Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Camping and bees

Hives in a fenced-off area of field
A double whammy of a weekend, with a camping phase and then an educational phase! First of all was another reunion of the group rallying from Plymouth to Banjul that Mr A took part in more than five years ago. We met down in the Cotswolds where the youngest of the party lives - she was only 19 when she went on the trip, the baby of the group. She is currently living near her parents, who kindly hosted our weekend in their fabulous house with its extensive garden and bijou summer house.

Mr A had a bit of a bad time earlier in the week and managed to get behind with his university work, so he had to go home on Saturday. But we both camped on Friday night, throwing up the tent rather casually, relying on the weather forecast of 'light rain showers'. When we woke up in the morning, there had been a lot more than light rain, it was still raining heavily, and we noticed a certain amount of wetness around the edges of the sleeping bags. Luckily we were pretty much dry and hadn't been woken early, but then we noticed a large water-filled blister in the middle of the roof. Mr A managed to get dressed and out without incident, but of course I brushed against it and the water flooded in.

The option of sleeping in the summer house was available for Saturday night, so I wasn't too worried, and the sleeping bags, mats and tent dried out in the sunshine on Saturday afternoon anyway. After Mr A had gone, we walked along the canal to the pub, then walked back again, had a barbeque and then sat in the summer house, toasty warm from the wood-burning stove, telling stories.

On Sunday I went on to visit Bee Lady and Landrover Man, two of my potential guest bloggers. Instead of producing a blog post themselves, I was given the Bee Experience, so now I have to write the post instead of them. A canny strategy.

Bee fact #1: the honey bee is the only insect that produces a human food.

Sending a puff of smoke into the hiveTogged up in the full beekeeper protective jumpsuit, I followed BL to the hives. We were going to check over two hives, one of which had swarmed three times in the space of a fortnight. This means a queen takes off with her retinue to find somewhere else to live, leaving the hive with whatever of the rest of the colony is left, and needing a new queen, which they rear from special 'queen cells'. Doing this three times has consequences: the remaining colony can be quite small and may not survive the winter, and (more importantly in this case) the beekeeper either needs to find three new hives and all the hardware this entails, or lose the bees and potentially annoy the neighbours when the swarm takes up residence in their chimney.

The first swarm happened when BL was away, and LM had to deal with it - following the swarm, knocking it into a basket ensuring that he got the queen, providing a new hive and tempting the colony into it. If the swarm is very high up a tree, or very dispersed, this can be quite a procedure.

So now, BL was left with more hives than she really wanted, but she thought that the hive left after the three swarms was without a queen. This offered the opportunity to combine this colony with another, thus reducing the number of hives. The surprise came when, on inspection, there were cells containing eggs - and not just eggs, but larvae and sealed cells too. This meant that not only was there a queen, but she'd been there quite a while, and BL hadn't spotted her on previous surveys.

Searching a frame to find the queen beeQuite honestly, it doesn't surprise me a bit. The queen is slightly longer than the worker bees, with different legs. On a frame with many hundreds of bees, possibly thousands, spotting one bee that is slightly longer with different legs underneath it would defeat me every time, although by the end of my Bee Experience I could just about spot the drones, which are quite significantly bigger than the workers and have different eyes.

BL obviously wanted to mark the queen so she would be easier to find, and tried to use a 'crown of thorns' device which was supposed to keep her in one place. The frame was so busy that it was more practical in the end to just follow her around and dab her with a marker when she stopped running. Then replace everything - frames filled with brood, pollen and honey, the 'queen excluder' which keeps the queen in a specific part of the hive, the lid and weatherproofing, all very carefully so as not to annoy the bees. They'd been given a puff or two of smoke before we started disturbing them, and they buzzed around quite a lot, but not so much that I was worried about being stung, and I was wearing a bee-resistant outfit anyway.

Bee fact #2: you can die from the venom of 10 bee stings per pound of body weight, which isn't that many if you're a child, and quite possible as an adult if you're not wearing protection and you annoy a large colony, for example.

The other hive was one of the colonies that had swarmed, and so was quite new and small with not much honey and equipment cobbled together from what BL could find. We were looking for the queen in this one too, and BL found it, but on a rather fragile frame. So she decided to pack it in, and mark the queen another time.

Two things particularly impressed me. One was the sheer depth of knowledge that is needed to look after bees. Of course, bees in the wild pretty much look after themselves, but if you want them to stay healthy in your hives, multiply (but not too much) and produce a decent amount of honey, you need to know quite a lot of things, some of them quite technical. The other is the record keeping - without recording everything you do, how would you remember which hive is which, how recently you checked, what stages the brood was at, whether they have enough honey stored to keep them over the winter, and everything else about them?

I don't think I'm about to take up beekeeping, but it was a very interesting visit and insight into the art and science of apiculture. And as ever, BL produced a very tasty lunch!

Bee Lady

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