The Chronicles of Bee’d the Obscure II

The Diary of a Novice Beekeeper.

“Blimey, Steve what happened to you?” I asked. “Got stung on the eyebrow by my bees”. His eyebrow and upper cheek looked like someone had pumped it full of Botox from a cement lorry. ‘Oh ho, this is getting serious’ I thought. The only sting I had heard of so far was the Bee Guru who was stung on the end of his finger whilst lifting a frame of brood for examination. “Occupational hazard” he had airily explained. I could see a collective “Oh yeah?” on the faces of my fellow students when he said it. But Steve’s eye was enormous. Was this what faced us the first time we are stung? I wondered. Would I swell up like that? (Not that anyone would notice through a slight excess of adipose tissue). And what if I got one of those anaphylactic thingies?

Steve, one of the victims of the recession had bravely ventured out as a smallholder with a number of acres of land and, both to improve pollination and perhaps to generate some extra income had refurbished a couple of WBC’s generating heated discussions early in the night class sessions about the relative merits of different hives. As I didn’t know my Dadant’s from my Langstroth’s it left me totally bemused (and, it still does) I smugly told Steve “Oh, I haven’t been stung once” forgetting to add that I hadn’t got any bees yet. “I am going to set a world record for not getting stung” I told him. Funnily enough, although I find the bees very docile whilst I am on them (well trained perhaps? Them, not me) I am invariably followed by at least a couple of them when I move away from the hives – even back to the hut, and on a couple of occasions Alan has had to rescue me by putting violent hands upon them. Strangely, I noticed that the other students would hastily pull on their hoods whenever I approached the coffee table… But – I was still sting free!

Monday evening. I was just about to relieve my plate of the burden of the last of my home grown asparagus when the phone rang. Now, we have an unwritten rule in our house, when I am sat communicating with my plate I leave all other sorts of communication to the Queen Bee, after all for 99% of cases it will be one of her cronies to discuss village hall matters, senior citizen
issues or other small village esoterica. She whispered “It’s Mrs Bee Guru for you”. Goodness me! I put on my best telephone voice and said “hello Mrs BG how can I help?”. “How brave are you feeling today?” She asked. “What? Well as brave as I felt yesterday I suppose, why do you ask?”. “We have just had a phone call from a member of the public about a swarm in their garden, how would you feel about collecting it?”

My mind went blank for a couple of millennia and then with more confidence in my voice than certainly I was feeling, I gulped and said “Yes sure, why not? What do I need to do?”. Mrs BG gave me a lot of instructions and advice which immediately left my head never to return. “Ok, I will ring the man and sort it out direct, don’t worry about a thing”.

Don’t worry about a thing? I must be stark staring mad. A raving idiot. First – I DON’T HAVE A HIVE. Second – My acquaintance with bees has been tentative, casual and infrequent, and, Third I DON’T KNOW WHAT I AM DOING! The QB said “Calm down for goodness sake, you’ll give yourself a heart attack”. “I’M HAVING ONE” I squeaked. She ordered “Ring Leslie, she will know what to do.”

I duly rang Leslie. Leslie is a calm, elegant woman with a very sweet nature and the patience of a saint. “Yes we can sort it out” she said. Thank goodness for that! I arranged to pick her up together with sundry articles, rang the current swarm owner and arranged to call and collect said swarm. With much trepidation I arrived with Leslie together with white sheet, brood box, smoker et al to hear one of the sweetest sounds on this planet. I think the quiet hum of a swarm must, at least for me, be one of those sounds like whales singing or skylarks whistling that calm and quiet the soul. Am I waxing poetical? Perhaps, but I had never heard (or even seen) one before. My swarm was hanging from the low branch of a pretty apple tree in a small orchard. The owner explained that his only reason for calling was that his very young son used the orchard as his play area and he was worried, naturally, about stings. I explained that swarms were usually very calm and quiet as they had ‘bellies’ full of honey and their only interest was in a new home, and anyway we would be gone in an hour or so.

I am sure I am not the only one to have noticed that women beekeepers appear to have more empathy with bees than men. Is it a girl thing? Anyway, whatever the reason they always seem to be gentler and more patient than men. There is one small snag that I have now discovered about this feminine empathy. Leslie was not leaving until-every-last-little-lady-was-in-the-box. But what about my asparagus? I inwardly groaned, it was going to be a long evening. Truth to tell had I been there on my own, I confess that once we were down to the last million or so I would have packed up and legged it as fast as a spiv spying the Bill on Oxford Street. It was not to be. Peering through the gloom to ensure there were no abandoned little souls we finally got them into the back of the car and returned to Leslie’s where she gently put them into her garage for the night. I returned home absolutely blown away by the whole experience, it was a joy and balm to my soul. I couldn’t wait to tell the QB, my kids, my grand kids, my neighbours, the postman. Surprisingly none of them seemed to quite share my enthusiasm…

Saturday and a phone call from Leslie not exactly in a panic (Leslie doesn’t do panic) but with a certain amount of urgency in her voice “I have had a phone call from Barbara Oakham, she has a swarm in her nut tree in the garden, and the problem is, I can’t deal with it right now because of tomorrow can you help?”

Leslie was preparing for a major event in her life on Sunday and she had diverse members of her family from sundry parts of the world staying with her, I knew that she would want to respond to Barbara but was torn between desire to help and her duties as a hostess. “Leslie, don’t worry about a thing, I will deal with it, forget about it and get on with your family”. Leslie heaved a sigh of relief and put the phone down. Now, what the hell do I do with the swarm? I have no spare kit. I don’t have a skep or, indeed much else besides. I rang Barbara to establish the swarm was still there, yep it was. “Ok Barbara I will be along very shortly to collect it and don’t worry about it”.

I made up a cardboard skep, scrounged a net curtain from an obliging neighbour and pinched a white sheet from the Queen Bee “You are not going without me”. She said “I wouldn’t miss this for the world”. I didn’t know whether she wouldn’t miss seeing a swarm for the world or the prospect of seeing her husband getting a good dose of beejuice but I didn’t pursue it. It was a blisteringly hot day, which had a major influence on the events that followed and I viewed the prospect of wearing the bee suit with misgivings, still, caution is the watchword so I will wear it. But I still haven’t solved the question of what to do with the swarm once collected. Nigel is a beekeeper with some years of experience who had lost his colonies earlier in the year and was desperate to replace them. I called him. No answer, so leaving a message on his mobile I set off with the QB to do the deed.

The swarm was still in place in a hazel tree in the middle of a lawn on a south facing slope. I lit the smoker which I think was more of a good luck charm than any real help and the QB jerked the branch and the swarm obligingly fell into my arms. Well, not literally, but into my cardboard skep anyway. I put it down on the white sheet and with a bucket borrowed from Barbara shook the rest of the bees into it and placed it on the sheet facing my box. The rest of the swarm began to march into my box, so that was alright, I had got the queen!

The sun beat down mercilessly and the sweat was dripping off my forehead and onto my glasses. I couldn’t see a thing. Thankfully my mobile rang and I dived round the corner into the shadow of the house to answer it. It was Nigel who was away for the weekend “but don’t worry about that there is a bait hive set up in the garden just use that and I will back tomorrow”. So that was that, we could place the swarm at Nigel’s. I went back into the Saharan Sun.

Fortunately with Leslie not there to see I could leave the last sixteen or so bees behind and clear off out of this sun. “What about all those hundreds of bees still flying around?” said the QB. “Oh don’t exaggerate there is only a handful and they will find their own way home” I airily answered. “We can’t leave without them”. “But we will be here for hours” I protested. To no avail. Clearly, the QB had been infected by Leslie disease. So I grumpily stumped off into the shade to await the bee’s pleasure.

About a fortnight later they were all in the box and we could leave for Nigel’s. Now, correct me if I am wrong but surely the books say that hives are best kept on level ground, with good vehicular access and preferably close to your equipment source? Yes, I thought so. So siting it at the top of a precipitous field 40 miles from the house isn’t a good idea? No, I thought not.

I struggled up the hill with the box wrapped it its net curtain. The bait hive was a WBC. My favourite hive. Not. What the hell do I do with it? I had never seen one in the flesh before. Anyway I opened the roof and found a hive not unlike my National inside, so I removed some of the outer leaves until it was exposed. I opened it and wearily dumped the box over the brood box. Approximately eleven bees fell in and the rest neatly dropped into the space between the brood box and the outer leaves. Oh, bloody hell, what do I do now? The sweat was dripping from my nose into the box giving the bees a saline bath. From a distance the QB asked me what was going on. “Oh, nothing much” I said breezily. “I am just making sure the queen is in the box”. The bees seemed to spill out everywhere and it seemed the only thing to do was wait to see if she was in residence.

I walked far enough away to allow me to remove my veil, I don’t think I have ever felt so hot and thirsty. After a couple of centuries had passed I could see bees fanning their nasenov glands on the front porch. “Aha! We have a queen!“ I shouted triumphantly to the QB and explained the significance of what I could see. A couple more centuries passed and I deemed it time to close up the hive, only problem was there were still a couple of million bees between the box and the outer leaves. Right, the only thing to do is put on the crownboard but leave the roof slightly off so everyone could escape and go to the front door.

We stumbled wearily down the hill and home for tea and bed. I awoke with a start at five fifteen in the morning worrying about the swarm. The last thing the QB had said to me last night (apart from good night darling, of course) was “Do you think they will be alright?”. “Who?” I mumbled sleepily. “The Bees”. “Oh blast the bees, I am going to sleep” I said. But I couldn’t and didn’t.

I quietly dressed, collected my veil, smoker and hive tool and drove around the hill to Nigel’s. I roped up and using my crampons and ice axe, climbed to the top of his Everest-like field. Well, if ever the bees stopped to look they would see a fabulous view across the wilds of Gloucestershire, I thought. Six o’clock. I could hear a quiet hum from the hive and thought I had wasted a journey. I carefully took off the roof and to my horror and chagrin found the complete swarm hanging to the underside of the roof. Now what? I had my hands full of roof and the crownboard was still in place. With amazing dexterity and fool’s luck I managed to slide the crownboard off and dump the bulk of the swarm into the brood box, I put the roof upside down in front of the hive and stepped back to wait. This time I wasn’t moving until I WAS ABSOLUTELY SURE she was
in the box! And so it goes.

Nigel was delighted and rang me on his return to say thanks.

Monday afternoon, I was sitting on the patio deciding if I had enough energy to walk all the way through the house to get another beer from the fridge when the phone rang so, yes I did have enough energy to get a beer because I had to answer the phone. It was Nigel. “You’ll never believe it the bloody bees have swarmed again! I was looking at the hive and I thought it was a bit quiet and when I looked in it was empty. I was just about to rappel back down the field” (at least that was what I thought he said but I might be wrong) “when I heard a hum from the hedge in the next field and there they were so I got a cardboard box” etc. etc. etc.

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