Developments at the bee-ginning of the summer

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

Here he is finding out what comes before Eating Honey.
(Illustration: Mark Burgess, released by the BBKA last week)

In the same week that the British Beekeepers’ Association’s (BBKA) released a new story about everyone’s favourite honey-loving bear, our members finishing the transformation of these…
Thorne delivery

…into these:

Empty hives

They are a pair of ‘Modified British Standard National’ hives, but everyone just calls them ‘Nationals’. There are many other types of hive available  (WBCs shown in the drawing at the top, an iconic design), but ultimately, it’s just a box, and the bees will be quite happy in any of them. In the wild, bees live in hollow trees and logs, so any cavity of a similar sort of size is ideal.

You will notice that in the photo above, one hive is much taller than the other. On the left is a hive with just a brood box, and that is how most colonies come through winter. The supers are where the bees store the honey that we harvest (leaving enough for the bees’ own needs), so it will be a little while until we need three supers! Each super has 10 frames, and each frame holds about one and a half pounds of honey when full, so that’s about 15 jars of honey per super. The frames are where the bees build their combs out of beeswax, and you’ll see from the size of the yellow stripes we’ve painted that the brood box is quite a bit deeper than the supers – this allows a good amount of space for the bees to rear their young, while allowing a full super of honey to be a managable weight for the beekeeper.The 2014 Honey Survey came out recently, which tells us that last year the national average honey crop was 32lbs per hive. It also gives interesting statistics about winter colony losses and the general state of the honey bees in this country.

Other developments in the garden:

We finally sorted out our pile of earth on the back bed and made way for the pumpkins. We hope to be able to carve some for Halloween and use them in risottos and pies too. Here’s how it looked earlier this week:

Pumpkins are in at the back

We’ve also planted out the ‘Three Sisters’ companion planting scheme in one bed, John Walter’s (of Lakeside) idea and seeds: sweetcorn (of two varieties, one of which was a Strawberry Popcorn), French beans and butternut squash. The beans should climb up the sweetcorn and the butternut squash languish in all the sunlight that gets down to the ground. The sweetcorn should be ready at about the beginning of the next academic year, and the squashes will probably harvest shortly afterwards. We’ll have to see on the beans – I think they might be a bit earlier to harvest. The mesh should hopefully deter anything from eating the seeds while they are getting started, though it’s planted right out as far as that wooden board all the way along, so not proof against everything. I also stuck some carrots in at one end to make some use of the empty space – they should be little salad carrots and the seed packet reckoned they’d be ready around the beginning of October, so could be perfect for Fresher’s Fayre if there are lots of them.

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The Three Sisters freshly sown

Meanwhile there are still things ready for picking, or very nearly in the case of most of the blackcurrents (though I went through for a handful of ripe ones today):

IMG_0122 IMG_0121  IMG_0117 Raspberries

And these runner and French beans are coming on nicely too, just about to flower. I always love seeing the bright red of runner bean flowers contrasting with the greenery:

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Sweet peas by the entrance both look and smell wonderful

While on the subject of beany flowers, the sweet peas by the entrance are a real joy and improve the aesthetic of the place no end. They also smell fabulous.

Back to the bees, and hiving our first swarm:

Last Sunday, Jon Carver (from Security) brought along a swarm of bees for us. They were a lovely bunch to put in the hive and we spotted the queen very quickly, as her former keeper who lost the swarm had kindly marked her for us with a blob of green paint. There are five standard colours that beekeepers use so that the age of the queen can be known and green was the colour for 2014, so we have a queen near enough in her prime. Try to spot her in Jon’s photos (with a big pointy hint in the second one), click on the photos for full size:

Green Queen 1 Green Queen 2

Stragglers

Brushing the stragglers into the hive. The two darker frames in the middle of the box are second hand – there are some potential hygene issues with reusing someone else’s wax combs.

It’s probably a good time to mention that while bees are outside of the hive looking for a new home en masse they are a swarm, but once settled in a cavity like a hollow tree or hive, they become known as a colony.

Settled in and signs in place to inform passers-by what to do in the event of beeing being stung – though it is quite unlikely that it will occur as the bees are a good distance from the fence and should be above head-height by the time they leave the garden:

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This one has been finished since this photo was take and now has a few more bees chasing the poor bear on his blue balloon.

A second swarm:

Then on Thursday, Jon managed to find us another swarm and dropped it off on top of the hives. Everything was happening that day as we’d been asked for a follow-up photoshoot after recieving the Annual Fund for the bees (a big thank you to the Alumni for donating and to all the people who selected our bees and irrigation projects for funding), and I’d also arranged to meet a very local beekeeper and the Membership Secretary from the Guildford Beekeeping Association to discuss our membership of the Association and our interaction with them, as well as our plans for for beekeeping in general.

Our regular member David turned up with a friend to help hive the swarm, and the three of us sat and watched the landing board discussing bees until Jon came along and the photographer arrived with Rona from the Alumni and Development office. We’d just put on our protective gear (David opted for a jacket, despite his flip-flops and shorts and a warning that bees tend to crawl upwards… use your imagination!) when the ladies from the Beekeeping Association arrived.

Dorathy gave some useful tips while we all had a go at hiving the swarm. The swarm was very large and strong and had already made a very good start at building thier wax combs, which we all took to be a sign of being very hard-working and productive. We may even get a token honey crop from them if the summer nectar flow is all right, and will probably run them on ‘a brood and a half’, where the queen will be given free run of the big brood box and one shallow super; this gives her more space to lay eggs if she needs it. Better still for our purposes in the garden, the bees were very calm throughout the operation and I don’t think anyone in felt even the least bit threatened by the bees at any point – I think this colony is going to be a fantastic one with which to teach beekeeping to our newbees next year.

I’ll see if I can get hold of the photos taken of hiving the second swarm, as it really was quite something – bees covering 6 frames (compared to the 3 frames with bees in the first swarm) and many, many more loose in the box. We used a good old-fashioned goose feather that I’d picked up at Losely Park as a bee brush, since ours was mistakenly swapped for a mini hive tool by a supplier.

Back in colony number 1:

Now that they’d been in for nearly a week, it was time to pull out the queen excluder (a mesh that the larger queen bee can’t fit through) from underneath. We’d put it in just in case the bees didn’t initially like their new home and they flew off – they don’t go anywhere without the queen. As the excluder was underneath everything and removing it would disturb the whole colony all at once, I decided to put a handful of woodchip in the smoker and don a smock. Some students nearby saw me looking like a beekeeper and came over to see. Very soon they looked like this:

newbeesand I topped up the smoker a bit as I decided to give them a full tour of the hive rather than the minute or so that I’d have taken otherwise.

super frame

This is a frame from the super. It’s shallower than the ones in the brood box because it’s where the bees will store the honey that they don’t immediately need and a whole box of them is quite heavy to lift. The yellow wax in the centre is known as foundation; it gives the bees a headstart and a guide when building their combs, and is something else that is often left out of ‘natural’ systems or ones for producing cut comb honey. I’m trying out a half foundationless super this year on a colony at home, but sadly I don’t have the camera with me that I used to show what that looks like.

stores

This is a brood frame that the bees are using to keep their stores in it. I’m pointing at a cell of pollen, though it’s hard to see. Most of the rest of the frame is uncapped honey – they will put a little ‘capping’ of beeswax over it when it is reaches the right water content and is  ‘ripe’. This frame is much browner in colour than a fresh frame (see later photo of freshly drawn comb in a super) as it is one that came with the swarm. We’ll swap this one out this year, as old frames can harbour disease after a few years’ use. Using a second hand comb is questionable on this front, but as the swarm was already on it, any diseases that may have been on it would have already been transmitted, so we left it in to give them a headstart rather than having to draw out the foundation from scratch. The wax from changing frames and from honey cappings is an important hive product that can be used for candles, lip balms, other cosmetics, furniature polish, digeridoo mouthpieces… etc. I make some very useful moustache wax by adding in a dribble of olive oil.

anatomy

Many of the common bits of beekeeping equipment are shown here.

Some of the main bits from right to left in the above photo:

The smoker, careful and limited use helps to calm the bees and move them around to some extent. Also masks pheromones if a bee does sting you when applied to the site of the sting.

The queen excluder: the white grill that lets workers pass, but the queen can’t fit through due to her larger size.

The hive floor: with some bees on it. We’re using an open mesh floor (if the monitoring tray wasn’t in, you’d see right through it) to gaurd against varroa mites: they drop through if they hit the floor, and with the monitoring tray in we can count them. No mites seen in the last two days on this colony at the time of writing and there have been four on both days from the larger colony which is not bad.

A bee (that massive thing in front of the brood box): beekeeping wouldn’t be much good without them, and the one shown here isn’t enourmous, just flying a bit closer to the camera.

The brood box with frames: as already mentioned

The super: underneath the brood box, as they are stacked as they come off from the top when going through the hive

The hive tool (in my hand): I’m using a J-type here – the bit you can’t see is J shaped, but we also have a traditional ‘scraper type’ in the shed. The tool is used for many common hive operations: levering the boxes apart (the bees stick everything together with propolis), levering frames out to look at, scraping off wax that’s ‘in the wrong place’, cutting off unwanted queen cells, etc.

Thanks to Ozzy and co. for the above photos.

I did have a bit of a shock to find emergency queen cells and we couldn’t find the marked queen anywhere, though that’s not unusual. What this means is that the queen has most probably died or been severely injured (e.g. a broken leg) and the bees have converted one of the eggs that she has laid from being destined to be a worker to a queen by feeding lots of royal jelly and drawing the cell out and downwards. We didn’t get a photo of the cell, but it’s almost identical to those on page 7 of this document. I’ll check up on them on Monday (6th July) before I go home, and try to come back every week or two if I can in the holidays to check the colonies more generally – anyone who wants a look in will be welcome on Monday, I’m thinking around midday, but send an e-mail or look at Facebook if you’re interested, though it’ll be very quick as I don’t want to disturb them too much.

Yesterday, I had a quick look in the top of the second colony to fill the super up with frames before they started building wild comb, as we’d run out of frames at when it went on. Wild comb gets quite messy in a hive and is inconvenient when checking on the colony’s health and amount of stores (honey and pollen), and generally during beekeeping operations.

These bees are just as prolific and hardworking as we thought. I didn’t take the super off to see their work in the brood chamber, but already a whole frame in the super was drawn out into comb and they’d made a good start on the other one. One side was already nearly full of (unripe, uncapped) honey too. To put it in perspective, they would normally draw out most or all of the frames in the brood chamber first and fill some of them with honey and pollen close to the developing larvae, and only then start work in the super.

These girls work quickly! Just two days in and they've already filled one side of a super frame.

These girls work quickly! Just two days in and they’ve already filled one side of a super frame.

You can just about make out the glints from the nectar/unripe honey in some of the cells, and also it’s almost completely covered in bees! Compare it to the previous photo of the slightly sparse brood frame in the other colony.

It’s quite noticable that the bees in first colony are pretty much black with yellow stripes, while these are very much yellow with black stripes. From their colouration, docility and apparent productivity, I couldn’t help wondering whether this swarm might have a bit of Buckfast in its genes – a breed of bee that Brother Adam carefully bred, selecting desirable traits from queens gathered from all over Europe and Africa and ending up with what has been called a ‘superbee’. All we can know for certain is that the colony is really big to start with and seem to work very fast and so far have been very pleasant to work with.

I’m looking forward to showing everyone the ropes next year.

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