Saturday, 28 April 2012

Bee Action and Pig Pimping.

Saturday 28th April 2012

Bee Background
Bee-keeping is a fascinating hobby, but not a cheap one to start up. After you've bought a hive, there's the bee suits, the smoker, the hive tools, the honey extractors, a few things I've probably forgotten, and then ... then you find out it's always a good idea to have a spare hive too!
So you've been on a course, spent some time with some bee-keepers, and forked out a fortune. All you need to do now is get hold of some bees. Easier said than done.
Everyone's aware that honey bees are having a hard time at the moment, which means they are quite difficult to get hold of. The ideal is to get hold of a swarm, but everybody is after free bees and plenty of people are higher in the pecking order for receipt of such goodies.
So you have to buy some. They're very cheap to buy, just one or two pence... each. Problem is, that adds up to a small fortune when you consider you need them in their thousands.  A full brood box consists of eleven frames and lots and lots of bees.              

A full brood box complete with 11 frames.
We were lucky to be able to buy an established colony
with a proven queen. 

The normal way to buy them is to get a five-frame nucleus, which consists of a young queen and a core of bees. These are united to form a young colony which need to build up quickly in preparation for their first winter. We bought our first nucleus when we lived in London, joining the trend of urban beekeeping. However, due to a shortage of queens, we didn't get them till mid summer. Everything seemed to be going fine (judging by our very limited experience) until early the next year.
One spring morning we noticed an unusual buzz of activity around the hive entrance, with bees fighting and many emerging from the hive laden with honey.
Our bees were being robbed! Despite our best efforts, within a day the hive was empty, pillaged, all its occupants murdered or expelled.
Obviously they'd not had time to get strong enough the previous summer. We had fed them and the queen had survived the winter, but this one we just had to put down to experience.

When we had purchased the bees, we felt a huge sense of responsibility to them and we had let them down big time. Knowing that we would be moving at some point, we decided to hang up our bee suits for a while.

Planning for our new hive
We left replacing the bees until we knew we could give a new colony everything they needed. Primarily, I was worried that fields of wheat and sugar beet might not provide enough food throughout the year for them. This worry was soon allayed when our old pasture flourished into a clover filled meadow last summer. It was a bee bonanza.

My next worry was that bees appreciate a bit of shelter, but still need to face the sun so that the hive can warm up, especially early morning. Our site was so exposed that finding a suitable site would not be easy. The orchard would be ideal, in about ten years time!
The only decent shelter is afforded by the house, but we wouldn't want them living quite so close to us. The stable wall would give a good backdrop and the bees would fly straight out over the herb bed, but the prevailing winds put paid to that idea.
Eventually I used a line of transplanted laurels to afford shelter from the wind, tucking the hive in behind them but still exposing it to the morning sun.

So we dug out the old hives, scorched every surface with a blowtorch, and followed up the ad in the local paper. We were delighted to be able to get a two year old queen and a full colony, and at a sensible price too.

Sticks and leaves across the entrance
make sure the bees don't just fly off
before realising they're in a different place!

First Contact
We were up early to sort out the bees before they got active. We didn't yet know how they'd take to us. We dusted off and lit the smoker, though  a stiff north-easterly made sure it hardly touched the bees. At least the weather meant our feisty little friends were in a most subdued mood.

We prised off the lid, brushed the bees out of the way, and placed the queen excluder over the brood box. This is a plastic sheet which allows all the bees except the queen to pass through. This ensures that the stores of honey stored in the frames above the brood box do not become contaminated with eggs and larvae. Onto this went  the super, a box of wooden frames with a wax sheet of tessellated hexagons enclosed, ready for the bees to build their comb and store their honey, ready for us to steal!
Finally, another super into which we placed an inverted bucket of sugar syrup to welcome Swallow Farm's newest inhabitants.
We then left the bees to settle in, although they were in no hurry to explore given the continued cold weather and strong, icy winds.

Pig Pimping
Gerald is a good natured Gloucester Old Spot boar. He doesn't belong to us, but spends a lot of time here. He has given Daisy two litters so far, and in between fathered a couple of other litters. But the farmer who kindly lets us borrow him is never in a hurry to have him back! Food costs have to be considered and it is amazing how often that farmer's phone gets lost or is out of order! I don't mind too much, as it's not all about money, and I get lots of other favours from the farmer too.
Anyway, while discussing Gerald with a fellow smallholder recently, he was keen that Gerald pay a visit to see his two sows. I OKed it with the farmer, and arrangements were made for him to be moved at the weekend. Gerald would certainly not be complaining, as it was now quite a while since he had a lady friend.
So it was that, shortly after we'd finished dealing with the bees, Dave arrived and Gerald obligingly followed his food bucket out of the stables and up into the trailer. He'll enjoy his new surroundings and company, and should be back in about six weeks to keep Daisy company once again. Meanwhile, we've done someone a big favour and we're not having to feed a spare mouth. He's only just down the road, so we can visit him if we miss him.

The Nursery Area
Today's weather went from bad to worse to worser. I had the bright idea of using some old ground cover material and some old wooden decking to give my nursery area a refurbishment. Fed up with thistles and nettles popping up to bite me in every nook and cranny, even inside the greenhouse, I decided to starve them of light and at the same time give myself a proper surface to walk on and to rest plant trays on. Of course, this meant moving everything first, and as the weather worsened I eventually just accepted that I would be soaked from head to toe. (This often seems to happen in reverse, with the water permeating through my shoes and socks and up my trouser legs.)
No more spikes and stings.
A few pig food bags were used to
fill the gaps when I ran out of the proper stuff.

Access to the back of the bee hive is essential.
The straw bales are to stop the hive being
blown about, and to give it some insulation too.
A reclaimed perspex sheet supported by
straw bales provides an excellent
hardening off area for young plants.

By late afternoon it was necessary to take refuge in the house, as a storm raged outside.

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