Today I headed for the Island; first to the Community Gardens (allotments) where I look after an apiary that has, for a while, been beeless. However, the last time I passed by I saw that bees were entering the top bar hive, but not the National alongside, both of which I had baited with lemon grass oil on a blob of cotton wool. I sent my contact there, Sandra, a message: ‘etiam apes in horto communi habemus. euge!’.
I took my camera with me today and took photos but this pesky machine is refusing to upload them so you’ll have to make do with a written description. I went down to the gardens and noted that the path up to the bees had been neatly mown. Lots of bees were flying from the entrance(s) of the top bar hive. The entrance (I wish I could show you the photo!) is a Fibonacci spiral of single bee sized holes. This to enable the hive to be defended more easily against wasps, hornets and other bees. The bees seem to like it.
I kitted up and opened the hive. There were no bees except those busily going in and out of the entrance! I can only assume that there is a colony somewhere that has swarmed or is thinking of doing so and that these are scout bees looking for a new home. I hope my disturbance didn’t put them off.
I left that site and headed for my apiary at Wakeham, pausing at Easton where I browsed through a shopping arcade. In a second hand book shop I spotted and bought a copy of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne. He is the first person to have made note of a drone congregation area, in 1791. Unfortunately, the book I bought is the 1789 edition and so two years too early!
I went on to Wakeham and drove into the paddock. The last time I went there, a few days ago, a couple was relaxing on the ground next to the apiary so I tactfully retreated without them or their dog noticing me. This time all was clear.
I kitted up, annointing my hands with a single drop of oil of cloves as an apprentice had pointed out that the spray I usually use, Bienen-jet, smells of cloves. I took secateurs with me as the jungle grows so fast there. I also took some empty brood frames wrapped round with bands of string.
The flowers around there are amazing: at every step you want to get out your flora to see what it is you’ve just trodden on. I took photos of some of the orchids.
I opened the first hive. The bees had chosen to occupy the super rather than the brood box and, as the frames are on wide spacers, the comb is rather a mess, sometimes with two combs on one frame. I think I caught brief glimpse of the queen before she disappeared into a gap. This may be the last time I see her as there are several sealed queen cells of the supersedure type.
The next hive, not as strong as the first, also prefers the super to the brood box but they are starting to move down.
The third hive is the weird one. They have built their combs on the outside of the hive! Luckily they were attached to the roof, which I was able, carefully, to remove and park, covered with bees, on top of the previous hive.
I opened the hive to rearrange it and found that there were some bees inside on frames of stores close to where the cluster had been. I think they had bees getting up through the ventilation hole in the roof and I guess that the slot, being narrow, had acted as a queen excluder, preventing herself from getting in.
I put the empty super under the floor so as to raise the entrance, which I aligned so as to be as close as possible to the site of the cluster. It was about this stage that I heard a crash and saw that the roof with comb and bees had toppled off the other hive and was, comb down, on the ground!
I set up the brood box and took a couple of the frames with string around them to the upset roof. There appeared to be little damage but the combs were dislodged. The large one was too big to fit into a frame without cutting so I took it whole and slotted it into the the gap at the end of the brood box which, with a bit of wriggling, it fitted excellently. I inserted a twig to give a bee space between comn and wall.
The next comb was smaller and I was able to fit it into the frame and slide the loops of string across to hold it in place. Other small bits of comb were placed above the crown board so the bees could use the few stores they contained.
In all this activity, I think I received only 1 sting. I didn’t have a smoker with me, just a sprayer of liquid smoke. I used that sprayer on the last hive as a spirit level. I noticed that the hive was a little askew and so, using chunks of stone (there are plenty of those on Portland!) I levelled it up, the liquid smoke in the sprayer telling me when I had got it right.
I left the apiary, disrobed and sat in the car writing up my notes. Along came a little old lady walking her dog. She asked me if I was the bee man. I replied that lots of people call me that! She was chatty and had obviously been keeping an eye on the site over some time. She told me her Dad had kept bees, half a dozen hives, and had talked to them, inter alia of family births marriages and deaths. That’s a very old tradition and I make a point, especially when apprentices are present, of talking, even singing, to the bees.
The lady said that she would like to keep bees but had only a small garden. ‘So have I’, I explained, which is why I keep my bees scattered on other people’s land where they are welcome. I suggested that she goes for it. She told me that, on her walk, before getting to the apiary, she had heard a humming, as if of bees, from the clump of trees nearby and wondered whether there was a swarm. I asked if they were lime trees as they are in flower at the moment and abuzz with bees, but they weren’t. She also told me that near Pennsylvania Castle a colony of bees had built comb in the open, just as those I had just dealt with had done! Weird!
She went on her way and I went into the woodland where I, too, could hear the humm from above. I couldn’t see any bees, the trees were sycamores, well past their flowering time and there were myriads of wild flowers scattered around that the bees could work without creating such a hum. I wonder whether it is a drone congregation area? Often they choose a landmark such as a clump of trees as a focal point and there are very few trees, especially in large clumps such as this, on Portland.
I went back to the car and drove back to the road. As I was closing the gate to the paddock, another dog-walking lady stopped and asked me how the bees were doing. They and I must be getting to be well-known and accepted on the Island!