First proper inspection of the year

It’s been a hard winter – particularly through February and into March.  The first warm day we had, both hives spewed bees as they came out to defecate and drink some water.  It was lovely to see both colonies looking strong.  We’ve fed them fondant throughout the winter and treated with oxalic acid in January to try to keep the varroa under control.  Other than that, its been a bit of a waiting game.

We spent some time attending some training on disease recognition and swarm control.  Elmo attended with me and we found it really useful hearing the same messages.  We’re hoping to do our BBKA Basic Assessment this year, although Elmo is unable to attend the day’s training.  He has promised me he will swot up though!

On the 6th of April we opened the hives up briefly to shift the super above the brood box (we had left it underneath for the winter to give the bees a chance to shift the stores upwards during the autumn and to give them some protection from the wind).  We also replaced the queen excluder and cleaned down the Open Mesh Floor of any remaining dead bees.  We gave them a little candypolline as well, as the weather was pretty wet and they weren’t really getting out much.  I do wonder whether we’ve over stimulated them a bit.  Anyhow.  Guess I’ll never know!

The weather started to warm up in the middle of April and we made the most of warm, still temperatures on 14th April to carry out a proper inspection of both colonies.

Hufflepuff

We had placed the inspection trays below the hives for 5 days and checked the varroa count.  We cover them with sunflower oil to make the mites stick!  Hufflepuff had a high varroa count in September so it was great to see only 3 mites dropped during this period.  We’ll keep and eye on them though and have some Apitraz to try when we’re not collecting honey.

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Both hives have been bringing in a fair amount of pollen – you can see some of the crocus pollen stored here in Hufflepuff.  They also look as though they have been uncapping and moving honey into the super to give themselves some more space for the queen to lay.  Hard for my untrained eye to be sure.

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Brood pattern in Hufflepuff was healthy and there were brood in all stages of development.  There were no noticeable signs of disease on any of the frames and the bees seemed healthy.

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We found Helga, which is always a relief!

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Ravenclaw

Ravenclaw were as calm and placid as normal.  The colony still feels much smaller than Hufflepuff and I have a sense that they’re not building up as quickly.

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On first sight, the brood pattern seems healthy – the empty cells are full of eggs (you can see them quite quickly in the picture below).

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But on closer inspection, there are far fewer larvae in the stages you’d expect from days 4-8 (the cell should be capped day 9) when compared to Hufflepuff.  The make-up of the brood seems very different between the two colonies.

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We were surprised to find drone cells on the face of this comb (below).  There are no drone cells in Hufflepuff.  I also noticed a slightly suspect cell when I checked back over the photos.  I sent the picture to some of the experienced beekeepers from my local association and they confirmed that the drone cells on the comb face wasn’t something I should be expecting to see and could well be a sign that the queen is failing.  One also suggested looking carefully at the cells with larvae on this frame, as they don’t look entirely normal.  The weather is getting warmer this week, so by Wednesday we should be able to open up the hive when I get back from work.  In the meantime, we perhaps have a little time to prepare ourselves for a failing queen by reading up on exactly what this means for our colony and how best to manage it.

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We do at least know that we have a queen in the colony.  She can be seen just off centre below.  I’m rather find of Rowena so I do hope she isn’t failing and has simply had some kind of blip.  Unlikely, I know.  *wanders off to research supercedure*.

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Catching up…

Apologies for the delay in catching you up with news of the colonies.  As of today, the 2nd November, both hives are active and industrious – bringing in a haul of ivy pollen in the relatively warm temperatures.  I have a video but my plan on WordPress doesn’t support it, so you’ll just need to take my word for it 🙂

We revisited the hives on the 24th Sept – two weeks after the first Api-guard treatment – to put a new tray of Apiguard in.  The weather wasn’t great and we were in and out of the hives as quickly as possible, so there aren’t many photos.  What you can see is the amount of dead mites in each hive.  The first picture is Hufflepuff and the second Ravenclaw – Hufflepuff’s infestation has obviously been a lot worse so we may have to treat them again with Oxalic acid in January.

Dead Varroa and other hive detritus in Hufflepuff

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Ravenclaw have a much lower mite load

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The trays of Apiguard removed and replaced with new ones.

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Elmo in his bee suit – just as it started to rain!

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Elmo had a trip to the U.S planned which meant that we went back into the hives to prepare them for winter sooner than planned.  However, on 15th October we put the remaining supers with their stores under the brood box and removed the Queen Excluder (to avoid the queen getting separated from the other bees and starving/freezing to death).  We also added some contact feeders to try and continue with feeding the heavy sugar syrup for as long as possible.  Typically we had a really warm week just afterwards and I would imagine the bees weren’t happy with us moving their stores!

This week the temperature has started to drop and we have put the mouseguards on the hives to avoid any unwelcome visitors over the winter months.  We also took the contact feeders off as I believe it’s getting too cold for them to convert the sugar into anything useful now.  We removed the empty Apiguard trays and placed the eke on top of the crown board, with some insulating foam over the top as it can get pretty cold where we are.  The bees are unlikely to have enough stores to get them through the winter, so we are expecting to have to feed them fondant around xmas time.  It’ll be our little present to them!

It feels weird just leaving them to it now.  Good luck, little bees.  I hope you make it through the winter – we’ll do everything we can to help you!  Strange though, I have a feeling that despite being the bigger and stronger of the two colonies this year, Hufflepuff aren’t going to make it.  I hope I’m wrong.

Preparing for winter and other stories…

The day after we’d carried out the last inspection, I popped down to the hives to say hello to the bees.  It was immediately apparent that something was up.   Both hives were very noisy – a really agitated buzzing which I haven’t heard them make before.  I went and stood by the fence to get a better look and it wasn’t long before I started to see bees tumbling about and fighting with each other.  Robbers!  I’d read about robbing frenzies – where bees from another colony go and raid the stores of smaller or weaker colonies – but having it happen to my bees was actually pretty upsetting.  Just at the point where I had decided that I needed to suit up and do something about it, one of Hufflepuff (yes, I do know which colony is which – they are different colours!) decided to see me off.  She followed me up the stairs and stung me on the back of my calf.  Ow!  My first sting as a beekeeper but I guess at least I know I’m not horribly allergic to bee stings now.

Elmo and I quickly suited up, lit the smoker and went down to the hives.  We used a lot of smoke to try and get shot of some of the attacking bees while we reduced the size of the entrance block to the smallest option so that our bees had a smaller entrance to defend.  All we could really do after that was hope that the robbers hadn’t got away with many stores and that the colonies hadn’t suffered big losses.  We’re now a bit wiser to what to look for and I think next year, we will reduce the entrance hole once the heather and privet have stopped flowering, as I guess that’s a time when colonies are desperately looking for resources to top up their stores.  There are also other precautions that can be taken – such as feeding sugar syrup at dusk, making sure supers are covered up when you’re carrying out an inspection and being tidy with bits of brace comb and other debris round the hive in order not to draw attention to the honey stores within.  We were generally pretty good with most of those things, but we are super careful now.

We had to wait for nearly two weeks before carrying out the next inspection because of my trip to Shrewsbury FF and other factors.  It was quite hard not knowing what the impact of the robbing had been during that time.

Varroa

Varroa mites are the honeybees’ nemesis it would seem.  First spotted in the UK in 1992, they are now in pretty much every colony of honeybees on the mainland and are almost certainly a big factor in the collapse of colonies if not managed.  You can find out more information on Beebase here:

http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?pageid=93

We did check our colonies for Varroa when we first got them.  But we didn’t put anything sticky on the inspection tray so the mites there may have scuttled away I guess.  This week, we covered the inspection trays with vegetable oil so that the mites stuck to them and we counted the mite drop every day before using the Beebase Varroa calculator to see whether the number of mites was high enough for us to need to treat.  It was high in Hufflepuff – 1200 mites in the colony – and we needed to treat quickly.  I had already ordered some Apiguard, which is a Thymol based treatment so we waited for a window in the weather on Saturday and went out to the hives.

The good news was that neither colony seemed to be massively effected by the attempted robbing.  Both colonies had built up stores and were looking disease free and healthy (apart from the Varroa).  There was plenty of brood in all stages (not as many visible eggs but I think this is normal as the colony size starts to reduce for the winter) and both colonies were queen right (in other words, we saw both queens).  We placed Apiguard on both hives this weekend, even though the number of mites in Ravenclaw was much lower than Hufflepuff.  Ideally, we shouldn’t be feeding at the same time as using the Apiguard as it can reduce it’s efficiency but the amount of stores our colonies have is still way too low and we would risk them dying of starvation if we stopped feeding at this stage – we’ll just have to hope that the Apiguard has the desired impact.

The picture below shows the Varroa mites on the inspection tray.  The mites are the lumpy dark things.

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If you look carefully at the Hufflepuff bee in the centre of the picture below, you can see a varroa mite right in the centre of it’s thorax.  Poor bee.  Imagine having something that size living on you!

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Helga actually showed herself today, which is always a relief!

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Below a Hufflepuff frame with capped brood and capped honey to keep them going through the winter.

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And in other news, we got some hens.  I would like to introduce Prudie…

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Verity…

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Elmo, with Prudie and Verity…

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And the delightful Demelza.

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No eggs yet.  But maybe next year we’ll be breakfasting on honey cake made with our ‘homegrown’ honey and eggs!

Lessons to be learnt…

We’ve just returned from a couple of weeks away.  A couple of days before we went away, we carried out a hive inspection (see previous entry) and we were quite pleased with the way things were going.  I had a niggling doubt though about whether we should have added a super or not (a super is a box of frames that the queen has no access to as it is usually blocked off with a queen excluder – so the bees can store nectar in here but the queen cannot use it to lay eggs and raise brood).  Looking back on it, we should have used our common sense really but I got confused with some of the advice I’d read on various beekeeping forums.  Anyway – I asked some beekeepers from Sheffield Beekeepers Association via their ‘ask a beekeeper’ tab and one got back to me pointing out that it looked as though our queen didn’t have much space for brood.  He suggested putting a super on with a few frames just over the nest ball, in the hope that they would start drawing out the comb on the bare foundation we’d given them and perhaps they would shift the stores, giving the queen more room to lay.  We didn’t have enough frames made up so our holiday preparations included a quick frame making session.

 

We went back in again the next day and added the super with frames.  We also shifted the frame that was filled with stores to the edge of the brood box, moving an undrawn frame closer in, hoping they would draw this out and use it for brood.  Then it was really a case of just crossing our fingers and cursing ourselves for not sticking a super on at the point where they were starting to store nectar.  I guess we’ll know from now on.

 

We’d intended to carry out our inspection the day after we got back from holiday but Elmo twisted his ankle while putting some bird food out, so we delayed going in until today.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching the hive traffic these last few days and they seemed pretty happy and busy but I was a bit apprehensive about what had happened inside while we were away!  This was also the first time I would be carrying out the inspection and handling the frames without Elmo’s help (he was hobbling about taking photos but not up to any fetching and carrying really).  Here’s a bit of what we found:

Hufflepuff

They were quite chilled out today.  Busy though and wow do they like to make brace comb!  They also love to stick everything together with propolis which made for a very sticky inspection today!

The image below is of one of the super frames, where they have started to draw out the comb and store nectar.  They are working on three frames in the super now.  We’re still feeding them, so a lot of this will be sugar water and won’t be any use for us but hopefully will keep them going.

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This is a picture of the queen excluder which is between the brood box and the super to stop the queen laying up there (she’s too big to fit through).

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They still have stores in the brood box.  We’re wondering whether to upcap this and extract what they’ve stored in here, replacing the drawn comb so they have more space for brood.  I don’t know whether it’s too late in the season for this though and I need to do a bit more research…

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The end of the nest, with a small area of capped brood surrounded by a lot of pollen.

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The pollen is a gorgeous array of colours!  I think quite a lot of this is lime at the moment but we have heather quite near too and they seem to be bringing in some heather pollen.  They’ve been really active on the garden plants too (or at least someone’s honeybees have been!).

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One of the main areas of brood (there are a few other frames as I’m not putting pictures of them all in).  If you look closely, you can see larvae in different stages in the uncapped cells.  I use the zoom facility on Photoshop to check for eggs once we get in as my eyesight is not always good enough to see them when we’re inspecting.  I am getting better at spotting them though.  Which is just as well because Helga was another no-show today.  She really has got the hiding from us down to a fine art.

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Ravenclaw

Ravenclaw were their usual docile selves.  I worry a bit that they won’t be able to defend themselves from robbers – they really do seem so unconcerned by us being in the hive.  This was an interesting formation of bees.  I’m not totally sure what they were up to but I’m guessing that some capped brace comb cells were split when we removed the queen excluder and that these girls were clearing up the spillage.

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Below we have one of the frames of brood and stores.  We didn’t notice Rowena when we were doing the inspection but when I looked back at the photos, there she is in the top right hand corner.

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Personally, I think taking decent photos is a great way of really getting to know what’s going on in your hive without faffing about in there for too long.  It’s also a great way of checking things out when you’re not sure what you’re looking at.  The seemingly empty cells in the photo below are actually full of eggs – quite hard to see with a naked eye behind a veil but easy to zoom in and see in a picture.  There’s a fair amount of pollen and stores on this frame too – I do worry that they are over-filling the frames with stores :-/

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Just a view of me working on Ravenclaw.  We use separate hive tools and fresh gloves for each hive to reduce the risk of transferring disease.  We’ll leave them for another seven days and then see where they’ve got to.  In the meantime, I have a LOT more reading to do!

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31st July – Colonies Building Up

We’re carrying out a weekly inspection at the moment because we conscious that they may need some more room soon and we don’t want them to feel crowded.  We’re still feeding them but Hufflepuff are losing interest in the sugar water now.  Both hives still have frames where they haven’t yet drawn out the comb so we’re going to continue feeding Hufflepuff for another week and Ravenclaw probably a little longer.  There seem to be many different views on how long to feed a colony for when you get a nucleus of bees but the general thought seems to be that they’ll let you know when they aren’t interested anymore and that generally they would probably prefer natural sources of stores rather than the sugar.  We just want them to be as strong as possible going into the winter, although both colonies seem to be doing ok at the moment.

There was nothing much to report this time and we didn’t linger too long as rain was threatening.  Our main focus was to check for eggs/brood and to make sure there was no sign of any disease or swarming.  Although we didn’t see Helga (the queen from Hufflepuff who seems particularly good at hiding in gaps in the wax at the bottom of the frames) there were plenty of eggs and brood and no queen cells.  We did see Rowena (the queen from Ravenclaw) briefly – she seems much more chilled out.  In fact, the two hives definitely have different personalities.  Hufflepuff are much more active and although not aggressive, they were certainly keeping us in check yesterday and I wouldn’t have wanted to be unsuited.  No attempted stings though.  We don’t even use smoke with Ravenclaw – they don’t seem at all bothered by us and I think you could probably go into the hive with bare hands without too much bother.  We’re not going to try that though…

Hufflepuff

Hufflepuff stores

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Stores and capped brood

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No queen seen this time but lots of new eggs in the cells

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Stores and capped and uncapped brood

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Still drawing out the comb.  We still have two completely empty frames where they haven’t even started drawing out the comb but we’re anticipating having to add a super at the end of next week.

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Ravenclaw

Ravenclaw stores

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Stores and capped brood

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Brood and eggs (if you look closely 🙂 )

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Rowena doing her thang.

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So far, so good.

We carried out our weekly inspection just to see how the colonies were getting on and to check they were healthy, that the queen was laying and they were building up stores.   Hufflepuff is definitely the stronger of the two colonies as they were in the hive for a week longer than Ravenclaw and had an extra frame to start off with.  This is a lovely picture of uncapped brood on one of the Hufflepuff frames.  Sadly, keeping bees has put me off prawns as I can’t quite stop my self seeing bee brood when I look at a prawn…  There’s brood of all different sizes in this frame and I think (from my limited knowledge) that it looks like a healthy pattern.  We did manage to see Helga Hufflepuff (the queen) today.  Only briefly though as she hid herself at the bottom of a frame.

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This is a nice healthy frame of capped brood, uncapped brood, eggs (if you look closely) and capped stores from Hufflepuff.  Hufflepuff were a bit more grumpy today than they have been – no stings but just a little more agitated.  Having said that, just as we were completing the inspection of Ravenclaw, it started raining, so maybe they were fretting about having the hive open as the weather changed.

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Rowena Ravenclaw was being a lot more cooperative this week (we didn’t see either queen last week).  I love the way all her attendants are looking up at me as I took this photo.  She carried on with the job in hand without so much of a glance in my directions.  The bees in Ravenclaw are unbelievably chilled out.

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Elmo had a hitch-hiker.  I think this pollen is from the privet that is very much in flower at the moment.  The honey bees seem to love this and also a New Zealand flax that is in flower locally.  The lavender hedge in the garden is pretty popular too – as are the many fuchsia bushes that thrive in our area.

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Nothing to do with bees but isn’t this young jay a fine fellow.  He loves the suet balls on the bird  feeders and we’ve enjoyed watching him today, along with the bullfinches, goldfinches, all types of common garden tit and of course the spugs (sparrows for those not familiar with this Sheffield term).

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They settle in to Hogwarts…

Saturday afternoon we checked to see how Hufflepuff were getting on with the 2litres of sugar syrup we’d given them on Wednesday.  Although they are motoring away at gathering the stores, they need to ‘draw out the comb’ on the wax foundation we’ve given them.  Essentially, they build the cells that they will then raise brood and keep stores in.  They need a lot of energy for this, so providing them with the sugar means that they can get the job done quicker.  Just as well we did check as between Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon, they had completely emptied it!  Just a few workers licking up the remnants with their little probosis (probosi??)

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If you look carefully, you can see where they are drawing out the comb and building new cells.

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This feeder is called a ‘Rapid feeder’.  The bees come up the central section from the brood box below, have a good drink and then scoot back down for some more cell building.  This is what it looks like empty.

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Now filled with sugar syrup.  We ‘re going to get through a LOT of sugar.  This liquid is made up of 1kg of sugar to 630ml of water!

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Ravenclaw arrived today and they weren’t in a poly nuc this time, which meant we had to get the hive built so they had a home.  So we spent a couple of hours making the Ravenclaw common room before transferring them to their new home.  They were more interested in us than Hufflepuff were – but not aggressive.  I have a feeling this colony will be good producers.

The picture below shows a number of things.  You can see the capped honey around the edge of the frame (it looks white in colour) and a number of capped brood vells in the centre of the frame.  I think the queen has avoided laying over the metal in the foundation but it’s a bit tricky to tell with the bees all over the frame!  It all looked ok through our inexperienced eyes.  We had a moment of panic when we saw some of the weird bits of comb at the bottom and sticking out the face of the comb itself as we immediately thought ‘oh no!  Queen cells!’ which would have meant the hive were preparing to swarm or create a new queen.  But we think there was a little more than a bee-space between frames and they’ve just drawn the comb out more than normal.

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The picture below is out of focus but it’s the only one I got of ‘Rowena’, the queen of the Ravenclaw hive.  She’s the big, long one with the yellow blob of ink on her thorax.  If you look carefully, you can see that the ‘attendant bees’ around her are mostly facing her.  Beautiful, isn’t she 🙂

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The hives in situ.  There’s a bumblebee nest in the log just behind so it really is bee central!

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And me, dressed for beekeeping in my attractive garb (minus me Marigolds).

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Telling the Bees

Elmo used to keep bees.  He wanted to again but until recently, we didn’t really have the space or the means.  Our new house has a lovely long garden that backs on to allotments and woodland and we decided that this would be a good place to have a couple of hives.

By his own admission, he’s not always the best at organising stuff in a timely fashion so I agreed to attend a beekeeping course to help him out.  8 weeks of ‘Bee School’ – a two and a half hour session on a Tuesday evening run by Sheffield Beekeepers Association – and I was hooked.  It was obviously going to be far more complicated than I could ever imagine though.

So in April, we took the plunge and ‘ordered’ two colonies of ‘Buckfast’ bees.  Not a native strain (which is something we would like to move towards in the future) but a good beginner’s bee – known for a good temperament.  Beekeeping isn’t cheep.  The first few jars of honey we take will have a value of about £500 each – so if you get one, feel honoured!

We had a lot of preparation to do to make the garden ‘bee safe’.  We also had to construct the hives and frames, which takes a while.  Cutting a long story short, it was all a bit frantic at the end but on Monday 3rd July, we picked up our first poly nuc (polystyrene nucleus for those wondering) filled with 5 frames of lovely bees.  We couldn’t put them in the right place in the garden at first as the fence was still being completed and this was a bit of an issue as you’re not supposed to move bees more than 3 ft at a time – unless you move them at least 3 miles.  In our terraced garden, that wasn’t really an option, so we locked them in the nuc overnight and then put a blueberry bush in front of the hive so that when we let them out, they had to re-orient themselves due to the unfamiliar object.  We were a bit panicked that it hadn’t worked at first, as many bees flew back to where the poly nuc had been, rather than the new position.  They seemed to sort this out by the end of the day and before the sun set, there were plenty of bees whizzing in and out of the nuc entrance.

Wednesday 5th July – bee transfer day!  We took the bits of the new hive down to the bottom of the garden where we suited up and made ourselves impervious to bees!

The hive is ‘Hufflepuff’ and the queen (who we did manage to find and were amused to find that she is marked by a yellow marker-very appropriate for her Hogwarts House) has been named Helga. The bees were very docile – no attempted stings or any aggression towards us – and the frames looked healthy (although Elmo and I got a bit freaked by some funny coloured pollen until we came back inside, looked at pictures in books and realised what it was – pollens come in all different colours and quite a lot of the stuff they are bringing in now is a kind of mouldy grey/green colour). They have lots of lovely fresh foundation to build on and we’ve given them some sugar syrup to help them to draw out the comb without having to use up all their stores. Happy bees. Happy us. We’ll leave them for a week and then check on them again. We made a few minor mistakes (smoker went out, forgot the bee brush) but luckily they were so gentle you could just stroke their backs carefully with your finger (with gloves on obviously) and they would move out the way. It’s thrilling and humbling and wonderful. I love bees.

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