Friday, November 2, 2012

An unexpected bee bonanza

I got back from Germany on Tuesday evening - and on Wednesday morning I was straight up the Patch despite that fuzzy jetlagged feeling in my brain. I was walking past Jill's and Mike's garage at about 7 a.m., thinking about all the gardening chores I needed to catch up with, when I heard a familiar buzzing sound. Bees!! In the garage?? Yep.

As I got closer I could see that there was a largish swarm of bees clustered on the side of an old desk and spilling onto the floor. There were also quite a few bees flying around in the garage.

I then found Jill in the garden. it turned out she was unaware of the swarm of bees in her garage and they probably hadn't been there the day before, or possibly even at 5.30 that morning when Mike went off to work - using the car which had been parked in the garage that was now full of bees. It was a warm morning after a warm, humid night. Tuesday had been up to 31 C and Wednesday was forecast to be around 34 C with possible rain later.

The bees appeared to be trying to get into the desk. I assumed that there would be a lot of them already inside it. The situation was complicated by there being a whole lot of stuff on the desk - a table, a couple of sheets and some tools and other objects.

A brief phone conversation with Susan ensued and we agreed that we would come back with our bee kit later that morning to have a good look at the swarm and probably try to catch it and use it to start a second hive, up at the Patch (our first hive being back home in our own garden).

We had enough spare components to make up a second hive, as our original intention was always to have two hives. We hadn't expected a second swarm to come our way quite this easily, though!

At 11.30 we turned up with our bee suits and all our kit in the car, got suited up and set about tackling the swarm. The plan was to sweep up the bees as gently as possible using our bee brush and a dustpan.

I taped together two hive boxes with a temporary plywood floor. This formed a 40-litre container I could use as to collect the bees in. When turned up the other way (i.e. entrance at the bottom) and placed on a hive base it would be the core of the new hive. Eight frames with wax 'starter strips' were place inside the hive along with a pheromone lure to encourage the bees to stay. A 40-litre cavity that smells of wax and bee pheromone is the ultimate des res for a swarm of bees looking for a home.

We lit our smoker and gave the area a few puffs, but we were relying more on a spray bottle of water to keep the swarm calm. Very moderate use of smoke and fairly frequent misting with a fine spray of water worked very well.

Well, those bees were everywhere. On the leg of the table, on the side of the desk, hanging from the sheet and - what I think was the main part of the swarm - hanging from a piece of timber on the garage wall. I cleared all the things off the desk, working slowly and carefully so as not to agitate the bees, then just proceeded methodically with sweeping the bees up and tipping them into the upside-down hive. When I was eventually able to open the drawer of the desk, I found about 50 bees inside. I guess this was where they were all heading, but there was only a narrow gap and it was taking them a long time to get in. The drawer would have been about 20-30 litres capacity. A bit small for a good-sized swarm of bees.

Eventually we had most of the bees in the hive. I hadn't seen the queen but I thought she was most likely in the big ball of bees hanging from the wall of the garage. I then put a hive base on top of the hive, taped it in place and turned the hive the right way up.

The bees seemed quite calm and not aggressive throughout the whole process, which took nearly 90 minutes. A few of them buzzed around my head or banged into the veil, but there was no attempt to sting me. They seemed to take to their new home immediately.

Important note: bee swarms are usually not aggressive, however you should never interfere with one if you don't have appropriate training and equipment. If you anger the bees by mishandling them, you can expect to be badly stung.

We then left the bees to their own devices for the afternoon. Our hope was that the rest of the bees would find their way into the hive, which we left in the garage next to where the swarm had been. During the afternoon I selected a site for the hive in the Patch, then levelled the ground for four concrete blocks to make a hive stand.

When we returned at dusk the bees seemed settled, with just a few hanging around the hive entrance. We waited until they were all inside, then taped up the entrance. We also put the quilt* and roof on the hive at this stage, as we didn't want to open it again out in the cool evening air.

I then carried the hive 150 metres up the garden to the Patch. It was pitch dark and not at all easy to see where I was going, despite Susan's flashlight, as I was encumbered by my bee suit and a hive in front of my face! Also two hive boxes plus quilt and roof got quite heavy quite quickly. Anyway we got there without mishap and installed the hive in its site, untaped the entrance and beat a retreat.

I went back this afternoon to check out the situation and was pleased to see the bees busily foraging. Looks like the operation was a success and we have a second beehive!

* Quilt – a box full of woodshavings to control humidity in the hive. This is one of the important features of a Warré hive which distinguishes it from the Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers. Other key features are the characteristic pitched roof (regulates the temperature) and smaller boxes (more bee-friendly and easier to manage). The most important difference however is the low-intervention management method which focuses on the bees' needs – not on maximising the honey yield. Warré is in my view a far easier, more enjoyable and environmentally friendly method for the backyard beekeeper.

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