Back to Bees

After a break of more than 10 years, this was the year I decided that I would go back into beekeeping. When I stopped just after the Millennium, Varroa had progressed from being something that was unusual to being endemic and, for the last few years before I stopped having an active hive, treating with Apistan had become necessary.

But that was in the past, more recently, a couple of years ago, I checked what equipment I had, bought and constructed a National, partly made loads of frames but only put wax in 5 of them, working on the theory that if a swarm appeared, 5 frames would be a reasonable start and I could make up some others quickly as needed.

2012 started and the urge to get going again was growing. Spring came and I started looking around for a couple of colonies. What became immediately apparent was that the bee inflation rate had been running at an alarming rate since I left the hobby. Being quoted over £350 for a populated hive(!!) and it seemed that being a beekeeper had changed from a deeply unfashionable hobby to one that was picked up by all sorts of people, with new hive types (Top Bar Hive, BeeHaus etc.). Undoubtedly at least part of this has been down to the exposure on national TV of the decline of bee stocks. I wanted a hive, could stretch to £200, but I thought that £350 was a little unreasonable and obviously trying to make money on the recent increased demand.

I decided that perhaps I’d have a good look around, and, if necessary, hope I could capture a swarm or two, while still looking around for a cheap(ish) hive or two. A couple of web searches later, my luck was in, someone on the North Norfolk coast was selling a couple of hives at a very reasonable price. A quick phone call confirming they were still available and I was off.

An interesting point about North Norfolk in springtime, the rest of the country may be baking, but if we have a wind with any Northerly or Easterly component to it, then we will be cold, and even misty close to the sea. When I went to look at the bees it was freezing or at least felt as though it was. The temperature was below10C. No bees moving at all until we opened them up, but even then they were not overly interested in us, probably just wanting us to close them up again so they could stay warm. A fairly cursory look at 2 hives confirmed they were both strong colonies, but one hive had a potential problem with wild comb. The bees must have been captured in a swarm and there were only 3 frames in the brood box, the rest being wild comb. The previous three weeks of warmish weather had obviously contributed to the strength of the colonies so, looking at their strength and the cost at just £100 per hive, I was convinced it was worth a punt, so we agreed to return at dusk a few days later to transport my new charges to their new home.

We, my wife and I, got the hives back without incident in the back of our Estate, but I was slightly concerned at the number of holes the selling bee keeper had to plug before we got the hives into the car. A sedate journey home and a quick bit of heavy lifting onto a couple of home made stands and we were done, then time to just watch and wait. There were a few comments from the selling beekeeper regarding how clean my veil and jacket was, he asked if I’d only just started and seemed unconvinced when I told him that it had been through the wash since last used and was about 15 years old.

I gave them a week to settle in before I went to open up the hives, starting with the better of the two. I the meantime my wife and the rest of the family, including my 5 year old grand daughter had been equipped with new bee keeping suits, with me using my old bee keeping top and veil. First time I’d opened a hive in perhaps ten years, so, being careful and telling everyone else to stay out of the way and, with more than a little trepidation, I smoked the first hive and in I went. I was more than a little perturbed when the bees decided that they did not like this intrusion one little bit, with clouds of bees emanating from the hive despite the smoke, obviously not in a friendly manner. Added to my travails was the fact that I soon discovered my trusted bee jacket and veil wasn’t actually bee proof!! Luckily, the 3 bees that got in, once they were in decided they liked the look of the outside world so I was able to pinch them through the veil without getting stung. However the lack of bee proofing meant I beat a fairly hasty retreat without doing a proper inspection.

Back in the house, a thorough examination of the jacket showed a tiny gap where the zip didn’t actually close and the little blighters had worked their way in there. So, off to the local bee supplies shop, the excellent “AllBees” at Alby Crafts, and, equipped with a new jacket back in I went. This time they were even more annoyed than the first time the lid came off. Yet again they poured from the hive trying to vent their annoyance at being disturbed on the source – me. I can report that, coming from the ‘cowardly’ line of beekeepers and wearing gloves I escaped with only one sting, through the seam of the gloves I was wearing. My neighbours, about 75 metres from the nearest hive, didn’t fare so well however, one of their dogs was stung in the mouth, his mistress was stung on the arm and the garden was a dangerous place for about 3 hours after the hives were opened. Indeed, even the following day, walking across the field, still at least 25 metres from the hives and well out of the main flightpath I was chased from the hive by irate bees. So, on the plus side, I had 2 hives, but agin that I was having to be very careful as I wanted the neighbours onside rather than frightened every time I opened a hive.

Then, as everyone who remembers 2012 will remember, the Environment agency issued a drought notice – and the heavens opened. Inspecting the bees became problematical as I needed dry weather to do it and dry weather was in very short supply. Added to that problem was my availability. I work away from home, often spending four working days of the week away and therefore unable to do anything even if the weather was good. Thankfully the weather was dire both during the week and at weekends, so the bees went uninspected. A few weeks passed and I eventually fed the bees some sugar syrup, on the basis that the weather had been so poor that they could not have been foraging and therefore would have depleted the stocks they had built up during the three good weeks of weather we’d enjoyed prior to me buying them.

Perhaps at this point I ought to explain the positioning of my Apiary. In a field, an acre in size and almost square. Viewed from the Northern edge, the field has a country road running on it’s Eastern side and the bees are placed as far to the West of the enclosure as is possible, slightly further to the West is a line of trees that place the hives in shadow after about 4:00pm during the summer months. The positioning has the advantage of early sun, with warmth on the hive helping to get the bees going of a morning. Generally they are tucked up and have stopped flying by 18:00 unless the weather is exceptionally warm. Needless to say, in 2012, at no point was the weather exceptionally warm.

Bees naturally swarm and possibly helped by the feeding, my hives were, unbeknownst to me, both preparing to issue forth. We had ten days of atrocious weather, ending on a Friday. The Saturday was forecast to be dry and bright. With that in mind I thought my best bet would be to try to inspect the hives that evening. Fate however intervened, as returning after the weekly shopping expedition, I was greeted by my neighbour who told me that he thought a swarm had issued from one of the hives and had managed to make it all of 10 feet before coming to a rest on some nettles. I had constructed a spare hive during the bad weather, so after a quick inspection to make sure they were happy in situ, I grabbed the spare hive, set it up and tried to run them in. Needless to say, I was totally out of practice, had multiple attempts to run them in that all failed, until finally I rang a friend, also a beekeeper. His advice was smoke them hard, and make sure there was some drawn brood comb in the replacement hive. He was also of the opinion that it would be advantageous to put a frame of brood into the new hive as “A swarm will never leave a hive with brood in it”.

About 20 minutes later he arrived and there were two of us on the job, he looked at the brood boxes of the hives and decided that getting a brood frame would be tricky due to the state they were in, so we ran the bees in, more in hope than anything else. His final comment before he left was “If they are there in the morning, you’ll be OK.” The following morning, With a fair degree of trepidation, I approached the hive, I hadn’t bothered with any gear and that was almost a mistake, I had to leg it away from the new hive when several bees took more than a passing interest in me. So they’d stayed, I had 3 hives!! A quick feed of syrup to the swarm to get them drawing comb and — the weather closed in again. Sitting back and thinking about the swarm later, I came to the conclusion that the previous owner had clipped the queen’s wings, hence the reason the swarm went to ground so close to the original hive and probably the reason why they didn’t move on after we had run them in.

Having had one swarm happen I decided I’d better try to stay ahead of the game and build a fourth hive. Managed to put it together the following Friday with the aim of making the frames the Saturday. With perfect timing the second hive swarmed, no frames ready, absolutely no means of containing them properly. Getting all the kit together I managed to cobble together half a dozen frames, just as the swarm left, destination unknown. I spent most of the afternoon going round asking people if I could look in the dark places on their properties, I received a few strange looks, but having explained why I was looking, everyone granted me access, I suppose no one wants a swarm on their property. It was all to no avail, so I had the fourth hive available but nothing to go in it.

I spent most of the following 8 weeks worrying if the bees were able to get enough forage to give them a reasonable amount of winter stores. I had already made the decision that, as both hives had swarmed and the weather had been so poor I would not take any honey off the hives, let them keep what they had collected and hope that a little extra syrup would see them through the approaching winter. And suddenly it was on us, the days were cold and wet, there was no chance of opening the hives up to treat for Varroa and the truth is that even the syrup went on too late. A cold winter followed a miserable autumn and all I could do was wait and hope the 3 hives would survive