Yesterday I had a call from my apprentice, Rosie. She’s the one who called me to attend to a swarm in her garden last year, watched me insert a bare hand into it and, unprotected, did the same: her first experience with bees! Since then, she has become, predictably, besotted with the amazing creatures.
She has moved from her cottage on the estate at Minterne Parva and now lives in a bothy next to the stable block of the mansion at Minterne Magna, sharing with her friend Nicky, a talented flautist I sometimes bump into at music sessions.
A swarm had arrived in the garden of the big house and needed to be moved and homed. I asked Rosie to fetch my bait hive that I had left at her old home and park it close to the swarm while I was on my way. She’s two valleys away so it took a little time.
When I arrived, as I entered the drive I saw large printed notices proclaiming “BEWARE BEE SWARM”, so I knew I was in the right place. One of the gardeners was there with a canister on his back and sprayer in hand and I thought he was planning to do something drastic to the bees; but no, he was just spraying weeds. I told him off as bees need flowers, not grass!
The swarm was on the ground, in a twiggy hollow adjacent an old tree stump. Rosie had placed the hive close by. It was a National with used but mostly de-waxed frames, mostly with a footprint of comb. There was one that had comb that had not been bred in plus a chunk of dark comb that was there as bait.
I started laying the combs on the bees, which soon covered them, and then shaking the bees into the hive. I did this repeatedly for a long time, getting lots in, but there were still lots on the ground. We took a break, looking for sites in the grounds where we could site the hive, walking across the lawn, following the haha, down to the lake across the turf bridge and up into the adjacent parkland.
Rosie rang the master to ask permission to keep bees there. He was happy for her to do so but there were some constraints.The gardens are open to the public, getting about 7,000 visitors a year so the bees couldn’t go where their paths would cross those of the public. There is also a lot of game shooting on the estate and so the elfinsafety of the beaters and gunmen had to be considered. Eventually we settled on a spot on the far side of the lake, fenced off from livestock.
Then we went back to the bees and we continued shaking them into the hive but without making marked progress. I even lit my smoker and blasted the area where they were sat to try to persuade them to shift.
Nicky arrived from work (she’s a teacher) so it was time for tea and cake while I explained the problems and opportunities associated with the swarm. We didn’t know how long they’d been there and it was possible that they were occupying a hollow under the stump, which they seemed to prefer to the hive. If they had become attuned to that site and we moved them only a short distance, they would fly straight back there.
The estate is quite large, covering several villages and surrounding wood, down, farm, water and parkland in the beautiful Cerne valley so there were other possible sites. Rosie would chat with the master and see what he thought.
The afternoon was growing late and I had another swarm call to attend to on another, larger, estate so, as a change of tactics, I took the hive off its floor and stand and placed it over the swarm, hoping that they’d move up and occupy it overnight.
This afternoon I returned to Rosie’s and found that the bees had followed our desires and entered the hive. I moved the stand and floor as close as possible and gently placed the hive thereon. Then the three of us, Nicky being back from work, went on a tour round the estate looking at a range of possible sites that were on Rosie’s list. Some of the sites were stupendous with amazing views and I would love to keep bees there; however they entailed driving up half a mile or so of very rough track that, without a Land Rover, would be impassable after inclement weather.
Eventually we settled on a site on the edge of woodland at Minterne Parva, sheltered from prevailing winds, with a south-easterly aspect, overlooking an ungrazed wild flower meadow with a brook less than a furlong away. I wasn’t sure of the exact position to put the bees so I took my dowsing pendulum from my pocket to obtain confirmation. Rosie also produced a pendulum from her waist bag. Both agreed that a particular site was the right one. Was it, I wonder, purely by coincidence that it was about then that I heard my first cuckoo for years?
I was worried about badgers as I had once found a freshly road-killed deer close by that had been neatly gutted by badgers, saving me a job! The site was close to Rosie’s old home and she was quickly able to lay hands on a roll of stiff wire netting that would give badgers some difficulty in crossing. She also found a pallet and planks to sit the hive on and, being a practical person, had in her car a pair of pliers to fix the fence and a spirit level to ensure that it was level.
We went back to see how the bees were doing. They were flying happily from the entrance and had abandoned their stump. We couldn’t move them yet as too many would be left behind, so we went back to the bothy for bread and cheese, sloe gin and lapsang. Knowing that Nicky makes potions, I had brought along some beeswax for her to play with. In return, she gave me a bar of ‘natural’ soap she had made, containing all sorts of herbs etc.
Rosie is into wicca and she showed me some of the results of her skills. Unsurprisingly they had both spent the morning of May Day on top of the Cerne Giant.
Time passed and so we went back to the hive. Most of the bees were inside now, in the cool of the evening, so I taped up the entrance, running the tape all round the floor/brood box joint. I ran another band over and under the hive to keep it together in case of accidents. There were still up to a dozen bees still flying but that was a very tiny percentage of the whole.
We put the hive and stand in the back of Rosie’s car and she drove us to Parva. The girls carefully and gently carried the hive across to the site while I carried the stand. We set it up and then I gently started peeling back part of the tape across the entrance while Rosie quickly stuffed fresh grass in it to make the bees take their time and look around them as they exited in the morning instead of just buzzing off and getting lost.
I told the girls about my other apprentice, Sarah’s project of recording hive debris and they want to play too! My next job, therefore, is to make a mesh floor and tray for the National.