On a mild autumnal day, 14 happy beekeepers attended our 10th birthday gathering – yes, Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group has now been around for a decade! This could only mean one thing – lots of cake! Oh and bees.
Highlights of the day, in addition to an extended lunch, included a demonstration of harvesting a Warré hive; viewing a Drayton hive, and a walk round the village to see wild colonies and some truly wonderful gardens. But as always, the main thing was meeting like-minded enthusiasts, which is what has always energised this group.
Meetings are about people
A delight to have people back in the house, sharing food, experience and insights. Discussions touched on the practicalities of training, to the forthcoming Learning from the Bees conference and a tale of bees which assaulted their owners, but not Gareth – he found the owners also ran a car paint shop and the bees were responding to the paint solvent scent on their clothes.
“I’m a bit disappointed, I’d expected you all to be more eccentric” said one newcomer. Deeply insulted, we rose to the challenge and talked of people falling out of trees and sheep in cars. As usual, the subject of varroa didn’t come up, it’s a non-issue among natural beekeepers. Alister & William arranged to see Jane’s apiary near them and Ingo surprised me as a passionate advocate of Rammstein!
An anthropologist possibly would note that the group uses sharing and gifting a lot – we bring food to each others’ houses; swarms are given to each other for free or nominal petrol money. The ethos is that everyone has something to offer; we enjoy challenging questions from alternative perspectives, and meeting folk from other backgrounds is fun. This all builds a strong sense of community. A decade of OxNatBees has seen circulation of members, with a core of long time local enthusiasts, others aging or moving away but often keeping in touch, and new blood and visionaries arriving over the years. The superorganism persists.
The plan after First Lunch was to demonstrate how to harvest a Warré hive, which has been untouched for 2 years and built up quite a lot of honey. The skill here lies in confirming there are no brood in the top box(es) you harvest, and to confirm you are leaving them a box of honey for winter. I had checked it a few days before, estimated the top 2 boxes (A and B) were harvestable, box C was incredibly heavy (i.e. full of honey, matching window observations – so leaving it would ensure the colony had plenty of stores for winter) and put clearer board C below them.
A clearer board is a one-way valve for bees and the simplest way of removing them from combs, if you can wait a day or so. Through the windows I could see that A & B emptied of bees within hours, a clear sign there were no brood there to be kept warm and, thus, taking A & B off the stack would not harm any brood. Further confirmation was via the LCD thermometers (click on image to enlarge – the zebra striped objects visible in the windows of A, B). These were now 12°C lower than box C.
On the day, surrounded by people (and at least one doctor) I decided to use just a veil and no gloves rather than my usual full bee suit, to build my confidence – I’ve had a couple of anaphylactic reactions over the years, so I’m very cautious when opening hives alone. I got one near-painless sting, which I suppose helps keep my immunity up. I removed boxes A and B, but Gino determined one contained nectar, not honey and we put it back. I had intended tipping back box C to show people how one examines the bottom of the combs to check for brood, but Gareth advised they were getting unhappy so we reassembled the hive and left them to it.
We then called upon Alister’s rippling sinews to crush the comb for us above a strainer. He noted it was much tougher to crush the darker ex-brood comb than the lighter coloured honeycomb (can you think why? Answer below). We left some squeezed combs draining while we went off for a walk, but it was very, very thick and almost none had drained into the collection bucket when we got back, which put paid to the plan to chomp some bread & honey on our return. I think it contained some ivy and was beginning to crystallise. (Following the meeting it took about 3 days to strain it, I resorted to gently warming the strainer with hot water bottles! I eventually got 6.6kg of thick, dark orange honey. normally a Warré box yields nearer 10kg of runnier honey.)
Afterwards, while processing comb I noticed how distorted it was where it attached to the bar. We assume comb is composed of an amazingly regular hexagonal array – but that’s foundation. If you stop and look at natural comb, you can see the bees have to adapt and stretch cells, and here are some 5-sided ones. You can imagine them taking a sharp intake of breath and exclaiming, “you’ve had some right cowboys in here, mate!”
[Dark brood comb is harder to crush because it’s not just wax, it’s stiffened with tough silk cocoons.]
There was some experimentation with supering going on here which may be of interest to advanced readers.
Warré hives are normally nadired – extra boxes are added at the bottom. I have noticed that once they get to 4 or 5 boxes, the bees no longer build straight comb.
Earlier this year I noticed the 5th box at the bottom of the stack had been filled, but with empty, wiggly comb. This is always a potential issue with foundationless comb, but I had thought I’d solved it by arranging my bars cold way. I spotted an opportunity though – I knew from experimenting last year that Warré bees won’t fill an empty supered box with honeycomb – but here I could repeat the experiment with a box of (empty) comb. So I moved it to the top of the stack to see if the bees would fill it with honey.
In other words, the reason the top box, box A has wiggly comb in this photo is, it used to be at the bottom of the stack, and the wiggly comb in the photo is the bees trying to guide air around the entrance (presumably – anyhow the entrance would be just below the window visible at the top of that box).
I had been hopeful before the meeting that the box would be packed with honey. It had been half filled with bees doing something for months and had a good weight to it. But on the day, we found it was nectar, not honey which is why we put it back.
You can super a Warré, but you have to use a half height box (which I don’t have) and you need to put it on at exactly the right time, in spring or the bees ignore it. I was hoping to find a simpler method of supering.
Annie lives in the same village, and we dropped by her orchard to see her Drayton hive, populated this year with a local swarm from one of my garden hives (which then failed to requeen, dwindled & died but effectively lives on in this nearby Drayton).
Draytons are horizontal hives, so you only need to lift a single comb at a time, and blend ideas from conventional beekeeping (frames; you can use a queen excluder if you wish) with apicentric design (super insulated, window for non invasive inspection, the frames are deep 14×12 types). It is thriving, with plenty of brood and stores. It has a stream a few metres downhill ensuring plenty of nectar bearing trees even in droughts – an ideal location.
Wild colony village tour
In a walk of just 1 mile we saw 9 colonies. As someone put it, it’s a “bee-filled village”. One of these has been continuously occupied for 19 years; there is obviously a resilient local ecotype population.
Beekeepers sometimes experiment with multiple entrances, and at least one of these colonies has 2, one a metre below the other. The only wild colony in a tree may have dual-level entrances, we weren’t sure if we saw bees flying into other holes in the canopy. And two roof colonies seemed to have dual entrances, a metre apart horizontally; though it’s possible we were actually viewing eleven colonies. Bees are very adaptable, but we just don’t know how their comb is arranged in these high up cavities. They’re all about 2 stories up – or higher.
Only one is in a tree, a Scots Pine – unusual but really old oaks are absent from the immediate area. There are lots of old beech trees with hollows, but obviously these bees liked the location.
We also had a peer in an empty Top Bar Hive and discussed its management, and what you can tell from the debris falling through an open mesh floor.
That’s it for open-hive meetings this year, but keep your antennae tuned, perhaps there will be news of winter gatherings in snug locations. A massive thank you to everyone who made it here and made the day!
Brilliant post, Paul. I wish I’d been there – missed the cake! Never mind, Devon was lovely and Buckland Abbey had the most enormous tithe barn with bees nesting all over the outer walls. There were notices drawing attention to this fact. BuckFAST Abbey was a little to far away from us for a visit. Helen