The flow of the beekeeper

It was a warm day late in September, I was checking a few things around the apiary. As always with the bees time stands still and we float around together trying not to upset each other, responding to each others noises and actions.

The bees are busy today collecting pollen and nectar from Ivy which has recently started to secrete both. With any ‘nectar flow’ there is frenzy of activity this one being exaggerated by the reduced hive entrances I recently added to help the bees keep out unwanted intruders, mainly wasps. These reduced entrances have the effect of producing a steady almost endless stream of bees out of the hive. The returning bees mange to sneak back in going against this flow, but there are inevitable collisions in the process. Standing to the side of the hives I fall into a trance watching the elements of the colony working selflessly for the whole with boundless enthusiasm as if this might well be their last flight. If they don’t go now they might miss all the fun fully charged to return laden with the efforts of their forage exhausted and in need of re-fueling. Often a returning bee with a big load of pollen will land to one side of the entrance and seemingly catch its breath for a few minutes before making its way to the entrance to offload and re-fuel, any small talk will have to wait until dark

On several occasions in the past I have felt the presence of someone and looked up only to see a friend standing a short distance away watching me with a smile on their face. ‘Hey how long have you been there? Go and stick to kettle on’ with a reply; ‘It is amazing to watch you surrounded by bees, your head stuck into the heart of their nest, moving serenely with precision, the occasional puff of smoke as if you are sharing something of great value with them’.

Today though it was just me and the bees, I had made my way to the colony I picked up last week, thinking about the extra care needed not to open the hive for too long or needlessly aggravate this small colony. From the outside the bees were taking in pollen telling me that they had meaning in their lives, something to live for at least to feed their young. Yes they had young I was pretty sure of this before even opening the hive, something that gave me hope. Shall I have a look for her now? Go on why not, a quick look at the inner brood combs so carefully positioned onto frames six days before.

Best not to get my hopes up too high, but best to be as careful as I can. Off with the roof after sharing a puff of smoke with them, lifting the cover board for a peek before removing it I could see four seams of bees moving slowly up to see why the roof to their home had suddenly been removed and they were being flooded with light. They weren’t too worried, no need for a second puff.

The hive contained 10 frames three with food that I have given them, one frame feeder for future feeding and two thick dummy frames filled with insulation to help keep them warm when the nights get colder. This left four brood frames, the one of the far left had already been attached to the frame with stores next to it, I decided not to try and remove that one, the next one was unattached so I very carefully raised it up to look at the brood, being so careful not to wobble the comb too much as it was still being supported by a few rubber bands stretched across both faces.

I wasn’t expecting too much but hoped above hope to see some eggs to indicate that the queen had made the tumultuous journey from its home in the eaves of a house far away back to my apiary. I took a cursory glance at the centre of the frame and what was that? A large bee walking slowly down the frame, what? The queen in all her majesty….fatter than many, but yes the queen herself. Almost the first bee I saw. Perfect Day, I laughed out loud. One of those so magical moments when you know that all your efforts in doing something relatively complex, but naturally simple having worked out in the best way possible.

After carefully putting the frame back into position, I laughed again with the happy realisation that I had become acquainted with a new addition to the apiary one which had every chance of becoming viable . No need to to look for eggs at all of course. A truly magical moment, I had looked at six hives and only seen one queen…the one that I was convinced must have been taken casualty at some point along the way here.

A week ago a house in a village about four miles away from me was having some building work done to it. Some bees were starting to become a nuisance, with at least one builder having been stung on the ear, beginning to lose patience.

I knew about this honey bee colony from a good friend and fellow beekeeper who was a neighbour to the house with the colony and indeed had captured a swarm from it some weeks before. Neither of us with that many years experience but with experience enough of keeping several colonies in different hive types and a love of everything honeybee, we were determined to save this colony. To be successful in saving a colony by taking it from where it has chosen to live, but in a place that causes concern to people there needs to be an understanding of how these creatures live, how they tend to build their combs, the strengths and weaknesses that are inherent in the comb, how to convince them to move physically on mass with their mother and most importantly with her. Without her the colony would have to create a new queen and being the end of September the bees are starting to shut down for winter leaving the new queen with almost no chance to mate. The colony would inevitably die.

A day before the rescue I made up some special frames that we would use to place the comb with the young bees into in a way that the frames would be held without causing too many casualties to bees and young larvae, these would be carefully placed into a small travelling hive box. Sounds simple enough, but is the culmination of having done this before a couple of times and talking to beekeepers with many more years experience that me.

A love of nature and an excitement of knowing that you can carry this operation out with success, so far 100% although better not get too confident eh! I set off early the next day to make sure we had plenty of time. A quick look at the location and then suited up with protective clothing, no point in getting stung needlessly.

The builders had erected some scaffolding next to the house so we could easily approach the feral colony and get to work on it. As we stood on the scaffolding and looked around the traffic on the country lane had slowed down to watch the commotion, we waved and they waved back. A reminder that what is a regular activity for us is rare for most.

No point in hanging around, a crowbar to take off the soffit that covered the bottom of the colony which was built into the triangular shaped eave of the roof. We could be confident that the comb would not be attached to the soffit as the bees tend to attach comb at the top and sides of the colony. And as predicted we could see the bottom of about a dozen combs each about 12 cm in width at the bottom working up to a point at the top. Pause for a minute or two as we reflect on the best way to remove the comb and put it into the hive, but we cannot wait for too long with all these bees getting agitated. Cut each comb out one by one and carefully remove it, placing a box just beneath the colony in case any heavy honey laden comb falls having been weakened, by now we are into the zone, the flow that comes with knowing this situation well, which from the outside looking in looks like utter madness. We have the concentration of a sports person competing in a top competition, a tennis player in mid rally, a racing driver about to overtake at high speed, we must work systematically with skill and judgement. As I was working on the colony the owner of the house called my name and I didn’t react initially being totally focused on the task, then as he called me again I heard a little voice that became louder, ‘Chris hold up the comb so that I can take a photo’. I obliged with a big grin on my face.

The bees by now have lost their instinct to protect the hive, once the colony is opened up and then when any honey gets spilled, they switch from defence to survival as we work on removing the comb and re-locating it. Survival means gathering up as much honey as possible in the off chance that it will be needed to make new comb in a new location.

With the brood comb in the travelling hive and placed right next to the colony entrance we could only hope that the queen had made it inside and the bees would gradually realise she was there and follow her in. Inevitably even if most bees do go into the hive many stay where the old combs had once been.

As dusk approached, the time that all good flying honeybees come home, we could be confident that as many bees as was likely to would be in the hive. The hive was closed up, taken to my apiary and re-hived in a larger hive. The bees have to be taken more than three miles away or they will simply return to the old site.

Miracles of nature…or total madness…just the things in life that make us happy

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