There are now colonies in both of my hives. The Brexit Day colony are still strong, their entrance crowded with constant forage-traffic. Beside them are the Rat Box Bees, new arrivals to the garden. Their entrance is less busy – usually one or two foragers coming or going, then perhaps thirty seconds of total inactivity, before the rush as three bees return, with six packs of ivy-pollen clamped to their legs.
I found the Rat Box Bees in the week when September became October. I was walking home from work, and noticed honeybees flying into the undergrowth on the edge of the Science Park. It wasn’t the slow flower-to-flower forage-flight, but the determined bee-lines of homeward journeys. Some were carrying pollen: there was definitely a nest somewhere nearby.
I pushed aside the undergrowth, and found a ‘bait station’ – a black plastic box designed to hold rat poison. It’s meant to keep the poison away from other animals – rats can climb in and eat the bait, but it’s inaccessible to cats, birds, hedgehogs and badgers. The space is, however, still accessible to honeybees, and a small swarm (presumably a late-summer cast) had found their way in and built their nest in its inner chamber.
They seemed to be surviving in the box, and the existence of foragers so late in the year suggested the presence of a laying queen. Their temperament seemed good too – they did not act defensively when I stood close by. However, their chances of survival there were minimal – the box was too small, too badly insulated, and too close to the ground. There was also the danger of someone opening the box to top-up the rat poison, destroying the comb as they lifted the lid, and being met by a face-full of justifiably angry bees. The colony had almost no chance of surviving through the winter.
I emailed the site manager, explaining the situation, and asking him to warn the pest-controllers not to open the box. I also suggested that (if he did not want the bees), I would be very happy to put them in my spare hive. He agreed enthusiastically.
The collection was uneventful. I’d arranged a lift with a car-owning friend: we suited-up, and set out late one night to collect the colony. A nocturnal operation was good for two reasons. First, it meant that all the bees would be at home rather than out foraging. Secondly, the box was situated near a fairly well-used pathway, so it was safer to work when there was no-one else around. The capture went exactly to plan – we blocked the entrance holes with balls of crumpled newspaper, placed the box inside a bigger box, taped it closed, put it in the car and drove off into the night.
At home, I placed the entire box inside my cob-lined top-bar hive, and unblocked the entrances. The bees would have a confusing morning – flying out of their usual doorway and finding themselves still in the darkness of the hive. I hoped that they would be able to find the new flightholes, and to agree between themselves how to communicate an unexpected 90-degree turn into their waggle-dances.
The ‘natural beekeeping’ approach would generally advise against keeping bees in a plastic box. It would probably advise even more strongly against keeping bees in a box full of poison. However, on this occasion I will ignore that advice. The bees had chosen to nest in the box, and it is too late in the year for them to build any new comb elsewhere. The box-within-a-hive seemed the most effective approach. This way, the bees can keep their structures and stores, but they now have an additional layer of insulation. I’ve also added a sugar-water feeder inside the hive, so they can top up their stores without needing to fly out into the world.
Even here, they are unlikely to survive until spring. The colony is too small, with bees and stores fitting into a space only a little larger than a standard housebrick. Despite their double-walled insulation, they may not have the warmth or strength to outlast the winter. If the weather is kind, there is perhaps a 20% chance that they will be alive to pollinate the snowdrops – but I hope that’s better odds than they would have had in their original home, unprotected among the car-parks and close-cropped lawns of the Science Park.