Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Travelling with Bees

 Recently I arrived at Cottarton with a box full of bees. During the last couple of hours of the journey  the buzzing from the back of the car grew steadily louder, testifying to the bees growing irritation with the journey. They’d already endured five hours of being jostled and shaken, the occasional pothole, unexpected accelerations, the car swerving around corners, and they’d had just about enough of it.

You might wonder how one transports bees? Why did I have to go so far afield as Dumfries in southern Scotland to find them? These days bees are scarce, especially in Scotland. The last winter may have wiped out about half of Scotland’s bee population. The combination of the previous cool, wet summer and the long winter proved difficult for most colonies. Bees went into last winter with low honey supplies, and were shut in their hives by low temperatures until May. Many colonies, including Cottarton’s log hive, didn’t make it.

Mike the Bee Man raises bee colonies for sale. He breeds local strains of bees. I had arranged to buy a nucleus from him consisting of several wax frames with the bees, brood cells and the queen. Unfortunately three weeks ago he was robbed. Because of the scarcity of bees, bee-rustling has become common in the UK. The perpetrators are no doubt bee keepers because the bandits are skilled in manipulating bees. Not only they made off with a dozen colonies but kicked over several other hives.

Instead of a standard  nucleus, I opted for bees in a box --- one with screen walls. Mike placed it on the table in front of me. The bees were all gathered in a large ball, not spherical but more in the shape of a large heart. The queen was somewhere inside, separated from the others in a small cage. I was just awestruck by my new family. They were so beautiful. Mike placed the box in the back on my car. I noticed a cluster of bees on the outside of the box.

“Are you sure that they won’t go buzzing about my head while I’m driving?” I asked.
“No way,” he said. “They’ll want to stay close to the queen. As part of the cluster.”

And so I began my six hour drive back to Cottarton. Of course, halfway through, the loose bees started wandering throughout the car, flying around my head. I had to talk to them the way you talk to small children.

“Now then. You just settle down. Go back to your queen. I’m sure that she misses you.” After a while they caught the drift of my conversation, and wandered off.

Bees in their new home. They're starting to build comb.

Arriving at Cottarton, I had to wait for a break in the drizzle before I donned my bee suit and took the bees to their new hive. It's a Warre hive, that uses top bars instead of frames, so that bees can build their comb in a natural way. I sprayed the bees with a fine water mist to wet their wings and make them less likely to fly about. Then opened the top of the hive and poured the bees in like sand out of a bag. They made a pile on the floor. I found the little cage with the queen. With a nail I opened the little doorway. The queen was still there, contained by a lump of sugary paste. I suspended the cage between two top-bars, and replaced other top bars. The idea is for the bees in the hive to eat through the sugary paste and release the queen. Before closing up the hive I installed a feeder with sugar syrup spiked with chamomile tea (the biodynamic recipe). Oh what a lot of buzzing and muttering, for the next couple of hours before the bees settled down.

 As I stood there a bee stung me in the leg. That’s considered a mark of respect from the colony. Like they recognize you and have adopted you as their keeper.