strength in numbers 1

Well it had to be done , there was no point in any more prevarication. That hive hadn’t done anything since this time  last week. it was setting itself up for failure and eventual death.Whatever was happening inside it would require some radical changes . Either there was a poor queen in there or it was possible that I had a worker laying unfertilised eggs randomly in the cells .There was no discernible pattern .That was a surety.

The  obvious solution was to cut my losses and attempt to combine this weak hive with a slightly bigger one that looked as though it might have a chance.I suited- up  in  my stained white beesuit and filled the  shining ,steel smoker with some old shrivelled acorn husks that I’d scrumped while walking down by the river ,some crumbling  twigs and rotted , lousy, dozed wood that I’d had lying in a corner of the garden since the frost took that  old tree a few winters back. I popped in a small roll of tightly compressed cardboard to top it up and gave the lot a squirt of lighter fluid.Sparking up the long  gas lighter, I soon had a strong blaze howling in the metal chamber as I pumped the bellows.When I was satisfied with my pyrotechnics , I snapped the  hinged ,spouted lid firmly shut to extinguish the flames and gave it a few more  whooshing , satisfying puffs  to see the cumulous  murk  issuing , before slipping on my leather gauntlets. These were really a great purchase, reaching  almost to my shoulder and covering my arms with an extra layer of protection.They were much better than the original ones that had dissolved entirely in the washing machine , like so much jelly. All that had been left were the wrist -bands.These new ones were much more robust , but I wouldn’t make the mistake of putting them in a washing machine again.

I’ve been stung on the wrists through a single layer of cloth before now, so I know to expect the unexpected with honeybees. Never mind what they say in the books…if they want to sting you , they’ll find a way.  They’ll try to get near your eyes , or failing that the wrists and the ankles are favourite attack spots. There was a time when I’d sit quietly near my one original hive and watch the bees  come and go about their business, fascinated by their labour. I don’rt dare do something like that now. Now . I’m more circumspect. It’s best  to remember that honeybees may not have the same romantic notions about us humans as we may of them .Many times, I’ll be minding my own business and some angry scout will be the first to start the conversation with a full- on unprovoked  charge at my head.They only have to “think” that you are the  potential enemy ,to initiate the dance. I take as few chances as is possible now.

Sometimes I think that the public have been gulled somewhat about  the humble honeybee. There’s this legend that these righteous , industrious creatures will mind their own business and leave human kind totally alone unless they are provoked . Let me say here and now  ,that if there is a testy queen on board a hive , they can initiate a strike without any provocation at all and the only way to change their mood is to  somehow control the weather ,or failing that , kill the original queen-bitch and replace her with a mother -figure with a friendlier disposition. Getting stung is something I’ve gotten used to it but it can still be an irritation I could easily live without. I laugh when I see these bee-keepers, on film ,going into the apiary without a veil or a suit . Let them try it with my little darlings and see how they get on …Yes , let them have a go , anytime..Last weekend I was raking out some dead grass on the lawn , well away from the hives when I was literally smacked on the back of the neck .Strike one! Just like that .A dab of germoline for a day or two settled the irritation but why was I stung at all? Did the bee assume I was a threat  or did the tines of the rake, loudly  scratching the grass ,annoy the ambience . Was it spoiling her day in some way?

No ..I take nothing for granted with honeybees these days.

When I had the smoker humming away to my satisfaction , I slipped the hooded veil over my head and tucked my trouser-legs into my wellingtons.Just let the the little darlings  try having a go now ,  I thought as I strolled down to the hives, smoke curling from one hand and hive tool at the ready.The operation of joining two hives together is fairly straight-forward. You remove the roofs from the two hives concerned. Crack the  sticky , sappy  resin propolis that the bees have sealed the inner crown boards with to keep out any  draught. Then ,using a couple of sheets of newspaper…possibly one representing  those politics you abhor….you cover the top of the strongest brood-box, completely with this paper sheet.Then you cut a few slits in the paper and place the weaker brood-box on top of the strong one with the newspaper barrier separating the two distinct hives.

Replace the crown board and roof on the two-tier hive and close it up. The other hive can be dismantled and moved away .Any lost foraging bees who return with pollen or nectar, finding their home gone, will attempt to enter a nearby hive to unload  if they can’t find the hive they left earlier. They should have no problem entering past the guard bees in the new hive because they’ll not be considered robbers, obviously carrying bounty for the hive instead of trying to steal some stores.The idea is that although each brood has  a distinct  pheromone smell,  when the separated bees eventually chew through the paper barrier from either side of the two boxes, their smells will have united to the extent that they will not fight.This usually takes a few days and the shredded paper will be seen blowing out through the front door of the hive. Bees are tidy in that way .They’ll always clear  any detritus from their home …living or dead. Their house-keeping skills are fastidious.If there should be two queens involved and they can be found , it is best to kill the weaker one before starting the operation, but if that isn’t possible , hopefully she will be ousted anyway. The worst scenario would be for a good queen to be accidentally killed.

There may be no queen in this weak hive in any case ; just random layers  of drones or unfertilised eggs. There is much talk that birds would rather pick off unmated queens on their maiden flight or feast on the male drones  swanning about , sunbathing idly at the front of the hive . Neither the queens nor the stocky little  male breeding drones possess a sting , so the theory goes that the birds prefer to feast on something without getting a nasty spike in the neck.It’s just the females who are armed with a sting. I just wonder how people know these things about birds, or if they are true at all. Obviously a bird would not want to ingest bee- venom. For a small bird, surely that would be fatal? Who knows .Apparently the Bee-Eater bird has developed a technique for sweeping the sting away on a handy branch, so best to avoid  a nasty stinging mouthful; like some nervy frankensteinian  gut , that sting can pulsate even in the throes of death, pumping that spiteful venom into the dead bee’s nemesis….. possibly some unfortunate little tit….

Can a sparrow or a swift really distinguish between which honeybee is armed and dangerous and which is not? Well I suppose, if a clever rook can remember a sequence of events , enough to complete a complex task to deliver a treat and if a bird has the nous to use a stone as an anvil to crash through the hardened carapace of some unfortunate mollusc, then anything  may be possible.What I do know is that since the number of hives have increased in my garden, so too have the number of scavenging birds hoping for  a handy meal. They perch atop the  curved , wooden trellis  that I’ve handily provided and poach incoming and outgoing bees  as they orientate at the hive entrance.

Will any of my grand  bee-plans  come to fruition? Only  these spooling . blustery summer days will eventually tell.


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