Bees at the fete

Keith and I manned the beekeeping stall at our local village fete this Saturday. The morning rain stopped at just the right time, and it proved to be good fun, partly because it was good to see lots of people, all determined to enjoy themselves after months of lockdown, and partly because we got so many visitors to the stall asking intelligent questions.

We had various items on the stall about bees and beekeeping, but the biggest draw was an Observation Box, and I’ll discuss this further and my reflections on it below.

Dressing up while inadvertently learning about bees

On the stall we had various bits of beekeeping kit and other related items such as info on bee friendly plants, a straw skep, mini top bar hive, photos of different types of bee, a jar of fresh propolis to smell, and beekeeping veils and suits for kids to try on. Keith had also brought 10 jars of honey along and sold it all in the first 20 minutes.

In the Top Bar Hive nucleus we had two samples of comb – one empty brood comb, and one a half-filled honeycomb. People were interested in the difference and surprised at just how heavy the honeycomb was. After handling the bars people used a sanitiser pump in case of COVID transfer, a strange reflection of how beekeepers take biosecurity seriously and disinfect equipment between apiaries.

Empty brood comb, light as a feather
Honeycomb, surprisingly heavy

But the biggest draw by far was the live bees in the Observation Box, I’ve manned such stalls before and this box was an experiment. Note I don’t say observation hive as it was just a single box. I have a 4 box Warre with windows, and one box has two windows and is full of comb and bees. As the fete was so local, I removed this box temporarily from the hive, and sealed it with a raised mesh floor below and a Warre roof above.

The combs of moving bees were somewhat mesmeric to visitors, allowing us time to explain issues with pesticides (one professional gardener was surprised they harm bees (yes, insecticides kill insects!)), forage and bee types. The only person who successfully differentiated between pictures of a bee, wasp and bumblebee was about 9 years old, which was a bit alarming in a rural location. Though one chap figured out on the spot that bee health is partly a “system level effect”. Normally peoples’ eyes glaze over and they edge away if you go on about the more complex aspects of beekeeping.

I may have <ahem> forgotten to mention the presence of live bees to the event organisers – there was a double-take from one when he saw them. But they were sealed in and no visitors seemed in the least concerned by their presence, only fascinated.

Now on to the bees’ experience of this event – although we took the window covers off only when people were near to minimise light exposure (which the bees don’t like in the usually dark hive), the bees while initially fairly calm became increasingly agitated as time went on (moving very fast on the combs). I had been worried about this possibility – it wasn’t a whole colony and they could no longer smell their queen.

When I got them home after their excursion and fitted them back into the hive (about 4 hours total after taking them away – as I gave them an hour to settle once they got back), I was mobbed by angry bees. Luckily I have a very good bee suit. I checked in on them the next morning by standing by the hive and just watching, wearing a veil just in case, and they seemed settled and calm once more in harmony as a reunited colony.

So, on reflection, the real issue here is, even a move within the same village for a few hours really upset them, even if temporarily. (They had no Queen, and car vibrations are at similar frequencies to those which bees communicate with, and comb is “tuned” to resonate and amplify those.) Their presence at the fete did draw in people which may have helped raise awareness of the issues they face and how people can help pollinators in general, which was the intention, but I certainly won’t do this over longer distances, and maybe not even locally again.

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