and carried it to the car. It was heavy! It was a much bigger swarm than is usual.

The lady asked me what she owed me. I said ‘Nothing’, which shows my brain was out of gear as I usually suggest a donation to Bees for Development. I drove the 9 miles to the apiary I had in mind, Neal’s Copse, where both my hives had been wasped out last year. I drove with the windows open so the bees wouldn’t overheat.

I arrived, opened the hive, took the skep etc to it and dumped them on top. They were mostly dead! They formed a layer of wet and sticky bees about 4 inches deep on top of the frames. There was nothing I could do without causing further damage so, after watching for a while, I decided to leave them until the next day. They were in the sunshine and that might, I hoped, help them recover.

I then went to visit another hive nearer home, in Frome Vauchurch. As I was approaching it, I saw a swarm on a branch a few yards in front of it! I easily got them into the skep and Ikea bag but, this time, omitted the plastic sack. I took them to a vacant hive at Higher Wraxall, removed the bait, and dumped them in with no problem.

Next day I went back to the swarm at Neal’s Copse. There were plenty of bees flying but still a massive amount of dead/dying bees on top of the frames, so I started scraping them off with a hive tool. I spotted one, very small, with a blue blob so she must have been a marked queen. Obviously she would have to be replaced so I went to Mountover where I have a hive that, unusually, I fed through the winter, but the last time I examined them, a month ago, they were doing well and had 5 frames of brood so I thought I’d take a frame of young brood and add to the swarm so they could rear a new queen.

The hive was dead! They had starved during the horrible weather during the last month. I cut out the comb with the dead bees, heads in cells. Then it occurred to me that there might be a spare queen cell in the hive near home that had swarmed so I went there. First I saw a couple of old queen cells that had emerged, then a couple of sealed cells, then another frame with a couple of sealed cells.

I removed one of the frames with sealed queen cells and headed back to Neal’s Copse. A lot of the bees were under the hive so I put the frame next to them and they soon covered it and I then put it into the hive, closed up and came away with fingers crossed!

This is the first few days of decent weather for ages so I shall spend much of the time playing with my bees.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

WORLD BEE DAY: WORST BEE YEAR!

Today, 20th May has been declared (I don’t know why) World Bee Day. As we know, all beekeeping is local, but for me this last year must be about the worst I can remember for bees and beekeeping.

I didn’t harvest any honey last autumn, largely because I had works carried out and my kitchen was far too cluttered to bother with extraction, so I left the honey on the hives. I’m glad I did because I’ve just been taking their surplus honey and it was worth taking it from only 2 hives of my 14. It’s selling well.

Wasps were a nuisance last year and saw off 3 colonies. The weather has been awful for the bees: too cold and too dry during April but now, May is by far the wettest this millennium and we’re only 2/3rds of the way through the month.

I don’t usually open my hives at less than 14 degrees C to avoid chilling the hive and giving the bees extra work to do, eating stores to warm it up again. I like to give them a good foraging day the day before I open them to avoid interrupting necessary foraging. Consequently I can’t remember having spent less time playing with bees for decades.

Fortunately, all my hives that went into winter emerged ok. Not so for the wild colonies around though. There’s a ley line about 15 miles long passing through my village which has had about a dozen sites with long term wild colonies of bees. One end (possibly beyond but I haven’t yet done any searching) is at Evershot Church, where the bees have been occupying a gargoyle for years and the other end is at Upwey Church where they are in the tower, using a small crack in the stonework for an entrance. Plot these 2 Churches on a small scale map and stretch a thick piece of string between them and you’ll cover all the other sites.

I haven’t checked all the sites this year but Cattistock Church, where they’ve been in the roof for many years, is now without them, although a log hive hoisted into a tree in the churchyard a couple of years ago us still active. Chilfrome Church, where they’ve been in the roof for over a decade, is now without them. That will disappoint the churchwardens who consider that the bees keep the ‘little people’ at bay.

My nearby Church, here in Maiden Newton, was first occupied by bees in the tower in 1994 and they’ve been there ever since apart from a brief period when a warden, without consulting me, had them eradicated to enable work to be carried out. I always check before the swarming season that they’re active and not just reoccupied by a swarm but this year there’s no activity.

In the village, on the line, is a house with bees in the attic that sends out a swarm most years but they don’t seen to have survived the winter. Next is a large maple tree in the garden of the old Rectory of Frome Vauchurch. They’ve been flying ok.

A few miles along is Martinstown Church where they come and go. They’ve gone now. Last that I know of is Upwey Church where they’re currently active. I was told that there were bees in a Church on Portland but I don’t know which one so that might possibly be an extension to the line.

If only I had more time, I’d use Tom Seeley’s method of hunting wild bees to see if there are any more sites along the line. Maybe if ‘lockdown’ is extended for another year I’ll have a go.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

ANOTHER DARG DAY

Yesterday was our monthly meeting of DARG, the Devon Apicultural Research Group, which, because of the lemonade virus, was held on Zoom. There were 10 of us present from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Cambridge. The main subject of the day was to visit each other’s apiaries but, as usual, it was preceded by natter.

Glyn Davies opened up by starting a debate about importing bees, of which he (virtually alone!) is in favour. His theory is that greater genetic variability will enable colonies cope better with changing climate and introduced pests. Of course, it was pointed out to him that imported bees are likely to bring in more pests, such as small hive beetle and others.

We have a lot a genetic variability here already with adaptation to local conditions. I mentioned a lecture I’d once attended from a Professor (I’ve forgotten his name) from Plymouth University who kept bees both at Plymouth and also up on Bodmin Moor. If he shifted a colony from one site to another it took them about two years to catch up and attune to the local weather and forage.

Eventually we got onto looking at each other’s apiaries via photos or powerpoint presentations. I didn’t show any as I don’t have the technical skills, which is why I don’t post pictures here. Mostly their apiaries were at home and they have large and lovely (if somewhat wild maybe) gardens.

They seemed to have quite a few hives close together. Maybe they hadn’t read the Central Association of Bee-Keepers leaflet BEE-KEEPING BY NUMBERS by Leslie Bailey, based on a lecture he gave them in October 1986. The gist of it is that, if you have more than one hive per square kilometre, pests and diseases increase and yields per hive decrease. This is one of the reasons why I seldom have more than one colony per site.

Lynne Ingram showed us pictures of an observation nest box she had set up for solitary bees with slots in wood but with a perspex window normally covered with a wooden door that can be opened to see the activity within. This attracted much interest and she has now circulated pictures and dimensions so I might try to make one for my garden.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

RIP DAVID CHARLES

Yesterday I attended the funeral of my friend David Charles at St John’s Church at Glastonbury. I wasn’t able to attend in person because of ‘lockdown’ limitations but was able to see it as it happened on my computer screen. As the camera scanned round there appeared to be about a score of people there and I think there were about three score watching as I was.

Unfortunately, due to a poor signal, there were frequent interruptions and freezes, which was a pity as I missed parts of what our mutual friend, Chris Utting, was telling us about David’s long and interesting life, from his early years abroad as the son of a serviceman to his later career as a teacher. He must have been very popular as a teacher as many of his former pupils remained his friends.

David was a long term beekeeper and, for a while, was President of the BBKA. Although not a member he came along to some of our DARG meetings and, of course, was at all the many successful events run by Somerset BKA.

He had given up his bees a few years ago, downsized and moved to a flat in Glastonbury, where he died on 31st December.

He will be missed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BEEZOOMING THE NATIONAL HONEY SHOW

I’ve spent most of this wet and windy day sat with the laptop on my lap virtually attending the National Honey Show. I also got to some lectures yesterday and the day before but missed some. I may look at lectures from previous years on the NHS website if I can find time. The last time I did that I found the information interesting but somehow familiar. When it came to the question time at the end, I saw myself on screen asking a question!

The signal isn’t always good here. The first lecture, on Thursday, was by Medhat Nasr on wintering bees in Canada and the picture and speech were often ‘crackly’. I am familiar with his name as it often appears on the BeeList yahoo group so it was good to put a face to it.

Yesterday I watched Chris Park skep making. I made my first skep in 1984 and it still appears annually at the County Agricultural Show Bee Tent. Chris, in his lecture, said that brambles are good for binding but difficult because of the prickles. I overcame that problem by working them through a short length of an elder branch.

The next lecture was by Etienne Bruneau, from Belgium and I had difficulty in following it, partly because of his accent and also because he showed lots of graphs which were illegible.

I missed the lecture on showing honey as I’m not a show off!

I arrived halfway through the Bees for Development quiz as I had the time wrong in my diary, but the bit I saw was interesting and fun.

This morning I watched Sara Robb making soap, but it had little relevance to beekeeping as she wasn’t using wax. I intend, soon, to make some soap from conkers.

Bill Turnbull and Robert Pickard were very scattered and disjointed on my screen and I couldn’t really follow the conversation, which is a pity because Robert is the best bee-lecturer there is!

The last lecture was the best: Jeff Pettis on why queens aren’t lasting as long as they should. Not only was it interesting, but the screen behaved itself.

It was a lot more convenient and cheaper to watch it at home rather than attending in person, but much of the enjoyment of the NHS is bumping into old friends and nattering, and going round the trade stands.

Last year I was persuaded to buy a heavy (10kg) parcel of fondant because I was told the price was good. I very rarely feed my bees so I was kicking myself afterwards but I have a colony that I split which isn’t too strong and they’re devouring it. I visited them yesterday to give them their 5th kg slab and, although the temperature was only 12 C they were working as if it was midsummer with lots of pollen going in!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

PLYMOUTH UNIVERSITY BEE SURVEY

A couple of days ago a small parcel arrived from Victoria Buswell of Plymouth University. It contained a small transparent plastic container about 3/4 full of deathanol (ethanol) into which I was requested to place 40 bees from a selected hive and return it to her.  She wants samples from here and there to analyse their DNA to discover their origins, in particular to see what proportion of the native honeybee, Apis  mellifera mellifera is present.

The container was just about large enough to contain my finger so I didn’t really expect to get that many bees in it.  I had no instructions as to how to do it so I had to invent a method.

The hive I selected is within walking distance so yesterday I went there with an empty jam jar and  small seed catalogue in addition to my usual kit.  I opened the hive, removed a frame of bees from a super and placed the, now lidless, jam jar over some of the bees, trapping them.  I slid the jar sideways to get the bees climbing onto the sides of the jar which I slid  over the  slim catalogue.  I repeated the procedure several times until I thought I might have enough bees but wasn’t sure as they’re not easy to count while on the move!

I went home and put the jar into the freezer to kill them off humanely.  I was expecting to have to go back and get some more today.  I emptied the jar onto a dinner plate and started to count them.  I’d killed far too many!  I put 40 of them into the phial of deathanol which raised the fluid level exactly to the top!  Clever Victoria had put in exactly the right amount – she must have done it before.

I packed the phial in the padded envelope in which it had arrived.  As it was after lunch I knew the village post office would be closed so I googled the opening times of Dorchester PO and was informed that they were open until 5.30 so I headed that way.  Google was wrong!

I won’t be able to send the sample until Monday morning.  I hope the bees don’t rot, but presume the deathanol will prevent that happening.  I’m looking forward to being told the result.  The bees are a self-hived swarm that arrived this spring.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

THINGS DON’T ALWAYS GO RIGHT!

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Hayley, the gardener at a large estate a few miles away.  Her boss wants bees around the place so would I like to place a hive or two there?  I went over and, keeping our distance, walked around the garden/park and I selected a spot by a gap in a hedge up out of the frost pocket and where flight lines wouldn’t be a problem.

I went home and started to dismantle the empty bait hive in my back garden, only to discover that it wasn’t empty!  There was a tiny, fist sized, cluster of bees in the super with a little comb with sealed brood.  I’d seen the occasional bee there but thought they were just looking.  It must be a cast, a secondary swarm.  I’ve never seen one as tiny!

I moved them to the new site and put a feeder on them.  Then Hayley suggested a second site a couple of miles away so she led the way in her garden truck while I followed in my car.  After going through the next village there’s a half-mile long, bumpy farm track to reach the farm house, which I think has just been converted for a holiday home.  We looked around and I selected a site at the edge of a lawn, again facing a gap in a hedge.

I went home, gathered parts and returned to set up the hive.  Next day I split one of my hives in the village, taking a nucleus, including the marked queen.  As I was closing up, I noticed a bee on the hive fanning and displaying her Nasenov gland, which made me wonder whether the queen had escaped from the nucleus.

I drove to the site but found the farm track was occupied by a bulldozer and digger so I had to drive across a field, hoping it wasn’t too rough for the bees.  I transferred them to their new home without mishap or sting but couldn’t see the queen.  The frames I had selected had plenty of food and brood, including eggs and young larvae and it occurred to me that, brain being occupied with what I was taking, I hadn’t thought of ensuring that I’d left behind brood from which the parent hive could produce a new queen.

Next day I went and checked and found that I had taken all the young brood so I went back to the farm and found the gate closed and locked.  I contacted Hayley who kindly drove over and brought me a key.  The track was now quite smooth.

I opened the nucleus, saw the queen and removed a frame with eggs and young larvae, brushing the bees off.  I went back to the parent hive to put it in, which I did, but the bees gave me a pasting!  I received about a dozen stings.  I’d forgotten that queenless hives can get stroppy.  I shall leave them alone for a month, when I shall look for pollen going in before I open them again.

Yesterday I had a call from a lady to say there were bees in my bait hive in their wild flower meadow at Neal’s Copse.  I visited and, yes there are bees but they aren’t in the hive, they’re UNDER it!  They’ve been there some time because there’s lots of drawn comb suspended under the floor.  I have yet to decide what to do about it.

Down by the house, in some wasteland just below the haha, I have a hive which had lost it’s queen and just had a few laying workers a couple of months ago, so I went to check that they were now all dead.  A swarm has moved in!  They’re doing well with brood in all stages but not a lot of food and they’re not using the supers.

As I was using my hive tool to lever and loosen the propolised end frame I managed to prise the brood box apart, only slightly and I was able to bang it back almost into position without upsetting the bees, but I ought to swap that brood box for another one before too long and repair it.

I drove on over the boundary into darkest Somerset as I’d been sent a photo of a swarm in an apple tree in the cider orchard and also a video of bees entering my bait hive there. The hive was empty, although there were a few bees investigating it.  I walked all round the orchard looking for the swarm without success, so I guess they’ve found a new home elsewhere.  I don’t know where they came from but, last time I was there I noticed a colony was occupying the Church Hall, not far away.

As you can see, I’ve been kept quite busy during lock-down!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BEE TALK ON ZOOM

During the current ‘lock down’ because of the Corona virus we hadn’t been able to have any beekeepers’ meetings but now it’s becoming almost routine to have meetings via Zoom, of which I’d never previously heard.  It isn’t perfect and there’s lots of room for improvement but it’s a lot better than nothing.

A few weeks ago we had a meeting of DARG on Zoom, the main subject of which was Richard Ball leading discussion on beekeeping and climate change and how to monitor it.  He’s been keeping rainfall records for the last 20 years and was able to show us graphs of the information.  I have been keeping rainfall records all this century but don’t know how to play with them on computers.

I managed to scroll the screen so all the pictures disappeared but was unable to get them back so I rejoined the meeting via my mobile phone although I was still pictured via the camera on my laptop.  I was told afterwards that, with my head and eyes down looking at the phone I appeared to be asleep.  I wasn’t, really!

The following week Lynn Ingram organised a Zoom meeting of Somerset BKA for a talk by Richard Ball which I enjoyed despite my computer repeatedly telling me that I have a poor signal.  We’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings of the U3A Singing group.  Because of all the distortions of signals it was impossible for us all to sing together, keeping time so we were muted but joining in inaudibly at home, singing along with our leaderine whom we could hear.

I had been asked to give the North Devon BKA a talk on top bar hives because of my chapter on that subject in the recently published Variations on a Beehive.  I was meant to travel up to Barnstaple to deliver it but now it has been suggested that I do it via Zoom.  I had been intending to take a hive with me to demonstrate the parts so now I had a problem in finding pictures to wave at the camera.

By coincidence, my new apprentices, Venetia and her husband, Gautam, asked if I could show them a top bar hive, so today we went along to Ourganics where I have a TBH in my friend, Pat’s, organic nursery where she lives off-grid.  As I opened the hive with Venetia and Gautam mostly keeping their distance, Gautam was taking photos and video of what looked, to him, most interesting.  He’s going to email them to me so I can print off pictures to illustrate my talk.

When we got back to our cars, next to Pat’s giant polytunnel, Pat was there and they fell into conversation about their experiences in living off-grid, particularly in purifying drinking water.  They swapped ideas and got on well and I think they might join some of Pat’s teaching sessions when they recommence.  It’s a funny world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment