ONBG meeting, 15th June 2019 – TBHs, Freedom hives and a surprise swarm

Lunch – with swarm of bees in the box. Image (c) Jane Denby, 2019

Fifteen of us met in a beautiful cottage hidden near the middle of Oxford. The plan was to have lunch, inspect Top Bar Hives and see a nearby Freedom Hive, and we managed to meet these targets due to skillful herding by Jane despite the massive amount of chat and laughing.

People staring at mobile phones walked past oblivious as this was gathered in central Oxford

Serendipitously, a call came in about a swarm just before the meeting, and it was only about a mile away so I collected it en route. It was huge, especially as most prime swarms occurred last month, so is probably from a commercial colony (i.e. the numbers are larger than found in our hives because the beekeeper stimulates the queen to lay at maximum rate all the time, to maximise honey yield). It was so large – perhaps over 2kg – we wondered if it was an entire colony absconding from a hive that had got damp in the recent extended heavy rain.

It’s  worth pointing out in the collection photo, some safety issues. I’ve removed my ring. If you get a sting on a finger it can swell up and in extreme cases you may have to cut a ring off because circulation to the finger is cut off. Swarms are very placid so I’m not being particularly brave putting my ungloved hand here, but before sweeping them into a box with a large feather, I donned full body protection.

Examining a swarm up close. This large one generates a lot of heat: it is in a box with two ventilation grills.

Over lunch there were many parallel conversations going on, such as one about the forthcoming international natural beekeeping conference, Learning from the Bees in Berlin at the end of August. Another was: how many dead bees should one expect to see in a day? (Clue: a queen lays up to 1500 eggs a day, but a hive’s population maxes out at 20 to 60k.) I was asked how to soften OSR honey which had set in a comb. “Er, I’m not an expert on honey, I suggest you ask Will.” “He told me to ask you!” I suggested mild warming and, of course, you can feed it back to the bees but for this kind of question I tend to refer people on to OBKA‘s expertise.

Another subject that came up was eco-floors. I explained this is an area currently being researched (see the beginning of this report on the first Learning from the Bees conference where we discuss eco floors and the use of book scorpions in hives, an example of mutualism), but as bees clear such debris from their cavity floor when comb extends down to within a couple of inches of the it, I don’t use this adaptation.

Patrick’s TBH. Image (c) Jane Denby, 2019

After lunch the rain stopped (!) and we went to look at two Top Bar Hives in the garden. The first was made by Patrick, and we all thought the workmanship exceptional. It’s a reasonably established colony, the weather was suitable and after observing what we could from outside, we opened it up to check it and show newcomers how to do an inspection, and handle comb without breaking it. The bees were exceptionally calm and all the comb was built straight on the bars, helped by the comb guides Patrick had built into them. A couple of combs in, we came across brood in a classic good solid laying pattern, with 1 in 20 cells empty to give space for heater bees, and with honey above the brood. We showed the newcomers the difference between capped brood and honey cells, and the single capped drone cell. The next comb was similar, and we left it there – the colony was obviously queen-right a week ago (presence of capped brood) and delving deeper into the nest would tell us little more.

This highlights a difference between our style and conventional beekeepers’. They are trained to go right through a colony and look for eggs, to prove the queen was OK 3 days ago but as queens sometimes turn laying off if forage is poor this is an unreliable indicator of queen quality – and recent heavy rains have meant little foraging for the last 1-2 weeks. Whereas natural beekeepers aren’t generally aiming to maximise honey crops, and take a more relaxed approach, allowing the bees to manage themselves and taking advantage of swarms as a natural pest control strategy, rather than trying to suppress swarms and meddle in things when they’re going right.

Eco-floor unclipped from TBH

We then moved on to the other TBH, which was much larger, second hand and a very different design, and also extremely well made (hinged lid, large window, deep roof allowing feeder etc). There was a strange tray full of leaves that unclipped from the bottom. “We don’t know what this is, it came with it” said Jane. I explained “that is what we were discussing before – it’s an eco-floor!”

This colony was founded by a swarm just 3.5 weeks ago and was too small to open yet. The hive came with 5 empty combs for them to use. I was particularly interested to see it because it’s a cast from one of my hives, and was so small I wondered if it was viable at the time. Fortunately there was a large window to inspect it with and we used a powerful red torch to look at the bees without disturbing them (bees aren’t sensitive to red light). Would the queen have mated and begun laying yet? The signs are good: bees clustering over 3 combs, probably keeping eggs warm while plenty danced outside the entrance in orientation flights. The dancers were unbothered by us humans, so not stressed; and we used the “knock test” to see if the hive is queen-right: pressing your ear against the bars, you rap the hive sharply. The bee noise, which sounds like a quiet rustling, increases and in this case, immediately subsided again indicating they were content, with a laying queen. So my prediction is that this colony will have lots of bees in time for the Autumn nectar flow and will probably get through winter, then be a normal size next year.

Freedom Hive, up tree (centre of picture)

Finally we walked off to Headington Hall, 5 minutes away where there is a Freedom Hive in the grounds. These are made by Matt Somerville to suit bees, with no compromise to human users: simulating an ideal tree cavity, they are double walled super-insulated barrel-like hives mounted above head height, with an access hatch in the base. You can’t lift the comb from above in this type of hive: the floor hatch is purely for visual inspection, or cleaning if the clony dies.

Freedom hive, showing access hatch at base

On the way home I dropped the swarm off with new member Jan, who showed me his Warré hive. It has a deep floor cavity below the entrance, allowing you to fill it with plant material or sawdust – an eco-floor again!


Thanks to all who came and made it such a jolly event, and particularly to Jane and Patrick for allowing us into their beautiful home and garden.

Next meeting: July, Long Crendon, exact date TBA – multiple hive types

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