The Chronicles of Bee’d the Obscure III

The Diary of a Novice Beekeeper.

11th June will go down for me as a RED LETTER day. Tonight I collect my bees! Now, I should perhaps explain that my innate meanness meant I was not going to spend a second mortgage on buying properties for bees. Indeed, when I first started Googling the whole subject it was when I got to the eye-watering prices of hives I nearly returned to join the sublimely indifferent public. I mean, I fully understand that the role of the hobbyist is to cough up as much of his hard earned cash for his passion as possible so that the retailer can buy his second Ferrari but all I wanted was a small box or two to bung some insects in! However the BG had kindly pointed me in the direction of that nice Mr Thorne and I had been able to buy a hive from his ‘Bees on a Budget’ offer – which actually satisfied another small interest of mine which is building things. So, kitted out with, if I may say so, a beautifully built national I had ordered a Nucleus from the association and finally, after waiting a lifetime it was ready. However, the week before, the BG had thrown a spanner in my nicely ordered works when he announced that the association had a surplus of colonies and was willing to part with four for a mere bagatelle, so I had nipped around to the back of the shed and ‘phoned the QB, gently reminding her that it would be my birthday the following Sunday (nothing like a bit of emotional blackmail to get a result) and she had reluctantly agreed to my buying a second colony.

I ought to introduce my son-in-law, David who plays a large part in the leisure and pleasure part of my life. Leisure, because we share close interest in many things, Cricket, Motor Sport, Gardening and an ambition to try every real ale in England. Pleasure, because he has provided (via my daughter, of course) three very nice grandchildren. Well, although his beekeeping knowledge is very secondhand having only come from me, he wanted to come with me to collect the bees (which actually suited me very well because it meant I had a complete ignoramus to hold my hand and he wouldn’t know when I messed it up) So, we collected two colonies – one in a borrowed hive (the queen is called Mabel and she is an August ’07 queen and the new queen in the nuc is called Norah). I asked that nice Mr Thorne to send me another ‘flatpack’ so that I would be able to give back the hive belonging to the association. We got home as darkness fell and duly installed the two colonies onto their stands, David insisting on taking lots of flash photography to record the event. At last! I was a fully fledged beekeeper!

Sunday arrived and I duly fetched up at the apiary for my ‘mock GCSE’. I was to be the first of the group to take a mock assessment with the BG, I had whispered that it was my birthday and I would like to shoot off as we had a house full of family to celebrate my sixty fourth (what’s to celebrate?). I put my suit on and rushing a little didn’t put my wellies on, contenting myself that the elasticated legs of the suit would protect me.

Big mistake! I hadn’t been on the bees with the BG for a nanosecond when the first lady dug herself into my ankle, not able to reach her I got a full dose of beejuice. Two nanoseconds later I inadvertently trapped another lady under the front of my hood and she took exception to that giving me another full dose on the point of my chin. After that things went rapidly downhill, although I managed to not embarrass myself too much with the BG. As I returned to the hut to complete a written questionnaire I absently brushed a bee from my right ear, or rather didn’t. Sting number three. I returned home feeling a little bit sorry for myself, three stings and they weren’t even my bees! Bang goes my world record too. Never mind, birthday boy will be in the bosom of his family and all will be well. I arrived home to gales of unsympathetic laughter at my golf ball ankle, my double treble chin and my cauliflower ear.

Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who speaking of us and the Americans said that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’? Well, if proof were needed it can be found in ‘Beekeeping for Dummies’. My Grandchildren thoughtfully bought this book for me for my birthday in June and it turned out to be a surprising read, largely because the methodology used by the Americans is so far away from our own, but also because of its unbelievably patronising tone. It really is a book for dummies, I would like to say that I learnt nothing from it but that would be a lie (maybe I am more dummy-like than I thought). I learnt two really useful things from it, the first is that if you push down with your other hand when levering upwards under crown boards etc. you equalise the pressure and are less likely to ‘crack’ the boards and secondly YOU DON’T NEED A SUIT! (At least for most operations anyway). So, as I hate the suit anyway, I have been wearing only a veil and my lab gloves (plus of course my wellies – once bitten twice shy!

Treading where Angels normally avoid. David called me to ask if I could help. “Helen, the wife of a colleague of mine has recently had a mild stroke, from which she was recovering” He explained. “She can’t work for some time and her husband had bought her a beehive to help with her recuperation, however Mike says she seems to be having some problems, would you be willing to have a look at it for her?” How could I refuse? A damsel in distress, a knight in shining armour (or at least in a bee suit) and the prospect of a couple of beers later on. “Of course I will, where does she live and when should I come?” I asked. “Marston Meysey and come tonight, I will meet you there and explain more” said Dave.

I collected my bags, barrels and boxes and trundled off. I met Dave just short of the Lady’s bungalow. Dave told me “Mike bought her a hive after research on the web, they then bought a couple of books and a DVD to learn from.” “And that’s it?” I asked. “What about training?” “She hasn’t had any” He answered. We went inside and he introduced me. She was a very nice lady but clearly was very nervous around the bees and really didn’t have a clue. The hive, a beautiful WBC in cedar and obviously a very expensive bit of bit of kit (I learnt later that Mike had paid an eye watering £650 for the hive and a nuc of bees.) She was pretty clueless and getting herself into trouble.

I mentally blessed the BG and launched into a potted lecture on keeping bees and gently persuaded her to join her local association at the earliest opportunity which she promised to do. Because of her nervousness around the bees I decided not to wear my suit (Dave put it on instead, the coward) so armed with only a hat and veil and some latex gloves I confidently approached the hive. I opened it up to find the most beautiful blond bees I have ever seen, not that I have seen a lot actually. But anyway there they were and almost immediately one of the blonds flew up onto my chest and promptly pumped me full of exquisitely painful beejuice. Ouch! Actually double ouch because her sister joined her and gave me another dose for good measure. I swiftly smoked my shirt to hopefully disguise the venom scent and coughing and
spluttering lifted out the frames. I couldn’t make a fuss about the stings since I was trying to demonstrate to her that beekeeping was safe and fun. As if. There could not have been more than a couple of thousand bees in the hive and certainly no queen. They must have swarmed within days of arriving and were now probably ensconced in some lucky but undeserving local beekeeper’s hive! How sad. This incident only reinforced to me the wisdom of seeking proper training before embarking upon the management of fifty thousand or so recalcitrant insects. Happily the story ended well. The supplier provided another queen and last heard of, queen and lady beekeeper were doing well with every prospect of the colony surviving the coming winter.#

Back home and that nice Mr Thorne had delivered my new hive which I duly assembled. I took the precaution of treating the parts and laid them out in the sun to dry. It was a lovely warm day and I awarded myself a cold beer which I took to the patio. Beer finished I went around the house to see how my boxes were drying. Blow me down if there wasn’t a swarm hanging from the bottom of one of the boxes! What do I do now? When in doubt the book says stop, have a cup of tea and think. So, that’s what I did.

Right, time to deal with this situation, first I need to check if it is my own swarm or a newcomer. Well I can’t find the queen but as she is clipped she can’t have gone, can she? So logic dictates that she must be there and therefore the swarm is waiting for her to come out so I will bung them back in the box. I opened the crownboard and dropped the whole swarm in. They went ballistic and flew all around me going mad. Have I done the right thing? That evening they had all gone back in so that was ok, wasn’t it?

Simon and Sarah, my neighbours called me from the garden “ We can hear buzzing coming from the hedge in our field, next door” I ran round into the field and there right inside the hedge was the swarm. I had absolutely no chance of getting it out, none at all. It was, as it turned, out a prime swarm from my hive and they duly flew off, I sadly watched them go and went to look at the hive. Mabel the queen was still there, bless her, busily laying eggs and there seemed to be plenty of bees and lots of brood, so maybe nothing lost?

The following day, the QB was delivering eggs to Sarah when she noticed a ‘buzzing from the hedge’ and called me out. My heart sank, not again? Sure enough there was a swarm, smaller this time and so reasonable to assume it was a first cast. The good news, however, was I could reach this one! So, nipping back for my trusty box and nylon curtain I returned to an expectant audience of neighbours. Well, clearly I had to perform and make sure that I collected this one properly, the good news was that I had a new hive which I had prepared for Mable and although it was freshly treated and I hadn’t planned on using it yet I could at least give Mable’s daughter a home! I managed to collect around 80% of the swarm first go and putting them down in the box on the ground waited to see if I had caught the queen. Sure enough all the girls slowly made
their way into the box and put themselves to bed. So far so good.

Now I made a big mistake. The book says that the queen that flew off would be the old queen and that she would have left a sealed queen cell behind with a new queen ready to hatch. BUT, Mable couldn’t fly and so the swarm must have a new queen (I think) SO the answer is to move Mable to the new hive complete with brood frames and food and put the new swarm (plus queen) into the old hive with new fresh frames. Good old tolerant Mable took it all in her stride and set off to build a new colony in her new home. I put Mable’s daughter (now known to be called Clarissa) into the old hive and following much good advice left her to her own devices to fly and mate or not but definitely not be disturbed by me.

Why didn’t I just put Clarissa into the new hive? The answer is I panicked, I am
inexperienced. After all I am a mere man.

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