A novice's guide to producing his own food

My beekeeping year 2012

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The bees at Glenesk

The bees at Glenesk

On January 7 I gave a short talk at the Members’ Night of the East Of Scotland Beekeepers’ Association, covering the major highs and lows of 2012. Here it is in full:

The first notable event of 2012 began on May 20. I had two hives and had already noticed that one was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm  –  my first. I found the queen on the first attempt and popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on a Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been at least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

Within an hour, we had cut it down, and stuck it in a spare brood box.

My mentor reckoned it was a belter of a swarm which would work like crazy to bring in honey. Furthermore, it would produce astonishing clean and perfect comb.

This was going to be great, I thought. Three hives all going like crazy, bringing me honey. I might even have some to sell.

The following day at work, I got a very confused message from my son. Someone had a swarm in their chimney, and they thought it was mine. Crisis No. 3.  I couldn’t understand it. I knew one of my colonies had already swarmed, and the other wasn’t ready to. Perhaps they weren’t my bees.

After leaving work, I went to see to poor family involved. To make matters worse, the woman of the house was allergic to bee stings, and had even been hospitalised before. I was hoping against hope the bees weren’t mine.

On visiting my hives I discovered my swarm had swarmed again! I didn’t realise this at the time, but it was to prove quite a common experience among beekeepers in the early part of the year.

I had no option but to return to the swarm house, and fess up: they were my bees. There was no way of retrieving them, so the woman called the council exterminator. Fair enough. Her family is her priority, and I agreed with her decision with that 100%.  The situation wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t the family’s, so I apologised about 100 times and offered to pay the bill when the council came out. It was all I could do.

My second attempt at creating an artificial swarm was far more successful, and the next couple of months went relatively smoothly.

However, I was late in collecting the harvest from the oilseed rape crop, but I still managed to get 24lbs of honey.

At this point I thought my three hives had enough stores in them to see them through, but I forgot about one thing – the weather. Soon after harvesting the honey, the rains came, the bees couldn’t forage and one hive starved.

When I tipped it up, a heap of bees came rolling out. Tens of thousands of them. In among the pile were some bees which were still alive, but barely able to move, they were so hungry.

I felt dreadful and the situation was completely my fault. I had been so concerned with extracting the honey that I forgot to keep an eye on the bees themselves. That night I couldn’t sleep.

That was definitely the low point of my beekeeping year.

The next development in my beekeeping year was to try to get some heather honey. I had a site up Glenesk which I used in 2011. That year I only got 10lbs but I decided to give it another go.

While my two remaining hives were up at the heather, I thought I’d try another first – selling honey at the Dundee Flower Show.

To do this I also had to enter a couple of jars into the novice class for judging. Despite some sound advice from Iain Lilly, my competition honey wasn’t really all that great – under measure and containing wax  — so I came second – despite being the only entrant!

Still, I got the Scarlett Cup and it’s sitting on my bookshelf at home. Like everything connected with beekeeping, the flower show has been a huge learning curve, and I’ll do better next year.

A week after the show, I returned to Glenesk. Still no honey, but worse, one hive was woefully light. There was a queen but 80% of the bees had absconded. Very strange.

So many bees had gone it seems unlikely that it’ll make it through the winter.

However, with few options left to me, I’ve decided to see if I nurse it through.

I’ve stuck what amounts to three frames of bees into a well-insulated nuc box, along with fondant and a frame of honey from my strong hive. So far, they seem to be managing OK, but, of course, the worst of winter isn’t over yet.

So, after a rollercoaster year in which I started with two hives and went up to four before returning to one-and-a-bit, I decided that this year I’ll concentrate on building up colony numbers and I won’t be returning to the heather.

2012 hasn’t all been crisis management, though. I did learn one absolutely essential lesson – treat your bees with respect.

Whereas I use to go charging into the hives to try to get an inspection over with as quickly as possible, I’ve found that it is much better to approach gently causing as little disruption as possible.

The bees get disturbed a lot less, with the consequence that I’ve been stung very little. I’ve taken to wearing thin gloves and unless I’m doing something drastic I don’t even need to use a smoker. Perhaps I just have good bees. I don’t know.

The gentle approach also means I get a huge pleasure out of watching bees behaving naturally, and not in state of panic due to the smoke.

And finally  it helps in one other area – it makes spotting the queen a lot easier. I’m by no means completely confident, but I was seeing her about 80% of the time I went into a hive.

Thank you

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