It’s been a busy summer so far. Isn’t it always in the way that the winter weather creates such mayhem outside that when the weather changes and the sun begins to shine it reveals all those jobs that you haven’t been able to do.
The good wife was first to spot the wasps sneaking back and forth under the eaves . I looked carefully but there was no hole to see.They seemed happy enough to simply squeeze in, possibly tightening their belts .Only a few, I thought. A squirt of bug spray and the job will be done .I put on the trusty beesuit and got out the step-ladder and zapped the pesky little buggers a few times. A few wasps fell to earth but they gave me little grief otherwise.Any returning wasps seemed to have been discouraged ,so I thought I’d won that battle ….Not so!!. The following Monday the guy from the solar panel company came to check that everything was working okay and that all was present and correct. I told him that the hot water was so hot these past weeks that it would strip flesh from the bone or paint off a door as it came out of the taps so don’t “fix” anything that isn’t broken.He said everything was fine as he checked the board in the attic, but he noticed a few wasps buzzing around the lights in my roofspace ……and then he made the revelation that he’d spotted a wasp nest as big as a football over where the roof met the wall-plate in exactly the same place I’d dealt with the previous week.He was glad to get back through the trapdoor and back on terra firma and he showed me a very clear photo on his phone of the insects’ creation. You have to wonder at the skill and creativity of these creatures , but unlike my little honeybees , wasps are not on a list of protected species and I had no intention of sharing my home with the little stripey blighters.It was time for real action and this involved entering their lair later in the day with a specially purchased foam propellant from the hardware shop ,that squirted from a distance, completely covered the football -sized nest with a killing concoction of the Dear Knows What. Hours later it seemed to have done the trick and all wasp activity ceased…..but we’ll keep watching the skies. One of these days I’ll venture across and see if I can remove the “dead” football…..when I’m good and sure there’s no one at home….
I spent the glorious day of the Twelfth of July on the roof of my big shed. The sun had got his hat on and so had I. It was steaming hot up there .I had decided a few weeks earlier that it was time to replace the roof. Last winter had shown the occasional leak inside. I tossed up the idea of just replacing the worn felt, but thought to myself, that should I live now as an Old Age Pensioner for say ……another thirty or forty years , (they’re always telling us that we are living way tooo long…and I’m an optimist)and should I even make it to the ripe old age of 120 years with all marbles intact , that might mean climbing back up there when I’m possibly a hundred years old to replace that felt again .It doesn’t last forever, eh? Better to try putting on one of these metal roofs now while i can still handle the heights!!….and so it came to pass.The sun shone and I worked away for a day or two before finally finishing ….hopefully ,the job of a lifetime with everthing screwed down tight.I’ve got to say that the old knees aren’t as good as they were though….but I slept very well for the rest of the week.
There’s always something to do in the garden too and then there’s my honeybees.As you might already know , summertime is beetime in my current world.I’ve been messing about with my hives of honeybees for some years now. None of us might be able to save Norneverland from its own mad psychosis but I’m still doing my bit with these very important creatures to save the rest of the world.When even the politicians in some quarters cannot see the good sense in not lighting huge pyres near streets full of people, you really begin to think we are living in a lunatic asylum. There ‘s no real other way to come at that one but to turn your eyes to the stars and accept that the world is a bloody crazy place ,- full of bloody crazy people..
It’s a constant programme of learning in the world of honeybees and long-time beekeepers will tell you that they never stop learning new things. I’ve found that to be the case. The books will only every give a rough sketch but when you have bees and you work with them ,there are revelations all the time. This year I had to kill a queen bee. Up until now I’ve simply allowed my bees to get on with the job of being bees without too much interference in their love-lives or their stategies, but at some time the backyard beekeeper will be forced to address new problems.For the most part bees will only be defensive in a few circumstances .If ,for example ,they have been under attack by wasps who are attempting to raid their hard-won stores or brood ,they might not take kindly to a great white bear lifting the lid off their home. The same thing might happen if there is a thunderstorm approaching .They will be over- sensitive to the weather’s changes and your timing may be somewhat off if you venture near when thunder’s approaching. They might otherwise be the gentlest creatures in all evolution , going about their varied chores in a most ladylike manner and totally ignoring your presence. When you have several hives there is the opportunity to compare notes and behaviours which is why any new beekeeper might find it worthwhile to learn as much as possible before embarking on the journey and maybe start with at least two small nucleus hives .In that way it is possible to see the differences in behaviours.I am currently running eight hives.It can vary from season to season. They all started out as one gentle Buckfast queen in a small five -frame nucleus. That’s how the story begins , but it doesn’t simply stay that way forever.The Buckfast queen is a beautiful elongated amber coloured creature, usually much bigger than any other bee in the hive. That doesn’t mean she is always easily found. She may be surrounded by thousands of her children and even if you’ve had her marked with a neat coloured dot of paint to represent her year of origin, she can be elusive , favouring the dim shadows and corners of the hive rather than the sunlight, which you ,the beekeeper, may have let in.She will be mother to every bee in that first colony and each of them will only live for a month of hard toil in her service.She might live a possible five year span herself if she maintains her well-being and health or she may become ill or die. She may even leave forever when the colony evolves to a position of split and she may leave with half the troops and half the honey and may not survive in her new incarnation out in the wild.She may never again find a home so comfortable or safe as the one you initially provided, but the call to the wild will be there. The fact that she is laying at all means that she’s already survived a virginal mating flight and returned unharmed or uneaten by birds or dragonflies ,or she’s been possibly inseminated artificially at another apiary and has never seen the outside world ,ever.Her genetics will determine the demeanour of her brood so that if you begin with a gentle, productive queen you might be surprised some years down the line to discover that her daughters and granddaughters may have mated with fiestier and more defensive local brood-stock and eventually confront you, the beekeeper, with a new “hot hive”.You’ll soon know when you have one of those., especially if you have a gentle hive to compare it with. You might find that a hive like that can take all the joy out of beekeeping. You mightn’t want to go near that hive ever again but it is a fear that has to be confronted at some stage because you wouldn’t want those kind of bees stinging you, your family or worse still, your neighbours.
You’ll know immediately when you’ve got a hive like that because you’ll never be able to do a proper inspection without being attacked en masse. You may be as gentle as a new born babe and you may move as slowly as a Tai Chi master , which , by the way, is the recommended meditative way to go about beekeeping; you may smoke them gently with aged, cool pine leaves in your smoker, but no matter what you do , they still come at you like gangbusters ,to the point where your beesuit is seeping venom and the more venom there is ,the more there is an attack response from the rest of the bees.That smell really gets them going.At that point you might imagine it is a one -off…maybe even a cyclical thing …and it may well be the case if it happens only once. If ,on the other hand ,you get the same response week after week and you might even find that a guard bee seeks you out personally and harries and tortures you, butting at your face like that drunk in the pub, nudging you right out of your own beeyard and following you to the house, before you can have a look at other hives.If that is the case it’s time for action and this is the kind of thing that the bee books say little about and the happy-clappy beekeepers on television skip over cursorily.
The facts are that a hive like that will have to be changed or it will break your heart.That’s the point I got to this summer. I’ve had temporarily defensive hives before, but this time I was reminded that this is why many beekeepers will change their queens every season.it’s a matter of keeping the stock sweet before they eventually turn completely wild and feral again.That can be a costly business if you cannot successfully rear a few gentle queens of your own and if you have many hives. Most opt for changing the queens when absolutely necessary because the process involves finding that possibly “wicked “queen and killing her to remove her malign influence from the hive. With me it wasn’t just one hive; three hives had inherited the demon seed and were doing what bees in the wild do very well.They were defending themselves against all- comers. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the bees but it is for the beekeeper.Even farmers must at times have to face a very volatile cow.They might seem benign beasts and less dangerous than a bull, but occasionally they might have other ideas.
I took action but it was not exactly straight -forward.As you can imagine these latter-day queens who had mated with less gentle locals , were unmarked and not easily found.I had already split a very healthy hive this season to slow down its swarming response.That produced a new hive alongside the original , but those bees would bring on a new queen which will have unknown genetics. The only way to be sure is to bring in new marked queens from a reliable outside source.I had already started the process some weeks ago with one new queen but now I decided to buy three more from the same source. This first new Buckfast queen was already producing beautiful calm bees ,all shining with a golden-orange aspect. They were really calm on the comb and the new queen was wandering about calmy going about her egg-laying business.
Of course you can’t simply throw a new queen into an existing hive and expect the bees to accept her.First you have to leave the hive queenless for at least a day or two which means that the bees will possibly be glad to finally accept her.I had some juggling to do with three separate hives which meant removing the brood boxes to one side, away from the operating hive and systematically shaking out the frames of bees into a new box while searching for the queens. .The first hive was easily the angriest and the bees attacked immediately when I began.It was uproar immediately , but somehow I managed to spot the queen and I culled her neatly with my hive tool. That was fortunate and I wasn’t expecting to see her so easily. Then I left both hive boxes to stew for a day while I waited the arrival of the new queens.I would then re-assemble that hive before adding the new queen within forty eight hours. The second and third hives were a harder task . I had split this first one into two in the hope that I would somehow find the queen more easily ,but after breaking down both boxes she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were very angry because they had lost their queen in the first place.That can happen too. In any case , I figured that if they got new queens in both boxes it might just fix the problem and stop the bees attempting to make new , possibly angry queens on their own.These new queens had guaranteed genetics. To look for the queen meant taking each frame and shaking off all the bees into a box I’d made with a metal queen excluder fixed to the bottom. Set up over a brood box, any shaken bees could run through the excluder into the bottom box , except for the larger queen, whose bigger body would not allow entry.The theory is that the queen would be isolated in no-mans land while the rest of the bees scurried away. Of course , as with the best laid plans, she was nowhere to be seen.Maybe she was very small and made it through the net , or maybe she had gone long before and that had been the thing that made the bees skittish.There was nothing for it but to take a chance and introduce my brand new Buckfast queens and hope for the best.
The introductions eventually went well enough .The queens all arrived together in separate queen cages with a retinue of half a dozen worker bees in each cage to attend and feed each queen.They were all posted together in one small aerated envelope but at least they couldn’t get at each other and fight .Each cage had a plastic tab to be broken off the end and a candy plug for the bees to eat through to attain freedom .The time taken by the bees inside and the bees outside to eat through the sugar paste allows the pheromones of all the bees to acclimatise and mix. In theory that would aid the acceptance of a new queen in a queenless hive.Of course , bees being bees they may well have other ideas. They may refuse to accept the new queen and there might even be a tiny nemesis awaiting her in a darkened corner where she’s been hiding all along ,waiting to strike . Time will tell. It will take about a month for all of the old queens’ rabid progeny to be born , live and finally die before her own new spawn actually gain prominence in the hive.Hopefully that will mean gentle bees going into the winter and gentler bees to work next season. Four days later I checked the angry hives to make sure the new queens had been released.in two of the bigger hives they were out and tha cages were empty, so my fingers are crossed that the bees didn’t simply allow them out to dispatch them. I’ll leave them alone and hopefully they’ll quieten down in a few weeks when new bees should be gin being born. In the smaller hive the queen was still in her cage but the bees had been nibbling at the candy and seemed placid enough .I decided to release her manually. When I slid back the cage door she fairly dived from her confinement and darted into the shadows below decks. She was on her own at the start of a new adventure. It was sink or swim time. I’d know in a few weeks how well they had all got on.I checkedseveral days later and spotted her almost immediately.They hadn’t killed this one!
As if that wasn’t enough , it was just at this moment that later in the week the wasps began to set up their annual sumer assault on the honeybees.They began attacking and robbing the weaker hives , even working past some of the wasp shields at the entrances and gaining access. The very small two-frame nucleus did not have a chance and was overrun within days and not one bee survived but I’ve hopes for the seven others. Maybe this was revenge for the destruction of that big wasps’ nest in the attic.In any case, any honey, if any , from these new hives , will certainly be hard won this season.