Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Bee Master

Today Elva and I were very privileged.  The renowned English beekeeper Mr. Clive de Bruyn, as part of his Irish speaking tour, was visiting one of the local bee associations.  Luckily, it was an opportunity for all-comers from around Ireland to come and listen to his talk about his beekeeping experiences.

As a communicator I would say that he would be hard to beat.  He struck the perfect balance between common sense, humour, practical advice and an insight into the future.  With over 30 years experience, he had an awful lot of information to impart and a couple of hours in his company was far too little.   

I would have to recommend that if the chance comes around and, as the ads say, if he is coming to a town near you then do your very best because you won't regret it.

On a practical basis, my two hives from last autumn seem so far to have made it through the extremely hard winter months.  It's far too early to tell for sure but bees were flying out yesterday and we took the chance to have a quick check on stores.  One of the hives did have a good number of dead bees and we removed these and replaced the floor with a fresh one.  It's still far too cold to do anything at all intrusive besides ensuring that the bees aren't going to starve to death.  It would be such a pity to have got this far for them to run out of food at this late stage.

The spring bulbs in the gardens now are really getting ready to burst out.  Snowdrops and the early daffodils are visible in some parts.  The willow buds are developing the fine hairs which precede the pollen-laden catkins which give the bees that huge protein fix.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Grow Your Own - summer 2010

My excuse for the lack of blogging in recent times is due to our work on the vegetable-growing front.  I've been keeping an eye on the hive but blogging about it has been very much an afterthought.

This evening sitting at our home-made brick-built barbeque, we enjoyed some of the fruits of labours.  It's still early in the season but I tasted my first ever home-grown cucumber and it was quite a surreal moment. Peas, mangetout, spinach and strawberries have all featured on our menus so far and we have potatoes, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), runner beans, cherry tomatoes & sweet corn to look forward too.  Gooseberries and autumn-fruiting raspberries are starting to look like they may yield something this year.  Just praying that this fair weather stays over Ireland.  The polytunnel which we erected late summer '09 has been a God-send.  It's quite extraordinary how quickly things grow.  So far we have been lucky with pests keeping away.  In fact the usual slugs and snails are absent throughout but that is probably due to the harsh winter - a great side effect.

The layout of the tunnel is very much a mixture of vegetable/fruit groups with lots of flowering plans to attract the bees and predators.  I had to remove a sunflower from inside the tunnel as it was about to go through the roof - literally!

On the top fruit front, the apple crop on the oldest tree, 4 years old or so, looks like it may break records for this garden.  I am putting that down to having 50000 honeybees in the near vicinity!

Swarm control to Major Tom....

Since the last post (far too long), the weather here in Ireland has been great.  Quite different from the last couple of years and it's all looking well.

As predicted by all the text books, my one-year old queenright colony started to show signs of swarming.  IT had survived the winter well.  To head things off before they swarmed, I carried out a variety of artificial swarm by removing the old Queen along with stores and brood and placing into another prepared hive.  It all went well and a few days later there were fresh eggs.  To cut a long story short, the original hive swarmed a few weeks later and the new hive showed signs of queenlessness.  Where did she go?

As it happened, I managed to capture the swarm in a corner of the garden.  It couldn't have been easier ~ about 12 inches off the ground!  A spare nucleus box was used to home the docile, lost girls.  I left them in the nuc close to where they had swarmed and I think it was this that maybe prompted them to take flight again.  Fortunately, I managed to catch them again as they had settled in almost the same location as before.  This time however I re-located the nuc to another position in the garden and they have stayed there contentedly since.   Yesterday, for the first time, there were eggs on one of the frames showing the new Queen had mated - what a relief!  I think that I will be uniting the nuc with the split hive which had contained the old Queen.

The original hive had a couple of Queen cells and practically no brood or eggs.  It is possible that there is a virgin here lurking but I cannot be confident.   

Now to look for Major Tom....... 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ladies in waiting

Yesterday was beautiful here although not as warm as it should be for this time of year.  The forage available is the leftovers from the dandelion that are now going to seed (to the annoyance of the non-beekeeping population), fruit blossom and incredible yellow gorses. Early summer shrubs and flowers in the garden attract the odd interested visitor.

Repeating the inspection methodology from last time with Elva armed and ready at my side, we discovered that the marked Queen cells from before had been elongated and their developing contents were growing inside them.  My bees are definitley reading the same books that I do.  Just as well because there seems to be so many different techniques for every one ambition.

We quickly spotted eggs throughout the hive; testimony to the Queen still be ingalive and well and that I should worry far less when it comes to beekeeping! [Do any of you fellow beekeepers constantly suffer from these misplaced feelings of doubt and paranoia? ] The lower brood frames were packed with nurse bees and yet despite their numbers, Elva's eagle eyes spotted her majesty.  Elva had laser eye correction last year - her queen-spotting skills are now superhuman.

AGAIN failing at colour marking, we transfered her on a brood frame along with a couple of frames of food into an adjacent nucleus box.  I don't believe the Queen was really aware of the plans that we had for her.  A sad moment really as she is removed permanently from her 30 or 40 thousand daughters :(

Making up the remaining 4-frame nucleus with an empty foundation frame and 2 frames's worth of bees we closed up the nucleus and blocked off the entrance with some grass (for 48 hours).  Seemingly, this blocking technique delays their re-emergence sufficiently to allow them to "re-home" themselves and adapt to the new hive.  I shall see and keep my fingers crossed.

Going back to the original hive on its original stand, I removed one of half a dozen developing Queen cells.  This one in particular was far more developed and my book suggest cells close to being sealed should be removed.  Not sure why you do this other than if you wanted to delay the new virgin Queen emerging which might be useful in the event of bad weather forecast.  Any ideas of why this should be advised would be welcome!

The hive was then closed and we congratulated ourselves with high fives on having completed our first major manipulation to control swarming (hopefully) and to augment our single colony.  I have to re-examine the original hive in a week or so just to check how things have developed in the interim.  I expect that the bees will be a little more testy than usual. Would that be fair to say?

Time will tell how successful we've been! Aplogies for the lack of photos - I don't know how you guys manage such fantastic photos when there is so much to do.  Experience I guess....

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Swarm control and colony division

Well it's reached that time of the season when we must all be on our guards.  A friend rang me last night to tell me that her bees had swarmed.  Luckily their bees ended up occupying some cavity blocks underneath their hive stand so we're keeping our fingers crossed that their re-homing into a new hive will be successful.

The weather here, after having had a great March and April, has been cold and windy with frequent showers.  It makes deciding when to open the hive tricky given the blistering northerlies that sweep across the adjacent field.  It's the same wind bringing the volcanic ash plume from Iceland and which is causing all this havoc for the controllers of European airspaces.

I digress.

I took the day as annual leave to guarantee that I could be at home when the weather was at its warmest.  The bees hadn't touched the foundation sheets in the super (added a week ago) so they were removed along with the Q Excluder and resigned to the bee shed for a while longer.

I had been using a brood and a half set-up to give a strong colony.  With 20 odd brood frames to do through I won't be repeating this in future.  The difficulty and awkwardness of the frame manipulation outweighs the advantage of the extra space.  

Within the upper shallow brood frames, I found 4 or 5 swarm cells of which 3 were occupied by eggs.  I marked the topbar above the cells with drawing pins so I can return to them next time.  This means I have 5 or 6 days before they're sealed which would coincide with any swarming.  There was plenty of food and brood at all stages.  There were a few drones about too.

Moving onto the brood chamber proper, on the very first outside frame, I found the Queen.  There she was; clip-winged and looking in fine fettle.  It's only the third time that I've found her and the first time when I've been alone.  I spent around 15 minutes watching her as she raced around looking for empty cells.  Shame I didn't have a camera handy to capture the moment as she laid that precious egg.  Having had her green marking wiped away from the time we adopted her, this seemed to be the perfect time to re-establish her year registration mark.  The Queen and I played "cat and mouse" as she tried to escape my pathetic and desperate attempts to confine her.  My crown of thorns (a fairly lethal looking contraption) failed to stop her to my dismay.  Note to self; keep a matchbox in the toolbox.  At this moment, she seemed to suddenly disappear and to tell the truth I lost my cool thinking that she had fallen off or "flown off".  Not sure why I think she took to the clipped wing!  I returned the Queen's frame and went through the rest of the brood frame.  More brood (eggs, larvae etc,) stores and drones but no signs of Queen cells.   With the benefit of hindsight I should have put her in a matchbox whilst I was checking the rest of the hive.  With the eggs in queen cells at this stage, I think I could have put the old Queen in a spare nucleus box with a frame of brood (without Queen cells) and couple of frames of stores along with bees from a a couple of frames.  

My current position is that I will re-examine the hive in 3 days to look for eggs which will tell me whether she is still in residence.  If she did disappear, it should mean that the swarming instinct will be quashed.  Hopefully, the current Queen cell eggs will develop. My aspiration to divide the colony may have to take a back-seat for a while if she left.  

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hive news and surgery tales

The weather here over the last weeks has been fairly mad.  Ten days ago we had snow!  However this weekend was glorious with temperatures hitting around 18 or 19 degrees (celcius), I guess.

We've had some pleasant enough spells occasionally over the spring up until  now but nothing extraordinary and certainly not warm enough to risk anything.  I was getting frustrated to check on what was going on in the hive although, as the saying goes, if you can't accomplish anything by opening it up, then DON'T!

So with a still, warm day at last and other garden & home chores either completed or demoted  down the list, Elva (my trusty assistant and fiancĂ©e) and I made a list of everything we thought we'd need to open the hive. 

One thing I've realised is that good planning is essential. The irony is that the comb mess that I had allowed to develop during September 2009 was down to my lack of foresight.  I blogged about this at the time.

As far as the bees were concerned, I knew that all seemed to be in order from the amount of pollen that was being brought in.  We have a large pussy willow tree (salix caprea var, I think) in the garden which yields masses of bright yellow pollen at exactly the right time of the year when brood is being reared and there's hunger for protein (from pollen).  This photo was taken on a gorgeous day in March just as the silvery grey buds were shining in the morning sunshine. The buds are just in the process of opening.

Back to the problem I had with a full brood box on top sitting over a shallow  super chamber with only 5 frames.  Wild comb in September had been built hanging off some of the higher up frames in the open spaces.  

The "surgery" involved lifting off the roof and, with the crownboard still in place, raising the complete brood box with frames (and bees) vertically upwards.  Jeez, what a weight!  Then my "hive surgeon" on her hands and knees cut out the vertical elongations of wild comb from the base of the frames and carefully placed them in a spare nucleus.  With the majority of these combs tidied up, I was able to lift the brood chamber back onto a spare temporary floor.  (A pair of trestles would have been helpful at this point). The air was pretty full of bees at this stage but all was calm.  

As Elva went through the cut away honeycomb for signs of her Majesty, I  removed the lower shallow super exposing the floor. I had to clear away quite a few dead bees from the open-mesh floor - the undertakers must have been busy!  All the time, I was hoping that the Queen would stay out of sight inside the dark recesses of the frames.  There were no practical precautions that I could think of to guarantee her safety absolutely - just being watchful and praying!  [I couldn't remove the upper frames individually because of the wild comb]. Photos were missed due to our both being occupied with lifting / cutting etc.

At this stage, with floor exposed, we could return the brood chamber to its rightful position above the floor.  So far, so good... stay calm.....

Next I went through the super frames sitting on a side stand.  These frames were mostly stores although there were signs of the odd egg meaning that the Queen had been here within the last 2 or 3 days. Still no sign of herself so it looked more likely that she was hiding somewhere safe.

Returning the shallow chamber onto the brood box, I decided against installing a Queen excluder at this stage.  I'll return to the hive in about a week when things will have settled after the major furniture rearrangement.  Unfortunately but unavoidably, a number of larvae at all stages were killed in the operation along with some eggs.  Now therefore, if the Queen is alive and well, and not traumatised or killed by the surgery, I will now be in the position to carry out normal frame manipulations again.  A good lesson to have learnt but one that I could have done without!

The only upset during the whole episode was poor Elva getting stung through her rubber gloves. 

To compensate for the lack of photos I've added a few of our spring-time flora from around our garden apiary.

Close-up of pussy willow before opening.  This tree has been a fantastic source of pollen during March and April although it is just about over now (11/04).

 The snowdrops are now finished although they bring a friendly cheer to the garden before the daffodils arrive to herald the true start of spring.  They're meant to be bee-friendly although we only have the odd clump at present.

Catkins of the salix contorta tree (twisted willow).

Freddy adopting his usual pose of indifference!

When working at the hive, these guys have learned to keep their distance.

As things get back to normal and garden jobs are less hectic to coordinate with full-time work, I should be able to get back to some semblance of regular bee blogging!

I'm interested if anyone else has had a similar problem and how they approached it.  I guess that there is argument that it would have been better to have waited longer for a time when drones were about.  This would have allowed a new Queen to have been reared and mated should I have accidentally killed the current one.  What do you think?  I guess time will tell.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


As promised here are a couple of photos of our latest canine companion, Jesse.  As you'll see, his assistance in supervising setting out the polytunnel was invaluable!

Despite his operation, his energy and enthusiasm seem to know no limit :)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spring cometh

After the perpetual cold winter that the majority of the northern hemisphere seems to have suffered, last weekend saw what is hopefully the first proper signs of Spring in my garden.   We've been very busy over the last weeks and blogging has taken a bit of a back seat unfortunately.  

Last Saturday, we were working out preparing the new polytunnel for the season when we heard this strange sound like a distant jet plane.  It turned out that the bees had discovered the warmth of the afternoon sun and come outside to navigate their way around the place.  Their loud humming was wonderful to hear.  It's the first time that I'd seen them flying properly this year so it was a massive relief.  I'd given them some "ambrosia" - a type of liquid sugar feed before we went on holiday in early February but only a few workers bothered to pay me any attention.

This will be my first full season as a beekeeper and so Saturday was my first experience of the emotion of seeing a colony making it through the winter (fingers crossed!).  I hope that feeling never disappears.

As far as other news is concerned, I can announce that we have adopted a new canine friend in Laurel Cottage.  One of  Elva's friends decided that it was necessary to go abroad for work purposes and approached us if we could foster their collie dog, Jesse.  We agreed to take the little fella and try to give him the kind of love that Marie and Jason had.  Jesse had needed a leg amputated a few years ago and taking him half way around the world to Oz wouldn't have been fair.  Anyway, Jesse is now happily living with us and the other two hairy mutts. So far, so good and there's been little upset between the three of them.  I wonder how he will react to the bees! Will post some photos soon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lazarus bees! I have a dream....

When I got back from work this evening, Elva was already home and she'd had time to look around the garden in the light.  As we were chatting about the kind of days we'd had, she went on to tell me how she had found some dead bees lying onto top of the hive and that had brought them in for me to look at more closely.  Gee, thanks!  She was telling me of her microscope etc etc. although if I'm honest I wasn't paying the most attention ever.  I had seen the same bees over the weekend and had wondered why the birds don't remove the bee carcasses especially when food sources have been so scarce recently with all the frost and snow.

Anyway, the point of the story ("at last" I hear you cry), was that an hour or so later as she was preparing our evening dinner (we take it turns in case you are wondering!!) I heard this scream from the kitchen - "Cliff!".  Fearing the worst that maybe she'd scalded herself or less seriously the oven had exploded, I intrepidly went to her rescue.  "Your bees are alive!", she screamed.  For those of you lucky enough to know Elva personally, you will know that she is not prone to hysterics and helps me with the hive regularly.  I guess it was the sheer surprise of seeing the girls come out of their "coma" that prompted the shouting.  Maybe it was the heat from the kitchen that did it, who knows? It is something that I intend to research to see if I can revive some of the "previously lost" bees. The Frankenstein bees...

Either way, besides being an amusing story (well, I thought so) it is certainly encouraging that these cold temperatures may not be so fatal as I had thought!

By the way, tidings to my friends stateside on Martin Luther King day 2010!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's been a while........

Firstly, I have to apologise for the lack of posting recently.  Although things have been quiet on the bee front as you'd expect at this time of year it doesn't mean I am sitting twiddling my fingers.  

Our weather (along with that in the UK) has been described as Arctic over the last few weeks although I'm not sure how accurate that description actually is. Either way, the temperature hardly rose above freezing for about 3 weeks and with the clear night skies meant it fell to minus 10 or so.  We're talking Celsius now.  The cold air has now moved away for the time-being and it felt like Spring today as I got around to some long-awaited garden maintenance.  I love this time of year when you can start planning those jobs that you need to do like ordering seeds and deciding where your fruit and veg are going this year.  

The bees were out flying over the weekend although, to be honest, they just appeared to be coming and going so I assumed they were out on cleansing flights and bringing in fresh water.  

We have our local beekeeper's lecture this week about Apimondia 2009 - the international beekeepers' conference which was held in southern France this year.  The talk is being given by one of the national beekeeping celebrities who frequently appears on the radio with his tales of wildlife and beekeeping.  Looking forward to it and to hear of what's happening around the hives in the county.

I got a few vouchers for a beekeeping equipment store at Christmas and I went a bit mad ordering stuff for the 2010 season.  Anyway, the equipment arrived this week and I now have even more to occupy me in the evenings making up supers and frames.  One of the new pieces of hardware was my first Top Bar hive so that's going to keep my out of trouble for a while anyway.  Watch this space!  TBH's still seem fairly new here so I am going to have find someone with more experience than me!

Changing the subject, it's only another few weeks left to get fully fit for our ski trip which we're really excited about.  For anyone who is wondering, I won't be appearing in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics - ha ha ; )