June 2011

These are the days of early dawns and long shadows in the evening.  I have just come in from a dander around the cottage and some pottering around the garden.  The sky is a clear blue here and the sun is lazy and low over the fields.

Today the little man’s grandparents arrived to drink tea, paint the shed and hang out in the sun.  I also took it as an opportunity to check on the hives and introduce my father-in-law to the bees.  First we went into the hive that Grelder had swarmed from to find more bees than I thought would have been left behind.  Lots of queen cells were left behind, some of which were very obviously emergency queen cells.  We broke down all of them but two.  I would have liked to leave only one but they were constructed in such tight clusters that leaving one would have risked leaving it damaged. The other hive at the cottage should contain Grelder’s first daughter and she should soon be taking her nuptial flight soon.  We stayed away from that hive and did not risk looking in at all.  Then we jumped in the car to take a trip up to Grelder’s swarm.  Good news; a complete frame of beautiful eggs.  Grelder lives and she is busy building her new empire in a far off land (7km away and an extra 100m up).

Back at the cottage I dusted off some old plywood and set myself the task of building a nucleus box (small bee hive).  If the two potential new queens successfully mate I might try and take them through the winter.  To do this I might have to use nucleus hives as the normal hives may be too big to heat in colder weather.  Even if they mate and build large enough colonies which require the larger hives then I have learnt, the hard way, that any spare equipment can be very useful.

Grelder’s eggs are the good news but there is also some bad news.  As I put my ear to the side of the hives this evening to hear their beautiful hypnotic whispering my eye caught sight of something that filled my heart with dread.

Some call them winnie’s and some call them pooh’s, but they strike fear into the heart of beekeepers everywhere.  I don’t know how I am going to deal with this particular pest, it just feels like it is one thing after another at the moment.  They are predators that seek honey, runny honey for their tummy.  It’s not funny.

I read the books and sat in the classes.  I read the books again and found some more of the books to read.  It all filled me with things to do, planning, preparation and dreams of the future.  And it always left the thought in my mind.  The thought was indelible and deep seated; I worried abut the swarm.  Will they swarm?  Will they be content and good little bees?  I worried and worried some more.  I mentioned it so much that the lovely Sharon began to roll her eyes and mock my anxiety.  I have to admit that I was never extremely worried about the trouble they might cause as they are said to be at their safest when they are swarming.  They are said to have a belly so full of honey that apparently even using their sting is a problem of practicalities. And now I am a witness to this; they were docile and uninterested in me.  It is difficult to describe this.  Even when I was ploughing my hand into them as they clustered on the tree and cupped them into the box, they behaved themselves.  There was not a single sting from the tens of thousands of them. No, I was not worried about the terror of a swarm.  I was worried about losing my bees!  We paid for those bees!

 honeybee swarm by rreis

Once the swarm actually happened in reality, despite my intervention by the book, the lovely Sharon became sympathetic to my concerns.  She was amazed at the numbers of them and how they filled the air just before condensing onto the tree.  But, she was never worried, our whole family seemed un-perturbed.  We all dragged the chairs and toys out on swarm Sunday and chatted and played in the back garden while the tens of thousands of bees walked the plank in the front garden.  It was only surreal if you stopped to think about, otherwise it was all quite normal.

source – geekfill

They call it the great wind down, the last weeks of school term. This may have been true years ago but it exists only as a thing of the past now. The shift in my attention now moves away from my classes as they dwindle away and on to the massive puzzle that is the school timetable. In the middle of scheduling classes and playing with single and double periods, the electronic reporting also seems to eat away at huge chunks of my time.

Amid all these things little pockets of tranquillity appear as I head into the mountains with groups doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It is these random and amazing days that make it very difficult for me to convince the lovely Sharon how busy I really am.

the annalong valley today

After peeling and chopping a mountain of potatoes the lovely Sharon dismissed me from kitchen duties so I could grab a mid-morning coffee.  I can’t really remember the time it was at the moment of sipping that coffee because it became lost in the whirl that became swarm Sunday.

I was casually staring out the window across the garden at the two hives, only one of which has a laying queen at the moment.  This hive has the queen we have now named Grelder.  I am not a fan of naming animals that are not truly pets.  I named the chickens only as a joke (Roast, Lemon, Szechuan and Rosemary) and never use the names or can ever tell them apart anyway.  But, after the artificial swarm adventure we thought she deserved a name and Grelder seemed fitting as GRound ELDER is something we have to deal with a lot here; just when you think it has completely gone it suddenly appears again from an unknown hiding place.

As I stared at the hives and sipped my strong coffee some activity from Grelder’s hive caught my attention.  An ever increasing cloud of bees was whirling around the hive and filling the air.  Only one thought crossed my mind; “NOOOOOOOOO!”

We ran outside to find ourselves standing on the edge of a cloud of bees.  For a moment I thought about the wonder of it all and the fact that through the cloud the zipping straight lines of scout bees directing the swarm could be clearly seen.  They were creating a perfect straight ‘beeline’ from the hive to a young horse chestnut tree.  Then that thought crept back in; “NOOOOOOOOO!”

the swarm on resting on the tree

it is fun to stand under a bee filled tree and shake it

After a few minutes they neatly parked themselves at a lovely height on the tree and I went off to get suited up and find some bits of kit to attempt to catch them.  I had never thought I would be catching swarms so early in by beekeeping career so I have to admit that I did the usual amateur thing of grabbing a couple of bee-books and frantically refreshed my memory on how it should be done.  As it was a lovely day and they were so handily positioned I decided to go for the old fashioned method of walking them in which is apparently quite unnecessary but amazing to see.

walking the ramp

I watched for ages and still never spotted Grelder

she might be a ninja bee

After getting them into a little wooden box I transferred them into a hive with frames using a method from a different source.  It involved quite a bit of space which seemed unnecessary to me but I went with the wisdom of others and shook the swarm into a brood box, excluder, eek, brood box tower and left them to settle themselves in for the evening.

Grelder the queen had only just been put through an artificial swarm exactly a week ago and it seems she could not be easily fooled.  So in a burst of extravagance I decided that if she wanted to leave then I would make her leave.  With the help of my brother in law I loaded them on to a trailer and carried them off to a bolt hole site on his land.  In the pictures he can be seen wearing a camouflage beesuit and white marigold gloves.  I kept asking, “where are you now?” Then he would appear standing beside me hidden in the hedge with his gloves giving me the impression of some strange army mime artist.

you can just see him if you look closely

me standing pondering Grelder the witch

I am assuming that Grelder left some lovely queen cells in her old home and a very small skeleton crew of bees.  I also assume that, over the coming weeks, I will have to see if the two hives left behind in our cottage apiary will produce laying queens.  Then decisions will have to be made, hives will need to be recombined and a queen might have to be killed.  And Grelder, if you happen to be reading this blog, it might even be you.

miles from home – is that swarmed enough for you Grelder?

very brave cats and beehive by klara kim

The day started lazily and continued at this pace for quite some time.  Even though a lie-in is just a fable now or even a thing of folklore, the morning can still be leisurely.  The little man has developed the habit of tunefully singing with the birds at dawn.  We believe this to be a random fluctuation in genetics as this trait is not an inherited one.  We had only a few objectives for the day other than the regular chores.  Cheesecake and Banoffee were on the lovely Sharon’s list and, as a family, we had the aim of heading out for lunch.

Making the little man’s tiny pureed packets of apples and pears was on the list of chores

The bees were not on the list as they need time and space on their own for a while.  As I cleaned out the chickens I had an opportunity to lean on the brush shaft and stand for an eternity and watch the antics at the hive entrances.  The hive with the baby queen showed some encouraging signs as several bees were doing orientation flights.  They change jobs from nurse bees to flying bees and the first thing they do in this new role is make circular flights around the hive in ever increasing circles.  In this way they imprint the surroundings of their new home into their mind.  This hive has very few flying and so every one of them is essential to bring in the pollen and nectar to feed the hungry mouths.

The other hive seems to be a mirror image of this.  It has a ridiculous amount of flying bees and few nurse bees.  This hive has the queen we have now named Grelder.  I am not a fan of naming animals that are not truly pets.  I named the chickens only as a joke (Roast, Lemon, Szechuan and Rosemary) and never use the names or can ever tell them apart anyway.  But, after the artificial swarm adventure we thought she deserved a name and Grelder seemed fitting as GRound ELDER is something we have to deal with a lot here; just when you think it has completely gone it suddenly appears again from an unknown hiding place.

If I had been a more experienced beekeeper I would have put the hives closer together to make evening out the number of flying bees a possibilty.  This is achieved by swapping the hives to each others positions over a couple of weeks in a strange ball-in-a-cup type manoeuvre.

After lunch I found myself in a well known bookshop in the ‘town’ and bought yet another book on beekeeping.  At the desk the lady asked me if I was thinking of keeping bees to which I replied (half embarrassed, and I do not know why) that I already do.  Then came the classic next question of’ “do you make your own honey then?”  I am sorry to say that my reply is always the same very annoying phrase, “no, the bees do that.  It would take me too long to make my own honey.”  I can’t help myself.

One of Grelder’s daughters


the pointy bit


a bee’s bum

 the sting in the tail

Looking at the wing of one of Grelder’s daughters can apparently reveal how close she is to the pure Irish Black Bee family tree.  One day I hope to figure out how to do this.

I live my life in growing rings
which move out over the things around me.

Perhaps I’ll never complete the last,
but that’s what I mean to try.

I’m circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I’ve been circling thousands of years;
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm
or a great song?

– Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours

The fire is lit; radio ulster is blasting out traditional music and the little man is joining in with yelps and squeals as he hammers toy tumblers together.  The salmon is ready for the barbecue and the red wine has been uncorked as we nibble olives and cheese.  The weekend is here.

the fire is now caged as it has been deemed dangerous

Sunday’s artificial swarm was triggered by me spotting sealed queen cells.  This is usually a sign that they have already swarmed and the queen has left, but part of me did not understand why there were still so many bees.  I was convinced that she had not swarmed but I could not find her and I did an artificial swarm using a method that did not require finding the queen.

Over the last few days I have become convinced that she did actually leave and I have lost her.  I do have a vague recollection of lying on the sofa on Saturday and feeling ill and brimming with self-pity.  As I pondered if I had a vomiting bug or man-vomiting bug (similar to man-flu and just as deadly) I heard the lovely Sharon come in from the garden and mention that were quite a lot of bees in front of the hive.  A tiny fragment of my mind thought, “that’s interesting” while the rest of me thought, “I think I’m going to be sick again”.

So, with the knowledge that she was lost to me, was left with the decision to recombine the hives and see if the new queen cell will hatch and mate.  Or I could buy a new queen to replace the old one then leave the hive with the queen cell to see if it will hatch and mate.  The options were to have two hives or back to the one.  I decided that two are better than one.

I went into the moved hive with most of the brood frames when I got home from school today.  There was still only one closed queen cell .   There were a couple of emergency cell started charged with jelly so I broke them down and left the one beautiful classic queen cell.

I went over to the ‘swarmed’ hive with the mind that I would get a nice queen from a beekeeper in Belfast with lots of local queens.  I stood at the hive and wondered what point I had looking in as there was no purpose to my inspection.  I know that I should not look out of curiosity but I decided to dive in anyway.  I did not want to mess about too much so I just went for the one frame of brood I put in.  About a third of the sealed brood had hatched since Sunday and there were larvae in nearly all stages.  The rest was filled with nectar and pollen.  One cell caught my eye and I thought I saw what looked like an egg.  It was more than likely the light catching a puddle of nectar.   It got my curiosity going enough to feel the need to look at the one frame of stores I slipped into the ‘swarm’.  They had completely emptied it and filled it with these……

….AAAAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.  She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me………….  These are freshly laid eggs.  The queen lives!  Long Live the Queen!

Happy Solstice, it’s good to know that the world is still turning.

solstice sunrise by raffee

Stage two of the artificial swarm was to split the hive in two and feed the ‘swarmed’ half of the bees.  The weather prophets predicted heavy rain which I was glad of to ensure that the bees would take themselves off on a wee trip.  The rain never came and the day was a glorious one that I observed from the confines of my classroom.  However, I still believe that there are loads of bees still in the hive and they might not have swarmed at all.  I might have just caught them in the nick of time.

The old queen, who is actually still a young girl only one year old, is now removed form most of her baby daughters.  She sits (if she is still there) where the old hive once stood and has the company of most of the foraging bees she brought into the world months ago.

The old hive with most of the babies, the nurse bees and the new baby queen (possibly queens?)  Are housed in their new location.  I am not to touch this hive for several weeks so as not to disrupt or disturb the natural way of things.  The new queen needs to stretch her wings, find a man, let the man die as his genitalia is snapped off, and then settle down to have a new family.

strange clouds hang over the cottage this evening

People have asked me why we have bees.  Mostly people ask when we will have honey.  We are keeping them for the fun of it, the challenge of it, and for the things we will learn.  I have always found insects interesting, particularly the social insects.  Of course this does not mean they are particularly social to us and we are not really fussed on them dropping in for a cup of tea.  But they are better viewed, not as thousands of bees, but as one superorganism; the hive.  I have learnt so much reading about the bees and going on the course, but there is vastly more to learn.

a DIY hive – work in progress

Another avenue for self improvement has also opened up; DIY.  Tonight I continued in my construction of a DIY hive and a little nucleus box.  After wiggly lines and a one or two bent saw bits, I re-learnt something I had forgotten years ago.  Specifically that the fastest possible super fast setting on a jigsaw is not necessarily the best choice.

a nucleus hive (temporary mini hive) under construction

Today was my first father’s day, and it was not a weekend without events.  The weekend started on Saturday morning with father and son bonding by both of us being very sick.  With the copious vomiting between the two of us the lovely Sharon was kept very busy looking after her two wee boys.  This morning we both felt much better and were both a lot happier.  The little man is not allowed to return to nursery tomorrow as he needs 48 hours of non vomiting to ensure he does not contaminate the other children.  It is a shame, and an injustice, that the same rule does not apply to teachers.

The little man bought me my first father’s day present of…..a beekeeping jacket.  This means I don’t have to take the time to put on the whole suit if I am just feeding them, doing a quick inspection or even just sitting watching the bees go about their buzziness at the hive entrance.  It ended up being very fitting and poetic that the jacket was worn, for the first time, by my own father as we did an inspection together today.  Inspections every seven days are essential at the moment to try and avoid swarming.  A swarm occurs when the bees decide it is time to split the hive in two.  The bees build a few queen cells and when they are ready to hatch, the old queen then leaves with about half or a third of the bees.  A swarm is when the bees look their most frightening but I am led to believe that they are at their safest and least likely to sting.  Two weeks ago I spotted the start of a queen cell and so I broke it down.  Last week I found a few beginnings of queen cells and so I broke them down again.  Today we opened up the hive and found several closed queen cells.  Bad news.

the calm after the swarmstorm

It is said that if you have found closed queen cells then the swarm has already left the hive, unless the weather has been bad.  Looking into the hive I think that most of the bees are still there but it is hard to tell for sure.  I had to assume that the queen was still there and I needed to do an artificial swarm.  This involves tricking the queen into thinking she has swarmed.  The easy way to do this involves finding the queen.  The hard way is when you can’t find the queen.  I can hardly ever find the queen. After looking through the hive twice I could still not find the her majesty and we had to do it the hard way.

Hundreds of bees in the air is always an intimidating thing to be in the middle of, but this happens every so often, especially if you shake the bees off a frame.  Doing an artificial swarm the hard way involved us shaking the bees into a box by shaking ALL THE FRAMES.  There was a lot of angry buzzing and gnashing of teeth (although they don’t actually have teeth).  I even got stung, but it was my own fault for leaning over and distressing a crawling bee in the folds of my suit.  After all the bees were in the new box we put the old box on top of it leaving a double story hive.  The idea is that most of the bees will move up and leave the old queen downstairs so that I can separate her tomorrow and have two hives.  All sorts of things could have gone wrong and with the process.  I could have accidentally killed the queen.  She might have already left anyway.  Or the new queen might not mate due to various reasons.  After saying and suspecting all these things I am also beginning to learn that bees seem to sort themselves out to some extent.  They are survivors holding on against all sorts of diseases, the fumbling of an amateur beekeeper (a newbee in beek lingo) and the grim Irish weather.

unknown source

unknown source

unknown source

source – xkcd

I have wrestled cats to apply flea treatment and eye ointment. I have prised open the biting jaws of vicious felines to drop down worming tablets. I have chased after chickens and manically thrown myself at them to grab them and check their health and vitality (not their stress levels). I have even given medicine to a box full of tens of thousands of stinging bees. All this and I have only just learned that these things are nothing compared to trying to give eye drops to a nine month old little man.

Last week the writing was on the wall.  On several occasions I had to coax and encourage the coffee machine in the staff room to squeeze out an espresso.  It did its job but took time, made a lot of noise and left a worrying puddle of water around the base of the machine.  Today it threw a tantrum and the puddle was large and the volume of espresso was non existent.

This was devastating for me but I tried to keep my chin up and carry on.  I tried cafetiere coffee instead as some of the staff attempted to convince me that it was very middle class and tastes nearly as good as espresso.  I smiled, remained calm and collected; and carried on.

At lunch time it all got to me and I took a screwdriver to the machine in an attempt at surgery.  Once opened and switched on a main artery from the pump spewed water that should be going other places.  The culprit was a tiny rubber washer that has perished due to over-use.  It is such a small little thing that I worry if a replacement can be found but I refuse to give up on the old girl yet.  She has seen me through so much that I will do all I can for her.

The moon is big and bold and nearly full.  It tries to pull our attention like the tide, but we ignore it.  As we carry out the nightly chores and fill our pockets with eggs our gaze is drawn to the other side of the sky.

It shifts and changes and in every moment it is breathtaking.

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