A few months ago, the news was filled with stories about intelligent bumblebees. New research showed that they could learn to pull strings and play football. As a ‘bee’ person I was interested, but I had a strange feeling that I was not allowed to be interested – as if I had somehow declared myself on the ‘honeybee’ side of an imaginary divide, and that these ‘other’ bees were outside of my area.
On ‘my’ side of the fence is the Western honeybee – the familiar, hive-dwelling Apis mellifera. On the other is a vaguely-stripey buzzing mass of bumble-bees, mining-bees and other bees, which then merge gradually into wasps, hornets and hoverflies. For many beekeepers, the world seems starkly split into ‘honeybees’ and ‘not honeybees’. I had found myself firmly on one side of this arbitrary divide, and wanted to get a glimpse into the other world. Continue reading
the cob-lined hive. Note the comb from another hive being used as a template.
One of the key pieces of advice for any new beekeeper is to have at least two populated-hives. In the event that a hive becomes queenless, brood-comb from another can be moved to it (so the bees can raise an emergency queen). Or if any colony is low on stores, a frame of honey can be transferred. But to gain any benefit from multiple hives, the parts need to be interchangeable – having a warre hive and a top-bar hive is interesting, but you can’t easily move combs from one to the other.
Earlier this year, I got a second top-bar hive. Although it was the same type as the first one, the size and shape were different. It was wider and deeper, so although it would be easy to transfer combs from the old hive to the new one, it would not be possible to move them the other way. I knew that that if I ever needed to move comb, it would inevitably be in the more awkward direction. Continue reading
Will uses National hives in Oxford, and has successfully been adapting them to low-intervention beekeeping principles. He writes about his successes and learning experiences on his blog, Oxford Bees. It is a good guide to how to start blending natural beekeeping principles into conventional hive types –
- he harvests excess honey, but
- he does not treat for varroa
- his frames are foundationless, a simple adaptation using lollipop sticks in the slots where foundation normally fits, giving a guide edge for the bees to build comb from.
The significance of foundationless comb
Foundationless comb from one of Will’s hives
Foundation is bought from manufacturers who make it from recycled beeswax – it is not fresh, clean wax which can only be guaranteed if your bees make it themselves. Pesticide residues and trace toxins used by some beekeepers such as miticides and, occasionally, antibiotics tend to be readily absorbed into the wax. These accumulate over repeated wax re-use, and are re-introduced to hives through foundation. There’s also a theoretical possibility that some pathogens could survive the melting and pressing process.
A more subtle problem occurred in France, Belgium and Holland last year when a foundation manufacturer bought wax from China which had been mixed with stearin, a cheap wax used in soap manufacture. This is poisonous to brood, leading to a “shot brood” pattern resembling foul brood, and led to massive problems for many beekeepers.
Foundation is pressed in a set cell size, but bees’ natural behaviour is to build a mix of cell sizes – typically 20% drone-sized cells. Whilst conventional beekeepers try to minimise these as they believe drones are unproductive, ironically culling drones just makes the bees more determined to restore their natural sex ratio and diverts resources from honey production (and of course fewer drones in the area isn’t good if you have queens you need mated).
Oxford Bees can be viewed at www.oxfordbees.com
In 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote The Bee Meeting, a poem in which she describes her experience of attending a meeting of beekeepers in North Tawton, a village in Devon. Last weekend, fifty-five years later, the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group gathered to remove a colony from a soon-to-be-demolished cottage in South Leigh. I was struck by the parallels between the two meetings. I couldn’t remember Plath’s entire poem, but lines and images kept springing into my head as we worked: the masked beekeepers appearing as ‘knights in visors’; the shared experiences of ‘hunting the queen’ and of standing in a meadow, staying so still that the bees ‘will think I am cow parsley’.
Using a bee vac to collect the last few bees. This is what happens if you invite beekeepers to your house.
Ten of us gathered at Rachel’s home to rescue an endangered feral nest from the wall of a building about to be demolished, relocating it to her Warré hive. The bees had been living in a cavity behind a bricked-up window for at least 6 years, possibly over 10.
The meeting was the opposite of our usual low-intervention approach; you can’t get more invasive than cutting out an entire nest and transferring it, along with the bees, their brood and stores into a hive. Yet the bees were incredibly calm. At some point early on, the smoker went out and no one thought to re-light it.
This was the first time any of us had done a “cut-out” but Richard, who has rescued many bees from buildings, had previously surveyed the site and lent us tools including a bee vac, and given us copious advice which proved invaluable. Continue reading
The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.
Beginners usually spend some months reading, learning about different appraches, and training, before choosing a hive type and getting bees in Spring. As with anything in life, it is wise to begin by considering why you want to do something and what you hope to get out of it, before investing time and money; there are different types of hive optimised for different purposes. Your primary interest may be honey; pollination; conservation; or you may simply be fascinated by the behaviours of such alien creatures. I know people who just unwind by watching their bees.
Last summer, I wrote about the arrival of two swarms into the same hive. A wild swarm had settled in the empty top-bar-hive in my garden, and a week later a second swarm moved in. The arrival of this second swarm was not resisted in any way, and the combined colony has remained strong and healthy. I was not able to reach a definitive explanation, but have since found similar accounts, which are discussed here. Continue reading