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Just three days ago, I documented the arrival of not one but two colonies of honeybees, reinstating me as an actual beekeeper since Storm Eunice toppled by last remaining overwintered hive back in February. Here I likened honeybees to busses – wait long enough for one and two then arrive together. Well, it turns out I was wrong. Three is the magic number. Why? Because, within hours of writing that blogpost, up popped a call via a Facebook community group: ‘Help! A swarm has landed in my garden!’ Lucky for me, I was the first to respond, and they are now happily settled in a polynuc, awaiting relocation to a full-size hive as permanent home. Retrieving a swarm is such a magical experience – I’m yet to meet a beekeeper who has tired of watching a colony ‘march’ willingly into a box (the trick is to get the queen in first – once she is safely in there, the rest will follow).
This is a slightly bigger swarm than the one that arrived into the bait hive, but smaller in number than the purchased colony. And, again, they are beautifully dark in colour, some with a fine deep golden stripe/others with slightly wider gold band – and a lovely calm temperament. And what a wonderful midsummer Solstice gift – from zero to three colonies in three weeks flat! I have not yet seen the Queen in this one – I sneaked a peak inside, briefly, this evening (to get a ‘feel’ for size and temperament), but I won’t be disturbing them for a week or more (other than to add supplementary feed and precautionary varroa treatment), leaving them in peace to get on with the important business of drawing out comb (building ‘furniture’) so that the Queen can start her essential work of laying eggs to produce more bees. There is just the one other job for me at this early stage: I’ve never previously named any of my Queen bees, but feel I want to from now on – starting with this one, who I am dubbing ‘Amanda’, after the lady whose garden she and her entourage decided to land in.
Honeybees, it transpires, are a bit like busses. As in, the old cliche about waiting a long time for one and then two arrive at once. Well, not two individual bees, but two colonies – one, finally purchased with generous Crowdfunder donations (after bit of dilly-dallying to make the right decision on which bees from which local honeybee-breeder) and the other, a wild swarm that I caught in the garden at home using the ‘bait box’ technique. I am beyond excited, and feel that I now have an essential missing part of me back in place. Beekeeping really does ‘get’ you like that!
And so to introduce my new ladies.
Firstly, the swarm. I’ve known of the ‘bait box’ technique for a long time. It really is simple: just an empty hive-box with a frame of old comb inside (ooh look girls, a ready-furnished house!) and a few drops of lemongrass essential oil (to mimic Queen bee pheromones). Position the box up high up – well, in this instance, on the roof of my grandchildren’s playhouse in the back garden here in Penzance. And then wait. I’d read about it, and heard from others who’d done it, but I’d never previously tried it myself. Thus, I was amazed to find that it really does work – and it only took four days, from set-up to move-in!
Swarming is the honeybee colony’s method of reproduction: when a colony grows too large for it’s present location, it will split into two; half(ish) stay behind, raising a new queen to continue in situ, and the rest then leave together (swarm) with the old queen, to set up a new home elsewhere. In readiness for this, a number of ‘scout’ bees go in search of a suitable new location. The idea of a ‘bait hive’ is to present such a location, all set up and ready to move into. The arrival of a swarm is indeed a sight – and sound – to behold. And quite scary if you’re not a beekeeper; a noisy cloud zigzagging back and forth, around, and around. The mayhem soon settles; within ten minutes they were (mostly) all safely inside, having evidently decided that this was indeed their perfect ‘des res’. Honestly, I felt like some sort of witch, enticing these wild creatures to settle where I wanted them, using my very special magical powers. It also felt like these bees had themselves chosen me. Even more so because I’d had a difficult morning (minor traffic accident: car written off) … this swarm’s unexpected arrival just a few hours later really helped put me back together.
Three weeks on, they are doing really way: I let them settle for a few days, and sneaked a peak at the Queen – she is a beautiful dark reddish brown, and her daughters are all mainly black, some with a fine golden stripe (a free-mated queen honeybee will partner with multiple drones, meaning a wide mix of genetic traits in the resultant offspring). I am relieved to find that their temperament is calm and gentle. Because the downside with swarms is that you very much ‘get what you’re given’, which in reality can mean bad tempered bees that may be loaded with disease or parasites – for this reason, I’ve treated them for varroa, added food supplement to give them a boost, and am keeping a close eye on their progress. So far so good. Already, there is a growing brood of eggs and larvae in varying stages. In a few weeks I’ll move them into their permanent new home, a full-size hive at my out-apiary near Sennen. I may then give the bait hive one more go, here at home, on the off-chance of another swarm in need of a new home …
And then, to the bought-colony. Again, beautiful dark, locally-bred native honeybees, purchased from a trusted beekeeper friend (who I’ve bought from previously, several years ago when I first got going). Whereas a swarm is something of an unknown quantity, buying a colony from a known breeder is much more of a safe bet. These lovely ladies have gone to my allotment in Gulval, where they are already hard at work, getting ready for honey production. Fingers crossed, before the season’s out, there’ll be enough for me to fill a few jars for my Crowdfunder supporters, in return for their generous help back in February, when Storm Eunice brought my beekeeping ventures to a (thankfully, now temporary) halt.