MAY

May is for me, where the season really begins. This is when hopefully the weather finally sorts itself out and falls into some sort of pattern, a pattern which has the meadows and hedgerows bursting with life, the welcome return of the swallows and our bees busily filling supers. Unfortunately, it is also the return of the swarming season and it was with this in mind that I went through all the hives during the last week of April. We had hired a holiday lodge in deepest Devon, for the first week of May and I wanted to be sure that when I returned, I would find the hives as I had left them. I carefully examined all of the brood boxes removing anything which even remotely resembled a queen cell or play cup, not that there were any to speak of, and left feeling somewhat smugly, that this would be one occasion when they wouldn’t catch me out.

Arriving late afternoon and with the weather closing in, it was a case of, a sandwich and a cuppa out on the veranda followed by a quick unpacking of the cases. By the time we had finished, it was raining quite heavily, this is a **** good start to the week I remember thinking. Fortunately, being no stranger to British holiday weather, we had packed a large umbrella and with the local hostelry beckoning, it was quickly pressed into service. It never ceases to amaze me just how differently the world appears through an upturned glass. Over a couple of pints and an hour’s mellow chat the prospects for the week ahead were definitely looking rosier. After all, with the bad weather now firmly behind us, it was all to look forward to, wasn’t it

Sunday was also dotted with the odd cloud burst, but the sight of the sun coming through a chink in the bedroom curtains on Monday morning, told me that breakfast on the veranda was the first order of the day.

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VIEW FROM THE VERANDA

Breakfast over, nothing better to do than relax over another coffee whilst deciding what to do for the rest of the day. Although you can’t see them, there were Canada Geese and Moorhens nesting on the lake and a lone duck which would appear from nowhere at the rustle of a biscuit wrapper. It was whilst sitting alone with my thoughts, sipping my coffee and admiring the view that my mobile rang. The name in the window told me that it was the owner of Mendip “C”.  ” ‘Morning Geoff, thought you’d like to know your bees are swarming”. Just the news you want to hear on the second day of the holiday you’ve been looking forward to for weeks. “I think they’ve only just swarmed so if you’re quick, you’ll probably get ‘em”!  A quick reminder that I was some eighty miles away in Devon seemed appropriate at that time. After a short pause came the reply, “They’re in a shrub, only a few feet from the ground, I’ll try to get them into a box or something”. “I shouldn’t worry about them Bob, it’s not worth getting stung and they’ll probably be gone by the morning”, I replied. “I’ll see what I can do” and he was gone. I retired to bed later that evening, wondering why it is that Sods Law seems to dog my every move. I mean, why not swarm a couple of days earlier or a few days later?  Anyway, as early as decent etiquette would allow, I was on the ‘phone, “how did you get on”? my first words. ” Well, after I put the ‘phone on you, down we decided to go onto the Internet to see if they had any ideas on what best to do and ended up with a pile of the supers from the stable next to the swarm and a wooden board leading from the bees up into the supers, this was for them to walk  up.” Seemingly that was what the internet article had advised and of course, as the bees hadn’t read that particular article, they stayed put in the shrub. “What then” I asked, hoping to hear that they had decided to leave them to it and fearing all the while that I’d be hearing next of how many times they’d both been stung. “Well, after a bit it was obvious that they weren’t going in of their own accord so I put my gloves on and transferred them by hand”. “Didn’t you get stung” I nervously enquired. “Only a few times but we’d made up our minds by now, that we weren’t going to be beaten and it was worth it to get this close to the bees. And when they started fanning at the entrance, I knew we’d cracked it. I couldn’t wait to get out there this morning to see the results of our efforts and guess what ?” I knew exactly what Bob was going to say by the tone of his voice. “They’d gone” I enquired. “Yes, not a bee to be seen.” I thanked them for all the effort they’d put in and mumbled something about, “That’s beekeeping for you, I’ve been keeping the little blighters for years and they never cease to confound me, it’s nothing personal.” “I know” said Bob,” but I really thought we had ‘em.” I thanked them both again and hung up.

I’ve shared this little tale with you to illustrate just how lucky I am to have my little “Mendip C ” apiary and to have the owners as my friends. I ask you, how many couples do you know who would have spent their Sunday afternoon and evening the way they did. Not only their time, but to go to the trouble of searching the Internet for clues as to the best way to go about it. Not too many I would venture to suggest which all goes to reinforce my feelings that my couple are very special people.

Well, it’s been a real mixed bag since returning from my break, we’ve not experienced any more swarms from our own Apiaries, but so far, I’ve been called out to five. A couple of these have been Bumble Bees but it does seem, from discussions I’ve had with other beekeepers, that this has been a particularly swarmy season so far. Why this should be I’ve no idea but it does reinforce the need to have a regular inspection regime in place.

It never ceases to amaze me just how many people don’t know a Bumble Bee when they see one, highlighted by a comment made during one of my visits. Seeing bees issuing from the roof of a garden shed I advised the owner not to worry, that these were Bumble Bees and they would soon be on their way. “Are you sure” he replied, “how can you tell”. After spending several minutes describing the differences and repeating that there was nothing to worry about his parting words were, “I’m amazed, I thought they were all the same”. I don’t know why this still surprises me, after all, I must have heard it dozens of times. But coming from the lips of a grown man, and one living in a country village at that, it still does. If nothing else, it illustrates the difference between looking and actually seeing.

Going back to our own bees, as I said earlier, it really has been a mixed bag. In one hive the queen has suddenly become a drone layer before disappearing all together, and this from a queen in her first full year. Another has superseded while at the other end we have hives working on their fourth supers, so as I said, a mixed bag. Convinced that the root of my problems lies with my poor queens I am once again concentrating my efforts on remedying the situation. The best colony at the meadow by far, is in hive four,the one housing my one remaining “bought in” queen so they are still earmarked to be my donor colony. Sticking with The Cloake Board method of queen rearing, as I said earlier, hive two at “C” was intended to be my nursery. To that end, they are on double brood and at the time of going on holiday, were building up really nicely. Any of you who are familiar with the “Cloak Board” method will know that it ends with the nursery hive surrounded by a circle of nuc’s, the nuc’s you are looking to populate. I had already been told that I could use the field behind “Mendip C” so the plan is, when hive two is full to bustin’, to take them back to the meadow for a couple of weeks or so, remove the queen, and graft my larvae from hive four. I shall stick with the Doolittle method of making wax cups as I don’t much like the idea of using plastic. It’s then just a matter of installing the frame into the nursery hive and waiting.

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WAX CUPS PRIOR TO FIXING TO FRAME

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FRAME COMPLETED AND READY FOR GRAFTING

When the cells are sealed the nursery colony, along with the nuc’s, will go to the field behind “C” for the final phase which is the sharing of the stores and brood frames, complete with queen cells, between the nuc’s which will by then be encircling the nursery hive. Well, that was the plan, right up to the ‘phone call because of course, it was hive two which had swarmed and although I’ve seen the empty queen cell, I have as yet, seen neither a new queen or any signs that she exists. Added to this the fact that they have now become extremely irritable suggests to me that either the new queen hasn’t started laying yet or they are in fact queenless. In an effort to resolve this, yesterday I placed a standard frame of drawn comb in the centre of Meadow 4′s brood box which I’m hoping the queen will seize on and lay up. This I will then give to my queenless colony which will hopefully get my plans back on track. In the mean time, I’m still trying to get my head around why hive two decided to swarm, they were on double brood and headed by a young queen so it wasn’t down to overcrowding or aging queens. There was plenty of drawn and partially drawn comb so it wasn’t down to a lack of laying space so, it must be down to poor queens, something I shall have resolved one way or another by the end of this season.