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