An election in the frame

Too late, I’ve made a rather important discovery in these politically-charged times: general elections do not make for good beekeeping. There shouldn’t really be a connection, should there? On the one hand it’s all rosettes and handshakes and shouting and manifestos. And on the other hand it’s, well, none of those things. The two should never mix. Their paths never cross. Which is why I’m writing this from a hotel room in the north-east of England with a delightful view of a car park and the back end of a carvery, while my bees are – I hope – managing on their own to build up their numbers in preparation for a bumper season.

The trouble is, as I’m 200 miles away, I have no idea what they’re up to–nor can I do anything about it. One moment I’m making plans as to what to do next in the apiary, thinking I really should get round to knocking together some fresh frames for them to bed down in. It’s a good idea to give them the equivalent of new bedding in the spring as it lowers the risk of disease spreading. But then–bang! A general election is called and I get my marching orders: North, North-West, North-East, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the West, South-West, Wales, the Midlands, and the South. In fact, anywhere that’s not close to home, and all in the next three weeks or so.

Of course, I should have seen it coming; it wasn’t exactly a surprise. I should have been prepared. I should have done any number of things. But I didn’t write a whole book about bad beekeeping for nothing, did I? To be fair though, I can still partly blame the weather for the fact that I haven’t seen most of the bees since the last time I wrote. It’s not that the sun hasn’t shone – it just didn’t shine on the right day. There was one lovely warm afternoon when I could have gone to the farm, but the responsibilities of supporting a seriously relegation-threatened soccer team got in the way (Wycombe Wanderers, if you must know).

If I’d been prudent, I would at least have made up all the new frames over the winter, and wrapped them up in newspaper and plastic to have them nice and fresh for the start of the new season. And I’m sure most beekeepers have a little voice occasionally nagging away at the back of their minds that they should be Getting Ready For Spring instead of watching repeats of Only Fools and Horses [British Sitcom]. But when was the last time a bee made you laugh?

So once again I’ve had to leave the bees to their own devices, though I do have a Plan B of sorts. Just before I headed north, I managed to dash down to the beekeeping supplier and buy a huge boxful of frame components and sheets of wax. In the early hours of Sunday morning, I gave Mrs. T a hurried demonstration of how to put one together. She in turn, is going to show one of our student sons what to do. And for a rate of pay significantly higher than the minimum wage, he will construct enough frames to house four hives of bees. Then on one of my short trips home, I’ll take advantage of what is bound to be a delightful sun-kissed afternoon, make a quick trip to the apiary, and give the bees their full spring inspection and slot in all those freshly-made frames.

Breaking News: Pigs spotted flying over Buckinghamshire…

This blog post was first seen April 15, 2010 on the Saga Magazine website.

Cold comfort for bees

This weather is beginning to worry me. It’s chucking it down at the moment, and the forecast for the next few days is equally grim. I don’t mind for myself; it’s the bees I’m bothered about. This is a sensitive time for them as they’re just emerging from the winter cold. The queen is laying new brood, and there’s not a lot of food about.

Some beekeepers have been finding that colonies which have held on from last autumn are now in trouble because their queen has died, the old bees which have held on through the winter have also given up the ghost, and there is no new generation to bring through. Result? One highly endangered colony.

During the brief warm spell I did manage to get over to the farm and have a quick look inside the hives. It still wasn’t warm enough to give them a full inspection, but I could see that they have all still got their queens and are in good shape, if a little grumpy. This is unusual, as normally at this time of year they are too busy getting established to be bothered with the intruding beekeeper. But on this occasion they were quick to fly off the frames and buzz irritatedly around my veil, as if to say “Who do you think you are coming in here, and why don’t you just leave us alone?”

I had noticed that the hives were a little light when I opened them up, a sure sign that there’s not much honey on board, which would explain the ill temper. And amazingly, I had brought a gallon of sugar syrup and some pollen feed along for just such an eventuality. It’s an intriguing sign that in my tenth season as a beekeeper, I might just be becoming vaguely proficient. The bees, duly fed, can now sit inside their hives and wait for the rotten cold weather to pass. I’ve done all I can for them for now. We just have to wait for the sun to shine, and flowers to blossom, and the little ones to come out in their own good time.

So those are the bees we want to get out and about. And then we have the bees we just want out. Last summer a swarm took up residence in the roof of my local church. As the only known beekeeper in the congregation, it fell to me to keep an eye on them, which I duly did. And then forgot about. They were right up at the top, above the altar, out of reach and (so I thought) out of harm’s way. Then, during the really cold spell, the bees thought it might be fun to fly around not outside, but inside the church. Well it was warm, and light, so they were only doing what comes naturally. Things came to a head – quite literally – when one of them became entangled in the altar boy’s hair, and I was asked to Do Something About It.

The problem is – what? The visitors are nestled right under the roof at the east end of the building, inaccessible from inside without the use of scaffolding, and unreachable from outside without hiring a cherry picker. Even then I can’t get them out as their entrance is just a crack at the top of the eastern wall. And as a new rector has just taken up residence, it would not do for his first services to be disturbed by an unholy buzzing from above. I’m afraid drastic measures will be called for unless we are struck by inspiration – divine or otherwise. Any ideas?

P.S. In answer to your question, Caroline – the bees which die over the winter usually do so through starvation or disease, or damp, but not the cold. Whatever the temperature outside, they maintain their warmth in a cluster at a steady 38 C – so long as they have food.

This blog post was first seen March 31, 2010 on the Saga Magazine website.

Surviving winter – and woodpeckers

Beekeeping? Bee keeping? That’s the response I usually get when I tell people about my hobby. Why would I want to do that? Well, I hope over the next few months to explain why sticking your head regularly down a beehive can be such a rewarding pastime. It involves lots of time, effort, frustration and sometimes not a little pain. But most the time it’s worth it, believe me—and it’s not just for the honey!

I’m not going to try to convince you to become a beekeeper. It doesn’t suit everyone by any means. But it is often fascinating and utterly absorbing just to see how the bees organize themselves. And I hope some of that will rub off in this fortnightly blog. Feel free to add your thoughts afterwards.

Sadly we can’t check the bees out just yet. Because it’s been such a long, hard winter, it’s still a bit too cold to get into the hive and have a proper look at what they’ve been up to. Although they’ve been flying on the warmer days, you have to wait for shirtsleeve weather before you can prize the frames apart and check that all is well inside. Otherwise what we call the broodthe eggs and stuffwill get chilled, and that would be the worst possible start for the bees. So that will have to wait for another time.

What we do know already is that most of our hives have survived through to the spring, and that’s very cheering. You’re probably aware that British beekeepers have had a bit of a rough time of this over the past couple of years, and winter losses have been rather high. You can usually reckon to lose up to a quarter of your bees through the colder months due to starvation, or damp or some nefarious disease. So I’m delighted to report that out of a total of nine hives which went into the winter, seven are still alive. The two that didn’t make it were smaller colonies which I should have united last autumn and didn’t, and now Iand theyhave paid the price. There just weren’t enough of them in each hive to keep going.

The woodpecker didn’t help. I’d heard about them attacking hives, but had never seen it. I did last winter though, and what a lesson it was. When it’s really cold the woodpeckers’ hunger can overcome their natural shyness, and they’ll drill right through the side of the hive to plunder whatever they can – honey or bees, they don’t seem to mind. The colony is clustered in a ball inside to keep warm, so it’s pretty defenseless.

And once Woody has got the taste for it, he keeps coming back. We returned from a trip abroad in January to find a three inch hole in the side of one hive at the bottom of the garden, just a few yards from the house. The bees were still alive inside, and I patched up the hole as best I could. A day or two later I wondered which of my neighbors was hammering away so persistently in their garden on a Sunday morning when I looked out to see the blessed bird at it again. The third time it came back I was out, and that was that. Well at least the woodpecker survived the winter, and they’re such beautiful birds I can’t begrudge them too much. I’ve still got seven hives to take care of, and that will be more than enough.

Within the next few days I hope the weather will be warm enough to delve properly inside the hive, and then who knows what delights the bees will have in store. I’ll bet they’re hatching some nefarious plot right now…

As first seen on the Saga Magazine website: