It started with a question

A certain topic has been brought to my attention on many occasions recently.  After speaking to people at stalls, via email, on the telephone and face to face, this topic has continued to arise and it now needs to get out of my head.

This topic can be controversial, which has led to some interesting, open minded and sometimes heated conversations, and it all started with this simple, almost innocent question.

“Do you have any honey for sale”?

I am a beekeeper, I am not a commercial beekeeper, a conventional beekeeper or a natural beekeeper or any other name given to label a person who follows a set of goals or beliefs.  I firmly believe that I am and therefore anybody else who provides a home to a colony of honey bees is in fact a beekeeper.

This year we have gained several new colonies.  What I mean by this is colonies that are within their first year inside a hive with us, albeit collected by swarm collection, artificial swarm or have changed their landlord.

These colonies became our garden neighbours or non-paying tenants throughout the year, which to us means they are all in different stages of size and cycle of life.   It is often quite a challenge to ascertain how they are doing and if they are feasible to survive on their own accord.

Last year (2014) I removed 30kgs of honey from our hives.  The honey was sold very easily with a demand for even more eagerly seeking my attention; we even managed to keep a couple of jars for ourselves.  We ensured that the colonies had more than enough honey to get them through to this year.  But it got me thinking and asking myself many questions.

How much honey should be left inside the hive for them?
How much honey do they need to survive until next spring?

My usual answers to these questions were swallowed up quickly and needed recalculating by a load of what if questions

What if we have a really mild winter?
What if we have a prolonged spell of bad weather in spring?
What if they hadn’t made enough honey for themselves this summer?

This got me thinking about…

Do some beekeepers unintentionally take too much honey from their colonies?

Instead of answering this question I let it rest within the murky depths of my mind.

This summer we went to a beekeeping convention where one of the speakers, a respected and experienced beekeeper was presenting to a room of non-beekeepers, I sat in and listened to this different perspective.  The talk was holistic yet scientific and presented in such a way that stopped me in my tracks and brought to my attention my previous questions.

Basically what was suggested was…

A honey bee colony will create surplus honey to provide food for their colony to survive situations which include periods of bad weather and dearth of forage.  This we already knew but what was new to me was the proposal that we should dismiss the usual approach which measures honey production on a seasonal and annual basis and adopt the theory that the bees produce honey that may be needed across more than one season or year. Each eusocial organism endeavouring to ensure that the colony survives what nature throws at them, reduced nectar flow, extremes of temperature and weather without the measurement of a 12 month cycle as we understand it.

This leads me to considering that Honey Bees and Humans have different understandings of the term surplus. So there may be enough for them to survive this winter, but what if we have another cold and frozen 5-6 weeks until May like we had a few years ago? Say that was followed by 2 months of low temperatures and then six months where the rain did not let up… Extreme I know, but worth a thought.

Therefore do they ever really have surplus honey at any one time, maybe not, as they may not need the entire surplus to get through the winter and into Spring but may need their hard worked reserves the following year or year after that.

This different perspective has made me stop and think.

I looked back again to when people say Honey bees started having problems, then added when humans started moving more and more colonies of honey bees out from their chosen homes and locations and into man made hives.

I have considered how our climate and weather has changed over the past 200 years, and took into account the different rates that Bees and Humans are evolving and the current argument which debates whether our two species are evolving together at rates that are compatible and sustainable for both to survive?

The melting pot of arguments only scratch the surface and each needs further research and explanation, however, I am now asking myself as an individual beekeeper.

Should I be reviewing the way I keep my bees?…  Where I live the weather doesn’t fit into the seasons as we traditionally would expect it to…

Are we asking too much of them if we take any of their honey at all? Should we take little and often?

So when I am asked this year “Do you have any honey for sale”?

“No, I don’t sorry”… I have to admit the jury is out on this one today. Tomorrow I might know more to inform my final decision, but for now I will take my cup of tea out to the paddock to watch the bees while I ponder further…

The Railway Terrace Honey Bees

It all started on Thursday 13th November 2014 when I received a telephone call from a very good friend informing me that some Honey bees are living in Cardiff and could do with re-homing.  Due to other work commitments, the soonest we were able to pay them a visit was on Monday 17th November 2014.

So we come to Monday 17th November 2014… and what a day this turned out to be…

I aimed to be there for around 1400hrs but I was then reminded about my Fracture Clinic appointment at 1630hrs.  So Kate and I arrived at the given address in Cardiff for noon and were greeted by the sight of a beautiful small colony that was in fact living approximately 7 foot up in a Blackthorn tree.  There was very little comb present and even less honey stores were seen. The comb was built around some crossing branches which gave them much needed stability, but also required us to give careful consideration to aid in removing these ladies.

The Railway Terrace Honey Bees

Our very good friend who gave us the call initially was also there with us as we thought he would appreciate the opportunity to see them be re-homed.  We chatted and quickly decided the best course of action for them; this involved using a step ladder, a pair of tree loppers and the remainder of our beekeeping retrieval equipment.

We began with a gentle pruning of the immediate area beneath the colony, being very careful not to disturb any branch which was attached to the comb.  There was a lot of banter flying around due to my pruning techniques, as Kate and our friend are both highly trained in horticulture.  After some 10 minutes we were ready to focus on the Honey bees themselves, with one person on a step ladder and the other cutting through the remaining branches which would release the comb and let them fall into the waiting container.

It went absolutely perfectly, the Honey bees were placid and now inside the container, I placed the lid of the container on, to seal them inside.  All in all it took some 20 minutes before we were loading the car up with our kit, saying our goodbyes and were on our way back home.

It was a leisurely 45 minute return drive home when I decided to drive my car into the paddock where the bees were going to live from now on.  I decided on driving into the paddock for a reason.  Only 2 weeks earlier, whilst climbing over the wall into the paddock I ended up with a very badly broken little finger when a piece of the wall fell off (you can read about that little adventure here), plus my car is a 4×4 so there should be no problem… Or so I thought…

The transfer of Honey bees into their brand new Warre beehive was as simple as it comes.  We set the hive in its final resting place and placed a Queen excluder between the two boxes to ensure that when we placed the bees inside, the Queen, if she is in there, would not be able to leave.  The Queen excluder will be removed as soon as I seen signs of comb building, which means that they are happy to settle.

We removed their very empty and very wet comb (from the recent rainfall) from the Honey Bees and lowered the ladies into the Warre beehive on top of the Queen Excluder.  We had been anticipating the arrival of these little ladies for a few days, some food and top bars which had wax starter strips was on hand to complete their rehoming.

After the food was placed on and the hive was closed up, it was time to leave the paddock and get ready to go to my Fracture Clinic appointment which was fast approaching.  So we got in my car and began to drive the long way around the paddock.  It was an unusual but great experience driving through the paddock which was dying back from a year’s growth.  Earlier in the summer the plants were at least 7 foot tall and resembled a thick jungle.

Just as we came to the exit the paddock, my 4×4 car lost some grip; in fact it lost its entire grip.  I tried to reverse, nope that didn’t work, OK well lets go forward again, nope not that way either. There was a lot of laughter coming from within the car at this point as my co-conspirator Kate, often has a joke that my car is not a real 4×4 as there is no differential lock. We quickly decided to go and get her much larger 4×4 which does have a differential lock to pull me out.

Moments later the “Deli” as it is affectionately known arrived in the paddock to rescue my wonderful car.  We lined the Deli up in front of mine, got the ropes ready, attached the vehicles together and began to move my car from its muddy resting place.

This lasted all of about 5 seconds before the Deli too succumbed to the muddiness of the paddock, even with its alleged all singing, all dancing differential lock.

Boy oh boy did we laugh, both of our cars which should easily manage this type of ground, didn’t.  After several attempts of moving the cars we went back to the house to see if any assistance was available.

Two 4x4s stuck in the paddockThe cavalry arrived… Hooray… With a look of disbelief upon his face, as to how we managed to end up here.  There were some more attempts of moving either vehicle before the camera came out and the photographs were made.  My Fracture Clinic appointment was now looming, with just 30 minutes to go, so we decided to let the muddy quagmire win this battle for today, but we were determined to win this war on mud.

Thankfully there was another car for me to use to visit the hospital.  Upon my arrival I was sent to the X-ray department to have another X-ray.  There were 4 people in front of me also waiting, so I was anticipating a lengthy wait.  Fortunately for me, when the next named was called, all 4 of these people stood up and headed towards the relevant room.  I immediately noticed the subtle uniforms and handcuffs restraining one of them.  So there were 3 prison guards escorting a prisoner for whatever fracture that he has received.

After my X-ray and meeting with the Consultant to see how my broken little finger is healing, I headed to Waitrose to collect a couple of items for the household from my mentally noted shopping list.  Once inside Waitrose I noticed that my shopping list had completely disappeared from my memory, so I took a phone out of my pocket and called home to ask for some assistance in remembering.

Once the items were again made known to me, I went to get a trolley, returned to the store to collect the items and headed to the till to pay up.  Once at the checkout, it now quickly became apparent that the money that was in my pocket was not there now…

This induced a panic of searching all of my pockets but to no avail, even though I checked each pocket several times.  The checkout assistant advised me to ask at the Customer Service desk to see if anything was handed in.  I retraced my footsteps through the store before heading to the customer service desk to ask if any money had been kindly handed in.  I explained how much was missing and what notes they were, and then I was given the fantastic news that a very kind hearted citizen had not chosen to keep the money for themselves.  Phew… I was most certainly thankful for such honesty.

The following day, both vehicles were still being held captive by the mud.  In the meantime our friendly local farmer offered to help out; therefore we were waiting of the arrival of a tractor.

The following day I went to my car to collect something while I noticed that the ground was slightly firmer.  This urged me to see if my car would now move, and in fact it did.  It drove directly out of the paddock to my amazement; this encouraged me to try the Deli as well.  Well that didn’t go quite so well and the Deli remained there until the following day when the farmer arrived with his tractor.

A whole week has gone by since we first got stuck and now I have sad news to report.

I checked upon the Railway Terrace Honey bees this morning and found a lifeless hive.  This is always a sad time for me finding dead honey bees.  We tried our very best for them, providing them with a home, with plenty of food and with the best of intentions it seems that they were beyond any help.

I know that they would not have survived if they remained in the tree at Railway Terrace, but I thought that maybe, just maybe we would be able to help enough so that they could see another season.

Sometimes no matter what we do… nature calls

The Compost Bin Honey Bees

This story begins with a message asking me to get in contact with them as there are Bees in their friends compost bin.  After an initial chat about what the bees look like, and how many of them there are, it was decided to pay them a visit.

The Compost Bins Honey Bees

On a Monday afternoon around 1515hrs we arrived at their address to see for ourselves who was living inside the Compost bin.  It was in fact a colony of Honey Bees and we decided to ask some further questions, to ascertain exactly what we were dealing with.  The family moved into their home in January 2014 with Bees already inside the compost bin.  In around March / April there was a lot of activity with at some point a swarm leaving the compost bin.  This reduced the amount of Honey bees and gave the residents some piece of mind.

The family had a second child recently and were a little anxious of raising a young child whilst living with Honey Bees in their garden, which is why I was contacted to remove them.

As I looked at the compost bin, the honey bees appeared active and healthy for a warm October day. The lid of the compost bin was shut, I was unable to see how big and what condition the colony was without removing the lid and disturbing them.

With the honey bee retrieval equipment at the ready, I turned the lid and carefully removed it.  Wow was the first word that sprung to mind at the initial sight of the colony.  The colony had made some beautifully shaped comb and they had a placid personality.

I managed to place the lid upside down on the floor so we could begin the removal of this colony.  We started by removing all of the honey comb and placing it inside a container, there was some honey inside the comb, but not enough for them to survive until the following spring.

Once the entire comb was removed, I shook the remainder of the Honey Bees into the container.  It was now time to retrieve the Honey bees from the compost bin, therefore it was time to use the bee vacuum.

I turned to the container which now contains the comb and honey bees.  I placed on a lid that had been adapted to take two vacuum hoses and prepared to remove them.  I turned on the vacuum and began sucking up any honey bees found on the compost bin and us, this process did not take long to complete and we were finished and ready to pack up and return home.

After a 45 minute return drive home, all that was left to do was to rehome this colony into their new home, which is my demonstration Warre, so after a little setting up, the beehive was ready.

I placed a queen excluder between the 1st and 2nd box which would contain the Queen inside the beehive.  Comb with honey stored inside was separated from the empty comb and placed on top of the queen excluder to give the colony their honey back to them.  The bees inside the container were then poured into the beehive before we closed up the hive and walked away.

The Compost bin Honey Bees new home

We just have to wait in anticipation to see how these honey bees take to their new Warre beehive.  As long as we see some new comb being built under the top bars, with Honey bees continuing to live inside, hopefully, just hopefully we will see them in the Spring of 2015 ready for another year.

How do you break a little finger whilst going to tend Honey bees???

X ray of my broken little finger

I will tell you exactly how.

Kate wanted to check how much Honey was inside her Warre beehive to see if any could be taken out.  We got a plan sorted, put our suits on, got the box of beekeeping equipment and headed towards her Warre beehive.

I went first to climb over the wall to take the equipment over before we started.  As I grabbed hold of the stone wall, a large piece from the wall fell and landed upon my little finger

AAARRRGGGHHH…

My instant reactions were to push the rock off my hand and take a quick glance, there was blood all over my finger, and pain was immediate and so very overwhelming.  Instantly I knew this was bad.

The pain levels and amount of blood took my mind back to a previous injury where I cut through the top of my thumb with a table saw. (you can read about how I done that in another blog “A constant reminder of the hazards of building beehives”)

I turned and ran to the house, running past Kate informing her of an injury and headed straight for the kitchen sink to clean any blood off my hands.

The pain levels were increasing, Kate came to see me at the sink to see what the urgency was.  Kate knew that at this very moment in time she needed to be very calm, to be able to help me.  Kate knows of my accident record, with multiple visits to Accident & Emergency, so anticipated the worst.

Broken little finger

Kate took a look at my hand to see what was wrong.  Thankfully the bleeding stopped quickly and Kate asked what happened.  Shock began to kick in quickly along with feeling sick and overheating.  I took a seat holding my finger wrapped in a clean tea towel whilst saying some expletive words that cannot be repeated here.

After some 10 – 15 minutes the pain subsided and I returned to some kind of normality.  A dressing was applied and we put the beekeeping kit away.  It was decided that a visit to Accident & Emergency was not yet required, but if the pain was still apparent the following morning, maybe then a visit was needed.  A couple of paracetomol helped to take off the edge and we carried on our day.

Later that day we continued getting ready for a Halloween party to be held at home the following evening.

The next morning the pain was still around, so I jumped in the car and paid another visit to Accident & Emergency.  After some 2 ½ hours, the conclusion was that the middle bone in my little finger was broken.

Broken little finger

On the following Monday morning at the local hospitals Fracture Clinic, I was seen to by two consultants, one was a hand specialist which was very fortunate.  He informed me that I had crushed the tip of the middle bone at the joint with the end bone.  Looking at X rays, showed the bone is now in six pieces.  The advice given was to see how it heals by itself with further check-ups with a potential operation in the future if the worst case scenario makes itself known.

The little finger now has a lovely little splint on it for the foreseeable future until they know more.

I am still amazed at how quickly a simple task can turn into chaos from a little accident.

50 Shades of Honey

I remember visiting a friend’s home when they were bottling honey from their beehives, the different colours of each jar was inspiring to me.

A few years later and it is my turn to harvest some honey.  I have only taken a little bit of honey from my hives in the past but this year was more than I was used to.

There are two hives at my workshop, one National and one Warre beehive.  After checking how much honey was there in September, it was decided to take 2 supers from the National beehive and 1 box from the Warre beehive.

Super frame

National super Warre box with honey comb

When the boxes made it home, it was decided to start on the National supers first.  From following the instructions carefully from various websites, we worked on one frame at a time cutting the honey comb out into a container and slicing it up into many pieces to help release the honey.  We then mashed the comb with a potato masher or a pestle.  Once the container was full of mashed up comb, we inserted muslin into the fruit press followed shortly after by our mashed up honey comb.  We continued this until the fruit press was full.

Slicing honey comb Mashing honey comb Honey Press

Before we even started pressing, honey began to flow through the muslin and was on its way.

We began to use the press and with the honey aided by gravity, it flowed through our 2 sieves before falling into a container.  We used sieves to catch any large bits that were not honey, this could have been wax, parts of bees or anything else, this process was repeated until both supers and Warre box were complete.

Honey Press Sieving honey

To my surprise, we harvested 10kg from super 1, 10kg from super 2 and 10.5kg from the Warre box.  What a fantastic surprise to have 30.5kg of pure honey from the most wonderful Honey bees living in Cwmbran, South Wales.

Now that we had a considerable amount of nature’s sweetener, it was decided to keep some and bottle some.  2 different types of jars were purchased and so began the bottling process, this was a most enjoyable experience on my senses.  The sights, smells and of course the tastes were fantastic, even awe inspiring and many other words that I would only find in a thesaurus, or that I make up like fan-dabbie-dosey.

Honey Jar

It was time to think about labels for these jars, it was quickly decided that we would design them ourselves and not pay for the quite frankly boring designs that are widely available or for the fees of a designer.  So after way too many hours learning about a certain design software, a design was chosen.  This however was not the end of the design story, as the printers who were to print them, needed slight modifications to the design for it to work.

Honey Jars

After many, many hours of work, from spending time with the Honey bees, research, cutting honey comb, using a press, bottling honey, tasting honey, designing labels and sending multiple emails to the printers.  This is something of which I thoroughly enjoyed, learnt so much, tasted so much, had so many headaches but would not change any of it.

Resistance is futile Gwenyn Mel 2…

This morning I returned to the workshop to check on the previous days swarm from Gwenyn Mel 2.  I peeked inside the window and was greeted by the sight of a mass of bees… Excellent… I thought, they like their new home…

At this point I decided to phone my Warré beekeeping friend and guru that is David Heaf.  We were have a nice chat about the bees and other bee related lines of conversation when I noticed that the bees in the Warré hive had decided that the Warré was just not quite adequate enough for them.  Hundreds, then thousands of them were pouring out of the hive and getting ready to swarm again.  Thankfully I was speaking with David who gave me short and simple advice to fix this little quandary.

Time to don the suit and gloves again and get the box ready to collect the absconded bees.  Without hesitation they went into the same field as yesterday, probably ready to have a laugh at my expense watching me clamber over that fence again.  This time though they decided to go that little further and thankfully for me settled on some ferns about 3 foot off the ground around 200 metres away in the next field over again. 
 

I really did not want to lose this prime swarm from Gwenyn Mel 2, they were a large swarm who have worked wonders so far this year, and as it happens, came from the swarm that I collected last August 29th 2012 which thinking back now was quite a memorable day.

Well the bees are now in the box, time to return them immediately to their Warré with one slight modification.  Once again the bees has changed my plans for the day but I intended this to be as swift as it could possibly bee.

After another debacle, climbing over the fence, I headed straight for my workshop to collect a queen excluder.  The bees were placed nearby the hive while I got it ready for their arrival.  Time to remove the roof, quilt, top bar cloth and top bars and place all of it to one side, as I placed a queen excluder between the bottom box and next box up.  It is a somewhat surreal experience transferring bees from cylindrical container to a hive, literally pouring bees from one box into another and using a brush to gently persuade the others to go in also.

I returned the top bars, top bar cloth, quilt and roof as quickly as possible without causing more disruption to them.  The reason for the queen excluder this time it to prevent the queen passing through into the bottom box and absconding again, taking the rest of them for another adventure.  The queen excluder will stay in situ for a couple of days just to ensure that they decide to settle in this home, so they can make it their own.

After allowing them to settle down, the visible signs of the queen inside were becoming apparent, with bees heading into the Warré hive and bee bums raised in the air telling all others to head this way, excellent…

Time for reflection and calm now… 

So as I lay down beside them to watch them regain order from their adventure from the previous hour, I begin making films and taking more photos, not only for my memory, but also so that I can share my experiences with you, as I’m sure you want to have a small insight into our adventures.  

Hopefully my record of photos and films will inspire you or others to get involved with bees or maybe even help you one day if you so happen to bee in a similar situation yourself.  

Anyway, time now for me log off and have some nice happy dreams.

Dabor 

Checking on the ladies and Natural Beekeeping…

February 14th has been quite an exciting bee day…

Firstly, we had fine weather for the early part of the day, with the sun shining brightly, much less wind and lack of rain, could only mean one thing, check on the ladies…

So this morning when I ventured up to the workshop, the expectation was high on seeing flying bees.  What I got in actuality was somewhat more.

The ladies were flying, which was a great sight to see and relieved some anxiety.  I thought it best to check on their food stores, so after putting on the beekeeping suit I went to get a closer look. 

First impressions were fantastic, there were dozens of the little darlings flying just outside their hive, hovering around the entrance.  Then I noticed even more good news, they were not just stretching their wings, some were venturing much further afield.  

I started to notice pollen coming in, what a great feeling that is, knowing that they’re helping themselves with any opportunity that the weather gives them.  A light rose colour, a pale yellow and a blend of yellow / mustard coloured pollen was entering the hive stored on the back legs of a few bees.

Then I could see the cleaners were busy at work.  They were bringing out dead bees and dragging them about 1 metre away from the entrance before taking a little break and returning to the hive.  

Such great optimistic, visual signs, from just kneeling down besides them, that a healthy colony is bringing home some food, doing a spot of house cleaning and stretching their wings.

As usual I stayed to watch them for a little while to see if any other colours of pollen would bee brought into the hive.

As for this evening I attending a talk hosted by the Gwent Beekeepers Association on Natural Beekeeping by Dr Nicola Bradbear who is a long standing advocate of beekeeping.  She spoke to inform people about what natural beekeeping is all about.  Lots was talked about, with some questions afterwards.  

A “Warre Hive” otherwise known as “the Peoples Hive” was on display which did get quite a bit of attention from interested people.

It was nice to see some old faces (meaning those people I haven’t seen in a while, not describing the demographic of the group), and the confirmation of the benefits that natural beekeeping could bring to the British bee population.

So all in all, it has been a great day, lets see what tomorrow brings.