Eight of us met atop a building in central Oxford where Will keeps six hives, a mix of Nationals and their big brother Commercials, twenty metres above street level. He blends natural and conventional beekeeping, being treatment free, using foundationless frames, and preferring examination of floor debris to opening hives. It was the first time some of us natural beekeepers had seen inside a framed hive and seen equipment like queen excluders.
These hives are managed for a honey crop and I have to say the samples we tasted were much fuller tasting and more interesting than the honey from my own rural hives, which tends to be dominated by Oilseed Rape. These bees are near the Botanic Gardens and University Parks, and a riverside, which have a huge variety of exotic plants.
Challenges faced by the bees include constant wind, leading to exposure in winter, and the effort of repeatedly climbing, and this year there has been a summer drought which reduced nectar flows. So despite a good Spring season the bees have struggled since then – something a lot of us have found in Oxfordshire this year. Unexpectedly, even up here wasps can still be a real problem. One of the six hives is often “hot” so we wore full bee suits. On the day though, all the hives were very calm.
We enjoyed a bring-and-share lunch in the departmental canteen and looked at various examples of frames, equipment and comb, while chatting about our beekeeping experience. Jack is one of the few members who still has an empty hive after a prolific spring swarm season; a swarm did enter his bait box, but then left! We also discussed how to cream honey – which can be done simply with a food blender or even a drill with a large bit attached – and sampled some of Will’s exceptionally full flavoured honey with various delicacies people had brought, some still warm from just being baked.
The building has a roof border planted with a type of sedum to support pollinators, but the recent drought has hammered it.
Will described how he spotted a swarm, presumably from one of his own hives, in a tree below them, far too high to reach. After it had been there a few days ignoring his attempts to lure it, he called the University Parks department who sent a cherry picker round within 40 minutes and shortly he had it, it is now in one of the hives. It has been hived for 3 weeks now, and he opened it to show us (lots of comb but negligible stores yet). The nectar flow in Oxford is usually pretty constant, due to gardens and parks, but the drought is reducing it.
Another interesting point of Will’s was that one hive’s temper varies a lot, and on “bad” days when he opens the hive he immediately smells a strong whiff of an aldehyde-like smell, which he takes to be alarm pheromone. He then knows he’s going to have trouble. But they seem to be pre-stressed by something – and it’s just the one hive.
We donned suits and proceeded through a labyrinth of doors and air conditioning to the hives. Will was careful to explain safety options – falling off the roof would be difficult but one hive often follows when opened, probably annoyed by wind rapidly stripping the heat from brood. There is an access corridor where one can lurk in the dark until bees decide to leave you alone and return through a part open door to the light.
The first thing Will does is examine the floors, which are yellow plastic giving a high contrast background to see any floor detritus. I wrote a recent article which mentioned how to analyse this but it was interesting that this is Will’s main inspection method. He was, however, at pains to point out that this is unlikely to indicate if there is a disease in the hive, so he does examine comb occasionally. He saw varroa mite drops of 20/day on one colony, but thus far has not lost any non-treatment colonies to varroa.
He then opened each hive to show us how the colonies had built up. One had a little cross combing so he decided not to pull frames out then, and mentioned that though the foundationless system works pretty well it is not foolproof – but it’s my understanding that all hives eventually get some cross comb and I was impressed by how flat and true almost all the combs were. It was notable that, using frames, the inspections could be very fast, and Will used a top cloth over the top of the exposed hive to retain the bien (warmth, smells).
Will’s conclusion about rooftop apiaries is: it is an extra stressor but no real problem for a strong colony.
Many thanks to Will for organising this visit and arranging access. He blogs about his apiary at oxfordbees.com
Next meeting: Saturday September 9th, Steeple Aston, north Oxfordshire