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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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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Beekeeping for Beginners course – part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Making a beehive | Posted on 02-03-2011

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More thoughts, recorded at the time, from the novice beekeeping course I attended almost exactly twelve months ago. This year’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course, run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA), starts on Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. Contact Jane Ridler at the EBKA for further details.

Week 2: More of the same, except that we’re now all on ‘second day at school’ nodding terms with each other. Richard and Jane briskly finish off equipment and tools before moving on to the life cycle of the honey bee.

We’re joined by several new folk who, we’re advised, are experienced beekeepers and will be our ‘bee buddies’ in the practical sessions. When the tea and biscuits are finally wheeled out once more a wave of students rises as one from the centre of the room and surges outwards towards them. They soon each have their own little flotilla of novices, earnestly asking questions and bobbing between conversations, sheaths of notes clutched to their bosoms.

I get involved in a discussion about bee suits. I’ve found a guy in Poland selling them on eBay for around £36 – which is cheap – and ask whether anyone knows if they’re any good. A fellow novice has just bought her suit from ‘Polish man’ and reports that, as long as you follow the clear instructions and order one size larger than you’d expect, they’re fine*. I decide that that’s the bee suit sorted. Eastern European smokers and hive tools are also given a cautious thumbs up.

modified national beehive plans

Modified National beehive plans

(*Three months later she’ll tell me a quite alarming tale of how the zip broke while she was wearing it, causing her to get over a dozen bee stings. Sadly, she got a less than helpful response from the seller, so buyer beware).

Week 3: The third and final lesson covers the beekeeping year (what happens when) as well as pests and diseases, and where to site your beehive.

Before it starts I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. They already have several colonies, housed in national beehives. He bought them from a ‘retiring’ beekeeper friend, but only after a succession of wasted road trips chasing what turned out to be mangy old equipment offered at over-inflated prices. I sympathise, and mention the idea of building my own beehive. He says he has a set of plans and – true to his word – later gives them to me. They’re for a modified national beehive with bottom bee-space. In woodworking terms I suspect they’re barely one step up from book shelves but to me they’re like blueprints to the space shuttle.

beehive entrance block

My first attempt at a beehive entrance block. See if you can spot the obvious flaw...

Practical beekeeping sessions: My bee buddy is Robert Pickford. Robert is a vastly experienced beekeeper and, it turns out, a first class teacher. Later he’ll also prove to be a more than decent friend, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. For several weeks four of us present ourselves at his apiary on a Tuesday, self-consciously suited and booted in virgin white overalls and veil.

Robert has us making frames, lighting smokers and, of course, inspecting bees. He has hives spread around everywhere and appears to be perpetually playing host to at least three other beekeeper’s colonies at any one time. As a consequence we get to see beehives and nuc boxes of all shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of decrepitude. As I inspect them a mental image springs to mind of the beehive now slowly taking shape in my garage. Robert defends their state by pointing out that, “the bees don’t care what they live in.” We’ll see. They haven’t experienced the limits of my wood-working skills yet.

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I lose a(nother) colony, and treating with oxalic acid

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Nucs, Varroa destructor | Posted on 23-01-2011

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Frozen nuc bee colony

Old nuc + -13C = disaster

There was no more putting it off. The snow had been and gone. The temperature had risen from “Good grief it’s cold” to “I’d probably better put a sweater on”. It was time to open up the hives and take a quick peek.

Deryck had followed up on his promise and offered me some leftover oxalic acid. I collected about 100ml in a rinsed out pint milk carton and promised to pass on whatever was left to two other novices. It felt a bit alien suiting up and lighting the smoker again, but as it was I needn’t have bothered on either count.

I started with the nuc because in my heart of hearts I knew what to expect. Sure enough, there they all were, pathetically huddled together, unmoving. Looked at at arm’s length it was like viewing a snapshot – as if someone had snapped their fingers and made the world stand still – their queen right at the center of the mob, for once really easy to spot. There was something even sadder about the single stragglers clinging frozen to the outlying frames. It’s ridiculous how attached you become to an indistinguishable group of insects, but you do.

Mouldy nuc

The inside of the nuc

I knew before I saw it where it had all gone wrong. At the height of the cold spell I’d hung a greenhouse thermometer on a post beside the nuc. Apart from reading the temperature it also records the highs and the lows. The low measured -13.2 degrees Celsius. So much for the mild micro climate. I also noticed when it was snowing that the melted water wasn’t draining from the crown board. I’d stuck a roof on top of it but it was obviously too late. All of the frames had sprouted mould, as had the walls and floor.

To be honest I didn’t really feel much like opening the main colony after that. I did though, and was immediately greeted by the gentle fizzing sound I’d heard weeks earlier when I’d bent down and placed my ear near to the entrance. When I removed the roof and crown board they too were huddled in one corner, but very much alive, though displaying a reluctance to move that put me in mind of my daughter on school days.

Following Deryck’s advice I plunged my syringe (free with every bottle of Nurofen) into the milk carton and drew 5ml of oxalic acid. I then played ‘dodge the dozy bee’ for a while as I repeatedly attempted to empty its contents down the gaps between occupied frames. In the end I used 50ml between five frames (seven gaps). I’m sure several bees got absolutely drenched, but I did my best to get it in to the spaces.

Now I need to clean out the nuc and recycle the frames. The new beekeeping year has begun.

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Bees in the freezing cold

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Nucs | Posted on 13-12-2010

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Unusually, our part of North Essex has been spared the worst ravages of the recent cold snap. Since moving “t’ country” we’ve quickly grown used to annual snowfall and the realisation that in some places 4x4s really are used to get out of muddy fields. But this year, strangely, we’ve seen barely a light covering of snow where near neighbours have had at least a foot. And while it’s certainly been cold, the temperature hasn’t yet dipped into the minus double-digits (touch wood), as it has in so many other parts.

Nevertheless, it’s been cold enough for me to worry about the bees. This being my first winter with them I’ve been heavily dependent on text books and outside advice – which has generally been to leave them alone. So I have… sort of.

Initially, I just poked my head round the corner of the summer house, behind and to one side of both hives and well out of their field of vision. The total absence of activity however, lead me to become bolder, and just recently I haven’t stopped short of squatting down and almost peering in through the entrance.

On each of these occasions a sort of fizzing sound from within has reassured me that the main colony is alive. The absence of any sound from the nuc has been less encouraging, though.

On Sunday I trotted round the corner to discover quite a distressing sight: dozens of dead insect bodies strewn across the ground outside the main colony. Having recently written about the threat of Asian hornets I confess that my first reaction (quite illogically, given the weather) was that the hive had come under attack. But of course it hadn’t. As my friend and fellow (though vastly more experienced) beekeeper Deryck explained to me later that evening, Saturday had been sunny and comparatively warm. So the bees flew out. Then it turned cold and many couldn’t make it back inside in time. Deryck explained that it was an almost common sight in winter, and in many respects a healthy sign that the colony was alive and going about its business. But to me there was something pitiful about the sight of the few stragglers stuck to the side of the hive, their wings outstretched and frozen. It was also noticeable that there were no dead bodies outside the nuc.

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Preparing a nuc for winter: part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Nucs | Posted on 19-10-2010

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Bees nuc box

Five frame nuc - not a mini-nuc

It seems a few corrections are in order. For starters, what I’ve been referring to as a ‘mini-nuc’ for the last several weeks turns out to be simply a ‘nuc’. Also, Mrs S would like me to point out that that nice Mr Turnbull off the BBC wasn’t “hopeless” on Strictly Come Dancing (see ‘In the dark with Bill Turnbull’). He was actually rather good, apparently. So, sorry Bill.

This week I had a plan and I stuck to it. I was quick (see last entry), decisive… –ish, and meticulous in maintaining a written record – which is just as well, because at one point the voice recording of my inspection has me saying, “I’m removing the third frame, no, the fourth… hang on a minute, I’ve forgotten that one I took out earlier. So that’s the fifth frame… err, or is it?”

Turns out it was the fourth frame, which – packed with capped stores and brood – I transferred from the main colony to the nuc. The nuc already contained five frames so I had to take one out to accommodate it. The big question now was whether or not I should place the spare frame taken from the nuc back in the main colony, particularly as the latter was left with only seven drawn frames, plus one new frame with foundation, inserted the day before.

Damaged beehive honeycomb

Bad comb over: when it looks like this it's best to start again

To be honest, the spare looked a bit old and weather-beaten, and I wasn’t sure that there weren’t traces of mould in some of the cells (although it turned out later that what I was seeing was probably just white pollen). I remember Richard Ridler of the Essex Beekeepers Association delivering the ‘Beekeeping For Beginners’ class earlier this year, and recounting how when he and wife Jane started they almost performed their inspections with hive tool in one hand and copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide To Bees And Honey in the other. I now know exactly what he meant. Skip forward two hours and the magnificent Beekeeping Forum was able to tell me exactly what – and what not – to do, but that was after I’d sealed the hives up, having thoroughly messed both colonies around for 20 minutes.

So instead I elected to scrape away the affected cells with the ‘hook’ end of my hive tool. Fellow beekeeping novices, hear my advice: this is not a good thing to do. You will end up with a mess. See picture above left.

Other questions you may benefit from knowing the answers to are: is this beyond repair? Answer: yes, but only because the comb is past its sell-by date. What should one do with the sticky mess of uncapped stores and pollen left in the cells? Answer: throw it away and boil the frame before fitting new foundation. Is it a good idea to leave the main colony with effectively only seven frames? Answer: probably not. Now that I have however, I should keep feeding them and thank my lucky stars I’m located in the milder south of England.

I’m indebted to the members of the Beekeeping Forum for their advice.

Next week: Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference

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