Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Log Hive --- and its Residents

The past two weeks has seen a buzz of activity around the log hive. Bees coming in and out, flying in circles but appearing more frustrated than contented. Each day I poked my head into the log to see what was going on. Hundreds of them were packed into a giant ball suspended from the roof of the log. I didn’t see any sign of honeycomb building or any other activity. A couple buzzed in my direction to let me know that they didn’t care for me or my anxiety .

“Just go away and leave us alone. We’re managing,” they said.

Well might they be annoyed, as their entry into the hive wasn’t exactly natural. They arrived at Cottarton in a small nuc-hive, courtesy of the Moray Beekeepers, who supported my plans to keep bees in a hollow log where the bees can build their nest the way they do when left to themselves. The colony had an egg-laying queen, some drones and workers. They already had some brood cells (with embryonic bees)  and honey cells.

In Scotland as in many other countries bee colonies are in serious decline. There are few wild bee colonies left. The decline is blamed on certain new pesticides and the Varroa mite, a blood sucking parasite active in most hives. While I accept the causes, I also wonder if modern bee keeping methods don’t exacerbate the problem by providing an unnatural environment that makes bees more prone to disease and parasites. Also there's the current practice of harvesting honey and replacing it with sugar syrup. Isn't that like feeding the bees junk food? I was very impressed by the apiary of log hives in Cevennes,France. where, according to the local beekeeper, there has never been a Varroa problem. Neither are the bees fed sugar water. Could natural beekeeping help stem the bee population decline by producing healthier bees, able to deal with Varroa and other vicissitudes? Many bee keepers think so. There is a significant movement in many countries to redesign the hive to accommodate the bees natural way of building their nests.

I arrived at Cottarton with the bee colony. How does one move them into the log so that they will start building there? I built a horizontal platform on the log, connected it to the log with a plastic pipe. Set the hive onto the platform so that the only way out of the nuc would be through the log. Once the bees were out of space, wouldn't they move into the log? Well, after a couple of days I realized that they didn’t like their new front door. None of them showed up in the log.

Move-in day for the new residents

I moved them into the hive using the old fashioned way of shaking them off the frames into the hive. Then I set the hive back onto the platform and waited. They buzzed about like crazy but eventually settled down. This method of moving the bees proved unfortunate in that the bees left their brood cells in the nuc unattended. Brood need to be kept warm by the body heat of hundreds on bees, or they die. For whatever reason my bees didn’t find their way back to the brood cells and without their body heat, the brood appear to have died.

For several days the bees hung in a large ball, showing no interest in their old cells or the sugar water I left for them. I held my breath. They left the hive in ones and twos, flew about and returned. I couldn’t tell if they were feeding on anything. I called John Salt at the Moray Bee Dinosaurs. John also has a log hive plus years of experience with bees. In a steady voice, like a pediatrician talking to a nervous new mother, John suggested I calm down, leave the nuc out so that the bees can raid its honey.

I placed the nuc just outside the hive. That got their attention. They began to visit it, feed off the honey they had already stored there. Each warm day I would see more of them flying between the nuc and the log. The bee ball began to look active with bees moving about it. They were building something inside, but I couldn’t tell what. Also, they didn’t like me looking on because they’d shoo me off if I stared at them for too long.

Canterbury Bells

Outside the white clover was in blossom. On a hot day its delicious honey aroma wafted through the air. Canterbury Bells opened up. The garden began to buzz. When picking the Bells I would find so many bees feeding there that I felt guilty about stealing their food. While walking through the field I found more of them around the clover, busy but contented. Every warm day a cloud of them hovered around the hive entrance.

Finally I saw what they were building, white wax cells, several of them. Each day they added centimeters to their structures. Still no interest in sugar syrup. Why should they bother when they have good honey?

 They’d had a rough entrance into the hive, and a couple of weeks of adjustment --- but now they are at home. And they are happy.

Three days later