At the village fete

We were asked to demo “bees” at our local village fete, so Keith and I obliged with a stand displaying various Stuff for people to touch, smell etc and answered Questions.

The organisers had originally assumed that we were going to bring a hive full of bees, and been Very Excited about this… until we pointed out the health & safety implications! (Of course our main concern was the risk to the bees from comb collapse, lost foragers and general stress, but sometimes one simple point is a more effective argument than many!)

It was a Very Hot Day, over 30C; we had to move our sunshade at one point to stop some sample comb from melting. But to put this in context it was 10C hotter in France, which must have been unbearable. Several people assumed I was very hot in the suit, but it’s a ventilated one and with just shorts and T shirt underneath I was fine: it was a very thorough test of this style. Mine came from Mann Lake; other manufacturers are available these days.

Keith brought along some honey and it sold out – the reputation of local honey for curing hayfever meant it sold itself!

We had 5 types of “hive” to demonstrate different beekeeping styles: a section of a hollow log, a skep, a small TBH nuc, a Warre and a conventional polystyrene nuc with frames. With veils for kids to dress up in, samples of comb, solid wax, close-up pictures of bees, a sample of propolis to smell and prism viewers to look through and “see what a bee sees” there was plenty to engage visitors and talk about.

The church fete itself was exactly how you imagine an English village fete to be – a band, stalls like a coconut shy and others selling books, plants, jams; archery, the Womens’ Institute, tea and cake, vintage cars, pony rides, a vicar and a chap in a boater hat. On returning home there was an Agatha Christie (Poirot) program on TV which featured a fete almost like it, except the modern one also had a Mindfulness tent and a mass Tai Chi session!

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Learning from the Bees Conference, Berlin

A quick plug for the next LfB conference! –

  • When: August 30th – September 1st
  • Where: Berlin
  • What: an international symposium of natural beekeepers and like minded individuals
  • Why: Hear cutting edge research from top bee scientists. Network with fascinating folk. Learn, have fun!
  • Website:

This is the second such conference. The first, in the Netherlands, was a huge success; I attended and found it a very rewarding experience. You can see collected impressions here; I wrote up my impressions here and some specific useful bee stuff I learned here. I am sure this one will be as rewarding and fun as the first. The focus this time seems to be on bees in trees, and environmental activism. The 2 day conference is preceded by a 1 day workshop on tree beekeeping.

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ONBG meeting, 15th June 2019 – TBHs, Freedom hives and a surprise swarm

Lunch – with swarm of bees in the box. Image (c) Jane Denby, 2019

Fifteen of us met in a beautiful cottage hidden near the middle of Oxford. The plan was to have lunch, inspect Top Bar Hives and see a nearby Freedom Hive, and we managed to meet these targets due to skillful herding by Jane despite the massive amount of chat and laughing.

People staring at mobile phones walked past oblivious as this was gathered in central Oxford

Serendipitously, a call came in about a swarm just before the meeting, and it was only about a mile away so I collected it en route. It was huge, especially as most prime swarms occurred last month, so is probably from a commercial colony (i.e. the numbers are larger than found in our hives because the beekeeper stimulates the queen to lay at maximum rate all the time, to maximise honey yield). It was so large – perhaps over 2kg – we wondered if it was an entire colony absconding from a hive that had got damp in the recent extended heavy rain.

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Swarm stories

Swarm outside Nigel’s house. Photo (c) Nigel Webb 2019

Here’s some things our group has learned, from over 120 swarm collections over several years: what went right…. and what went wrong!

First though – what are swarms? – Within each hive is a queen who lays eggs which become new bees for that hive. But honeybee queens can’t set up a new colony on their own, they are too specialised. Swarms are how bees found new colonies – a queen flies off with 30-50% of the flying bees in a hive. Usually, they gather in a clump on, say, a tree branch, while scouts look for the best home available. While in this clump, we can easily gather them in a box and take them to a hive. Occasionally though, they fly straight from a hive to their chosen new home which could be a roof, chimney, hollow tree or if we’re lucky, an empty hive.

Swarms are useful because they can be used to populate empty hives, and act as a firebreak against disease – most bee pests attack the larvae, but only flying adults are in a swarm.

Early swarms are desirable because they have all year to build up and furthermore, a late swarm risks a dearth of food in this area (the June Gap) just as it is trying to set up home. The bees need to build up to a “critical mass” of numbers and stores to survive the next winter.

Unlike buying a nucleus (mini colony) of bees, or a package (an American abomination), swarms are free but take a year to build up to full strength – you don’t take honey in their first year. Prime swarms hit the ground running and build comb rapidly; afterswarms (casts) have unmated queens, are smaller, are later – so have less forage – and more likely to die in their first winter.

Some commercial beekeepers catch swarms, kill the queens and use the workers to reinforce honey-producing hives with queens they trust. Our group’s emphasis is to propagate survivor genetics and we particularly prize queens and swarms from unmanaged colonies. Continue reading

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Grow, shake or drum? Transferring bees between hive types

Recently a question was raised on the OxNatBees members’ mailing list on how to transfer bees from one hive type to another where the bars are incompatible, in this case from a National deep brood box to a Warré.

The discussion arising, given in summary below, was around three possible methods: growing down, making a shook/brushed ‘swarm’, or to drum them out. The method chosen and the member’s experience is also given.

What method(s) do you prefer?

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ONBG meeting, 6th April 2019 – TBHs

Preliminary discussion of comb management in TBHs with the aid of a small (nucleus) TBH. Photo (c) Jane Denby used here with permission

15 of us converged at Zuzana’s to see her Top Bar Hive, and particularly how to move bars around an occupied hive to make room for the nest to expand. This is necessary in large, established colonies in this type of hive as they can bottle themselves into one end of the hive with a wall of honeycomb for  winter, then find the honeycomb prevents them expanding the nest again for Spring.

This is explained in a lot of detail, along with other TBH management practises in Les Crowder’s excellent book Top-Bar Beekeeping, but as several people commented, it’s one thing reading about these practises but sometimes it’s easier to grasp when physically demonstrated.

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ONBG meeting, 9th March 2019 – new season, new faces!

One of the attendees ready for her selfie

Fifteen of us gathered at Mary’s in Oxford to share a meal, view her hives, and discuss bees and particularly preparation for the forthcoming swarm season.

Spring has begun early this year and beekeepers are wondering if it is a false start like last year, which tricked many colonies into activity too early, so they ran out of stores and starved when winter returned. Fruit trees and other crops can also suffer if frost returns after they commit to blossoming. Gilliane remarked that her hive sensors show a constant 30C above the brood area now, so her bees have committed to building up numbers. But as of time of writing (end of March) it’s still warm so it looks like bees, farms and gardens are OK this year. Continue reading

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