Season of the Swarm

No, not a B movie….but rather a Bee movie if you prefer.

Because the spring was a cold one and followed a winter with some extreme cold, everything in the UK has been late. Here on the East Coast, we’re finally getting all the hawthorn in full bloom weeks after it normally would have bloomed. Not only are the flowers late but the cold spring has held back the bees.

As you may know, we’re bee-keepers. But what you might not realise is that most bee-keepers have their names down on something called the swarm register. This is a list kept of bee-keepers willing to come out and collect a swarm; local councils, police and many others access this list to find someone willing to come and deal with swarms.

Now bees are amazing creatures in my opinion but not everyone agrees. People are understandably alarmed (or often terrified) by the arrival of what can be tens of thousands of bees.

We’re on the local swarm register so we get called out. So far we’ve been called out a good few times. One swarm had settled itself in a chimney, inaccessible even with ladders. We left a bait hive for a few days but the bees liked their chimney and stayed there. Another swarm had picked the loft of a sheltered accomodation flat a few miles away; some found their way down into the bathroom. We reassured the occupants, made plans to come and collect when the bees were properly settled, but the bees moved on after a day or two.

Then we had a swarm descend into a spare hive we had in the garden. We only discovered this later in the day when we went to try and take a spare frame from it to be greeted by annoyed bees.

But so far I had never SEEN a swarm, just the outliers coming and going from whatever nook they’d settled in.

On Wednesday, I saw my first swarm. We’d been visiting a country church in the next county, and when we came out, there they were:

This was an amazing thing to see and has enormous significance for us.

 

Being Queen is a lonely thing ~ why life at the top may not be as sweet as you think

(This is a post from almost a year ago that for some reason, WordPress destroyed. For those who are interested, the queen mentioned below is doing very well still and we now have four hives and a spare on a roof somewhere hoping to lure a swarm into it.)

Being Queen is a lonely thing….

 

I visited my bees today and they’re all doing well. I have currently
three colonies: one hive that is quite populous, one that is less so
and one that is tiny. The tiny one is one I created about three weeks
ago when faced with the hard choice of what to do with a couple of
queen cells that needed disposing of.

(A little bee background: bees basically consist of three kinds. Workers
and queens are female and drones are male. Drones do nothing but wait
around in the hope that a virgin queen will emerge somewhere in the
vicinity and they can mate with her: it’s a great life while the sun
shines. They get fed by workers, do no work and just buzz around all
day waiting for their chance with a queen. Incidentally, they die
straight after this. They die in the winter or the workers kill them
off. But bees exist to make more bees(the honey is just their winter
stores) and the problem from May onwards is swarms. You let your bees
swarm and you lose half your colony. We lost half of ours because
they waited till we went away on holiday and then buggered off. So
one of the things you need to do to try and avoid swarming is to
knock out queen cells. A queen cell is a long tube of beeswax, where
the workers rear a single egg by feeding it with royal jelly until
after 16 days a new que
en emerges).

We found two queen cells when we opened the hive that day. One hatched
in my hand and I accidentally dropped her; I have no idea where she
went. The other felt warm and alive in my hand and I couldn’t bring
myself to do what a seasoned bee-keeper would have done and thrown
the queen cell away.  I made a sudden instinctive decision and took
two frames of brood and nurse bees to our spare hive and gently
mashed the end of the queen cell onto a corner of it, shut the hive
up and walked away. Bees will always rear brood and eggs and they
will always minister to a queen so there was a good chance that I had
started a new colony in doing so.

I felt a little odd about it because I had simply felt that what I held
in my hand was what you might call, “a good ‘un”. I had no
evidence or logic for this: just pure feeling. However, it appears I
was right. The new queen had emerged, mated and begun laying when I
came back a week later. For  a few weeks she was the only one of our
three queens who WAS laying. Today, in my inspection, I actually
spotted her, swift as a little greyhound and the frame was filled
with eggs and brood. A real good ‘un. I am glad I obeyed that tingle
in my hand and mind that said “Let her have a chance”. I suspect
that over the next few years, she may more than pay me back.

But this evening I had been pondering over the model of the bees and it
occurred to me that being queen is terribly lonely. Bees sense when a
queen is failing and they “supersede”: that is, they rear a new
queen and quietly let the old one go. Sometimes they kill her.
Sometimes a bee keeper decides a queen is not what he wants and
replaces her. Either she’s getting too old, or she’s not laying
enough or the temperament of the colony isn’t right. Bye bye Queenie.

I could draw parallels with the book world (and they exist all right)
but I won’t labour the point, because writers create stories(honey)
and Queens lay eggs to make more bees. But what I really want you to
understand is that those who are at the pinnacle of what they are or
do are in a precarious place. They won’t be the best forever. They
won’t be at the top forever. And coming down, they may meet those
they may have climbed over to get to the top.

So, be kind and gracious as you make your journey through the world;
everyone you meet has private battles and sorrows of their own. Their
life might look sweet and honey-scented from where you are but you
don’t know what it cost them to get there, how hard they must work to
stay there and how easy it is to lose.

 

A Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the Needs of the Many

A
Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the
Needs of the Many

As regular readers will know, I am the proud keeper of four hives of
honey bees. I studied bee-keeping at school;  because I refused to do
needlework or cookery and wanted to do woodwork or metalwork, the school compromised and allowed me to do rural science instead. That afternoon lesson was the saviour of my third year at high school,
because I could enjoy doing something practical, and I loved working
with the bees. My husband does a lot more with the bees, being more
confident than I, but usually our weekly bee inspection is split
between the two of us. One smokes while the other inspects frames and then we swap over.

This week we did our usual routine, and this morning, on the stairs I
spotted a stowaway. One of the bees had come home with us. Now, our hives are over three miles away and clearly this was one tired and
disorientated bee. I put her in a jar with a blob of honey and left
her to feed. When I came back, she’d nearly drowned in the honey so I had to rescue her with a pen she clung to. Some hours later, she’d
cleaned all the honey off herself and was ready to go home. I put her
in my water bottle with the cap on loosely so air could get in and
she’s gone off with my husband to be dropped off at the farm on his
way somewhere else.

Now I can hear what some of you are saying. All that fuss for one bloody bee? I know. Every time we open a hive for inspection we kill a few bees no matter how careful we are; a hive at full strength has over fifty thousand bees in various stages of their bee careers, and there are casualties all the time. We even managed to kill one queen, so some of yesterday’s work was reducing the thirty or so queen cells
the bees had produced down to one good one so we didn’t end up with lots of new queens each flying off with a retinue, taking our hive
down to nothing. It hurt me to destroy those half made queens but for the sake of keeping a healthy colony thriving, it had to be done.

Bees are the ultimate social creature; theirs is an almost perfect
society. Each worker is born knowing what to do; the first thing they
do when they hatch is clean out their cell so it is ready for the
queen to lay another egg in. They go through various stages as they
live, starting out working in the nurseries first, tending to eggs
and grubs, then making wax and building cells, then finally going out
to forage for nectar and pollen. A worker bee in her days as a
forager might make a scant teaspoonful of honey. One bee makes little or no difference; it’s the sheer numbers that make them successful. A solitary honey bee is a lonely thing; she is lost without her sisters and her function. The chances are they will not even notice her missing. And yet, I grieve for every bee I accidentally kill, for
those that have stung me and will therefore die (fact: human skin is
the only skin that bees cannot withdraw their sting from. Bears and
badgers can be stung repeatedly without ill effect to the bees;
humans cause the stinger to die, ripped more or less in half)

There are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet. Seven billion individuals. It’s an astonishing figure. Imagine: that many people all with needs and wants and thoughts and feelings and dreams. Some are starving to death, others dying of diseases caused by excess. Each and every one has the same value as another, and yet, when tens of thousands die half way across the world, we cannot
comprehend it. It takes a single human interest story to engage us;
we cannot relate to thousands, or even hundreds. We can barely relate one-to-one.

The gift of that single bee I found on my stairs is to remind me that
each is precious and worth saving, and that if I make no effort at
all with one, I cannot hope to care for thousands. It might make me a
slow bee-keeper, unfocussed on harvesting the golden glory of the
bee-people’s hard labour, but I think it might make me a better human being.  

 

Being Queen is lonely

 

Being Queen is a lonely thing….

 I visited my bees on Sunday and they’re all doing well. I have currently three colonies: one hive that is quite populous, one that is less so and one that is tiny. The tiny one is one I created about three weeks ago when faced with the hard choice of what to do with a couple of queen cells that needed disposing of.

(A little bee background: bees basically consist of three kinds. Workers and queens are female and drones are male. Drones do nothing but wait around in the hope that a virgin queen will emerge somewhere in the vicinity and they can mate with her: it’s a great life while the sun shines. They get fed by workers, do no work and just buzz around all day waiting for their chance with a queen. Incidentally, they die straight after this. They die in the winter or the workers kill them off. But bees exist to make more bees(the honey is just their winter stores) and the problem from May onwards is swarms. You let your bees swarm and you lose half your colony. We lost half of ours because they waited till we went away on holiday and then buggered off. So one of the things you need to do to try and avoid swarming is to knock out queen cells. A queen cell is a long tube of beeswax, where the workers rear a single egg by feeding it with royal jelly until after 16 days a new queen emerges).

We found two queen cells when we opened the hive that day. One hatched in my hand and I accidentally dropped her; I have no idea where she went. The other felt warm and alive in my hand and I couldn’t bring myself to do what a seasoned bee-keeper would have done and thrown the queen cell away. I made a sudden instinctive decision and took two frames of brood and nurse bees to our spare hive and gently mashed the end of the queen cell onto a corner of it, shut the hive up and walked away. Bees will always rear brood and eggs and they will always minister to a queen so there was a good chance that I had started a new colony in doing so.

I felt a little odd about it because I had simply felt that what I held in my hand was what you might call, “a good ‘un”. I had no evidence or logic for this: just pure feeling. However, it appears I was right. The new queen had emerged, mated and begun laying when I came back a week later. For a few weeks she was the only one of our three queens who WAS laying. On Sunday, in my inspection, I actually spotted her, swift as a little greyhound and the frame was filled with eggs and brood. A real good ‘un. I am glad I obeyed that tingle in my hand and mind that said “Let her have a chance”. I suspect that over the next few years, she may more than pay me back.

But this evening I had been pondering over the model of the bees and it occurred to me that being queen is terribly lonely. Bees sense when a queen is failing and they “supersede”: that is, they rear a new queen and quietly let the old one go. Sometimes they kill her. Sometimes a bee keeper decides a queen is not what he wants and replaces her. Either she’s getting too old, or she’s not laying enough or the temperament of the colony isn’t right. Bye bye Queenie.

I could draw parallels with the book world (and they exist all right) but I won’t labour the point, because writers create stories(honey) and Queens lay eggs to make more bees. But what I really want you to understand is that those who are at the pinnacle of what they are or do are in a precarious place. They won’t be the best forever. They won’t be at the top forever. And coming down, they may meet those they may have climbed over to get to the top. 

So, let us be kind and gracious as we make our journey through the world; everyone we meet has private battles and sorrows of their own. Their life might look sweet and honey-scented from where we are but we don’t know what it cost them to get there, how hard they must work to stay there and how easy it is to lose.

 

Queen Bee

Yesterday was the first meeting for our beekeeping group and it was about opening the hive for the first time in the spring. We’re doing that with our hive later today but I shall post pics of ours later. The bigger bee with the red dot is the queen bee.

This is me in full beekeeping regalia!

more later….

Dreaming of Honey

I’ve yet to explain the events of yesterday afternoon but I shall get round to it when I have ordered my thoughts.

But I want to share this section of dreaming while it’s still fresh; it’s down in my dream journal but I would appreciate feedback.

I dreamed that I was out in my garden and discovered that bees(my bees? I don’t know) had built honeycomb not it their neat little national hive but in the branches of our forsythia tree. This is a shrub/tree that produces a wealth of yellow-gold flowers in spring; ours is a small tree. The bees had built masses of honeycomb all through the branches and as well as being busy with bees drawing out the wax and filling the cells with pollen and honey, the combs were dripping with glorious golden honey. The combs were easy to reach and I could have scooped them up without having to stretch.

Now yesterday’s ritual ended by being visited by a single bee who flew round and investigated all the ritual objects and me before flying away. Bees shun the area immediately around their hive/nest because that’s where they “do their business” as well as dispose of any rubbish and dead bees, so it’s actually rare to see a bee around my garden despite having a hive there.

I don’t know what it means but it certainly feels like a good sign.

A small but deep kind of magic

PICT0734

A very strange and magical thing has been happening today.

Something that baffles people even today as much as it must have baffled the ancients.

Bees arrived.

We set up our hive in the garden, not intending to leave it there, but because we’re incurable optimists, we added the tiny vial of bee pheromone. Nothing happened. We saw a bee or two have a little look and then vanish.

Then this morning one appeared that seemed to be taking a very keen interest and going inside. Later this afternoon, I was sitting in the garden and noticed not one but six or seven bees going in and out. Not daring to take the lid off, I fetched one of our stethoscopes (yes, we have about ten; it’s a long story) and listened at the side of the hive. Rising like the sound of distant chain saws came the noise of buzzing from deep within the cedarwood walls.

Bees have arrived. I’m not sure yet if they’ve come to rob the pristine frames of wax but I don’t think so.

Magic, old and deep as nature herself has happened. Yes, we helped it along maybe with the pheromones, but even so, no one is very sure how any of this works. As far as I am aware, there are no hives near us and yet, bees found this hive and moved in.

Amazing, isn’t it?

edited at 7pm.

Been out in my beesuit and found that I was mistaken and they haven’t yet moved in. But bees keep popping in and out and since my teacher tells me they don’t steal wax, I can only conclude that these are still scouts and they are still making up their(hive)mind whether this is the des.res. of their dreams.

Fingers crossed…..