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…

Bumblebees and Honeybees

Springtime this year has been very difficult for the bees. The dramatic changes in temperature and rainfall during April and May have delayed the honeybee colonies’ development. At one stage, nectar was coming in and things looked good, then cold easterly winds kept the bees at home. They needed to preserve their brood nest temperature just as birds need to keep their eggs constantly warm.

The bumblebees also started off well with queens establishing their nests in a variety of places. Queen bumblebees hibernate during winter just as queen wasps do. In spring, stimulated by daylight lengthening and warmer temperatures, the queens seek out a safe place to nest. Their favourite places are in bird nesting boxes or compost bins. Invariably they choose boxes with old bird nesting material from last year. The queens will make a small nest and her first daughters help to build up the family. They are usually happy if left alone and disappear by mid-summer and rarely return to the same site next year.

We have received a lot of calls about bumblebees this year and have advised callers that they are best left alone as they rarely bother anyone or cause structural damage to properties. All species of bee are very efficient pollinators giving gardeners and growers free pollination services. There would be very few fruits or seeds without the bees to give this service. If you have a bumblebee nest, enjoy watching their comings and goings at a safe distance and feel lucky that they’ve chosen to be with you for this season. Bumblebees are in decline, as are many other species of pollinators, so we must look out for them. The large fluffy queens can be seen and heard in late March collecting nectar and pollen from Crocus and Snowdrops. Their nests develop to the size of a small ball and, unlike the honeybee, they do not store honey. Honeybees on the other hand store honey for their winter food but, being the amazing creatures that they are, they invariably produce more than they need to see them through the winter months. It is this surplus that a beekeeper will take – but that’s a process for another article!

Enjoy the bees!

Spring Caution and buying nucs!

Spring Caution and buying nucs!

Beekeepers are generally positive and optimistic and with the lengthening of the days the enthusiasm to look, into the hive is tangible. However, caution is the watch word. Whether a beginner or experienced, be mindful of the bees’ needs first and curb that excitement to be opening the hive. It is a critical time for the bees as winter slowly loses its grip and on warm days pollen can be seen coming into the hive. This is usually a good sign that the queen is breeding and the colony is beginning to expand. This is not a guarantee that the queen is laying fertile eggs though. She may be laying drone eggs due to missed mating and this brood needs pollen too. If you have varroa floor boards the size of the cluster by can be estimated by looking at the insert. Usually there is a ring of cappings on the board similar to the cluster’s diameter.

On a warm day with no cold wind check for food supplies. The bees are now consuming food rapidly to rear brood and to maintain brood temperatures. A simple check is by hefting gently to appreciate the hive weight and if in doubt feed a block of fondant above the crown board. Towards the end of March or early April liquid feed is a good alternative but only if warm weather is current. The colonies that have wintered well and with plenty of bees can be supered by the end of the month. This extra space enables the hatching bees to cluster without over-crowding the brood nest thus helping to alleviate pressure to issue an early swarm. If the bees are supered too late then the swarming impulse is very difficult to suppress.  It is important that the bees have food available now and in a good Spring early nectar rapidly enables colony expansion and even an excess of honey. The early super enables surplus to be stored and as it is immediately above the brood nest the nectar removes the need to collect water for honey dilution. Ripe honey needs to be diluted for use, so water is necessary in early spring.  However, if there is no flow on then artificial support is necessary. If you are unsure when to go for liquid feed, go with fondant as the bees can use this feed all year round. Liquid feed does have the advantage of stimulating brood development.

A simple water fountain can be made by putting pebbles into a shallow dish and adding water to just below the level of the pebbles. This ensures that the bees don’t drown.

For those who are waiting for their nucleus colonies to arrive this year, there is guidance from BBKA. The recommendation is that five frame nucs should have a minimum of three frames of brood and the rest food with a current queen, mated and laying fertile worker brood. Ideally the breeder should mark the queen and I prefer also to clip her. I would always recommend you have an experienced beekeeper with a beginner to assess what you are buying. Weak or below standard stingy bees are not desirable. When the nuc arrives, or when you collect it place it on the site where you want your hive to be allowing the bees to fly for a day or two. Then on a warm day remove the nuc to one side placing the hive on its permanent site. Transfer the bees across and feed with a contact feeder to assist the bees to draw out foundation. It is important to keep the frames in the same order that they came in in the nuc. I would suggest that two or three frames of foundation are given initially with a dummy board adding the rest when the bees are expanding.  Be sure to do all manipulations fully protected as stings hurt! Please buy bees locally and avoid importing bees at all costs. Besides the disease risk imported queens produce drones who happily compete for mating rights with local bees and these different genetics often lead to aggression in F2 generations. These imports disrupt local breeders from improving their bees due to hybridization. Remember to keep records of what you are doing and plan what you are going to do next. My mantra is always to have a reason for opening the hive and work in tandem with the weather and the bees!

Enjoy the new season and hopefully some honey.


2021 At the Hive Entrance

Written by David Buckley – 54 years of beekeeping

Whenever I go to an apiary my first focus is to watch the hive entrance.  This applies whatever the season or time of year.  Today, in early March, when the sun was shining one of the colonies seemed to be excessively active. After a few minutes of observation I noticed that a few bees were bringing in some early pollen. That’s good I thought but quickly spotted drones flying! Potentially this is bad news. Why?  We usually celebrate early pollen coming into the hive as it suggests that the queen is laying and the next generation of worker bees is being brooded.  In most cases that early pollen proves to be an accurate statement of the colony’s expansion. In this case it suggests the possibility that the colony is queenless or failing. A queenless colony will tolerate drones through the winter and these drones will be mature enough to fly in Spring. Whether or not they will be fertile is another question! It is too early anyway to be thinking of matings as there are no queens about yet.  I think this colony will be queenless!  On the other hand if there is a queen and she is failing for some reason there may be a mixture of drones and workers being born from early egg laying. These drones may not be mature enough to fly yet. At this stage therefore, I do not know if I have 2020 wintered drones or 2021 drones from a failing queen.

 On checking my records the queen should be a 2020 July mated queen. Her brood pattern was good and the bees’ temperament fine.  Winter feeding was completed by the end of September and all should have been straight forward. Of course I can’t open the hive yet to explore what is wrong, if anything. There is nothing that I can do any way as the time of year is all wrong for remedial action. However a marker has been put on this hive for early examination and will be prioritised for investigation when the weather is warm enough. Being compromised by the time of year does not help but already I am planning what to do.

This hive had six seams of bees in January so currently there may be a lot of potentially useful workers to join up to a smaller colony in April as long as it’s disease free. If the queen is there she will need to be removed.  If uniting is the outcome then newspaper will be used. When uniting bees I prefer to put the queen-right bees at the bottom on their original stand and the queenless bees above.

Keeping an eye on the hive entrances is part of routine management. As spring approaches more activity can be observed in the colony. If there is little or no activity in one hive while others are busy then it is an indication that all is not well in this hive. However it is not until first inspections that correct assessments can be made. Meanwhile check for access to food and feed any hungry colonies. Move to liquid feed as soon as there is nectar available if necessary but ensure that fondant does not run out on colonies that have been supported through the winter. Food consumption increases rapidly from now in healthy colonies. Robbing is also an issue in early spring and weak colonies are susceptible so again entrance observations may help. If bees are approaching a weaker colony to rob they hover with their legs trailing below, a bit like an under carriage, and then dash into the hive. This is a prime way for disease to spread.

Now is the time to prepare to put on the first supers.  This is more for space to accommodate hatching bees than for storage of honey at this time of year and hopefully to deter the bees from thinking of swarming early in the season as the space alleviates pressure on the brood nest. Watching my bees at the hive entrance is also very therapeutic. After a challenging day at work there is something very relaxing about watching the comings and goings of the hive. Loads of pollen of different colours come in. Drones buzz about and workers remove hive debris. There is always something happening so spend a little time at the hive entrance as it can be so rewarding.