Beowulf. My mentor – part 2

by David Buckley

Now I had bees of my own and each day during the summer I went to watch what was happening at the hive entrance. Waiting, for lunch time breaks, seemed an endless marathon as the minutes ticked by so that I could get out of the classroom. On one of these, at the hive entrance visits during morning break time, I was privileged to witness my first swarm emerging. It was mesmerising! As the bees tumbled out of the hive the queen, marked blue, appeared on the flight board. She took off and disappeared into the cloud of excited happy bees. I watched. I didn’t have my veil with me as it had to be kept hidden in case it was found and I would then have to explain to the house master why I had a veil in the first place! Bees are fortunately quite placid when swarming and these bees were Beo’s docile dark bees that I was already handling without gloves when inspecting them. Clearly my novice year exposed my lack of experience as the bees swarmed even though I had checked them only five days previously. Of course, we all make mistakes and even now, after fifty-five years of bee keeping, I still make errors. However, the bees are very forgiving, as long as they have eggs, at the right time of the year, they will even replace a lost queen.

The swarm settled in a dog-rose bush but unfortunately, I had to return to class as break was only twenty minutes. Never has a physics lesson dragged so much! As soon as the lesson finished the swarm was my priority. Grabbing a cardboard box from the bins area, I went to the bees. Brilliant! They were still there, tightly clustered in the thorny bush. The swarm was knocked into the box and placed under the bush until evening when I would hive it. Thank goodness for the stashed hives rescued from the fire! The next job was to inspect the brood chamber for queen cells. On checking five cells were found so a nucleus of three frames with a cell on one frame was created. The other cells were reduced to one to avoid the risk of a caste leaving when the first cell emerged in about a week’s time. The selected cell had a large well fed larva swimming in royal jelly due to be capped so I could calculate eight days to emergence. However, this cell never hatched as I’ll explain shortly. That evening I hived the swarm by the traditional method and watched as the bees marched up the slope to investigate their potential new home. The new site was approximately six feet away from the original hive and facing at ninety degrees away from the original hive’s position. The thinking was that the swarm would quickly re-orientate to the new position. The nucleus was blocked in with grass so that flying bees would not immediately return to their original home.

The following day I went to check my growing apiary. I was beginning to run out of frames and foundation and the problem was that all parcels arriving at boarding school were checked for possible contraband before being given to their recipients. We had no half term, so I needed to be inventive! The local farmer who had asked me one day to help him to pull his lorry out of a muddy field became my ally and my illegal route for bee equipment. The lorry incident was a first for me too as I was required to drive his tractor towing the lorry while he drove the heavy goods vehicle. I was new to driving anything! The farmer set me up on the tractor in first gear while I held down the clutch ready to snatch the truck out. It worked! Bob became a lifelong friend and at school he would allow me to use his address as a post-delivery station and he would drop off the parcels from Taylors of Welwyn at the hives when they arrived. The things beekeepers do to pursue their amazing hobby.

Now there were three colonies, or so I thought! Bees were flying from the newly hived swarm, and from their original hive. The nucleus hadn’t removed their temporary hive block, so I felt quite confident that I had followed Wedmore’s instructions accurately. Then the rain came. It rained for two days but then summer returned. Bees were not my only fascination with the natural world. In the apiary, I mentioned how the area had been reclaimed by nature when the site had been deserted many years previously. As the roses and naturally occurring flora and fauna re-established itself, I pursued another enthusiasm. I learned how to bud roses and the previous year I had grafted cultivars from the school grounds onto some of the dogrose (rosa canina) stems. These buds were now flowering on the root stocks. It was very exciting to see a large, lettuce sized purple, Wendy Cussons blooming on a dogrose stem growing in the wild. The cuckoos were back and seemed to call from dawn to dusk with the most beautiful dawn chorus amalgamating numerous individual songbirds’ contributions. This was in the early 1960s.

The next day was a disappointment as there were no bees flying from the swarmed hive. I retrieved my veil and went to check what was happening. There were no bees in the hive! Some foundation had been drawn but very little. The swarm had de-camped! I was devastated needless to say. Reluctantly I went back to class but couldn’t concentrate! It was a Latin lesson to make matters worse. Three days later it was time to inspect the original hive to see if the queen cell had hatched. Having lost my blue queen with the swarm I was filled with trepidation in case the cell was still capped. If it was then there would be a dead larva inside. Hopefully the nucleus would also have a new queen! Beo had taught me not to systematically smoke hives routinely as much of the behaviour of the bees might be altered due to the smoke. However, he always recommended having the smoker lit just in case. As I started my inspection, the hive seemed very calm with many newly hatched fluffy worker bees. There seemed to be a lot of bees with lots of foraging activity. Each frame of capped brood is equal to three frames of hatched bees. Eventually the frame with a drawing pin on the top bar was lifted out and disaster!  The cell had a hole chewed halfway up and a dead larva inside. Thinking I must have missed another queen-cell I continued to look through the remaining frames. On the very last frame, to my utter surprise was my blue marked queen! When she de-camped with the swarm she must have returned to her original site and killed the daughter queen in its cell. Why had this happened? Needless to say, a letter to Beowulf was dispatched immediately. A quick response by return post in a dotty recycled envelop arrived with a few ideas but profoundly philosophical as always.  In the nineteen sixties a quick response was anything inside a week. Snail mail, as it became known with the advent of text messaging! You never know what the bees are thinking and for the first, time in my infancy of beekeeping, I realized what was meant by, ‘the bees don’t read the books’. One thought that came to mind was by taking out the nucleus pressure in the hive was reduced and when the swarm decamped it found the change of conditions in the original hive attracted the swarm to return. There have been occasions throughout my life with bees when swarms have returned to the parent hive, so it is not a unique happening although rare.

The next time I went to the apiary was to check the nucleus for eggs. I was hoping to find my very first new queen. Smoker and hive tool in hand, coupled with excitement and some anticipation the nucleus was opened. Frame one had eggs and two had capped brood. How exciting! Where was the queen? I was so excited but I could not find the queen. Three times I checked the frames but still failed to see her. A novice’s mistake though explained why she was elusive. I did not check the final frame as it was foundation and naively did not expect her to be there. Of course, she was. A beautiful dark bee which became a mother to next year’s queens thanks to Beo’s guidance.

To be continued…

Beowulf. My mentor and friend – part 1

By David Buckley

My beekeeping story began many years ago in 1965. I was a student at a boarding school near Nottingham. The school was in beautiful grounds set amongst many acres of farm and wood land. Much of my spare time was spent in this natural environment watching wild life ranging from, nesting birds, to  stoats hunting rabbits. Swallows and swifts skimmed across the lake to take emerging flies from the surface and mallard chivvying their recently hatched ducklings into the safety of the reeds and bullrushes. A stretch of woodland known as The Horse Shoe encompassed an extensive area of land being reclaimed by nature after the removal of ex-army Nissan huts leaving the concrete pads behind. Each pad was approximately the size of a tennis court. Two of these concrete flats were now surrounded by blackberry bramble and sycamore saplings. Vetches and white clover surrounded the concrete with wide expanses of dog rose (rosa canina) making natural hedges. Unsurprisingly, a local beekeeper had established an apiary on one of these bases. I now know that the hives were WBC hives. This was not the beginning of my bee keeping enthusiasm but maybe a seed had been sown!

One afternoon each week the students were tasked with doing manual labour. Theoretically the head teacher said we were giving back to the school some of our time as a good will gesture. It wasn’t optional however, but I suspect that we were cheap labour! On this particular afternoon my group were tasked with knocking down some old’ past their sell by date’ wooden garages to make way for state of the art concrete panel replacements. The garages and contents were to be burned. What an exciting job for a bunch of young teenage boys. As the fire burned some old beehives with old combs were brought out and as the frames of old comb were hurled onto the fire they flared as the wax reached flash point.  Then the hives were dragged out for the same fate! It seemed to me as though this was wasteful so I asked our supervisor (a sixth form prefect) if they could not be offered to the beekeeper in the village. The response was that if I could organise it then I had one week to remove them, and if they weren’t wanted they could be burnt. Sadly the beekeeper was in retirement mode and didn’t want them. I could not see these beautiful hives burnt so stashed them behind the hedge. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a lifetime of beekeeping.

School closed for the summer and I went to stay with my grandma for a few days. To help her pension fund she took in a lodger. Over lunch one day I related the story of my hive rescue. The lodger listened intently and made no further comment. However, after lunch he excused himself from the table only to return moments later with a copy of Wedmore’s Beekeeping Manual. He asked my Gran if he could gift it to me. I was hooked. The book remains in my library holding treasured memories.  I read and re-read the book avidly learning about bees and bee keeping. I decided that I would like to have some bees after reading for nearly a year.  When I told my dad he said that there was a beekeeper on the local allotment who by chance had collected a swarm from a plum tree and was happy to let me have it. The stashed hives now became a home for my very own bees..  Sadly the swarm became queenless! I didn’t know why and my benefactor didn’t have a spare queen but he knew a man who may have one. Enter Beowulf Cooper. We didn’t have a phone so on my bike I rode to White Gates, Thurlston to meet Beo at his home.

What a fascinating man! I spent an evening listening to his vision of bee breeding. At the time I really did not understand a lot of the philosophy he was talking about but soon I was spending many happy hours in his many apiaries throughout the Midlands. Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire Cambridge etc where I met the founder members of The Village Bee Breeders Association. Richard Smailes, author of some of the early VBBA (to become BIBBA) booklets, helped me make my first nucs and mate them in his apiary in Syston, Leistershire. Beo found me a queen that had been in an observation hive. He turned up one evening at my home and showed me how to transfer the two frames of bees into a brood chamber and unite them to my queenless swarm. His advice was to now leave the bees alone for two weeks before rearranging the brood nest and feeding for comb building and winter preparations. During the remainder of my summer break his yellow Bedford dormobile, packed with bee stuff, would arrive to take me bee keeping. What an education I had. Sadly school called and the new term began. Beo taught my mum how to feed the bees for winter. In those days the GPO was piloting fluorescent dots as a precursor to post codes and Beo avidly collected these spotty envelops so I saved all my envelopes for him. I had no idea what he did with them!  I was back to reading Wedmore. I corresponded with Beo and he kept me interested for the winter and in the following Spring he moved my bees to a site at my school. I did not inform school about my bees as one of the concrete pads became my first apiary. Certain goods were not permitted at boarding school so the top of my beehive became a prized hiding  place for cigarettes and catapults and other things! No prefect would dare to look for contraband inside the bee hive!

To be continued…