Saturday, 28 June 2014

John the brave beekeeper collects a swarm

Not many photos for this one I'm afraid. I am not a kamikaze blogger. Read on and all will make sense.
I spent last weekend in the Extremadura region of Spain. It was sort of my stag weekend, though there were considerably more birds involved than beer. If you know me by now, you'll realise that last sentence was not as damning as it may sound, for I enjoyed spectacular view of vultures, eagles, storks and my first ever European bustards.... yes, bustards.

That's nothing to do with this post though. I returned to the smallholding late on Monday and come Wednesday Sue was off on her headteachers conference. It is rapidly becoming an annual tradition that Sue goes off on conference and John has to become an emergency bee-keeper! And this year was no disappointment.

Our hives have been doing well this year and we have had our first significant honey harvest, 130lb so far.

But while I was away in Spain, Sue found 20 queen cells in the middle hive. This is a sure sign that something is amiss. Either the bees are not happy with their queen or they are doing so well that they are preparing to swarm and are laying the foundations of a new colony before they go.

So, left on my own, I was fully expecting to witness a mass departure of bees. They usually choose a warm, muggy afternoon to go and we've had our fair share of those these year. But as it happens, my emergency beekeeping duties stemmed from elsewhere when, on Thursday evening, there was a knock at the door from a local farmer informing me of a swarm of bees on the verge outside his house. For all I knew, they could even have come out of one of our hives earlier in the day.
I rushed around grabbing what I needed, squeezed into Sue's beekeeping suit and jumped in the car.

I arrived to find a dinner plate circle of bees huddled together on the tarmac. A small group had unfortunately been run over by a passing vehicle. They did not look like any of our bees, these ones being almost black. I scooped them up in my hands and into a box, making sure to get as many as possible. When bees swarm their soul aim is to huddle around the queen, so they do not go into attack mode. Allegedly, they've stuffed themselves so full of honey in preparation for their adventure that they are actually incapable of stinging. I kept my thick leather gloves firmly on, not wanting to test out this theory!
I got them home sealed tightly in their box in the back of the car, then set about hastily assembling a hive. All this while I was attempting to make my first ever pizza from scratch as a practise for the blokes baking group on Friday.

So, come about midnight, I finally got to sit down and tuck into my pizza, which was absolutely delicious.
Pizza. From scratch. Lish!
I set the alarm for 5.30am as I had a very busy day ahead of me. It would start with pouring the bees into their new hive and I wanted them to still be in sleepy mode when I did this. It's amazing how bees in a cluster behave just like a gloopy liquid. You do just literally pour them in then leave them to settle.
Then I had some sheep to collect, a horse manure collection to make and in the evening I was hosting the blokes baking group again.

Fast forward to today and there I am in the paddock with my new sheep (more on these in my next post) when a bee starts persistently buzzing me. I stayed perfectly still for a couple of minutes but the bee just seemed to be getting increasingly aggressive until it dived straight into my hair. Time to pull it out and leg it back into the house.
I guessed that Sue must have upset them and if they were this cross I would be spending a couple of hours safely inside (hence the break in my work to compose a couple of blog posts).

Sue waits patiently, but these bees
aren't giving up that easily.
It wasn't long before Sue appeared with two dozen bees angrily circling her head. She sat and waited, but these bees weren't giving up that easily. In the end she had to walk away and then make a run for the door and get in before the bees caught up.
She then explained why the bees today were quite so angry.

Sue had gone out to give some syrup feed to the colony of bees I had collected. However, unable to see a queen (that doesn't necessarily mean there wasn't one in there), She decided to take a tray of eggs from the middle hive. This would give the bees something to work on to start a new colony if indeed they were queenless. At the same time, it would keep the middle hive busy and maybe distract them from swarming.

Monster hive
But bees are full of surprises, for when Sue opened the middle hive she found it eggless, a sure sign that somehow they had lost their queen. This is where the tactic of destroying the queen cells to prevent swarming comes unstuck, for the bees had known better than Sue. Those queen cells were not being made as the foundations of a new colony, they were made to make a new queen.

So Sue decided to take two trays of eggs from the monster hive, one tray to put in each of the other hives. It was shortly after this that the monster bees took exception. They streamed out in a cloud of smoke and aimed straight for Sue's face!! Fortunately the veil did its job and protected her. SHe quickly put the lid on and beat a hasty retreat.

We both survived without getting stung.

Sue has now headed off to Holbeach for her dummy run on the hair and make-up for her wedding makeover. I am about to venture back outside to spend some time with my new sheep. I could be back inside sooner than I planned.

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