Fourteen folk converged on the Lamb and Flag pub in Oxford to meet and discuss plans for the coming season. Four were just exploring the idea of keeping bees, two keep at least some bees in framed Nationals so there was a mix of experience and some lively conversation.
Topics ranged from implications of the warm weather, to where to get training in natural beekeeping, increasing proficiency after initial training, and expanding to out-apiaries.
The unusually warm winter
Driving into Oxford it was clear that some trees were already blossoming – as usual the city’s microclimate is 2 weeks ahead of the countryside, which itself has had no severe cold weather this year, resulting in insects and plants being very confused about what season it is. Gardeners and farmers are worried about things flowering too early and it’s generally expected that bees, butterflies etc will have a tough year. Most of us have observed our bees returning to the hive with pollen in December and January!
This is a problem because if the queens have not stopped laying over winter, creating a brood break, varroa numbers will not have been reset to low levels. I have noticed one hive is dropping 20 mites a day, indicating a real problem, and am considering trying a shook swarm in warmer weather, leaving infested brood behind. This might be too much stress for a colony emerging from winter, alternative suggestions are to simply leave it alone; to drum the bees out of the infested boxes to new ones; or to deliberately give them minimal room to expand in Spring, forcing them to swarm early. I will inspect the bees for signs of varroa and make a decision in March.
Reviewing our colonies’ health, all but one of us reported the bees have been flying and gathering pollen more or less continuously and never had a serious period of inactivity this year. This matches reports from all over England. We’ve had no colony losses yet this winter, but these usually occur in March due to starvation, so a bit early to tell. Linda noted sardonically that she never seems to lose colonies over winter, and her local conventional beekeepers are rather puzzled by this.
Our group has been contacted by one of Oxford University’s departments who are offering space for a hive on their roof, which was gladly taken up by Will – who used to work in that building and always wanted to put a hive there! Five years ago, local natural beeks generally had just one or two hives, and passed requests like these on to conventional beeks. Now though, several of us are beginning to overflow our gardens and are very interested in out-apiaries.
We circulated some preliminary drafts of hive inspection record sheets, intended to help beginners, which we’ll cover in detail in another blog post. The aim is to de-mystify how to observe a colony without opening the hive, and ensure such checks are thorough. There were some useful comments on usability from the group.
The beginners present were very interested in how to get training; the obvious starting point for locals is Gareth’s courses. We mention others we know of on our Events page. The low availability of training courses is another reason for the creation of the hive inspection records, which should help people interpret what they see.
Rajo had heard that Jay’s bees were stolen! It is extremely rare for natural beeks’ hives to be targeted, but I have heard of one other case a few years ago, where the bees were shaken out and the hive left behind. Typically the bees are then simply used to reinforce another colony, the beekeeper probably re-queens to maximise honey yield so any valuable genetics are lost (Jay is involved in reintroducing British Black Bee genes to the area). I contacted Jay, who confirmed “Yeah, my bees were stolen. The initial clue was a crown board that was left next to the hive…. a Warré! Kind of odd, so I had the security team check CCTV and yup, stolen.”
Helle invited Sam, who is considering keeping bees, over to her place to see how a hive can fit in a crowded Oxford garden without issues. A great example of the useful networking of groups like this.
There was some discussion of Friends of the Earth’s Bee Fest in Oxford in May, where we’ve been invited to set up a demo stall to interest members of the public. We also talked about our forthcoming hive building workshop in April. As this depends on using cedar, which has to air dry and season slowly, there are no spaces left (the wood was cut in December).
Andrew had obtained a box of goose feathers from his brother, who raises them for Christmas, and everyone left with a feather. These make ideal bee brushes, as they are stiff, but their soft edges are much less irritating to bees than the bristles of a regular bee brush.
People were still chattering intently as I left. Next time we meet at a pub, we’ll choose one which serves food…