2012,Where to start,a year that started off with such promise and for many, finished a disaster.Here at Mendip was no exception, I came as close to finishing with beekeeping altogether as I ever have, that’s a statement I never thought I would even contemplate let alone make. Let me explain.
Firstly, let me apologise to those of you who regularly access The Mendip blog for not having visited and updated it myself for some time. The reason being, as the year progressed and the disaster unfolded my enthusiasm was waining I felt less and less inclined to write, after all, who wants to hear of someone else’s failures, don’t we all have enough of our own. Also, at that time I put the problems I was experiencing here at Mendip down to my own ineptitude, not something I wanted to boast about. I had no idea the problems here at Mendip were being being mirrored up and down the country. It was only as May concluded and June approached and with it the ‘phone calls asking whether I had a spare queen or could I come and deal with a troublesome swarm that I began to wonder if the problems I was having here were symptomatic of a wider picture.
Let me take you back to March, as I reported earlier, I had lost hive one which was a body blow as it was my best colony and the one from which I had intended to raise my queens. However the others had come through the winter well and as early as February were showing signs of life. March showed increased activity and by April the apiary was in full flight.The last week in April I removed three brood combs,full of capped honey from the upper chamber of hive 5/6. Numbered thus because I had united them in the autumn after one had become queenless and I remembered them easier that way. An aging beekeeper’s logic. So, yes, three frames, something I had never experienced before, certainly not this early. This is going to be an exceptional year I told myself and it has been nothing if not that, although I have to say, never in my wildest dreams could I have envisaged the drama about to unfold.
As April turned into May things took a turn for the worst. For a start, the weather which through March and April had been glorious in the main, there had been a few showers here and there but nothing to prevent the bees going about their daily tasks and they were happy. That may seem a silly word to describe a colony of bees, but they were. When you visit your hives regularly, and I am fortunate to be able to visit mine more or less daily, you become quickly familiar with their various mood swings. When all is well I find I can approach the hives to within a couple of feet or so and they will take little or no notice of me, but for an hour or so after a heavy downpour they are distinctly irritable and if you decide to inspect a colony following a prolonged spell of rain, my advice is have your smoker at the ready, use it freely and be as quick as you can, if not quicker! Whether it is the drumming of the rain on the roof or their involuntary incarceration that accounts for their bad temper I know not, but be warned. Back to the weather, I can not recall a wetter Summer, it seemed to rain incessantly from the middle of April until well into July here in North Somerset. It was impossible to carry out any form of regular inspection.
My first full inspection was on the 29th March, the temperature was building up and the bees were active, they didn’t have a lot of stores but the queens had begun to lay in earnest. I replaced the floor trays and they were all given syrup. I can remember walking away well pleased with what I’d seen. This was to be the year my queen rearing program was to start and I was really looking forward to the months ahead. I continued my inspections as and when the weather allowed and all looked well until 6th of May when I found the colony I still refer to as “The garden hive” because, yes, it had started it’s life in my back garden, was bereft of brood and there was very little stores. The bees had suddenly become very irritable, an almost certain symptom of queen-lessness.Hive 5/6 had an abundance of brood so 1 frame was given to the garden hive. The following day I gave them another frame of brood and fed them vowing to check for the presence of a new queen at the earliest opportunity. A week later I observed several queen cells present in 5/6 which along with some additional brood and stores were transferred to either half of one of my mating nuc’s. This didn’t fit in with my long term queen rearing plans but as 5/6 had over wintered best and were the first to build up I decided it was an opportunity too good to miss. The weather had by now taken a turn for the worst and regular inspections became impossible. The 24th May saw Hive 4 attempting to swarm. Fortunately the queen was clipped and by late afternoon they had all gone back in.The following day I installed the swarm board, described in the paragraph on swarm control along with an additional brood chamber. On 19th June both boxes were united with their new queen firmly ensconced. The method works well with a minimum of fuss so I highly recommend it. I later helped a friend apply the same method and it worked for her also, much to her delight.
I won’t bore you with every detail but one inspection in June found three colonies queenless, fortunately hive 2 seemed to be thriving on this terrible weather and provided enough queen cells for their less fortunate cousins. I fed three gallons of thick syrup in June, the frames of honey removed in April having long since been returned and with the exception of one, they required topping up again in July, such was the stores situation, dire doesn’t even come close to describing it. By the beginning of August I had re-queened six of my colonies but why was I loosing my queens. I convinced myself that it must be down to me but how. I don’t believe prolonged inspections are necessary or desirable and I don’t believe anyone could treat them more gently. If I’m checking for queen cells I don’t generally go through the whole brood chambers. With most of the colonies on double brood or brood and a half it is a simple matter to quickly insert your hive tool between the two boxes and hinge the top box up. Queen cells if present will usually be found along the bottom edges of the frames in the top box and can be dealt with quickly. My routine inspections are equally brief. I remove the supers and queen excluder to one side, placing them on the lid. All I am trying to establish, unless I have reason to suspect the colony has problems, is the presence of stores and young brood. This I would expect to establish by the fourth or fifth frame. That done I quickly re-assemble the hive. Unless you suspect other problems or need to find your queen, I don’t see the need for any further intrusion. The presence of young brood tells of the status of your queen and the volume of stores tells you all else is well. What more do you need to know. So why was I loosing all these queens, it had to be clumsy handling. I have had a cataract creeping up on me for some time now, it happens so gradually you don’t notice it at first. To give you an idea, I haven’t seen a single queen this year and seeing eggs or brood less than three or four days old was nigh on impossible. So was this how I was losing my queens and how was it going to end. All this combined with this bloody awful weather was beginning to get to me to the point as I said earlier, I was seriously considering my status as a beekeeper and then it happened.
The appointment for my eye operation dropped through the letterbox. And now, and now the sun is shining, all my colonies are once again thriving, OK, there won’t be much if any honey this year, and my queen rearing program is once again on hold, but so what, we’ve come through it, next year is another year and I for one can’t wait. I hope all has turned out equally well for you, to anyone for whom this has been their first season, my heart goes out to you, believe me, this has been the exception rather than the rule, and as I keep telling myself, next year is another year.
P.S. It is now almost September. I am sat at the top of the meadow surveying my little colonies, the sun beats down from a cloudless sky. A buzzard circles lazily overhead. I watch as he soars on silent wings, so little effort, the occasional slightest twitch of his tail to keep him within the thermal which bears him aloft. I don’t know how long I’ve been watching him, time stands still when I’m in the meadow and the sun is shining.
I muse, surely this proves if nothing else, it is not necessarily those of us who are constantly, noisily flapping their own wings who will ultimately attain the greatest heights. A pair of cabbage white butterflies are completing their pre-nuptial flight to my left. Then off to deposit their eggs on what’s left of my sprout plants I shouldn’t wonder,
but I don’t mind, today, God’s in his heaven and all is all well with the world. Yesterday it was raining stair-rods, but today, today is as good as it gets.
I’m constantly amazed at how quickly the weather changes here in Great Britain, no wonder we’re all pre-occupied with it. Have you noticed when people first meet, whether friends or strangers invariably their greeting is quickly followed by “nice now isn’t it” or “cold for the time of year”,catch my drift.
I’m reminiscing about the previous few months, so different now. I’ve just had a quick look in the hives and given them a final helping of icing sugar, it only goes hard if you keep it. As I said, so different now, bees all going about their business, totally oblivious to me and the icing sugar making them all look like miniature figures out of some winter wonderland scene. They have all rebuilt their numbers and there is plenty of brood and stores. Both of the nucs drawn out in May which incidentally were transferred to hives in June, are doing very well with one working hard to fill it’s second super. I shall be keeping an eye on her, her offspring are most industrious and very good tempered. She would seem to be an ideal candidate for my queen rearing program next year but enough of that, don’t want to tempt fate at this stage. I remember making a similar remark about this time last year. It is around this time when wasps begin to make an unwelcome appearance and take an unhealthy interest in the hives. They can obviously smell the honey within and become , in very short time, a real nuisance. For that reason about this time every year I install my wasp traps. They sound quite grand when described like that but are in reality plastic cola containers with a hole drilled in the cap, half filled with water and a generous portion of strawberry jam, I always cable tie them to the hive stand legs as without some support they do have a habit of falling over. They are a cheap, effective of dealing with these unwelcome visitors. I noticed drones being unceremoniously ejected, not all fun being a guy, is it lads, but a sure sign that the colonies are preparing for the winter. So, shortly varroa treatment and winter feed and another year comes to an end. I have to say, not one I shall forget in a hurry.
I mentioned earlier that I try to visit the hives most days, not to open them up, just to observe. I’ve been asked why I spend so much time just looking, to someone looking on it must seem a little odd but to me it’s as important as any full colony inspection. So what am I looking for. Well, I try to keep my colonies at roughly the same strength so the first thing I’m looking for is the same volume of activity at each entrance. This is best observed arround mid day as like your average teenager, some seem to be early risers with others preferring a lay in. Similarly, some will go on well into the twilight zone while others prefer an early night. If I do observe marked behavioural differences then that hive is ear marked for examination at the earliest opportunity.I’m also looking for any signs of deformed wings, a sure sign that one has a varroa problem, for little white chalk like corpse’s being ejected, chalk brood or Chinese slipper. I like to see plenty of pollen being taken in, this tells me I have a queen in full lay. There are probably other things which I have forgotten to mention but to me the important thing is to get to know your bees,spend time with them, observe them,and I don’t mean just look, they’ll soon let you know if something’s wrong, you just have to take the time to notice. One last thing, I never tire of watching the infant bees coming to the edge of the alighting board, they’re smaller and somehow more fluffy than their older sisters, they will come to the edge of the board, very often peer over before scurrying back into the safety of the hive, often several come to the edge of the board as if daring each other to be first and then 1,2,3 and they’re gone. This picture never ceases to fascinate me.
I did notice something which held my attention the other morning which I’d like to share with you.I mentioned earlier that it is around this time when wasps start making an unwelcome appearance, well, I was watching the comings and goings at one of the hives when suddenly out of the entrance, onto the alighting strip, rolled a wasp with a bee firmly attached to it. The bee was obviously intent on ejecting this unwelcome intruder and I watched as they rolled around, locked together, jockeying for position, each looking to inflict the final blow and then onto the grass below. I watched for fully a minute, although it seemed much longer, as this tiny drama unfolded. there could only be one possible outcome, the wasp being at least twice the size of the bee and so it was. the fatal blow struck, the wasp disentangled itself and flew off. The little bee meanwhile was trying to climb a grass stalk, possibly in an effort to get back to the hive, but to no avail, after a valiant effort she lost her grip on the stalk and was gone. I’m glad I witnessed this tiny act of selflessness, I’m still thinking about it, on and off, some three days later, it was totally insignificant in the overall scheme of things, but I can’t help associating it with that final line from “A tale of two Cities”, “Man hath no greater love than he lay down his life for that of his brother”.
I have mentioned previously, a small trout lake in the field behind the meadow. Being a club bailiff I am privileged to visit the lake regularly and occasionally to accompany special visitors. Last week, the farmer owner asked if I’d seen all the bees on a Rose Bay Willow Herb growing at the far end of the lake. Sure enough, it was covered in my bees so I decided to re-visit this week but this time with my camera. Sod’s law, not a honey bee in sight but plenty of hover flies and a few bumble bees so I took a few pics. anyway.
What a privilege to have all this on your doorstep and to be a part of it. There is another plant which grows in abundance in most hedgerows and until this last couple of weeks I had always chopped them down, it is only now that I realise how important it is to the bees. I’ve aways heard it referred to as cow-parsley. I remember as kids we used to use it as pea shooters, I’ve even tried to smoke it, “hope Mother never reads this”, I can remember once putting a stalk to my lips and ending up with a mouthful of earwigs. Serves him right I hear you say and I dare say you’re right.
You can see how popular this is with the bees, I shall leave it in future.There’s one other plant which I’ve recently discovered is very popular with all manner of flying insects although at first glance , It’s difficult to see why, the florets can at best, only be described as miniscule, but the bees seem to love it. A friend of mine has it in his garden where it grows like a weed and I shall purloin a clump for the meadow when it has finished flowering. I have a feeling it may be called Golden rod but you’ll probably know better than I.
So there we are, a bit more info.about Mendip Apiary. Thankyou for taking the time to join me, speak again soon.
It’s the second Sunday in October, I’ve just come back from my little apiary. It’s been a beautiful day,the softest of southerly breezes barely ruffling the meadow grasses. But, according to the weatherman, the last we can expect for a while, so, just tidying up a few last loose ends. Winter feed finished, just the last application of Apiguard to go, mouse guards to fit and then done for another year. As I said earlier, it hasn’t been the best of years here at Mendip but for now at least, everything is looking just fine and I’m starting to look forward to next year already. Might even get my queen rearing program underway, who knows, and if not, well there’s always 2014. Something I did see this morning which I can’t recall seeing before, and I’d like to share it with you. There seemed to be quite a lot of activity outside one of the hive entrances so I strolled over to take a closer look. Four or five bees had set about another, whether she was an unwelcome guest or what I can’t say but they really were giving her a going over, the little bunch seemed to be really pitching into her, “glad it’s not me”, I couldn’t help thinking. They obviously didn’t want to inflict any permanent damage as any one of them could have stung her had they wished, it was though they were trying to teach her a lesson for some minor misdemeanor, and then, point made, they vanished into the hive, she paused, as though dusting herself down before joining them. Quite astonishing. As I said earlier, there’s something new happening every day, we just need to take the time to look.
I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you but most of all, this little meadow where I keep my bees. I have often referred to it as God’s acre and I truly believe it to be a magical place. It inspires me, it lifts my spirits. It is one of the few places on this earth that I never tire of. As I write a Roe-buck, tiny antlers erect, has emerged from the thicket to my left, and now he has been joined by his lady, both totally oblivious to my presence. Thinking about it, I suppose if I were forty years younger and had a pretty young lady by my side at the bottom of the meadow, I shouldn’t be taking a lot of notice of some old man sitting on a bench taking in the sunshine. But I ask you, who could fail to be moved by events such as these.
I am including a couple of pictures of the meadow in winter garb. Just like a special Lady, no matter what suit she’s wearing, she is always beautiful. Her moods are varied and sometimes unpredictable but like a true friend, she is always there for me and I love her. Speak again soon.
It’s mid November and I imagine this will be the last entry for 2012. So where are we now, well, each colony has received a slab of fondant icing, mouse guards were fitted some weeks ago and floors have been removed. Why remove floors, well contrary to the beliefs of many, I don’t believe cold to be the enemy of bees rather,it is damp conditions that kill bees. It is for this reason I allow all my colonies to overwinter without floors, and as an added precaution all my roofs are lined with a thin sheet of polystyrene. Since implementing these measures I haven’t noticed any condensation within the hives and the bees all seem to come through the winter in satisfactory fashion. To my mind, any colony which didn’t overwinter due to the cold was probably weak and not worth keeping anyway.
So how are my hives configured and why. Well, Mendip currently comprises nine colonies and they will over-winter thus, three on double brood, three on brood and a half and the other three on single brood and they will stay this way through the coming year. The reasoning behind this is, I am keen to learn whether the hive configuration has a bearing on how well the bees over-winter and more importantly to my way of thinking, whether the hive capacity influences the Spring build up. I would like to think the colonies on double brood will build up fastest and thereby maybe, be inclined to produce more honey. I went into last winter in similar mode hoping to start my experiment and although they all over-wintered satisfactorally the ensuing Spring and Summer were so bad weather wise here at Mendip that survival quickly became my prime concern leaving little room for any other concerns. It would also be interesting to see whether the colonies with the greater brood capacity showed less inclination to swarm. Anyway, it is my intention to leave the colonies configured thus for two seasons and then swap them around, i.e.place the double brood colonies on single and so on. Most likely this will all be to no avail and prove nothing, the only thing for sure is that I’ll be six years older with probably a lot less hair, but who knows. Nothing ventured nothing gained, eh!
As I said earlier, I do try to visit my bees most days, weather permitting, and although the weather this month has been pretty grim for the most of it, there has been a some activity on all but the wettest. I remember one day earlier in the month, I think it was the seventh when the sun shone brightly from a cloudless sky for most of the day. The bees were quick to take advantage of this and were out in force. I was pleased to see the amount of activity in front of each hive was similar which suggested to me that they were all going into Winter at equal strength. It was also noticeable the amount of pollen being brought in, a good sign I thought.
It seems each time I try to close this section on 2012 I spot something else of interest which seems worthy of comment. Last week was no exception. It was around the 12th of December, not a particularly sunny day but mild for the time of year. As usual, mid-day saw me wandering down the meadow. As I approached the hives I was immediately aware of the activity at the front of each hive. The bees weren’t flying but there was definitely a lot of movement around he entrances. Suddenly I could see the reason for all this activity. They were all busy ejecting dead bees, not easy when you have mouseguards to negotiate, but so intent on the job in hand were they, that they were totally oblivious to me, standing no more than two feet away. Not unusual I hear you say,they do eject their dead in this manner and I agree, but this was every colony. So, why today and, why all of them. Can actions such as these be purely co-incidence or are these tiny creatures able to in some way communicate in a way that we can only guess at. I wonder.
So there we are, only oxalic acid treatment left to go, but not for another 2/3 weeks and 2012 will draw to a close. I shall continue to visit my little apiary as often as the weather permits, not for any particular reason other than it’s a place I like to be.
Thankyou for your company this year, I’ve enjoyed sharing the happenings here at Mendip with you, both good and bad and I thank you for your patience. I wish you all a Very Happy Christmas and look forward to meeting you all again in 2013.