I drove across to Tatworth in Summerzet to the Bee Happy Plants nursery where my apprentice, Sarah, lives and grows. It was a lovely day and Sarah told me that she and her pack of hounds had been for an early morning swim at Seaton. She drove us on across the Blackdown Hills where she spent her childhood thinking the whole world was as beautiful as she played in woodland interspersed with small dairy farms. Our destination was the Taunton BKA’s apiary where DARG (Devon Apicultural Research Association) was having a meeting.
We were greeted at the door by the BKA’s Secretary, Barbara, who is wheelchair bound but still manages, with the help of her husband, to keep bees. She can’t do any lifting, but their hive stands have been designed so she can get close and handle the brood frames; however, she complains that any hive debris falls on her lap. That reminded me that I have a couple of designs for hives for the physically less able lurking in my head that I must build and test before I get too old and infirm. As I remarked to Barbara: it’s every beekeeper’s duty to design a better hive!
The first idea is a Top Bar Hive that can be swivelled through up to 90 degrees so that the bars are vertical and can be withdrawn from the sitting position. The second is based on the hives I saw in sheds in Slovenia where you open a cupboard door to see the edges of the frames before you. They can be withdrawn singly for examination or harvesting. There are pictures I took in Slovenia in my (co-authored with Dave MacFawn of S.Carolina) book: Getting the Best from Your Bees.
The meeting started and we were sat in chairs that bore labels that they were made for the Olympics. They were comfortable enough and I had difficulty in staying awake as we were told about the acquisition and construction of the splendid new hut in which we were sitting, complete with meeting room, kitchen, wheelchair-friendly loo, work space and ‘clean room’ for honey processing and lab work. They had a collection of bee suits (that’s white space-suits for working bees, not stripy black and yellow furry suits for pretending to be bees!) hanging up as they are concerned about stray germs being brought onto the site on other people’s bee kit.
We could see the apiary through the window and a couple of people were working the hives. There were, in my opinion (others would argue!) far too many hives there. I think the problem is that they are so busy instructing beginners how to make increase that they haven’t got around to letting the beginners take them away. Maybe those bees aren’t suitable for beginners. We were told that they can be feisty and that they intend to import some Buckfast (aka Fast Buck!) bees to improve things. I think that would be a mistake as, while the bees you buy in are quiet, they can make a very cross cross, exhibiting what plant breeders would call ‘hybrid vigour’. Of course the drones from the imports will mate with queens from miles around thus making things worse for neighbouring beekeepers.
We kitted up and went outside. As soon as I was within a few yards of the hives there were bees battering my veil and this continued for the quarter of an hour or so we spent among them. The bees followed us back around to the front of the building. They are ‘followers’, a trait that is carried on a single gene and can thus be bred out relatively easily: yet they are using these bees for queen rearing. Madness!
The meeting broke up. We said our ‘goodbyes’ and headed for the hills again, back to Sarah’s and then began the main business of the day: splitting my top bar hive to stock hers. First things first; we were feeling peckish so Sarah dug out some oaten biscuits to be spread with peanut butter mixed with a choice of honeys and I was given a sample of each to taste. First was one from the Middle East (I forget which country but doubtless Sarah will tell us if/when she comments on this post) which I found a little bland. The second was from nearer home and was much tastier. I pointed out that, as one gets older, one tends to prefer stronger tasting honeys.
She was about to peel a banana to put some on top but I suggested that this might not be such a good idea if we were about to handle bees. She must have a very good nose as, instantly, she was able, by sniffing the banana, to liken it to the scent of bee sting pheromone. She had then been stung only once, but has been present when I’ve been stung. She put the banana down and washed her hands.
We kitted up and went to the hives: mine with bees in and hers without. She has built a TBH that is a replica of mine and has also built a stand for the extra hive that I’m in the middle of building. She had asked me to bring my smoker as she had never seen one lit and so, for the first time in a couple of years, I lit it and we used that rather than the liquid smoke I favour nowadays. We removed 5 bars from her hive to replace those we hoped to take from mine. Unfortunately she hasn’t given them starter strips or a line of wax etc for guidance so that’ll be more fun to come!
We lifted off the roof of the hive and could see though gaps in distorted bars that the bees were well towards the rear of the hive and were propolising the gaps. I was able to show Sarah a bee with propolis in her pollen baskets. We opened up. There are still a few unused bars but not many. Some of the comb was straying off course and will need correcting before too long, but that was not the purpose of our visit and so I left it for now.
We examined the hive, bar by bar, looking for young brood and for the queen. The hive has expanded massively in the last month. The brood looks very healthy and I saw no obvious sign of varroa apart from a single drone with a short wing. Then I saw a baby queen cup, hardly bigger than a ‘play cup’ with a very young larva lying in a pool of royal jelly! We transferred that bar to Sarah’s hive, having ensured that the queen wasn’t going also.
We continued and gradually selected more combs to transfer. We saw a few more ‘play cups’ but none with egg or larva within. Eventually Sarah spotted the queen, large, magnificent and stately, near the front of the hive. We reassembled the hive, interspersing the new bars between the best combs in order to encourage straight comb building. There were clusters of bees on top of the hives so we decided to leave the rooves off for now and Sarah would replace them in the evening.
All this time I had been acting with my usual caution while handling bees bare handed, although I had got a couple of stings when inadvertently trapping bees against my hand. Sarah had followed suit, moving her hands only at half speed while over the hive. Then, when we were just about finished, she forgot herself and flapped her hand at some bees buzzing her at the front of the hive. Instantly she received her second and third stings ever! She’s a brave girl and soon recovered her sense and apologised to the bees.
We packed up and took off our veils about 10 yards from the hives. We couldn’t have done that at Taunton!