The beekeepers creed in spring is to not look into the hive when you want to. Instead you must have patience and wait until you need to. It is said that if there is no purpose to opening up the hive other than curiosity then leave it shut. With that said, I felt I needed to see how healthy the colonies were and have a go at marking and clipping the queens. It is easy to say it, “marking and clipping”, but it strikes me with nervous apprehension. The aim is to delicately manipulate the queen into a little cage, put a little paint on her thorax and then clip one of her wings with tiny scissors to stop her flying away in a swarm. All this needs to be done without touching her with my hands, covering her in paint, cutting her legs off, or damaging her in any way. Before all that, I have to find her.

Yesterday the sun was out and the temperature was hovering around twelve degrees and I decided to inspect one of the hives. I suited up and pushed down my nerves. I had to be confident and gentle as the bees can smell fear. I’m not kidding, this time last year I remember doing some of my first inspections and it was obvious from their reactions when I was either calm or freaking out. I removed the roof and unfolded their quilt that rests over their ceiling. The unfolding revealed a plastic carton that I had filled with sugar fondant for them. The carton was now filled with the creamy yellow of built comb. If they are building comb then it is usually a good sign. I gently broke the seal on the ceiling board (crown board in beek lingo) and lifted it to reveal the bees and frames. Lots of bees! The slow and steady movement of the hive inspection started; a frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, then a frame of brood. The brood was healthy looking with baby bees at all stages, but no queen. Another frame of brood and no queen, then another frame of brood and no queen. I tried to apply all the techniques to spot her. I looked on the dark side first and then looked for a circle of bees facing in, her little royal court bending the knee to their queen. I even tried to ‘read’ the frame from right to left and not from left to right. This is supposed to make us more observant and is a technique used by pilots to spot for other aircraft. It is said that our brains have been rewired by reading so that our focus skips and jumps too much, a consequence of the words on a page. Still no queen though.

I worry that she has inherited her mother’s strange habit of darting about the hive and hiding from me. Eventually I paused at a frame of mostly eggs as a thought drifted into my mind, “the most likely place to find her is on the frame of freshly laid eggs”. I refused to put this frame down for a moment longer and tried again. I can only describe it as a Where’s Wally moment, there she was. The bees look like bees, the queen looks like something else. Her body is unusually long and slender and her wings are folded up on her back to exaggerate her length. What followed was a period of intense concentration while I zoned out the bees in the air around me, the bees crawling all over me and the bees threatening me. It was only me and the queen, this tiny little creature that I must not damage. A damaged abdomen could jeopardise her thousands of tiny eggs. A damaged leg could harm her ability to size up the honeycomb cells to see if they meet with her approval. And any sort of damage or human smell could cause her servants to turn on her and kill her. To them she is not the queen, to them she is the egg laying slave and they have high expectations.

I painted her with a drop of white paint. The paint did not dry well at all and very little seemed to stay on her. I completely bottled out of clipping her. I think I should practice first. They say it is good to try clipping a few of the male drones first, no one cares about the males. I slipped the queen into a match box to keep her safe while I carried on with the inspection.

Was there a point to all of this apart from a queen with bad make up and an adrenaline fuelled game of Where’s Wally? In the end there was an unexpected purpose; the hive was packed with bees and in need of some space. I did not expect so many bees at this time of year. Nearly eight frames of brood means it is time for a super. Will there be an early honey harvest? Will they swarm? The queen is in her first year, it is said that this means they will not swarm. Then again, if she is anything like her mother…

Different creatures have different strategies for coping with the winter.  Honeybees build up their stores of honey to see them through, we rely on our community and the wider global market, and wasps (and bumble bees) put all their eggs in the one basket.

Wasps and bumble bees let all their hard working daughters and sons die off, leaving only a small amount of queens at the end of the autumn.  These queens find warm areas to hide themselves away over the cold winter months.  They find south facing hedges, or living room curtains in which to fall asleep into and dream of the summer.

When spring comes they fight for survival.  They struggle to establish a small hive of daughters.  If all goes well for them their daughters take over the struggle and leave the queen in the comfort of the hive.  So, if you see an unusually large wasp at this time of year, then kill it.  Make it your mission to ensure it is dead and gone.  Doing so condemns thousands of wasps to death; the thousands of potential eggs that she carries inside herself.  And if you see a larger than normal bumble bee at this time of year then you must do the opposite.  Ensure that it is unharmed and that she is safe in the world as the bumble bee is not a pest.  The bumble bee is being persecuted by our pesticides and herbicides.

Today I had a quick look at the bee hives and spotted a very large wasp lying dead at the entrance to one of the hives.  She was a queen who must have been desperate for food.  Desperate to feed her young babies in this fluctuating fickle spring.  She must have been insane too.  What was she thinking when she tried to enter a honeybee hive packed with a couple of thousand venomous honeybees.  Whatever she thought, I was proud of the bees.

Often I see an imbalance in my students in the classroom. To learn and develop in any subject, two things are needed; knowledge and confidence. Too often my students have too much of one and too little of the other. Over-confidence without knowledge is dangerous, but the reverse is frustrating. Half a teacher’s job is to slowly, and delicately, build our pupil’s belief in themselves while realising it can be shattered so easily. If I am being honest, I have to admit that my own balance in the learning curve is weighted down by too much confidence, with the exception of fruit trees.

When faced with a fruit trees I really do not know what I am doing. I know they need pruned but I have a deep seated fear of killing the tree. It feels so wrong to let me loose with a set of loppers on a tree that must be decades old. Over a year ago I read the books about pruning fruit trees. I read dusty old books found in second hand book shops and shiny new books dispatched from the monstrous book machine that is Amazon. I read and absorbed. I looked at the diagrams and I inspected the trees with the book in hand. I did all this before taking the loppers in hand and…… doing nothing. Fear gripped me and my own confidence drained away as I approached the trees.

Last spring I watched the oldest of these fruit trees suffer. It bloomed and began to blossom at the edges of its old branches until a cruel set of winds blew through the end of spring. The tree was too stretched out with its untidily long branches, the leaves began to curl and die. In the summer it found the energy to recover a little, but it was clear that it was suffering, and it was my fault.

This morning I decided to go for it. Over confidence can be brutal, but then again; confidence must be gained by experience. I grabbed the loppers, and the ladders, and the wood saw! I threw myself into it and the plum tree did not look like itself by the end of it. Time will tell.

Later in the morning I found out some good news. As it was such a lovely spring day the bees took advantage of it. They were very active with lots of big wheeling and spiralling flights around the hives. This is a sign that some of the bees were learning the hives location. This, in itself is a good sign; however the really exciting sight was that of big wads of pollen being brought into the hives in large amounts. Lots of pollen means lots of baby bees to be fed, which probably means that both hives contain healthy laying queens. Now that temperature of spring, and my bee fever, is beginning to rise, my mind is drifting to the characters of the seasons. The willow is releasing its pollen, but when will the dandelions start to take over the fields and verges. When will there be the first ‘flow’?

“there is nothing that can compare to the feeling that people engaged in agriculture in temperate regions have in spring. This is especially so in people who keep bees.” – Clive de Bruyn

I stole this from Emily

I lost interest in the bees.  In the spring and summer of last year it felt like an obsession, even my dreams were filled with bees.  Coming home from work and looking at the activity around the hive/hives became a reflex.  Then the winter came and they hid themselves away, and I hid myself away from them.   I stopped looking at them to the point where they were pushed out onto the edge of my world.  My bee fever broke, and the bee books got shelved.  I worried that it was a fad, an expensive failure of a hobby.

Three days ago I noticed a thin crescent moon in the south west.  I noticed the moon, the  full Growing Moon, on its steady fattening.  I noticed the first hints of green on the hawthorn, and I noticed the bees.  The last two days have been warm enough for them to begin to housekeep and drag out the dead bodies of the winter casualties that, until now, have littered the floors of the hives.  I have noticed all this and I have begun to feel the pull of the spring, the moon and the bees.  Today the reflex of looking at the hives returned and I am beginning to itch.  I want to open up their homes and peer in.  I want to see how they are fairing and help them along, but it feels a little too soon.  Maybe in another week or two I will satisfy my curiosity, and also feed them a little fondant.  I can feel the bee fever coming back.

I don’t know why, but there is a wonderful feeling when we are near water.  Even the approach to a river is somehow relaxing, as if stepping into another world.  I am glad to say that we spent the last few days beside a river, relaxing and letting the feeling of it soak into our bones.  Even at night the roaring sound of the weir filled our ears and dreams.

It was a beautiful view from the window.  The only small problem was that the water also kept falling from the sky and therefore the view was usually through a rainy window pane.

We were not the only ones thinking of water.  It was only a few days ago that the bees had their winter coat of snow on their homes.  Today there was no snow, in fact their was a few brief moments of sunshine and warmer air.  It was warm enough for the bees to venture out and find water to quench their thirst.  They weren’t just thinking of water though, they were thinking of poo.  After months of being stuck inside with the outside too cold to go to the toilet they simply saved it up.  There were lots of bees not venturing very far, instead they simply did a few loops and relieved themselves mid-flight.

As I removed the mouse guards I got a chance to do a few more observations.  One of the hives seems more tolerant of the cold.  They were the ones I spotted doing cleansing flights (the technical term for it) earlier in the winter.  The cold tolerant hive seemed calmer and with less bees about the entrance.  The other hive were taking advantage of the warm day and there were a lot of bees about the front.  This hive is the one that I felt were a bit aggressive at the end of the autumn.  As I removed the mouse guard I got my suspicions confirmed with a bit of aggressive face dive bombing from one individual bee.  I think I will have to make preparations to re-queen this hive if they turn out to be as aggressive as I suspect.

Last night I found myself at the annual meeting of the Ulster Beekeepers Association. It was a fun and interesting evening chatting about everything and anything, and also chatting about bees. I also found out that I won 2nd place in the annual PowerPoint competition. Not only was I quite pleased with myself but I also received fifty pounds in prize money! It should be poetic that it should be spent on the bees but we are thinking of building a more permanent, and much larger, run for the chickens.

one of the powerpoint slides

I have and idea and a plan. The injection of some more money into the budget prompted me to buy the wood to get started. The three new arrivals are still being bullied by the three old hens, being hen-pecked I think. This means they are spending more time in the coop than on the grass in the run. Eggs must have been stepped on and consumed as they loafed about in the coop.  There were no eggs for a couple of days; a very bad habit to start, and difficult to stop. We are now policing this by lifting the eggs as soon as we can to prevent them being munched. We have also popped a few plastic eggs in the coup. The idea is that if they try and peck them they will begin to realise that they are inedible.  We intend to expand their space as soon as possible. This is part of a long term project that has been moved up the list. The idea is that we might raise our own hens next year, for the pot!

About a month ago I received word that I had won 3rd place in a different beekeeping competition; a photo competition.

the image that won the bees a new super

The competition was for customers of  Peak-Hives build beautiful beehives from cedar wood. The wood is locally sourced, where possible, and look fantastic. I can still remember the amazing smell of the hives when they were delivered. The smell filled the garage on the cold winter nights when I pulled on a thick fleece and hammered and glued the hives together.

tonight’s autumn mushrooms in the gathering darkness

Tonight I made up more sugar syrup for the bees, but not before heading out for an autumn dander. I strapped the little man to my back and we headed out as the light began to fade. We nibbled blackberries and shouted “doyi, doyi, doyi” at the hedges. We watched the sheep and we looked for strange mushrooms along the way. Tonight we read about a boy who found a lost penguin. We rocked in the chair as we drank our milk (he drank his milk as I pretended to; to entertain) and we read our book by moonlight (a light shaped like the moon). The real moon is waxing now and will be full in just over a week. It is bringing with it the darkness and the long nights. But the little man and I have our moon shaped lamp and books about penguins and bears to hide in, on these gathering winter nights.

the rocking chair under the ‘moonlight’

our bedside reading material (two options for if he wants to read or if he wants to fall asleep in my arms)

After school I shifted my mind into the mode of an assassin. I took on the persona of cold, calculating, methodical and ruthless. I was on a mission; the queen must die.

In the beginning of our relationship I had worried and fretted over her and I feared that my inspection might have killed or damaged her. The whole hive hinges around the queen and her health. But now she had given us two healthy queenly daughters and I have a mind to take her away from her bees and give them to one of the other hives; the weak hive.

Uniting two hives is said to be a very unnatural thing to do with bees, but it is necessary. One of the hives here at the cottage is so very weak and not moving along with enough pace. It does not even seem to be taking any feed down. However, it does have a young and mated queen. The idea is to take the hive and a stronger hive and place a sheet of newspaper between them. They sense each other and begin to eat through the paper with a mind set on fighting. The theory is that, by the time they have actually eaten through the paper, the smells mix enough for them to begin to forget who is the enemy and who is friend. The only problem left is the two queens. One school of thought is that they fight to the death and the best one wins. The risk is that the winner is damaged and the bees kill her anyway. The other school of thought is that you kill the queen you don’t want yourself. This was the mind I had when I arrived at the hive of Grelder. Grelder the witch

The last time I had looked in the hive was while I was stealing honey. I had been feeding them quite a lot, but had not actually looked in since the thieving. The first frame was heavy with stores, then more stores, then stores again, stores, stores and stores. I went through the hive twice and never saw Grelder. I saw no baby bees or larvae, or eggs. Not a single trace of evidence of Grelder at all. Had she passed away? That would be nice (assassin mode here) but it is more likely that she was hiding as she is a sneaky old witch.

The hives are together now. We tried the Independent to keep them apart, then the Belfast Telegraph. In the end, only the Times was big enough to cover the space. I guess they just that kind of bee. They are in the garden here at the cottage and the noise from them is heavy with the thirst for fighting. Only a thin leaf of broadsheet is keeping them apart. It could all end in tears, but I admit that to minimise them getting too upset I made sure it was not from the sports section. I hate the sports section. Teams play games; big deal!

The full moon was rising through the clouds here tonight as the last of the honey was poured and sealed into jars.  For us it’s name is the honey moon, and we hope to have a honey moon every year now.

pooh fainted

We started off with one hive here and now we have found ourselves heading into the autumn with it split into three.  This means that the expectations of a honey harvest were lower than what would be normal for a single hive uninterested in swarming.  However, we are more than happy with our forty two jars of honey (coincidently the meaning of life if you are a scifi fan).

There are still a few empty jam jars left for the blackcurrants but the wasps have now felt the turning of the year and are hunting for their fix of fruity sugars. This makes for a strange turn of events, as the lovely Sharon will probably be wearing her beekeeping suit tomorrow to harvest the blackcurrants in a cloud of wasps, the bee’s carnivorous cousins.

After spending some time away on our holidays we returned to the cottage keen to harvest the honey. Apparently the end of August is the usual time to harvest for most people here but we felt that the ‘flow’ was tailing off and we need to treat with anti-varroa medicine before even beginning the winter feed.

The actual harvesting was today but it began yesterday evening when I ventured out to place clearing boards and bee escapes on two of the hives. The idea is that the bees can move only one way through the bee escapes and therefore they slowly empty the box where all the honey is stored overnight. Our bees are usually quite gentle and I have inspected them without smoke on several occasions. With this in mind I approached and opened a hive and began to clear a little surplus wax away in preparation for the clearing board. ATTACK! Nearly instantly a squadron of a hundred bees went straight for my veil and tried to sting me and relay their anger. I dandered back to my kit box to get my smoker, it seems that an overcast evening near the end of the flow changes my docile little cuddly bees into……normal bees.

This afternoon we collected a nearly-full eight frames from one hive and two frames from another hive. Once we deemed them to be bee-free they were brought into the kitchen.  Just before the harvesting began we had to close up all the windows in the cottage to make sure the bees could not steal the honey back.  Then we had to find the little man’s winnie the pooh bear and lock it in a cupboard for the rest of the evening; we were taking no chances.

When the bees have turned the nectar into honey they cap the cells in wax to seal it up.

The first job is to remove the wax cappings with a knife.

After doing one frame this way we quickly moved on to using a de-capping fork as it seemed more efficient.

Two frames at a time; they were spun in a big drum with a crankshaft. The honey splattered against the side of the drum and ran down to a big honey tap ready for the next stage.

The honey was then filtered through two filters to remove all the floating bits of wax and the occasional, although rare, bit of bee leg and such things. No-one likes bee legs in their honey.

Now we have a big 30lb tub of honey which is having a rest for a day or two to lose its bubbles before it is bottled. Although we do have a little bowl sitting in front of us now. It is resting below a jelly strainer full of honey heavy wax cappings. It is sitting absorbing the warmth of the woodstove and as it drips down we can’t resist the occasional little finger dipped into the bowl.

When we talk about the bee hives we get a little weary of referring to them as the ‘one in the middle’ or the ‘one on the left’.  As we have been referring to the original hive as Grelder’s hive we thought it only fitting that we choose names for the other queens.  The obvious name for one of the queens was Tooter, but she is lost to us now.  I hope she is hanging on with her tiny entourage in a hollow chimney or a small forgotten corner of a roof somewhere.  Choosing names for the other two hives is not easy as they have no personality to speak of yet, nor any notable history.  Names were chosen anyway.

Tonight I took a look into Danu’s hive and found plenty of sealed baby bees.  The baby bees are all female worker bees and this is a sign that she has probably been well mated.  Danu’s hive is the weakest of the three hives and is the one that is probably least likely to see the winter through, special care and attention will be needed with them.

Beira has now been laying for a couple of weeks and her hive are doing very well.  Although, they have taken drastic action towards the males in the hive.  Today I discovered the area around the front of Beira’s hive to be littered with dead bees.  Initially I was worried until I took a closer look and realised that they were only males.  The male Drones have a strange and interesting life.  They hang around the hive for most of their lives getting fed by the females.  On sunny days they head out to find the Drone congregation areas which are the equivalent of singles bars.  There they wait for a queen to appear and raise their chances of mating.  ‘Get Lucky’ is a term that should be used lightly here as their penis snaps off and they die.  The unlucky ones simply return to the hive and wait for the next sunny day.  As the Drones serve no purpose other than reproduction, a hive does not want to go through the winter with extra mouths to feed.  Therefore, the end of the summer is the time when the drones are dragged out of the hive by the females after having refused to feed them prior to the eviction.

Grelder’s hive may have evicted the males too?  Her hive is not here at the cottage and so we need to wait for a visit to see. She is our best hope of a honey harvest this year and our fingers are crossed for a week or two from now.

This evening was spent with fungus.  First a yeast was mixed in with the most basic of ingredients; flour and water.  Then, after crucial timing and kneading, the cottage was filled with the smell of freshly baked bread.  A different strain of yeast was then put to work in a new batch of wine.  It reminded me that we have a demijohn of elderberry wine still un-bottled since it was made last autumn.  We are curious about its taste, if we get round to it, the bottling stage is the perfect opportunity to sample it before it matures for another couple of months.

Tonight I stood looking at the dead bees by torchlight and pondered their brief existence before shuffling over to the sleeping hens and stealing eggs from them.  The eggs were shovelled into my pockets and rolled in my hands as I watched the moon begin to set on the horizon.  It is filling and will be full soon.  The evenings are longer now and the moon and stars will begin to pull at us again as summer has past its middle and autumn is not too far away.

It is nice an relaxing to sit and watch a hive entrance in the warm summer evening.  A massive amount of pollen is being brought in in all sorts of colours.

A little over a week ago we packed our little car to ridiculous levels.  We each, the lovely Sharon and I, packed ourselves a modest sports bag of clothes and a few books that we believed, naively, we might get a chance to read.  The two bags fitted neatly into the foot wells of the back seats leaving the remaining volume of the entire car for the little man’s accoutrements and gubbins.  Walker, bath, pram, steriliser, nappies, toys, and two (that’s two!) sports bags full of clothes.  With a heavily loaded car we headed into the heart of Fermanagh for our holidays.

Hours of driving later, we arrived in the general vicinity of the house for the week.  It was an old converted stable that had been turned into what looked like a lovely self catering apartment.  I relied on the lovely Sharon for navigation, and regretted it.  In the mountains she is a focused and accurate navigator, taking pacings and timings much more seriously than myself.  However, in the passenger seat of a car she takes on a trance like state looking at the hedges and the trees.  We usually miss our turn, drive on several tens of miles, before she comes round and insists that our turn-off should be coming up soon.  Prior to leaving on our holidays she informed me that she had looked up the web site and committed the directions to memory.  Inside my mind I was already shaking my head.  Things went reasonably well until we got down to the fine details of finding the stables.  As we passed an old wall Sharon came alive with enthusiasm that the directions mentioned a stone wall.  This sounded encouraging until she said the same thing about a primary school, an old tree, a church, a lake (there are a lot of lakes in Fermanagh), and a hedge.  She was clutching at straws and I knew that, from that moment on, our holidays would rely on blind luck.

There were not many people about to stop and ask directions.  After driving past one particular house several times we spotted a beekeeper tending to his hives and decided to stop, admit defeat, and ask advice.  The lovely Sharon headed up the drive of the house to face the beekeeper.  The little man and I were left in the car wondering if we would ever find our home for the week.  As time began to pass the little man began to protest quite strenuously at his confinement in the car and I began to wonder what was taking so long.  The time taken to discuss directions had passed and I began to wonder what they could be talking about as I watched from the bottom of the lane.  It turned out that the house we had stopped at was actually our destination and the topic of conversation had turned to bees as the beekeeper was in the process of catching a swarm from one of his hives.

 Honeycomb from our host’s beehives

The weather was brilliant for our week in Fermanagh.  We did the usual thing of the big parks and gardens.  In the evenings we put our feet up in the garden and listened to the plants grow as we read our books.  It was a mostly relaxing holiday if you subtract the worry and stress of the little man having a throat infection and suffering a high fever for three nights in a row.  A trip to Enniskillen Hospital was called for on one evening to get a diagnosis and some antibiotics.  We are told that this is all just part of normal parenting.

 blue sky and a halcyon still lake around lough Erne

When we arrived back at the cottage yesterday we found our own little garden had moved on without us.  There is another crop of blackcurrants ready to be turned into jam and a large crop of broad beans that needs to be eaten.  Tonight we dragged out the cookery books for inspiration.  On broad beans we believe that Nigel Slater seems to have the upper hand and we have made a wee list of herbs and cheeses that need to be purchased over the coming days. After our brief holiday in a house that had a massive vegetable garden and a cockerel, chicks and chickens, we are inspired to move along with our own chickens.  We are pondering the idea of making a permanent area for chickens and possibly rearing our own for the plate.  It is an idea that is not for the present, but maybe for next year.  We have an eye on an area below the old beech tree and an empty shed that could be converted into a nice coop if it can survive being moved.

This evening I had a look at the hives.  As I leant down to listen to one I could hear a very un-bee-like sound.  A scratching could be heard above the soft whisper of the bees.  Could a mouse have taken up residence?  It is possible, but my understanding was that mouse guards did not need to be added to the hives until September.  We hope to inspect the hives properly tomorrow and find out what is going on.  As I walked over to the other hive at the cottage I thought that nothing could surprise me more than the scratching until I looked at the front of the second hive.  A small number of bees had decided to collectively form a plug at the entrance.  I had read about this happening several times but have found no satisfactory explanation.  Living space could not possibly be the issue as we added a super box to the hive just before we left for our holiday.  It is a little mystery that is fascinating, unusual and strange.

hanging about at the entrance tonight

Today I lifted the lid on a beehive and did not expect much. I expected a queen less hive or a hive with an un-mated queen. The numbers of bees started at a healthy number which raised the first eyebrow for me. Then, as I shuffled through the frames, I discovered that they were full of baby bees in all stages of development including a lot of sealed baby bees. The pattern of laying was textbook perfect and was a sign that we have a new queen at the cottage. Thought will now have to be put into the naming of her and we are curious what her offspring will look like and behave like. If our new queen has mated with non native bees then her offspring could end up as all sorts. Time will tell.

pollen of all colours being stored

The new queen had not only demonstrated her health but she seemed keen to make an impact in the hive. She had filled a lot of frames with baby bees. Even more frames were filled than her mother Grelder is working on (I inspected her today too). My philosophy for beekeeping is; prepare for the best but expect the worst. So although I was more than pleasantly surprised at the new queen and her work, I was ready for the best possibility; I had prepared a super of fresh frames ready to put honey into. With the super in place I left her in peace just as one of the bees stung me on the knee.

full moon rising over the apiary a few nights ago – the celtic ‘moon of claiming’  – rising over the new queen claiming her new home

After the high I had to deal with the low. The hive which housed Tooter before she ran away had no signs of a mated queen. I had a small nuc ready to put them into but the numbers of bees seemed a wee bit big for the nuc. Instead, I removed a few empty frames and slotted in a dummy frame to reduce the space they needed to heat. This little hive will need a couple more weeks to see if anything develops. Time will tell.

The last few days have included experiment in camping, the loss of some bees and a few books.

We headed off on a mini holiday towing a trailer tent that had been kindly lent to us.  The point of a two day trip was to see how the little man would cope with camping, or this is what we told everybody.  The truth is that we wanted to see if we would cope taking the little man camping.  It turns out that we must have chosen the best possible two days that the misty isle of Northern Ireland had to offer.  The sky was pure blue and we felt like we were camping in the south of France.  The little man coped perfectly, as expected when you consider that he had his mum and dad’s full and undivided attention without the distractions of home.  After his bed time we would sit outside in the long evening light and sip wine and nibble cheese while we read our books and talked nonsense.

The actual location of the holiday was a strange one.  We rang round most of the camp sites in Northern Ireland to find them nearly all unsurprisingly booked up.  The one place that had a cancellation for only a couple of nights turned out to be a fantastic site in Cushendun.  It is an extremely small little village that is both beautiful and full of character.  On the first evening we sat outside the tearoom and watched a man pass by with his lawnmower running, appearing to mow the tarmac footpath.  This was the moment when I knew that I would like Cushendun.

On returning to home after feeling a little relaxed and sun-kissed we unpacked and put our feet up.  After a much needed coffee I took a walk around the cottage and decided to check out the bees.  On the day before we left I caught a cast swarm from one of the hives (my own fault for leaving two queen cells).  I had hived them in a small nucleus hive and hoped for the best.  After leaving them for a couple of days there was no activity at the entrance to the nuc.  It was raining so it might not be a bad sign.  I was itching to know if they had stayed but could not open them up and disturb them unnecessarily.  So, the logical conclusion was to grab the stethoscope from our hypochondria kit and try and hear some activity.  All was silent.  I cheekily gave the hive a little knock which would normally (I have done it accidentally) give a menacing snake like hiss.  Nothing.  The hive was empty and removing the lid confirmed that it was bare and Tooter and her tiny entourage were gone. Maybe she returned to the hive or took up residence in the other hive that might be queenless.  These are extremely slim possibilities but not beyond the realms of possibility.  In a week I will get a chance to open up the hives and find out what is going on in what is left of them.  Some good news reached me today though.  I am told that there is plenty of activity at Grelder’s hive at the out apiary.  In theory, she should have a fresh batch of newly hatched bees freeing up even more to be out foraging. Her bees are making honey and they might not eat it themselves if the fine weather returns.

the last known location of Tooter

When we got back from Cushendun I decided to look at the bookshelf and find anything interesting that I had filed as ‘to be read sometime way off in the future’.  I picked up ‘The Worm Forgives the Plough’ by John Stewart Collis.  What a find.  I am only a quarter of the way into this book now and I love it.  Collis is an academic who chooses to throw himself into agriculture as a labourer during the Second World War.  He knows very little about the jobs and describes what he sees and does exactly as he sees them.  It is a beautifully written book about the methods that were on their way out as mechanisation began to take over and industrialise farming.  Here is a random passage to give a hint at his style:

Before we knocked off, the remainder of the rick had to be covered with an old tarpaulin which we dragged out of the stable close by We unfolded it gradually, and as we did so more than one nest of mice came to light, mice large and small and tiny. They began to try and-scuttle away, the baby ones running round helplessly. Arthur grabbed at them with his enormous hands, catching two or three at a time. He squeezed them to death and stuck them in his waistcoat pocket. He disposed of a large number of them in this manner. He took a mouse, squeezed it between his forefinger and mighty thumb, stuck it in his pocket, then grabbed another, squeezed it and likewise tuck it into his coat or waistcoat until he was bulging with mice. At first I couldn’t imagine the object of this collection. It turned out that they were for the cat at home. On returning he would call the cat to him and steadily produce mice from his person. Not so much for love of the cat, I gathered, as in order to encourage further research in this direction.

Although there is this book and others in the same ‘too read’ category, I could not resist picking up a few more today.  There is a second hand book shop in Belfast that is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures that are waiting to be discovered.  The shelves seem dangerously stacked and claustrophobically narrow.  They seem to contain material on any and every subject apart from beekeeping.  I could not find and section on beekeeping.  I enquired at the desk expecting the gentleman to scratch his head and point me towards the natural history section which I had already went over exhaustively, several times.  Instead, and to my surprise, he turned around and put hand to a modest pile of books beside the till.  He said that a lot of people ask about beekeeping books and he hardly ever gets any in.  So when he does have some he keeps them beside him so he can easily get at them.  The books were from a very old collection and one classic stood out so much that once I saw the author’s name and the bargain price. I snapped it up without even looking inside the cover.  I walked away with four books for not much more that ten pounds, books that will be added to ‘that’ pile.

a beekeeping classic

an old one but the rles don’t seem to have changed that much

it seems that meadowsweet was the original aspirin

not astronomy, it’s about living in a lighthouse

Ok, take two of the cast swarm.  Yesterday I must not have caught the queen.  She must have then got spooked and returned to her hive.  We heard her tooting again last night.

This time have built a little prison for her in the form of a brood box – queen excluder  – nuc box.  there are two frames of foundation in there to get started on.  I think I will leave them like this until tomorrow when I will break it up and pop a couple more frames and an insulated dummy board in.  My next project will have to be a frame feeder.

As part of the very small swarm that I attempted, and failed, to catch today I noticed green pollen.  Later on I noticed the same green pollen being brought into a hive and curiosity got the better of me.  I suspect that it is the pollen of meadowsweet.  Meadowsweet is flowering in beautiful creamy patches along the hedgerows at the moment.

meadowsweet by damien farrell

The hedge was in a desperate need of a trim today.  In truth, it has been in desperation for a month or so now but I have had little inclination to do anything about it until today.  I decided to get up nice and early before the lovely Sharon and the little man even dreamt about waking up.  The sleepy Sharon was a little shocked when she woke up and looked out our bedroom window to see me in the garden sitting listening to the morning birds and eating my eggs and soldiers.  An hour later I was driving the, still sleepy and breakfast-less, little man to nursery.  The day was just beginning and there was a lot to be done.

I threw myself into the hedge cutting, not literally.  For the first half hour I found myself trying to get daisy chained extension leads to work.  These leads would not pass any health and safety inspection but needs must.

Eventually I worked my way along the hedges and left the hedge along the apiary untill last.  It was at this point that one of the day’s little issues began.  I sat and watched a growing crowd of bees leave a hive and become more and more excited.  This was a hive in which I had left two queen cells instead of leaving one queen cell.  It was also the hive from which we have heard tooting every night for the last three nights.  It seems that the queen that emerged first wanted to swarm and leave the hive.  The lovely Sharon and I leaned ourselves against our hoe and brush shafts respectively and relaxed by watching the amazing site that is a swarm of bees.  The straight blurry lines of the scouts navigating and guiding the swarm could be clearly seen. It eventually settled on a low down beech branch.  Due to the complete lack of numbers in the hive the eventual swarm paled in comparison to the swarm that left a couple of weeks ago.

With a lot more calm and decorum that I displayed with the swarm a couple of weeks ago, I began to collect my bits and pieces from the garage and suited up to ‘catch’ the swarm.  I shook most off them into a nucleus box and let the rest walk into the box.

We left them to sort themselves out while we dealt with the day’s other issue; jam.  The fruit is ripening and must be used before it over-ripens or gets eaten by the birds.  We started a few days ago with blackcurrant jam and then went on to gooseberry jam.  Today we picked the redcurrants with the intention of making jelly.  But we have run out of jars.

We hunted high and low for jars.  We also hunted for the jelly strainer that we eventually found hidden between books in the study, no one knows why.  Eventually we found a collection of very small jam jars that I had been hoping to use for honey.  I had saved these little jars because our honey harvest will probably be low if we get any at all, especially if they keep swarming instead of filling their hives with nectar.  The strange thing is that a lot of people are probably expecting samples of our honey and so the tiny jars might have helped us with this dilemma of etiquette.  But, again, needs must.

The swarm box was now very quiet, too quiet.  I had noticed that the hive they swarmed from had shown plenty of activity just after I ‘caught’ the swarm.  Opening up the swarm box had confirmed my suspicions; the box was empty.  Moments after I tried to catch them they were called back to their hive by the fanning of pheromones.

The consensus is that this happens if the queen has died or has been damaged during the swarm.  The lovely Sharon insists that if we can get this queen laying then she must be called Tooter after her strange vocalisations that we have listened to for the last three nights.  So, maybe Tooter is dead or has been damaged and has been abandoned by the bees?  Maybe, but this evening I leant my ear to the hive and there was the unmistakable sound of a tooting queen……

One of us always does a walk round the cottage at night.  The gates are closed, the cat food is topped up, the eggs are collected and the status of the chicken’s food, water and general state of insanity is checked.  On these nice summer evenings an additional item is added to the list; kneeling down and placing an ear to the hives.  On a day like today the ‘flow’ is in full motion and the bees bring in lots of nectar.  On these nights the hive gives off a soft whirring noise as the air is circulated to turn the nectar into honey.  The two hives we have here at the cottage are not strong hives at the moment and should both have virgin queens (possibly a mated queen).  Grelder and her swarm are still banished to another site for a little while.

By my calculations one of the hives should have an emerging queen (or two queens as I left two queen cells in the hive).  Tonight I put my ear to this hive and a strange sound came from the dark inners of the box.  I could not believe my ears!  I thought I knew what it was but never suspected I would be lucky enough to hear it.  The noise was being given off my a newly emerged queen and it is called ‘tooting’  in beek lingo (where beek means beekeeper in beekeeper lingo).

The first sound on the video below is not the tooting of the queen bee but is actually the meowing of one of the cats that follow us like dogs as we walk around the cottage.  Although I do think she believes herself to be a queen.  Very soon the lovely Sharon was out to listen and we both found ourselves on our knees with an ear to the hive with nerdy grins on our faces.  I am glad to add at this point that the lovely Sharon is half way through the first book of her summer reading list:  “The Bad Beekeeper’s Club” by Bill Turnbull and she seem to be loving it.

The tooting sound is the new queen calling to other possible queens in the hive and basically saying “Come on! I’ll Fight you now!”  So, listening to the hive on this halcyon summer evening sounds like it is tranquil and calming, but in fact we are listening to a call to arms for a fight to the death.  May the best queen win?

I read today that a swarm, a real one and not an artificial one, has an attitude of extreme vigour and work.  When I compare what I saw when I preformed the artificial swarm and what I see as a result of the actual swarm that occurred a week later; I am convinced.  I inspected them with my father-in-law yesterday and I was impressed with the rate they had built comb.  They were clustering over the comb they were building in dense ladders.  They form these ladders where they hold on to each other by the front and back legs forming strings of bees.  I have read that the ladders are part of the process of forming the wax comb into the very ordered hexagonal structure.  Today I received an email from an experienced beekeeper who advised me to feed the bees.  It was timely that I received the message while I was just walking into the supermarket and was able to stock up on sugar.

 a lonely me visiting the out apiary tonight

So, it may still be possible to get honey this year if the weather is fine and the swarmed Grelder’s daughters maintain their vigour.  I fed them a large amount of sugar syrup in the hope that they will draw out comb on all the frames (or most of them) in the hive.  If this happens and she lays eggs everywhere, then a foraging work force may be in place in three weeks or so and it is within the realms of possibility that some honey may be harvested.  There are lots of ‘ifs’ in this story and it is an old country saying that….


A swarm in May is worth a load of hay;

a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon;

a swarm in July is worth a butterfly.

 i imagine there will be a lot of excitement tonight in Grelder’s hive

Tonight I had my initiation into the other side of beekeeping.  My name was passed on to someone who has a hive of bees in a barn and they wanted to get rid of it.  Part of me was a little worried that if they were actually honeybees then I would have no hive to put them in but I suspected that I need not worry.  After a chat on the phone my suspicions were confirmed and it seems like the farmer has a wasp nest in his barn.  He was actually quite interested when I explained the difference, as he said himself, “these things are good to know.”

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