The Chronicles of Bee’d the Obscure IV

The Diary of a Novice Beekeeper.

The next few weeks saw all three colonies busily doing their stuff so all was right with the world but, worrying as ever I could see that I would need to combine Mabel and Clarissa before the winter set in. The problem for me is that playing God, even with a few bees does not sit easily on me and anyway Mable, who logic dictates should be the one to go, is still such a busy little bee…

Earlier in the year Mrs BG had asked which of us novices would be taking the Basic. This is sort of an eleven+ exam for new beekeepers. Now, truth to tell I had already decided not to take it for several reasons: I can’t see beyond the end of my nose, I can’t remember anything beyond five minutes ago and, I don’t know enough to pass. But. Mrs BG was looking straight at me when she asked and so, stupidly and full of misplaced bravado I said airily “Sure, why not? After all it makes nonsense of the training if we don’t do it”. I listened to myself with my stomach sinking into my boots. “Why the hell do I not learn to keep my big mouth shut” I thought to myself. If my memory was better I would remember all the sticky straits (mixing my metaphors) I had got myself into over the last sixty years, but there is no fool like an old one especially when his mouth moves at light speed and his brain at snail pace.

Anyway the due date arrived and I turned up at the apiary with my smoker et al, ready to do battle with the examiner who turned out to be a really pleasant and gentle lady. I was second to go and watched Steve get a grilling and then go to the bees. I should explain that we have 18 hives which sadly are numbered but not named and as with most creatures they each have their own personality ranging from gentle to horrific. Hive 2 is a favourite of most of us, the bees are gentle and tolerant whereas 10 and 3 are known to be a little ‘temperamental‘. Happily Steve was on a good hive and not surprisingly did a really good job.

My turn. The examiner begins by asking a few questions followed by a visit to a fresh hive where the student describes his actions and answers a few more questions whereupon, depending on how well the student thinks he has done he either beams a big smile at the others or disappears behind the shed to be violently sick. She asked me some simple and easy to answer questions to lull me into a false sense of confidence and then asked me what Braula is. I don’t think she was too taken with my suggestion that it was the name of a Scandinavian heavy metal band. She wasn’t too thrilled with my habit of calling the bees ‘ladies’ either, clearly, a no-nonsense woman. I didn’t dare tell her that my queens had names as I think she would have thrown me out. Now to the bees.

My hive was to be 17. Did I mention 17? No? Well on the scale of badness 17 sits somewhere down around Hades and I swear that I have seen horns and a forked tail on the queen. Just my luck. But she obviously had gone on holiday and taken the devil’s disciples with her because it went like a dream. The only small bee in the ointment, to coin a phrase, was when she asked me to collect a sample of bees for analysis. No matchbox! “Oh yes there is” She said as she pulled one from her pocket. I duly took the required sample of bees. Let me see, that’s thirty isn’t it? We opened my box to find… three. Oh well we can’t all be perfect but I guess that’s my Bee PhD out of the window.

The year moved benignly on. We made regular visits to the apiary and I literally learnt something new every week. Of course I promptly forgot it again a day later which prompted the QB to suggest that maybe it was the same thing I was learning every week? Apparently bees are not too fussed about rain and happily the weekly visits to the apiary coincided with the sunny bits and so we were able to increase our stock of knowledge whilst the bees increased their stock of honey. Which of course bring us to the whole point of the exercise. The collection of honey.

Now, I know not to expect too much from my first year, after all before the bees begin making honey for me they have a whole host of housekeeping duties to attend to like making cupboards to put it in and nurseries for babies, gluing up draughty bits and generally prettifying the whole house. So I was glad of the opportunity to volunteer for honey extraction duty at Albert’s. A very experienced beekeeper, Albert’s son Alan has followed in his footsteps and they were hosting the extraction as Albert owns every piece of honey extraction kit known to Man.

I had several happy hours up to my knees in honey and sticky wax and learnt a great deal about the process. It was topped off with an unexpected and very welcome lunch prepared by Mrs Albert. I drove home inspired by a full belly and what I had learnt. So, time to put it into practice.

When I initially assembled the hives I had also added new supers so that the bees could create comb and even, perhaps, maybe, fill it with wondrous honey? Both Mable and Norah set to it with enthusiasm and when I made my weekly visit to the hives I kept a close eye on progress and sure enough the girls were working away, in fact I got a bit carried away and popped another super on each one to them further but they made it clear by totally ignoring them that this was a step too far. Anyway come July and the full honey flow as we professionals like to term it and the air is alive with busy little ladies flying back and forth collecting goodies for my honey. I even had a tentative stab at hefting the hives and they felt like, well, hives actually but no matter, they must be filling the comb up with honey mustn’t they?

Happily the branch has its own extractor thus avoiding the necessity for me to test my innate meanness again (and it is only a fiver to hire!) One small drawback, it cost me fifty quid in petrol to go and fetch it. But, I now have it and the QB and I spent many happy weeks assembling it and re-assembling it until it worked. Now to the supers.

We had quite a lot of rain in August and as the Bee Guru was heard to say later. “The rain had probably cost us around a third of the crop as the bees were eating it as fast as they were creating it”. ‘Do the math’ That ugly American expression created by people too lazy to talk properly but, in this instance I reluctantly concede to their description. Two supers times eleven frames less say, fifty percent for newness, wet weather and that innate cussedness that Nature is so good at should mean what, five, six, seven pounds of Honey?

Using the skills learnt at the Apiary I had duly used my bee escapes and so the supers were ‘empty’ of bees apart, that is from the two that stung me. I took the supers, unopened, to the kitchen where I had prepared my surgical instruments. I opened the first super and took out the first frame. No Honey. I took out the second frame. No honey. I took out the third frame… but you get the idea. Out of a total of twenty two frames there were two with a miserable dribble of honey. The QB could not contain herself. Howling (the only word to describe it) with laughter she left the kitchen leaving me to my misery and abject humiliation. Of course now I can console myself with the words of the BG and I realise that my bees, particularly hungry, had not eaten thirty percent of the crop but ninety nine point nine five of it but in the kitchen on that day I could only console myself with a pint of the blessed Bateman’s XXXB.

With such a small crop was it worth extracting? Well, yes, because I needed to return the supers to the colonies for cleaning and even one and a half jars was better than nothing I just wished I hadn’t told the world repeatedly through the year that I didn’t intend to take any honey this year but leave it all for the bees. Well, the extractor worked perfectly even if you did need a microscope to see the results. The taste was fantastic and I gave a jar (almost full) to my Grandchildren who twenty four hours later had completely devoured it. A good thing I didn’t have thirty pounds or so, I thought to myself.

Happily Albert and Alan rewarded me with a jar of the Apiary honey for my extracting efforts and so I was able to placate the QB with some. Of course she could not resist the temptation to point out to me that my jars of honey were probably the most expensive in the world and made Fortnum and Mason’s £10 jars seem like a bargain (but I’ll bet it doesn’t taste like mine) I returned the supers to the bees and ten nanoseconds later they were clean and I could take them off for the winter.

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