Recently there has been internet chat suggesting that smoking the entrance of a hive is a bad idea as it drives the bees inside and upsets them.  Instead, the hive should  have smoke wafted over the top of the frames once the hive has been opened.

I haven’t lit a smoker for years, instead using a sprayer of liquid smoke and for the last few occasions I have adopted the method suggested above with no problems.

Today I visited my apprentice, Sarah, at Bee Happy Plants where I have a new top bar hive into which the bees were transferred a month ago from its rotting predecessor.  After much chatter about plants and bees and a project she has in mind to install indoor hives in a yet-to-be-built barn for pollen collection and study, we set up again the top bar hive I built a couple of years ago with a mesh floor so she could check fallen mites and (her speciality) pollen.  She had found that bees occasionally found their way beneath the mesh and became trapped so she has been adapting it to make it bee proof.

Then we opened my occupied top bar hive.  I had my liquid smoke sprayer with me but, without mentioning it to Sarah or my friend Ann who was with us, I deliberately left it hanging unused on my belt.  We went through the hive comb by comb.  It is the most prosperous hive I’ve seen this year but there was little space at the rear of the hive so we moved everything forward so, effectively we went through it twice without using ‘smoke’.  They were very calm and nobody was stung. We all had bare hands.

Sarah spotted the queen, large, dark and unmarked.  Last time I saw the marked queen she was about 3 years old so I presume she was superseded last Autumn and have now made a new record card for that hive.

While there, we also went through Sarah’s TBH, again needing to shuffle the bars. We used the same smokeless technique at first but on a couple of occasions the bees became a little agitated and so I applied the spray.  Again nobody was stung.

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This afternoon was Dorchester & Weymouth BKA’s auction, presided over as usual by Chris Donaghy.  There were fewer items for sale than usual, 97 I think, with somewhat random numbers assigned to the lots.  57 people were there with numbered bidding cards, quite a few of whom had also been at last week’s West Dorset BKA’s auction. It seems odd and inefficient to have two auctions competing/overlapping. Perhaps we should cooperate and have a joint event.

I saw a chap from my village whom I didn’t know to be a beekeeper. I’ll keep an eye on his garden as I walk by to see if there are any fliers.

There was free tea and coffee with scones anointed with jam and cream with partakers being encouraged to make a donation to Bees for Development. I indulged twice, purely to support BfD, you understand.

My bidding succeeded with Lot No. 192, a National hive for £20; Lot No. 214, a National hive of which the roof owes a lot to duct tape for £15; Lot No. 215 a 5 frame nucleus/travelling box for £3.  These are now occupying yet more space in my garden until I can shift them to an apiary. First I must find and assemble a lot of frames and use up some of my stash of ancient foundation.  I ought to make the effort to do so this coming week so I can make up any shortfall by buying more at the BBKA Convention next weekend.

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I had an unexpected gap in my diary this afternoon so I finished off my restored 20 year old Top Bar Hive by drilling holes in the supporting fence poles about a span down from the top and loading everything in the back of my car.  As an afterthought I rearranged everything to make space for a trolley.

I sent a text to my apprentice, Jane, hoping she could meet me there and help and then I set my sat nav for what I guessed would be the road nearest the new apiary site at Shepton Montague near Wincanton and Castle Cary in darkest Somerset.  It’s 27 miles away so it took a while to get there, the latter part via narrow country lanes.  I found it ok and parked not far from the road as I didn’t fancy driving across fields.  The phone works slowly in Somerset and Jane got my message and replied just after I had arrived.  Unfortunately she was tied up for a while but hoped to join me later.

I unloaded the car and filled the trolley and started towing it for about half a mile around the edges of the fields full of apple trees, heading for the newly planted hillside close to a wood.  The trolley tipped over and spilled its load twice during the trek.

I used my compass and aligned the posts so the entrance to the hive would face SSE to get the morning sun.  The wood should reduce the prevailing wind from the SW and, being more than halfway up the hill, it would be out of the frost pocket. The stream in the valley will provide water when needed. The farm is organic so there should be plenty of natural forage.

I used a spirit level to ensure the post tops were at the same height then wiggled wire through the holes and secured it.  Then I placed the hive on the wire supports and checked again with the spirit level.  After adding the first few top bars, one with comb, I placed the bait in the hive: a blob of cotton wool with a few drops of lemon grass oil, about a foot back from the entrance as the queen won’t go in if she scents a rival close by.

I added the rest of the bars, then a rubber backed carpet, upside down, for the roof to keep the rain off and add insulation.  I secured it with elastic hooks.

It was then that I heard a hoot and saw Jane waving in the distance.  She drove the farm Land Rover around the fields much quicker than I had managed the route and I had to undo part of what I had done in order to show and explain it to her. She took a photo of me next to the hive, using my mobile phone to do so and told me that I’m ‘photogenic’ a thing of which I’ve never been accused before!  If I knew how, I’d post it here.

Conveniently, we loaded my trolley and tools into the back of the Land Rover and she drove us back to the village where she showed me a Warre hive (beeless) in a friend’s garden.

Then we drove in convoy to the farm for a cup of tea and a natter.  She kindly gave me a large slice of veggie pie and organic salad leaves to take home for my dinner.  She intends to visit the hive every couple of days (weather etc permitting) and let me know if bees are showing an interest.

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I’m just back from visiting my TBH at Ourganics, a 5 acre permaculture project a couple of miles upstream from the one I visited yesterday, hoping to harvest some more honey.  They have plenty of honey but scattered among lots of combs so I decided to leave it be for the time being.

When I got to the combs with the bees on them I was surprised that there was no brood whatsoever!  There was one ‘play cup’ but no egg in it.  I couldn’t see a queen, but neither could I hear the ‘queenless moan’ that colonies usually utter if they’re queenless.  Again, if they’re queenless for long, usually workers start laying as there are no queen pheromones to inhibit them.

I think I shall leave them for a week or two and I have seen drones elsewhere then, if they’re still apparently queenless, I’ll transfer a comb with young brood from the TBH up the road in the hope that they’ll rear a new queen if they need one.

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At long long last we’ve had a couple of warm and sunny days and so I thought I’d open a hive.  I don’t open a hive on the first sunny day as their undisturbed foraging etc is more important than my curiosity, besides which, if they have some open stores to gorge on they’re less likely to be petulant if disturbed.

The hive I chose was a Top Bar Hive in an orchard at Berwick Manor.  It’s not my usual half cylinder TBH but a trapezoidal one that I was given by the chap who made it but had no success.  I adapted it by having the entrance at the end rather than halfway down the side and the bees seem to do reasonably well in it but do insist on attaching their comb to the walls of the hive, which doesn’t happen nearly as much with my design.

Having been distracted elsewhere during the afternoon, it was about 6.15pm that I arrived at the site. Bees were still flying.  I clad myself, put all the clove oil I had (about a 10th of a drop) on my hands, put on cycle clips and gave a single spray of liquid smoke in the entrance.

I started at the back of the hive and worked forward until I found some comb. The rearmost one had partly liquid stores so I left that but took the next 4.  I didn’t have a brush with me but there was an ivy bush close by with which I was able to dislodge any bees, lower the comb into a supermarket plastic bag and slice off the comb with my hive tool, leaving about half an inch as a footprint on the bar to guide renewal of the comb on the right line.

Then I came to the brood area covering about 5 combs.  It looked healthy enough and I saw the queen, who’s marking is getting a little faint. She arrived with a swarm early in May last year so this must be her third or fourth year.  If the opportunity arises, I’d certainly consider breeding from her as the bees are black (thus possibly native but I haven’t checked) good tempered and industrious.  I saw some sealed drone comb but no drones yet.  There was one worker with deformed wings so there are varroa present as is to be expected.

I replaced the bars towards the front of the hive to encourage them to draw new comb for brood rearing.  A couple didn’t have their ‘footprint’ on the ideal alignment so I placed them between drawn combs in the hope that the bees will thus be guided to draw the new comb parallel to them.

When I got home, I weighed the crop and it’s about 14lb.  It’s now sitting, still bagged, in one of the honey buckets I bought at the auction. Tomorrow (later today now as it’s after midnight) I hope to visit another TBH in the vicinity at ‘Ourganics’ and possibly harvest some more honey there.

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This morning I ventured into the mysterious far west of Dorset to the village of Marshwood, then down a furlong of humpy bumpy track to Skyfall Farm where West Dorset BKA had decided to hold an auction, a week before ours at Broadmayne!

The bidding had already started before I arrived so I may have missed some bargains/saved some money.  There were only about a score of us bidding on over 100 lots.  I won Lot numbers 34 and 35: National rooves at £3 each; Lot 40: 2 plastic honey bins for £3 the pair; Lot 66: a pack of cut comb containers for £4.50; Lot 75: 11 National brood frames for £4 and Lot 92: a National brood box for £3.50.  I think that was £21 well spent.

The farm overlooks the gorgeous Marshwood vale and I pottered through it on my way home, visiting several churches and climbing to the top of Pilsdon Pen, the 3rd highest point in Dorset.

Meandering down a lane, I saw a couple of hives in someone’s garden so I paused the car and watched them but saw no activity despite the temperature being 12C (approx. 54F) so I visited one of my apiaries a couple of miles from there, at Seaborough.  Mine was inactive too!  I pressed an ear to the side of the brood box and gave it a tap and was a little reassured to hear a buzz in response, but not a very vigorous one.  Last time I visited they had been flying well and taking in pollen at a lower temperature so maybe I should take a peep inside soon.

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My old Top Bar Hive that is now in its 20th year was in a sorry state when I brought it back from Sarah’s with a gap near the front where the bottom plank had rotted away leaving a gap big enough to allow a mouse in!  I built it from scavenged pallets and first had bees in it in 1998, so it has done very well.

I found some bits of ply and covered over the hole from within then, having found an ancient pot of filler in the shed, filled up the hole and smoothed it.  I also put a sheet of ply over the front as the planks were getting gappy.  I suppose I ought to apply some paint or preservative before I put it to work again, but I don’t want to use anything smelly.  I shall have a look round the shed again.

As we transferred the top bars and bees to the replacement hive at Sarah’s, I needed to make some more.  Again I used a scrap pallet that I prised apart to recover the planks. I had to use my circular saw again for the first time in ages.  11 years ago, again when making bee kit, the saw devoured the top half inch or so of my left thumb, so, as I was working, I kept reciting to myself parts of the poem I wrote about it while in hospital. It worked and I did the work unscathed.

The bars are 17″ long, so as to be combatable with National equipment in case I want to take a nucleus for instance.  I made the bars a little wider than intended this time, almost an inch and a half, so I moved the guide bar by a smidgeon and put the top bars through again so they are now one and three eighths of an inch and are smooth each side.

There is some dispute among bees and their keepers as to the exact width and, in truth, there isn’t one!  Bees tend to prefer their combs closer together in the brood area and further apart in the larder, but they use the larder for brood rearing at the height of the season so compromise and flexibility are necessary.

With narrower bars, I can take one out from the rear and ease the others apart by a smidgeon.  Depending on season etc, on my next visit I can take a hive tool and take a crop of propolis that the bees have applied to fill the gaps.  I don’t use a lot of propolis myself, sometimes sprinkling some on my breakfast muesli if I’m going among strangers or places where I might pick up an infection, but I have a friend who is a medical herbalist who welcomes any propolis I can spare her.  She gave me (in exchange for Marts, our local currency) a propolis throat spray last year when I was rough. I think it helped, and, anyway, it tastes good!

I have just been applying wax in a line down the rougher face of each new top bar, using a soldering iron in one hand and a lump of beeswax in the other.  This is to guide the bees in drawing new comb and I applied it to the rougher side of the bars so the bees would have a better hand/foothold.

I hope, probably this weekend to set up the TBH as a bait hive in the large cider orchard of a friend’s organic farm over the boundary in darkest Somerset, putting it on fence posts near the badger sett, so they won’t be able to reach.  Later I’ll set up a National or two on the other side or the orchard where I hope the badgers don’t stray. I think they tend to keep to their own paths as much as possible.


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