I wish I knew my birds a little better. Oh , I know what a thrush looks like ,or a starling and a swift or swallow. I can pick out a robin or a bluetit, a magpie or a dove .What I’d dearly love to know is what that little fellow with the white breast is .At a stretch I might take him for one of those blackcaps or a warbler because he’s singing up a right old racket and aren’t they supposed to be some of the best Irish singers? In the end I think I’ll settle for a long-tailed tit.He seems to fit the profile better. He’s piping away incessantly right at the apex of my neighbour’s roof peep-peep-peep….peep-peep-peep ….peep-peep-peep without let -up. He’s been at it for a good fifteen minutes now as though he’s attempting to attract some romantic attention or is possibly venting off some territorial steam. I can only think of and laugh at the memory of my friend , the other PK’s recent rant about some bloody doves’ romantic warblings wakening him at a hoary dawn the week previous and the image of a Steve Martin lookalike, standing in his boxers’ shorts , on the white , frosty lawn, raving at the noisy wee beggers who had woken him from fitful sleep.Yep that just might drive a sane man mad alright!
My honeybees could sense it long before I was aware of it myself. Rain was coming soon and they were working feverishly about an hour ago , packing the pods of yellow pollen through the slot at the bottom of the brood chamber. I was working less furiously hoking out buckets full of weeds that had sprung up in a bed during winter. I was moving slowly because something was amiss down my right side ; a nagging war wound I’d picked up during my recent stay in Liverpool…..Did I do it while laying that wooden floor, or was it when my wife and I attempted to lift the sleeping Golden Grandchild, buggy, wine supplies et al up those old Victorian steps from the railway carriage to the station above? I hadn’t even noticed at the time …except for the obvious frustration at the realisation that a once -easy everyday task had grown substantially in complexity . The old body isn’t as springy as it once was, obviously and full -bore recovery seemed a little slow… I was only physically fit for futtering, really if I was being honest with myself.
The bees were very obviously in a hurry, making lots of balmy , humming background noise and consternation , which could be heard at the top of the garden for the first time this year.Four months into the year, it’s the busiest I’ve seen them this Spring so far . That’s hardly surprising , given that it seems to simply rain every day and I’ve only begun the annual scratch, scratch around the garden. it’s hard to get stuck into the simple chores when everything is damp underfoot anyway and only a fool cuts wet grass….Therein lies madness… One of the honeybees ,distractedly landed on the coloured flower design on a plastic compost bag beside me. “Some chance of getting a tickle out of that one ,Missus”, I thought , as she rested her wings and scratched about in confusion. It might just have been her first foray away from the hive; a whole new world of work to explore before she died in about a month’s time.She’d have ample time to learn the difference between a real flower and a picture of one.
The plan this year is ….Aye ….”the Plan” …As if you could really plan out anything with a wee wild thing like a honeybee…..I’ve gleaned this new one from my son -in -law’s father ,who also happens , serendipitously, to also keep bees across the water in Wales ….. He also experiments to try and make sense of a creature determined to undermine every scheme invented to somehow attempt to tame them ….. This time the idea is to “super- up” the hives completely with several shallow super honey boxes , early on in the season and stop piddling about , wondering will they need another one or not. He reckons to just give them all the potential storage at once instead of one a t a time as they fill each one and leave them to it.
I suppose I’d better explain for any newbies or newcomers what exactly I mean by that.The main colony of honeybees live in a big bottom box called a “brood” chamber where the queen lays her eggs on frames of wax and all the other bees attend to her needs; housekeeping , feeding her and cleaning up after her., looking after the welfare of her offspring….just like a real queen in fact . It makes you wonder did royalty in the past study bee behaviour before assuming similar strategies for themselves. Some stack the pollen buds away and others store the honey to be fanned , thickened and finally sealed up airtight with wax from their wax glands ,when ready to be locked away. Some lock in the eggs with wax to become new workers or male drones.It’s amazing how much of this wax can be produced when they get the bit between their mandibles. It’s quite extraordinary the excess of it at times, spiling and spreading like a guttering candle between frames and boxes. Truth is that if you didn’t open up the hives for an occasional inspection they’d probably glue everything together in such a way that it would be impossible to replace parts of the hive or eventually take any honey at all. The frames sometimes crack and break when you attempt to move them….and that’s before you even consider the sticky propolis they make from tree sap to fill in any wee cracks anyway .That’s the antibacterial greasy stuff that finds its way into lip balsams and all sorts of pots and potions such as lipsticks and Tiger balms.
New -born bees , surrounded by all this sweet goodness pop out to go from light duties around the hive to eventually learn guard-duty poking about at the entrance before becoming hardened foragers out in the field , flying up to three miles away in search of pollen and nectar. The male drones, well-fed in their indolent squatness, hang about idly awaiting a chance for a quick tumble with a virgin princess in the treetops. Of course, they die explosively in the process…but what a way to go …dead and gone with a literal “bang”. It might make you want to cross your legs ,of course.
The queen needs plenty of room if she’s a proficient egg-layer so sometimes a beekeeper will provide another narrower honey “super” box on top of the brood box like a home -extension to allow the bees to either store more honey or maybe to extend the size of the brood box. Usually this is separated from the brood box by a piece of equipment called a queen excluder which only allows the worker bees into that area and makes sure that the queen doesn’t mess things up by laying eggs throughout that extra honey you might want to collect later . It might not be the entirely natural way of things but it’s not such a bad bargain if you’ve already provided the queen with enough free real- estate to live in. Alternatively you might just leave that brood and a half alone as the entire nursey area. So you can have a single brood box or a brood box plus a half possibly before later adding more “supers” for the hoped-for extras you might want for yourself..
Back with the new “Plan”.
It might make things even simpler ,if instead of one big brood box , you might add another big one right on top and allow the queen and everyone else the full-run of the two boxes without a queen excluder. That would surely give the queen lots of room for egg-laying and honey- storage and should possibly stop the queen from splitting the hive at the height of the honey season and running away with half of your 60,000 odd bees in each hive …and half of your proposed honey harvest .That’s exactly what they’ll want to do if they feel a little crowded or if the collective will feels that the queen needs replacing by a more potent potentate.The problem is that you never really know what they are thinking. They can be inscrutably unreadable until the very last minute and then they’ll show their hand when you’re in the shower or are cutting your toe-nails. Most of the time you’ll never be prepared enough.
Then on the other hand…they might n’t like the idea of all that new free space at all and prefer a tighter and cozier setup and instead decide to split and go off looking for something smaller that is easier to keep warm .You see a lot might also depend on the kind of weather that year too.So it’s not an exact science. It’s more like an artform sometimes or even a magic….
This year’s Bright Big Idea is to have double-brood hives with queen excluders on top. That requires twice as much expenditure on equipment and it ties up any extra brood-boxes you might need for collecting potential swarms.At this point it would be usual to add on one narrower super box of wax frames so that they can also fill that with honey for you to steal later in the season.The son-in-law’s dad reckons he’ll just pile up two or three supers on each hive at the beginning of the season’s “honey flow” and let them fill it up in any way they would like.I’m thinking of having a go at that this year myself. The problem is that inspections will be much harder work with all those stacked boxes on each of the five hives.Again , a bumper honey crop is never taken for granted. I can’t say I’ve ever had huge quantities of honey in my area unless I feed the bees sugar as well. I’d rather keep them as natural as possible anyway, though.
That’s the way you can get when the initial novelty of beekeeping eventually wears a little old. At the start you sit and watch them daily , trying to resist the urge to have a look at how they are developing. After the first season or two when you’ve collected a few interesting stings from too much interference , you’ll be content with an inspection every week or so. You’ll either attempt to have some control in the beginning and do everything by the book or alternatively you’ll let the bees get on with it ….simply repairing equipment as you go along. That’s the stage son- in -law’s father appears to be at. He’s been at it longer and is ten years older and interferes hardly at all.If they want to swarm off, he simply lets them do it. That also means losing lots of bees too, of course.
Anyway …that’s the plan….In the meantime there are chores to do and a garden to kick into shape before the bees get too busy , but just as they predicted, the rains have begun to slowly drizzle down.
So here I am driven back inside to the warmth of the kitchen, listening to a great old album by the late Ritchie Havens called “Mixed Bag”,from way, way back in the mists of time, watching and waiting as the air outside freshens-up once again and it gets cooler again…as the hum of the bees settles once more.
There’s always tomorrow…..