It was quite early (for me!) this morning when the phone rang. It was my apprentice, Caps, who, as a peripatetic gardener, had the bees at Thomas Hardy minor’s garden at Lower Bockhampton thrust upon her and who turned to me for mentoring. She told me that the cottage a few hundred yards down the road had a swarm in a bush and could I collect it please? It could replace a recent loss in the Hardy’s Cottage apiary. I knew the place because there is a bee-tree in that garden that we’d been shown.
Hastily, I completed my ablutions, scroffed down half a breakfast, grabbed some kit and headed for the car and thence for Bockhampton, pausing only to pick up a pensioner at the bus stop and evict him at traffic lights in Dorchester. I’d hurried so much because, being so early, it wasn’t today’s swarm and so would have had plenty of time for scouts to find a new home, possibly in the half timbered house in the lane that another swarm had recently occupied for a while.
The swarm was just out of reach in a bay/laurel tree. It wasn’t a very big swarm and may even have been a cast. It was only a few yards from the bee-tree. I then went up the road to Hardy’s to fetch one of the skeps that live there and are on display when the place is open for visitors. Hardy minor’s wife kept bees and would have done so in skeps. She helped to pay for her son, Hardy minimus’, schooling by honey sales; in the same way that in Africa today (with the assistance of the charity, “Bees for Development”) a hive or two of bees can make the difference between a child going to school or not. Hardy minimus benefitted enough from his education to become first an architect and then a playwright and poet, becoming rich and famous (although unloved in Casterbridge).
Back to the swarm. There are builders on site and they first lent me a ladder with which to perform my usual trick with skep and secateurs while trying to retain my balance, then they found some scaffolding to make a platform just below the site of the swarm as bees kept flying back there.
The owner appeared. She is quite keen to have a hive of bees or two in her garden but doesn’t want to become a beekeeper. We walked to the top of her steeply sloping garden, thence into the woodland beyond, which is also hers. I found a spot that, although sheltered under an oak, should get the morning sun. I explained to the owner that the traditional rent for hive-space is a jar of honey/hive/annum. This may not seem a lot, but, as a hive’s footprint is only 18″ square, it works out at £77,000 an acre!
I left the bees to it and went to the apiary to prepare the hive which Caps had been too busy to clean out yet. As the brood box had been prepared with starter strips rather than with wired foundation, it was easy to cut out all the old comb that had been bred in, so that the swarm would be less troubled by any germs lurking under the cocoons. I dumped the old comb outside the fence so the birds and beasts could clean it up to save Caps a job later.
Back to the swarm. Nearly all the bees had gone inside by this time so I eased the sides of the large shopping bag, in which it sat, up and around it, with a loop a string for insurance and walked up the lane with my bag of shopping. I could see a distant figure coming my way. As it drew nearer, it assumed a familiar shape and gait and I recognised my newest apprentice, Becca, who lives only a couple of miles up the road from me. What was she doing here? She’s been to a yoga class and was going for a woodland walk to chill.
We went to my car where she garbed herself in a spare suit and came with me to hive the swarm. I showed her the quick and easy direct method, dumping them in from above, rather than the indirect method of getting them to march up a be-sheeted slope. As we watched them, Becca, who is perceptive and observant, noticed how small the bees were, compared with those from the swarm that she had taken and hived recently. She was right, they are smaller than usual. The explanation is that they came from naturally drawn comb of the size the bees decided was right for them, rather then the over-sized ‘one size fits all’ pattern decided on by foundation manufacturers.
We returned the, now empty, skep to the cottage and Becs came with me to a nearby apiary of my own, beeless unfortunately, again in heathy woodland. She helped me carry the smaller hive back to the car, having disposed of an abandoned hornet’s nest within it. Back to Bockhampton and up the hill with the hive to its new site, just in case there’s a cast from the bee-tree. Otherwise I’ll have to find/make another swarm from somewhere.
Back home, the postman had been, leaving my first royalty cheque for ‘Getting the Best from Your Bees’! It’s been a good day so far. I do hope the Post Office can sort out dollars.