Learning to fly


Hive and seek

I’ve written at length about our hens. What I may not have mentioned is that last year we got a hive, and some bees to go in it.  The bees did what bees do, and we had a few jars of honey.



Tragically,  the colony died in November, following that bizarre autumn we had with temperatures of 20ºC followed by a chill. I harvested what I could (including the ivy honey they’d made, which is an ‘acquired taste’), cleaned the frames up, and stored everything away.

We started again in mid-April, with a fresh 5-frame nucleus, and although they struggled a bit with the wet weather we’ve been having, they are doing the bee thing now. We’re a little wiser, and hopefully this colony will fare better.

Part of the ‘wiser’ thing involves talking to people who have been doing this a while.

I answered a call for help on the local beekeepers’ association WhatsApp last week. Someone was worried about the behaviour of their bees. The consensus was that they were swarming, but as she had just had a knee replacement (her own, not a bee’s knee), she was unable to do the lifting of heavy hive parts needed to inspect the colony.

Bee thyme

Bee having the thyme of her life

As I had some time on my hands, I offered to help. I’d also noticed from her video that she had the same sort of hive as me—a clever set-up that allows you to drain the honey from the frames rather than needing to faff around with centrifuges and whatnot. I thought I might be able to get some tips.


Inspecting the flow

I got there, we talked a little, then we suited up and starting looking at the frames.

What we discovered was that the queen had not been laying eggs, and had probably departed with the swarm (or had died or otherwise vamoosed). We also found an empty queen cup—the special cell that queens grow in when the not-so-loyal subjects of the old queen decide it’s time for a new one. We had no idea where either queen was, and weren’t minded to check every single frame looking for her.

We put the hive back together, and I was about to de-suit when Wanda’s husband came home, suited up in motorcycle gear. Turns out Chris is allergic to bees, although very keen on the art, and he builds all the equipment.

Chris, having no clue about what we’d seen in the hive, said,

“There’s a swarm in the lane.”

So I put my suit back on, grabbed a polystyrene bait hive that Chris dug out from behind the shed, and went to collect my first swarm.

I snipped away a few branches and brushed as many bees as I could into the bait hive, and then strapped it to the fence.

Bait hive

Looking for a new pad

When I went back a few days later to help Wanda instal a new queen to the original hive (yes, you can mail-order royalty), she told me that she’d gone out later and found the new queen in the swarm, and captured her in the bait hive. So we split the old hive (finding another queen cup as we did so), so that the queen Wanda had found would have some stores and brood in her new pad, and installed the new queen in the old hive.

I will go back at the end of the week and check that both colonies are doing OK.

It turns out that Wanda and Chris have been keeping bees for about 25 years. They had an operation with 100s of hives in Zimbabwe, and I am hopeful to hear lots more tales of their adventures there, where beekeeping is more akin to guerrilla warfare than the (mostly) gentile pastime it is here.

What fun.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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