ONBG meeting June 2021 – another Bee Tea at Dee!

Once Covid lockdown rules were relaxed to allow up to 30 people to gather outdoors, it took Jane 6 microseconds to arrange a garden meeting at her amazing “country cottage in the middle of Oxford”. 13 of us gathered to talk about bees, the swarms we’d been chasing and hiving, and to devour cakes over cups of tea.

The weather was so ideal, a small afterswarm emerged from one of Jane’s hives, but it spiralled up a long way and disappeared from view. I suspect it was too small to be viable – it may find a cavity somewhere but is unlikely to build up enough stores to overwinter. If I catch a really small swarm, I merge it with another colony to form one strong one. I just let the bees sort out which queen they prefer; I find in those circumstances that the colonies don’t fight.

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Drayton beehive on display

We previously described this novel hybrid hive in this previous post.

The Drayton hive can be seen at the Sylva Foundation in Long Wittenham, this weekend and next, as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks – 15 & 16 and 22 & 23 May. Details of the hive can be seen here: www.draytonbeehive.com

It will then be exhibited at the National Garden Scheme open day at Lime Close, Drayton, OX14 4HU – 2.00-5.30pm on Sunday 30 May. Andrew Bax, who designed the hive, will be there to show how it works to people who may be interested. There is an admission charge of £5.00, raising funds for the hospice movement.

Andrew has an apiary in Lime Close in which prototype and production Drayton hives house bees enjoying the abundant and unusual forage.

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Lockdown winter projects

Have you ever wondered what beekeepers do in winter?

My own strategy is to try and eat my own weight in honey. Others are more industrious.

Here are a few examples our group has shared over lockdown.

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Book review: Treatment Free Beekeeping, by David Heaf

Rigorous metastudy marshals the evidence and pushes the debate forward

Published by Northern Bee Books and IBRA, 2021. £24.95 / US$30, 119 pages, ISBN 978-1-913811-00-6

This is a seminal work – the first comprehensive review of treatment free (TF) beekeeping around the world. The writing style is readable yet academically precise – no urban myths here, every statement is verified by reference to data and academic papers. The pattern that emerges is that you can easily help bees express a large repetoire of useful behaviour and abilities, which standard texts ignore, so there is something here for every level of reader.

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Horizontal hive types

Andrew Bax, OxNatBees member and developer of the Drayton hive, has had an article published in January’s Beecraft magazine comparing different types of horizontal hive: their advantages and tradeoffs. You can read his review here:

Andrew Bax article on horizontal hives

Andrew has 30 years’ experience of beekeeping and became interested in alternative styles a few years ago, culminating in his blending of conventional and natural designs in the Drayton, which we reviewed here.

Our thanks to Andrew, and Richard Ricketts (editor of BeeCraft) for allowing us to reproduce the article.

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Bees Without Borders: conference report

Wild nest built in window in France. With the shutter closed it may well survive winter. The householder was delighted with their “observation hive”!

What: 6 lectures, mainly on wild / unmanaged bees, by European researchers titled Bees Without Borders – I attended by Zoom and the recordings have been released here. Some of the lectures were very technical.

When: 21st November 2020

Who: organised by the Swiss organisation FreeTheBees in partnership with the Natural Beekeeping Trust and Honey Bee Wild (Luxembourg). The lecturers were academics, a bee farmer and a couple of specialists.

What I learned: some key points were

  • There is a lot of bleeding edge research going on in Europe we don’t hear much of in the Anglosphere.
  • For many years, foresters have worked to minimise tree cavities, as they reduce the value of lumber. Now however people are beginning to deliberately create them for biodiversity, not just for bees (Zeidler beekeeping) but other creatures like bats and birds.
  • No one has studied wild bees in Europe since at least 1800. They were just taken for granted, then it was assumed varroa killed them all. But combining data like “how many nests can we find in this area” and forestry information (tree types etc) across Europe, you can extrapolate that there are probably about 80,000 wild colonies in European forests.
  • Importing foreign bees measurably weakens local strains.

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Winter is coming

The Winter Cycle

Honey in top box, cluster below

It’s getting cold at night – time to fit mouse guards! You may see dark stains or frost on landing boards early in the morning – this is the humid breath of the hive condensing as it hits cold wood.

By the start of November, bees have prepared for winter. This picture shows a typical hive – click to enlarge any of these pictures for more detail – you can tell a lot about the health of a colony through windows. Here, the cluster is in the lower box, below a box full of honey. (This is without feeding the bees: they have regulated their numbers to match forage and finish the season with enough stores for winter.)

There’s a trick with windows – bees tend to pack the colder, outer cells last when laying brood and storing honey, so you need to examine the cells about 2-3 rows in, to know what’s really going on in a box. This needs a strong light – I sometimes use a powerful red torch as bees can’t see red. Some people orient the windows to view the flat side of the comb, but then you can only see one comb: it is a matter of preference.

By the way, I thought this colony was dwindling away this year. It went disturbingly quiet after swarming in May, and had long periods of not bringing in pollen. But it always fended off wasps, so obviously their morale was good (queen-right), and it was suddenly active and numerous again in September – the bees had simply been playing a long game, living mainly on stores and bringing up a couple of generations of new bees, building up numbers again. I’m glad I didn’t open the hive to find out what was going on: it would have been very disruptive and I don’t think they could have taken any losses from chilled brood etc. The principle is, of course, “what could you do to help if you DID open it up?” I don’t re-queen my colonies – supersedure and swarms are much healthier.

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