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…