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.
Mary’s original hive was a hollow log which she began adapting to suit a bee colony a while ago. It has a bottom entrance. This is of limited flexibility – you can see how each bar is a unique length – so she has an adapter board now which allows Warré sections to be stacked atop it.
She also has a Warré which she made sure was particularly well insulated over winter. It is a good example of how to set up a hive: it is strapped down in case of high winds, nearby is a pebble-filled water bowl and below the entrance are paving stones to show dead bees (sudden increases in these can indicate health problems). A metal mouse guard across the entrance excludes that pest while the bees are dormant over winter.
The Warré colony was obviously vigorous, flying in good numbers. I was interested to see almost every bee was carrying a full load of pollen in to the colony, possibly from a nearby cherry in full bloom due to a recent warm spell. Normally it’s only 1 in 4 or less showing huge pollen bundles, the others mainly gathering nectar. We discussed this. Brian checked temperatures and found it was only 11-12 degrees C, so probably not much nectar freely available. Gareth pointed out later that colonies can show sudden surges in activity during the warm parts of a Spring day which seem to correspond to forage suddenly becoming available: just because there’s blossom doesn’t mean there’s anything worth flying for.
Trending: Asian hornets
Michael had just visited the BeeTradex exhibition which is held near his house. He described it as “the usual chemicals but this year the must-have item is Asian Hornet traps. There were many types, heavily promoted.” (Asian hornets are an invasive pest in France. They are specialist honeybee predators, have preyed on and destroyed many beehives, and are expected to reach the UK imminently.) I’ve since read there are a lot of concerns about these traps as they don’t tend to be very species-specific; many people don’t realise that the bait must be protein based to ensure you don’t attract bees; and the type that cleverly fits in a standard hive base (using the bees’ scent to attract the hornets) seems to stress the bees above when hornets get trapped just below them.
The latter part of the meeting was in the much warmer house, methodically working through the piles of food and cake people had brought. It can’t really be overemphasised how important these informal unstructured parts of meetings are, particularly for beginners, and how bring-and-share meals break down barriers. There were at least five conversations going on in parallel as people discussed their own specific interests and issues. I did a bit of a presentation about how to catch swarms, showing the equipment used, discussing swarm behaviour and attempting to answer questions. I felt a particularly good one was about what helps attract swarms into hives, which highlighted the difference between true knowledge and lore that has been handed down. “Look, my belief is that a touch of lemongrass oil attracts scouts, then scents of propolis and old comb make it smell like an attractive home” I said. “But to be honest I don’t know, I’ve had swarms move into hives and stay there but was it because I followed this old lore? Maybe they’d have moved in anyway!”
Other local groups
The meeting featured several new faces, some from far afield. This highlights a potential problem. Our group was founded to network natural beekeepers around Oxfordshire. It’s been successful and highly visible, and has gradually drawn in members from neighbouring counties. An unfortunate side effect of this is a feedback effect which removes the incentive to form other groups for, say, Northamptonshire. Since all beekeeping is local, it seems logical to have local hubs. Have you considered forming your own group?
We’d like to thank Mary for her generous hosting, and everyone who brought food!
Next meeting: April 6th, Long Hanborough – Top Bar Hives