Monday 17 August 2015

The short life and fast times of a beekeeper

A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to try beekeeping - nothing big - just a little hive in the back garden. I wasn't bothered about harvesting honey, or making stuff from wax, it was just that I read so much about bee populations in decline and I thought I could build a hive and give some bee's a place to stay, you know, do my bit to help them along and in return they could pollinate my strawberries.

Also I find bees pretty fascinating – they are the ultimate in natural decentralized decision making. They are like a distributed computing system made up of thousands of small multi-purpose nodes which on their own can't achieve much, but when they communicate and work together amazing things can be made possible.

So I downloaded these top-bar hive plans and got to work:

Newly built hive, not quite finished

After the hive was done I read everything I could get my hands on about bees, and specifically how to attract them. And then waited. And read. And waited. And waited and read.

Hive today, completed with felt roof, stained wood, bottom board and entrance holes.

For some reason I thought it would be like 'Field Of Bee Dreams' – build it and they will come. They fucking didn't.

This year I did the same as the previous two spring/summers to try and attract a swarm. Starting in May, every couple of weeks:

  • rubbed the inside of the hive and entrance to the hive with pure bee's wax
  • scattered drops of lemon grass inside the hive and on the tops of the top bars
  • blobbed some honey inside the hive, on the bottom board, to try and drum up some interest

When it got to the start of July I thought that was it for attracting a swarm for this year, and thought I should probably save up and just buy a nuc next year. Then in the second week of July a swarm moved in.

I was over the moon!

I thought they might be hungry – but didn't want to disturb them just yet, so I made a jar feeder with 1:1 sugar water and hung it on the end of the hive.

After a week the bees had shown absolutely no interest in the sugar water, but they seemed busy going back and forth – in and out of the hive. I decided to open up the hive and see what I had.

I had attracted the smallest swarm of bees ever. They were in a cluster on the front inside wall of the hive, above the entrance holes, in a ball slightly larger than a tennis ball. Aren't swarms meat to be an amazing sight to behold, comprised of thousands of bees all moving into a new home?

They had made no attempt to start building comb either and seemed to be happy just sat there in a cluster. I guess with the swarm being attracted so late in the season and it being so small that it must be a cast. Since my new colony was so tiny and they didn't want sugar water, I ordered some Ambrosia Fondant from a near by bee keeping supplier:

Ambrosia feed paste

When the fondant arrived, I did another hive inspection. I was expecting to see some comb drawn as it had been two weeks since they had moved in and swarms are meant to be notorious for being fast builders I thought?

They had built a couple of inches square of comb on one bar. This was turning out to be nothing like what I had read about swarms.

I figure because of the bad weather and lack of comb for honey stores, they really must be hungry now. I cut some holes in the bag of fondant, hung it from one of the top bars, and placed it right next the cluster so the bees didn't have to go too far and get too cold to reach it.

Because I'd opened the hive twice in two weeks, I decided I should probably leave the bees alone for a while now that they have started building comb and have a massive bag of food if they need it.

Fast-forward two weeks – For two days now there has been been a massive drop off in hive activity. I might see a bee going in or out of the hive every ten minutes. But then again, why would they need to be out and about? Maybe they are keeping warm, eating the fondant, building comb and just popping out now and again to get water and pollen, surely they have everything they need to get on with comb building and brood rearing right?

I thought I'd best check.

I opened the hive today to find about a dozen worker bees in there - that is all.

They had eaten some fondant, and built a tiny bit more comb, and even tried to rear some brood - half of which is black and dead in the cells.

First comb with dead brood, and what looks like some attempts at queen cells.

Second and final comb, barely begun.

Oddly there are no dead bees on the floor of the hive, it just looks abandoned, apart from the dozen or so which were left behind.

I don't know what went wrong really, I know the swarm was weak to start with, but I thought with some attention and care I would be able to help them become stronger and even get them through the winter.

It's all so disappointing. I only got to spend one month as a beekeeper, I guess I'll clean out the hive when the last bee leaves and try to do a better job next year.