The Hive, Part Three: Epilogue/Prologue.

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

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The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

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A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.

 

The Hive, Part Two: Tea With the Queen.

Read part one here.

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

The next morning, the sky was clear.  We tried to be calm, to go about our morning routine and resist the urge to rush out to the hive and probably knock it over, clumsy humans.  Chickens were fed, Mrs. Badcrumble (our cat) found and given breakfast (she has taken to wandering the land all night, all day, returning only for meals and a belly-rub), vegetable plot and orchard saplings checked over, toast toasted, tea sipped.  Then the moment of truth – were the bees still in the hive?  Or had they absconded, queen and all?  Had they been washed away in the Biblical deluge of the previous evening? (Probably not the last one, I am possibly being a little dramatic.)

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The hive was still standing, next to its empty neighbour (we had hoped a feral swarm might move in, but this was not to be).  We donned our bee-armour and walked through the long grass of the field up to the hives.  The front and the landing board were covered in bees, clinging, climbing, launching themselves in the air and flying in circles around us.  They were still here, for the moment at least.  We opened the little observation window in the back of one of the boxes, and peered in.  Thousands of bees hung from the bars of the top box, in a huge drooping cluster, legs linked in a network, a vibration humming through the whole thing, pulsing in rhythm to a music we could not hear.  It was as if there was a debate going on amongst the swarm, decisions being made about this new space they found themselves in.  A question, a statement, and a ripple of bodies and wings in response.  We replaced the cover of the window and, fascinated, sat in front of the hive, sweating in our protective clothing.  We watched the bees for a full hour, all the grooming and leg-waving, flying and buzzing.  We needed to leave the queen-cage in the hive for at least another day to give the bees a chance to free the queen of their own accord; we would free her ourselves the next day if she was still trapped.  With nothing left to do except wait, we retreated and got on with the day, talking of little else but the bees, returning to the hive every hour or so (just to ‘check’, you know), and I had a little knot of fear/anticipation twisting in my belly at the thought of opening the hive the next day to see if the queen was free, or dead, or simply vanished.  Sleep did not come easily that night.

In the morning (another clear bright day), armed with a lit smoker and a soft brush, we approached the colony.  The smoker is a small can with a spout and some bellows attached.  Filled with wood pellets and ignited, it produces clouds of cool white smoke, the idea being this ‘calms’ the bees.  The smoke simulates a forest fire, causing the bees to gorge on honey and leave the hive, and it is this gorging that helps prevent them from stinging, as a bee with a crop full of honey can’t bend her abdomen round easily to administer the sting.  There is also a suggestion that the smoke masks alarm pheromones, though the mechanism is still not fully understood.  A newly installed swarm such as ours, with no stores of honey, cannot gorge on anything, so the use of the smoker that morning was unnecessary (useless), though at least helped us to feel like we might know what we were doing (we didn’t).

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I removed the top box, heavy with bees, as ML squeezed little puffs of smoke from the smoker, and bees instantly filled the air.  I placed the box aside, careful to not squash anybody, and reached into the remaining one for the queen-cage.  The candy plug was gone, chewed through by the workers from the outside and the queen’s attendants from the inside, and the queen was free.  Puffing more smoke, we gently popped some bars, prepared with wax, into the lower box, and I lifted the top one (still full of the majority of the swarm) and replaced it, ML using the soft brush to encourage any bees to move away from danger of being crushed.  So far so good.  We downed tools and watched as the bees flew in ever decreasing circles around us and the hives, landing in groups of two or three on the landing board and returning to the fold of their companions.

And then, a louder, lower buzz.  A hum, somehow heavier than the other bees, came from somewhere behind my head.  A larger shape was moving in the air, and as it came into focus we could see it was the queen, smoked from the hive by our inexpert processes.  (The queen is larger than the worker bees, and also has a coloured dot on her back, added by the breeders for ease of identification.)  She flew, uncertainly, toward the hive entrance, only to be pushed at by other bees, who were seemingly unhappy with her return.  She flew off again, and we lost sight of her.  We looked at each other.  We looked at the hive.  This was not good.  If the queen was out of the hive, and did not return, the colony was all but lost.

A dark shape appeared on the veil of my bee-suit, crawling left-to-right.  The queen.  She walked across my face-covering, and then took off, flying around us, and then alighted on my arm.  She rested for a moment and took off again, only to return, this time landing on my shoulder.  We whispered to her, encouraging her to go back to the hive (slightly mad, though there is a history of talking to bees).  She made a few exploratory passes of the entrance, waved at by workers, in welcome or not we could not tell, and finally landed, a slight stumble as she did.  And went in.

We watched the hive entrance intently for a long time, expecting the queen to reappear any moment and fly off into the distance, but she did not show herself again.  Within an hour, some routine seemed to return to the swarm, with workers leaving the hive and heading out, hopeful of nectar and pollen to begin constructing comb from wax, to start to store honey, and, most importantly, for the queen to start laying eggs, producing new workers to refresh the colony and build up strength and numbers in preparation for winter, not so far away now.

We were both a little shaken, annoyed with ourselves for risking the queen, for not being careful enough, but all was, we hoped, now okay.  Six weeks later and the colony is still there.  They have filled three quarters of the top box with comb, and we think the queen is laying.  Workers leave in sqaudrons, returning  laden down with nectar, with parcels of pollen attached to their legs.  We visit them every day, more confident now, even foregoing the bee-suits (we do not open the hive, and the bees seem quite content with our company).

We visit in the evenings, feeding a little sugar syrup to help build up food stores for the winter.  We watch the behaviour around the hive for any indications of problems or disease, and check the removable board at the bottom of the hive for varroa mites (as yet, none).  We visit in the morning to say hello, sometimes clutching hot drinks.  We sit, we watch, we sip tea with the queen.

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The Hive, Part One: A Boot Full of Bees.

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

We had hoped the bees would arrive earlier.  We wanted to source a swarm locally, so the bees already knew their way around, where the best flowers were, and were already acclimatised to the weather and the landscape.  Sadly this proved impossible, so we ordered a swarm of bees with a mated queen from a breeder near Colmar, up by the border with Germany.  Inclement weather had delayed the swarm season; March became April, April turned to May, wild flowers bloomed and wilted away, and still we waited.

Last year we went on a weekend natural beekeeping course, when we were still living in Bristol.  Run by the hugely knowledgable and lovely Heather and Tim from Bee the Change , it was an inspirational couple of days, with a lot of biology, natural history, and tales of beekeeping traditions around the world, such as Polish tree-hives.  It really opened our eyes to the idea of beekeeping for the sake of the bees, not for honey.  Bee decline has been in the news for years now, with much being made of the use of neonicotinoids on crops.  Whilst this is almost certainly part of the problem, it is much more complicated than this.

The bee is a mystery that humans have tried to solve for millennia, and has been deeply involved in the folklore, religion, medicine, even politics, of societies from ancient Egypt onwards (perhaps even earlier).  For centuries it was thought (typically) that the queen was a king. It was thought that bees were generated, spontaneously, from the flesh of dead oxen.  There are still aspects of bee behaviour and biology that are not understood, though we manipulate and spray and confine and hurl chemicals about, and are flummoxed by colony collapse, by bees simply disappearing in their millions.

In natural beekeeping, chemical treatments are not used, the hive is opened as little as possible (if ever), honey is only taken if there is truly a surplus (if ever).  There is growing evidence that bees self medicate using nectar and pollen from specific flowers, even utilising some fungi.  The varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a parasite that feeds on  the bodily fluids of bees and their young and spreads diseases such as deformed-wing virus, has been shown to be present in lower levels in hives that are left undisturbed.  It is certainly true that, so far, our bees seem to be free of both varroa and disease.

The phone rang, early on a Saturday morning.  ML spoke to a gruff gentleman who told us he had our bees, and we could collect them.  The breeder sends out lorries, full of bees, across the whole of France, where the boxes are deposited at collection points to await their new keepers.  Our collection point was an hour away, so we jumped in the car and headed off, still slightly bleary-eyed, nervous, excited.  We had talked of this day for a year now, and here it was, here they were – bees.

We arrived at the collection point, which turned out to be the basement of a house.  The gruff gentleman, still gruff, took us in to a room where there were around two dozen small wooden boxes, all a-buzz with the sound of wings.  He handed us our swarm, contained in one of these boxes; 10,000 bees and a can of sugar syrup to keep them fed on their journey.  The queen came in a separate small plastic cage, accompanied by three attendants (she cannot fend for herself at all) and a small piece of candy as a travel snack.  We signed for the package, bid a (gruff) farewell to the gentleman, popped the box and the queen-cage in the boot, got in the car, and stared at each other as the car filled with a loud, low vibration.  Then we pootled off in the early morning sun, an hour down country lanes with a boot full of bees.

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We had prepared our hive (a Warré type) by carefully running lines of beeswax along the bars at the top, in hope that the bees would use this as a template for their honeycomb.  We had sanded the wood of the boxes to remove any small splinters and rough edges.  We had applied a couple of layers of linseed oil against the elements, and had rubbed the inside of the whole thing with grass to make it smell more ‘natural’, less of nervous human.  We sited it in the field, and I made a windbreak by weaving together branches from a friend’s English lime tree that he had given us last year after pruning. We planted flowering herbs, sunflowers, and pots of other blossoms. We’d live here, we thought, and hoped the bees felt the same; there is a danger, in the first couple of weeks, that the swarm will decide this is not the place for them, and disappear.

The weather was far from ideal – rain and wind had arrived.  When we got home with our buzzing box, we decided to wait for a break the clouds, if it came.  I sprayed the outside of the package with sugar syrup to make sure the bees would not starve (they had likely finished the syrup in the can), and thousands of tiny tongues began to lap at the mesh of the cage.  I placed the box, and the queen-cage, in our pantry, which is dark and cool and would keep the bees calm.  A while later the sun was peeking, the time had come.

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There are a couple of ways to hive a swarm.  One is to empty the bees, by banging the box, on to a ramp that leads up to the hive entrance.  The bees then (in theory) march up the ramp and into the hive.  Another is to open the hive and pour the bees in directly. Both involve placing the queen-cage in the hive first, where the bees, once in, will eat through a small plug of candy to release the queen.  This is important, as the queen is not ‘their’ queen, is genetically distinct, and may be rejected by the swarm if they are not given time to get used to her, to accept her as theirs.  I had thought, being a softy, that both these methods were a bit violent, with danger of squashing a number of bees and angering the others, so we had researched other ways to do it.  One was to simply pop open the package of bees and place the whole thing into one of the hive boxes, put the roof on, and leave it for a couple of days, coming back to remove the package once the bees had made their way out.  This was not possible for us, as the package of bees was bigger than the brood-boxes of our Warré hive.  Another was to place the package underneath a brood-box with a hole in between, sealed so that the bees could move between package and hive, but not out of the hive.  We plumped for this method, feeling (hoping) that the bees were more likely to choose to stay, without the shock of being shaken.  We suited up, two astronauts wandering the the land with a box full of thousands of tiny aliens.  I lit the smoker, working the bellows to produce puffs of cool white smoke.  I popped the lid off the cage, removed the can of syrup, and placed the cage under one of the brood-boxes, a piece of wood between with a hole cut in it to serve as a connection.  And suddenly the air was full of bees.

They had found a way out, the seal I had made was not, in fact, a seal.  A few drops of rain began to fall, and we had to move fast, decide what to do.  The only option left was to pour the bees into the hive, so I banged the cage on the ground (squash) to concentrate the bees in one corner, and I poured, a great stream of wings and legs, and the sound, the sound was immense, almost a roar.  Banging the box again (squish), I tipped more bees into the hive, and the majority of the swarm was now in the brood-box, with others flying in circles around us, above us, landing on our suits, there were bees everywhere. ML placed the roof on the hive, gently brushing away any bees in the way, and I leant the cage against the entrance, hoping any stragglers would make their own way in.

This was not how it was supposed to go.  We had shaken the bees violently, we had squashed perhaps dozens with our clumsiness; vision and movement restricted by our suits.  We were worried that the bees, annoyed, angered by our inept attentions, would leave, seeking alternative digs.  The rain was coming in now, the light slipping away, and there was little else we could do, so we retreated inside, drank wine, waited for the next day and better weather to check the bees, to see if they were even still there.  All this planning, all this investment of money and work and worry, all those tiny lives, all for nothing?

Next time – Part Two: Tea With the Queen.

Builders and Beehives

dscf4037Winter is all about preparing for spring. We tidy and dig and prune trees and wait and wait. We choose and buy seeds, and I’m already planning what to cook, preserve, and ferment with the produce we’ll grow. Next year we’ll save our own seed, but this year we buy what we need from the good folks at the Real Seed Catalogue, who specialise in heritage and non-hybrid varieties, along with a good deal of things you won’t find in your garden centre, like oca and cinnamon vine (no, I don’t know either).

dscf3989Mist hugs the fields, crystals of hoar-frost crisscross the hedgerows, and the oak trees all shimmer and glitter, white, like the frozen skeletons of gigantic ancient creatures (which they are, of course).

The builders have been here for a couple of weeks, repairing some rotten timber at the edges of the roof (don’t mention the problem with rest of the roof and it might go away), filling in holes in the earthen walls (holes, apparently, made by cows licking at minerals in the rock – I am unable to get over this fact), removing render from one end of the house, ready to replace it with a better lime-based one, and making a huge amount of noise.  The cat is furious.

Our house is old.  How old, we don’t know.  Over the last few months we have uncovered dscf3976many oddities in its construction.  It is a farmhouse made of a material called pisé – essentially a mix of earth, sand, and gravel.  It’s a very environmentally sound material, and long-lasting if treated properly.  Ours has not been treated properly.  It has been covered in a concrete render that does not allow it to ‘breathe’, which it needs to be able to do as it basically a giant sponge.  The lime render we are putting on one end wall will alleviate this, and we’ll eventually do the rest of the house when funds allow (never).  The walls have been repaired and rebuilt many times over the years, with an interesting mix of brick, breeze-blocks, stone, and Lego (maybe not Lego).  We also discover that the whole roof has been raised at some point to allow rooms to be placed in what used to be simple hay-lofts, and now seems to rest on piles of bricks that look alarmingly tipsy.  We are assured that this is safe and normal, but I feel my scales for safe and normal may be a little different.  It seems we may be repairing the house for the rest of time.  Time, though, is something we have.

The next big project outside is the start of our bee empire.  We are starting with two hives, and will expand if it seems necessary and I am not chased into the river by bees.

About eighteen months ago we went on a two day ‘natural beekeeping’ course (run by Heather and Tim of Bee the Change), which was fascinating and inspiring.  Natural beekeeping is more about the bees, less about the keeping.  Chemical fungicides and miticides are not used, the hives are opened and interfered with as little as possible, and honey is only taken if there is a true surplus (if ever).  Swarming is not discouraged (queens are regularly killed to stop bees from swarming in commercial beekeeping and, as swarming is part of their natural reproductive cycle, this seems a tad mean).  The queen is allowed to roam the whole hive (not the case in commercial keeping).  They are, in essence, allowed to be bees.

Bees are a vital part  of the ecosystem, and having a hive or two close by is beneficial for everything.  Our fruits and vegetables will have higher pollination rates, and thus higher yields, and all will be right with the world.

dscf4010We have decided on a hive type called a Warré, which is slightly different to the usual ones you may have spotted around the UK.  There are no ‘frames’ restricting the construction of the wax honeycomb, meaning the bees can build in their natural drooping architecture. Any new boxes are added at the bottom of the hive, rather than the top as is the case with UK ‘National’ hives, with the hope that this keeps the atmosphere and temperature within the hive – so carefully managed by the bees themselves – at a constant, and stresses the occupants to a minimum.  The bees will then migrate down into the lower box, leaving an upper one full of honeycomb, which we will harvest if, and only if, we judge it safe to do so whilst leaving the bees with enough honey to see them through the winter.

A bee colony is a mind-bogglingly complicated society of queen and drones and workers and larvae, and the more I read the more I am hooked, the more I cannot wait to don my suit, to sit and watch their comings and goings.  My one worry is if I worry about the chickens so much, I can see myself camping out by the hives to ward of any invading wasps or errant birds, becoming more and more crazed until I, myself, begin to buzz and waggle.

I am oiling the wood of the hives with linseed oil, as a natural preservative, and we may paint the hives with some natural paints (the hives at Bee the Change are painted bright and bold with flowers and colours).  When ready, we’ll situate them at the end of the stretch where we have planted our fruit trees, facing South and slightly raised.  We are planting many plants and flowers that are beneficial to the bees, providing as much forage for them as we can.

We have decided on black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), native to Europe.  They are considered to be more aggressive and less easy to handle (yay) than the more commonly kept western honey bee (Apis melliferaconfusingly), but are hardier, with more resistance to the dreaded varroa mite (more on these beasties another time).  We will buy a swarm, which will come in a box.  We will then, gently and slightly nervously, introduce them to their new home.  We will stalk the fields in our beekeepers suits, like astronauts awaiting first contact.  We will not consider taking any honey for at least the first eighteen months.

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Much has been made of colony collapse and bee population decline, and we hope our hives, left pretty much to their own devices, will in some small way help to restore a balance.

A jar or two of honey will be a gift, if they choose to give.