The first bees, walking into the sun hive
After months of waiting, preparation and (recently) some anxious moments, we’ve had girls. Lots of girls! Yesterday, two swarms of bees walked into their new homes and now, finally, both my hives are full. I walked out into the field just now to see them. Opening the viewing windows on each hive, there they each were, clustered inside like sleeping newborns, sheltering from the day’s drizzle. The heat they were generating made the hive warm to the touch.
Having both colonies is a huge relief. My hive site wasn’t ready until a week ago and I missed a rash of local swarms that appeared during the May heat wave. Two washout weeks followed, in which no bees swarmed. By the end of last week, I was starting to get twitchy about my lack of bees and increasingly jealous of the swarm my friend Mark had picked up. Apparently his bees were doing brilliantly. I was starting to consider the possibility of being in the idiotic position of writing a bee blog without actually having any bees.
What is a swarm? If you think of a colony of bees (one queen, a few thousand male drones and around fifty thousand female workers) as a single organism, then a swarm is essentially the child of that organism. Many factors trigger a swarm, but the most common are over-crowding in the hive or an old queen who is no longer laying strongly. When either of these happen, the workers create new queens by feeding chosen larvae a special super-diet of proteins, vitamins, sugar and fatty acids known as ‘royal jelly’, which will turn the larvae into queens. After sixteen days, the first new queen hatches and kills her rivals. Now, either she or the old queen will leave the hive, taking a collection of drones and workers with them. This is a swarm. To begin with the swarm will assemble close by, while scout bees go in search of a permanent home. As soon as that home is found, the swarm will head off for its new life. Of course, bees being utterly unpredictable, there are many permutations of what I have just described. But that’s the general idea.
In an experience that makes good drama, but sucks in real life, I’ve both been on standby for Megan to go into labour and for the phone to ring with news of a swarm. Since her waters broke three weeks ago, Megan has been keeping her hospital notes on a chest of drawers by the front door. Two drawers down, I had stashed my bee suit and swarm-collecting notes. We took bets on which would come first. I bet on the baby. She bet they would come at the same time. I made a joke about dropping her off at the hospital and, if things weren’t moving along, making a dash for the swarm. Megan, naturally, was amused and delighted by this.
On Saturday, the weather was fine and was expected to last through the weekend. If bees were going to swarm, now would probably be the time. At RHS Harlow Carr, there is a bee supply shop. I wanted to get a skep (a straw container for catching swarms, or in the old days for keeping bees), so we drove there and while Megan and the bump looked at plants, I went shopping. I ran into Sue, who mans the local swarm hotline. Mid conversation, her mobile rang. There was a swarm, but it was a long way away. She put her hand over the receiver and asked if I wanted to go all that distance to fetch it. There was always the chance the swarm might have flown off before I got there.
I’d be lying if I said I remained cool and calm. Megan was fished out of a cafe queue and bundled into the car. A rubbish expectant bee parent, I’d left all my swarm-catching gear at home. Back at Sparrowhawk Farm, I loaded up the car, stole the camera from the hospital bag and set off, northwards. I’ve read all about taking a swarm and spoken to people who have taken scores of swarms. Mostly it’s a straightforward endeavour: there are a ball of bees hanging off a tree, you shake them into a skep, put the skep on the ground to allow the stragglers to find their way in, then wrap up the skep in a sheet and stick it in the boot of your car. It looks easy, joyful even, but so does birth on the hypno-birthing dvds Megan and I have been watching.
Leaving Nidderdale, I was met with a black skyline. I’d be taking the swarm in a storm. Now, I know that swarms are usually gentle and a bit of rain makes them gentler still, but a storm? I had no idea how that might affect them. My imagination, over-active at the best of times, began to take me off into bee doomsday scenarios. I think I was more worried about making an idiot of myself than having a catastrophic allergic reaction to bee stings, but there wasn’t much in it. As I drove, I practiced hypno-birth breathing. In: one…two…three…four. Out: one…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight. By the time I got my out-breaths up to twenty, the car was enveloped in rain. When a tractor and trailer blocked the road, I fished out my swarming notes and did some last-minute cramming.
Fortunately, there were midwives at hand. Janet and Kevin have kept bees for the past three years. This swarm had come off one of their hives and because they had no new hive for it, they had rung the swarm hotline to offer it to another beekeeper – me. Hearing that I was a novice, they kindly gave me a lesson in taking a swarm. The bees were hanging off a branch, just above head height, with no branches below them. I’d read enough books to know that is was an absolute dolly of a swarm to take. And so it was. While Keven held the skep under them, I stood on a bench and gave the branch a hard shake. The bees fell, plop, into the skep. Just like in the books, we put the skep on the ground to let the stragglers rejoin the swarm. Half an hour later, encouraged by a little smoking and the heavy rain, all the bees were in. I’d been all for just wrapping them in a sheet and hoping for the best, but Kevin and Janet boxed them beautifully for me.
I drove home with exaggerated care, radio down low. After a year of planning, finally I had bees! Finally I was a beekeeper! My bees were coming to live in a beautiful hive site, with a high wall to keep the wind off and surrounded by fruit trees and wildflower meadows. Ok, this is all still a bit under construction, but it’s half way there. What is 100% ready though is their warre hive, with its thick red cedar walls, quilt filled with sheep wool and fancy upgraded mesh floor to keep varroa mites at bay. This swarm would be going into ‘sun hive’, painted in sunflower yellow and white, with Megan’s sun symbols on the roof. Bees apparently recognise shapes – when I have many hives, the symbols would help them recognise their home.
Nidderdale was cold and wet when I returned and evening was coming. My only option for housing the bees that night was to open up a hive and chuck them in. Now I don’t have any idea what goes on in bees’ minds, but I can’t believe they would be happy about being shaken into one box and thrown, convict-like into another all in one day. So I took the skep out to the hive site, laid it next to the sun hive, wedged a brollie over it to keep off the rain and prayed everything would stay put until the morning. Job done for the day. Or so I thought.
There was a call waiting for me when I got in. A local beekeeper had a small swarm. Did I want it? Yes! Could I go get it? I wanted to, but couldn’t – Megan and I were due to go to a friend’s for dinner. I’d just have to hope the swarm was still there tomorrow.
A fierce wind picked up in the night, coming out of the moors at the head of the dale and hitting the west wall of the house. By seven in the morning, I had been awake for an hour, worrying that the skep would have blown over. I went out to the hive site and was relieved to find that everything was as I had left it. There was a muggy warmth in the air, the sun moving behind light clouds. A good day to walk the bees in to their new home. A few bees were already emerging from the skep, heading into the meadow. Would they find the pockets of red clover, a bee favourite, amongst the sorrel and pignut? Would they come back and report, with a waggle dance, that their new home was worth a try?
Walking bees into a hive is the traditional way of doing things. What you do is put a ramp of sorts up to the hive entrance and lay a sheet over it. Then you pick up the skep and shake the bees onto the sheet. As bees generally move upwards, they will head up the sheet into the hive. So that’s what I did. The bees landed in a big, buzzing dollop on the sheet and I sat on a nearby stone, camera in hand, to watch. Having lived in Africa for some years, I’ve been on countless safaris. The best thing I ever saw were mountain gorillas in Rwanda. For an hour, I sat watching the youngsters play tag, while the mums brushed past me and dad sunbathed like a drunk. It was the way the gorilla family communicated that was so magical. You could see everything going on in their heads. This, too, was what was so special about the march of the bees. First, scouts were went up the ramp to investigate, then a small platoon. I moved closer, hoping to see the tell-tale sign that the bees were giving the thumbs-up. And there it was – a number of them were fanning their wings, bums in the air. At the end of their abdomens, their nasonov glands were shining, giving off a pheromone which tells the other bees that a good home has been found. And, on cue, the main body began to make their way up the ramp. Soon, there were thousands clustered around the hive entrance. In a small dance floor just outside, a group were dancing in a circle – the traditional bee dance to tell the others that forage (or in this case, a good home) was close by.
Of course, a few bees ran off back to the skep and had to be tipped over the entrance and some others started crawling up the hive and were gently brushed down. The best method, I found was a few light squirts with a mister. Thinking rain was coming, the bees scuttled inside. And although they buzzed around me and sat on my hands, not one of them stung me. As an experience it was right up there with the gorillas. And, a little intoxicated by the experience, I couldn’t wait to pick up the second swarm and do it again.
The bees of the second swarm were darker, more akin to the native English black bees that are now basically extinct. They had already been housed in a small wine box, so there was little to do other than put them in the back of the car and take them home. These bees were destined for the ‘Button Moon’ hive – blue and white with the resident artist’s designs on the roof. It had meant to be the moon hive, as chic as its solar brother, but Megan’s deep space extravaganza prompted a title change. Once again I set up the ramp and sheet and tipped out the bees. And whether I was getting better at it (parenthood is easier second time around?), or whether the button moon bees could sense the rain in the air, they fairly dashed inside in a great excitement of shiny fanning and circular can-cans.
As the rain began to fall, I sat on a stone, gawping at the hives. Now it was all done and the bees were inside, it seemed like the easiest, most natural thing in the world. My gittery car ride into the storm now seemed absurd. Yes, these bees would sting me at some point and they may clear off tomorrow, but it had been a beautiful start to our relationship. I found myself talking to the two hives, telling them about the wildflower and trees I was going to bring to them… then Megan was calling and the rain picked up, as if to slap me for being such a loon.
At home, I was met with an irate pregnant lady, who had no intention of listening to more of my bee reveries or letting me put my feet up in front of the French Open final. Family number one had been sidelined for the weekend and wasn’t happy. I was ordered to drive family number one to Baby’s R Us in Leeds, an hour and a half away, where I would buy a very expensive push chair.
(For a gallery of all the action see here).