My first swarm collection

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee swarming and swarm collection, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 23-12-2011

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Why is it that I should hear the words, “Would you like another colony? Only there’s a free swarm going spare” for the first time just as I was settling into a warm sofa with a cold glass of wine? In other circumstances my answer might have been, “A free colony? Yeah, bring it on.” I’d wanted a second colony for some time. But now, with TV remote in one hand and glass of Sancerre in the other, I was overwhelmed by doubt and self-loathing, mainly at the realisation that I might be the kind of middle-aged, overweight supertanker that would forgo the prospect of new adventure in favour of a soft cushion and Julia Bradbury’s Railway Walks. So instead I wearily handed my glass to Mrs S and chirruped down the phone, “A new colony? Wow, that would be great. I’m coming right over.”

That pretty much paints the picture of my phone conversation with Mark at the end of May. Neither of us had captured a swarm before, and both had expressed interest in doing so. Now the opportunity had presented itself, literally, in Mark’s backyard. A next door neighbour had spotted one from over the fence.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Up a tall tree.”

Of course it was.

“Easy to reach?” I ventured hopefully.

“No.”

What were the odds?

Mark lives barely three miles away, so it took only a few moments to get round there in the car. I brought along a recently finished homemade nuc and found Mark’s partner Julie fully suited and wandering about with an open copy of A Guide To Bees And Honey in her hand.  Mark appeared from around the corner carrying a long ladder and with a mobile phone clasped to one ear. He was taking advice from Deryck.

“Yeah, Andy’s just arrived now,” Mark said. “We’re just heading to the bottom of the garden.”

I could just make out Deryck’s disembodied voice. It went on for several minutes, before signing off with something about garden rubbish.

“He says he really likes your blog,” smiled Mark, as I followed him to a small copse.

Sure enough, there at the top of a tall, willowy tree was a rugby ball sized writhing mass of bees.

Clutching a tree-pruning saw, and with his next door neighbour spectating from the safety of her kitchen door, Mark gingerly climbed up the ladder. As I clung onto its base to prevent it from slipping I wondered whether it might not have been more gallant of me to offer to go up there myself. That is, until I realised that I’d been left looking upwards as he sawed his way through a branch dripping in bees directly above me. Julie watched with interest from a discreet distance.

Mark removed the branch and descended, before carefully placing it inside the nuc which we’d already positioned on an old bed sheet spread out at the base of the tree. Time for a cup of tea! Forty-five minutes later I was driving home with the taped-up nuc box wedged behind my car seat. So much for adventure. Nice cup of tea though.

I positioned the nuc next to my other colony and for nearly six weeks fed and fussed over it, even getting excited that it contained both light and dark coloured bees (see Black honey bees and yellow honey bees). Eventually however, the penny dropped. The queen was laying drone brood. The number of bees was gradually declining and there were unmistakable signs of ‘bobbling’ across the face of the comb. I transferred the frames into my new brood chamber,  placed that on top of the existing colony, and separated them with sheets of newspaper, merging the two colonies. The swarm queen I put into a match box and left to die alone in the shed. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.

So much for adventure.

Wishing all beekeepers everywhere a very merry Christmas.

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Black honey bees and yellow honey bees

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice | Posted on 19-12-2011

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I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise, but he delivers a great line in A Few Good Men (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, of whom I’m a very big fan indeed). While Demi Moore’s character is flapping over minutiae, all the while missing the bigger picture, he deadpans: “Ah, I get it now. It was professor plum, in the library, with the lead pipe!”

I had a similar moment of epiphany with the colony last May: “Aa-ah, it’s the queen. She’s not laying, because she’s knackered!”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the signs were all there. She did look …well, dishevelled. And I guess you would too if your life consisted of a free-for-all gangbang followed by years in the dark giving birth thousands of times a day. Although I’d daubed her in blue marker last year I suspect I still wouldn’t have found it difficult to spot her if I hadn’t. For weeks she remained rooted to frames five or six, wandering around aimlessly, like a frail aunt in her dressing gown. Her offspring meanwhile, (in an odd reversal from my own experience) busied themselves filling the empty cells around her with food.

Of course hindsight being what it is, I didn’t actually cotton on to any of this until I saw the first queen cell. Which I promptly tore down. News of my action was met with much teeth-sucking by experienced colleagues. A week later – thankfully – there were two more queen cells, both uncapped. By this time I’d got the message. I marked the frame, replaced it in the brood chamber, and tip-toed away.

A new queen eventually emerged and, for nearly two months, co-existed beside the old queen. Having briefly established that her royal newness was indeed laying, I largely left her to get on with it. Running a business got in the way of running an apiary across much of the summer. Hive ‘inspections’ consisted largely of keeping an eye on the entrance to see what colour bees emerged from the new brood.

Yellow honey bees

My bees - Apis Mellifera, but more yellow than black

All my queens to date (four in total – although only three have been documented here so far) have been the product of swarms. Although presumably all of the species Apis mellifera, they’ve been mongrels. Among the local population of honey bee mongrels however, I have noticed that there appear to be two distinct sub-species: ‘yellow’ honey bees and ‘black’ honey bees. Both types have black and yellow bands on their abdomen. The ‘yellow’ bees just have slightly wider yellow bands while the ‘black’ bees have slightly wider black ones. It’s only a matter of emphasis, but when viewed side-by-side you can see a distinct difference in colouration.

As I seem never to tire of saying, being a novice beekeeper is a lot like being a novice parent. There are manuals, but most of what you learn comes from actually interacting with the little darlings – both your own and the offspring of a whole host of new friends that seem to come with them. And, like parents, you almost can’t help yourself from degenerating into a little competitive beekeeping when it comes to comparing notes.

Black honey bees with queen in centre

A captured swarm (with queen in centre) - more black than yellow

“Gosh, my bees are so docile”, you find yourself boasting, “they’re an absolute doddle to handle.”

“You’re so lucky”, will come the reply, “mine fly everywhere, it makes extracting honey every few weeks a real nightmare.”

Now the truth about this exchange is that there isn’t a beekeeper anywhere who wouldn’t swap docile bees for high yielding ones at the drop of a hat. My bees have always been docile and, perhaps as a consequence, have so far produced b****r-all in the way of honey. By comparison, opening up my friend Michelle’s hive is like entering a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night, and ordering a cocktail. This summer it produced so much honey, so fast, she nearly ran out of supers. I have ‘yellow’ bees. Michelle’s are ‘black’. I wanted black bees.

As my lovely new chocolate-coloured queen began to make her mark on the colony I started to see newly hatched furry bees and squinted hard to determine whether they were of the lighter or darker persuasion. Unfortunately there was no mistaking it. They were distinctly yellow. Damn. It seems that what the yellow bees lack in temperament they make up for in other departments. Time for a little family planning in 2012, I think.

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The 2011 beekeeping year

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive, Nucs, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 12-12-2011

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Homemade beehive: 14x12 brood box and floor

My first homemade 14x12 beehive - best viewed from a distance

Well, it’s been an… engaging year. Not all bad, and certainly not run-of-the-mill, but definitely full-on. While I churned out reams of copy on topics as diverse as door access systems, 360 degree photography and male waxing (for completely separate clients, I hasten to add) I confess I struggled to find time to jot down musings on life within the colony. Not that interesting things weren’t happening. No sirree. This year the queen stopped laying, was replaced by her offspring, continued to live alongside the new queen for a while, was joined next door by a new colony (my first swarm collection) with, it turned out, an equally unproductive queen (this time of the drone laying variety) before having the neighbours move in when I united both colonies using the newspaper method. Meanwhile, I also built a hive and two nuc boxes, and began to experiment with the idea of setting up a beehive web cam.

Lessons learned: dozens. Jars of honey harvested: nil.

So, rather like those American sitcoms that condense the last six episodes into a breathless fifteen second monologue, that was my beekeeping year. If you want to read the glorious details, sign up to receive the next installment.

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