A novice's guide to producing his own food

I’ve Got My Bees! (And How I Thought I’d Killed The Lot)

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My bees finally arrived on June 19. A local beekeeper (Jim) was willing to sell me a complete hive with a full colony for £150. By starting with a full (as opposed to a nuclear) colony he said I should get some honey this year. He promised to get me a nuc for a second hive a few weeks later. I was so thrilled to finally get going with beekeeping, I thought I’d probably be unable to sleep the night before they arrived (as it happens I snored like a chain saw).

Is it OK if I slip into something stupid?

Two days earlier (on June 17), I’d raced over to Thornes in Newburgh and bought a beekeeper’s suit, gloves and a  hive tool. That set me back another £150. A lot of money, but all the purchases were one-offs, and Sue said she’d help pay for the hive as part of my birthday.

Jim arrived at 9am on the Saturday. The one thing I can say about all the beekeepers I’ve met so far, is that they’re a genuine, friendly and honest bunch, so when he told me the colony he was selling was very healthy, I believed him. In fact there were so many bees, it was almost congested. Jim decided to put a Super on to the top of the hive straight away. Supers are the boxes where bees store excess honey to tide them over the winter, but before they get to use it, we humans nick it off them and scoff it for ourselves (leaving enough behind, of course).

After Jim left, I had a lot of weeding to do, but I kept returning to the hive to have a peek. As the day progressed, the bees seemed to get more and more frantic, and became pretty aggressive. I got stung twice by little bleeders who were clearly determined to get me. I had decided to keep calm in such situations, but one of the bees had started to crawl into my ear and then tried to get into my mouth. Without thinking, I flailed like a motherfucker. You’d think flailing would be quite a good strategy to fend off a highly manoeuvrable object about the size of a pea, wouldn’t you? Well,  it doesn’t work, and I got stung anyway. (Bee stings, by the way, aren’t all that bad. Worse that nettles, but nowhere near as bad as a wasp. About as sore as childbirth, I reckon.)

When I left the allotment that afternoon (after making the attached video), I was beginning to wonder if the bees would prove to a problem not just for me, but for the other gardeners. I needn’t have worried, though. They had been going crazy primarily because they didn’t like being moved. It was also an extremely hot day, I’d been very busy,  and seemingly bees are easily irritated by human sweat, hence their determination to sting me on my face.

The following Saturday, I carried out my first solo hive inspection. Fully suited up, I dismantled the hive and started to examine each comb in the Brood Box (this is the main part of the colony, where the queen lives and the young bees are born). I had to check for cells containing young queens, which is a sign the colony may divide and swarm (something you don’t want).  Queens cells are very distinctive — lumps on the comb which “grow” and eventually hang vertically. I saw a few that looked like they might fit that description, but I ignored it. Jim had said swarming was unlikely, as the current queen was only a year old (they live for four).

The following Saturday’s inspection, though, was a shocker. The lumps had turned into about eight queen cells. Using my hive tool, I scraped them open and scooped out the large white, mushy caterpillar inside. This made me feel slighty nauseous, and I didn’t feel particularly happy about killing them either. It was only when I got home that I started to panic. Why were there so many? Wouldn’t the hive just produce one or two? Didn’t Jim say something in passing  that the most common mistake amongst beginners is to kill all queen cells? I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.

I was confused, so I scrambled online, and found an excellent document, published by the Welsh Assembly, on what to do with queen cells. It was “excellent”, in that  as it was informative. But it was horrifying in that it said stuff like: “Destroying queen cells to prevent swarming never has been and never will be a successful way of swarm control.” Worse, it identified three different types of queen cell (I thought there was only one), and those that  seemed to fit the description of the larvae I slaughtered were called supersedure cells. These cells are produced by the queen because she is unable to cope. Panic levels were now sneaking past eleven. What have I done? I felt so stupid, and I wasn’t looking forward to telling Jim. Although the purchase of the bees was a purely financial matter, Jim had looked after and cared for those bees for a year, maybe more, and I’d endangered the whole colony in a week. I felt low.

I did eventually phone him, however, and he was very nice about it, saying that even experienced beekeepers make the same mistake. However, after I pushed him, he did admit it could result in the whole colony dying off.

The following week was rotten, and part of me was fed up with the whole bees thing. Perhaps, I’d bitten off more than I could chew. There is a huge amount to learn, and, combining that with my naivety about allotments in general,  I suddenly wondered if I was out of my depth.

Jim phoned me again on Friday, July 9, and said he had a nuc ready for my second hive, and we arranged to meet on the Sunday at the allotment. Before the hand-over, he inspected my first hive. Looking through the brood box, he said it was swarming queen cells I’d killed. I’d done the right thing! In fact, there were a few new ones, and Jim sliced them off too. Just as I was surprised at how fed up I had been over the last week, I was equally surprised at how elated I now felt.

My only real mistake (said Jim) was that I should have checked to see if the original queen was still alive first. If she is, then the queen cells have to go. The Welsh document is right in that you can’t stop a hive trying to swarm, but if you keep killing the queen cells until the end of July then they will lose the desire to swarm until May the following year.  I think over the next 24 hours, I told Sue three or four times I felt relieved.

Jim too, had made a mistake: he’d brought the wrong bee colony. He had to go home, and he brought the correct nuc down the next evening.

He told me he given me a healthy nuc (cost £100), with six frames of brood cells. This second hive won’t produce any honey this year, but will continue to grow and get stronger. In the meantime, I’ve to feed it a sugar solution, so the bees have plenty food to build up the hive.

Oh, I also picked up a bee with my bare hands. Jim does it all the time (he doesn’t wear gloves), and I saw one on Jim’s back, so I just copied him. If you pick them up by the sides, they can’t get at you. Just like a crab.

That, pretty much, bring us up to speed with the bees. I’ve spent the last two weeks in a bit of an emotional jacuzzi, partly due to my own tendency to panic, and read the worst into a situation, but at least, things haven’t been nearly as bad as I thought. Jim has also clearly laid out what I should be doing for the next month or so, and it seems straight forward enough. It’s all good.


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