Of bees and goldfish

Not normally associated with each other, but they nearly had a close encounter tonight.

We’d had two swarm calls today, from about a quarter of a mile apart in North Watford. Doreen checked on one at lunchtime and found a lot of flying bees but no big swarm. We went back tonight suspecting the two calls may actually be the same swarm. Very few bees left at the first site, which was in a tree by the road, so we went on to deal with the larger one first.

Dangling directly over the pond

This was in someone’s garden, hanging under a wooden pagoda directly over the middle of a small raised pond. The couple kindly provided a couple of stout planks to put across the pond, but that left very limited headroom below the beam from which the bees were hanging. One false move and Doreen could have ended up with the fishes, or alternatively knocked the whole swarm down with her head. However she managed to sweep them gently into a nuc box, we scooped up the few left over and waited a few minutes as they walked into the nuc where they could smell the queen’s pheromones. In the end it all went according to plan with a decent sized swarm collected.

Hanging from the beamWith one swarm in the nuc in the boot of the car, we then drove the short distance to the other swarm, where only a few dozen bees remained. Talking to some local residents it became clear that another beekeeper had collected the main swarm, including the queen, at the weekend; what we found now was just a cluster of scout bees that had been left behind. They were quickly gathered into a second nuc and, once home, the handful of queenless bees were introduced to the larger swarm.

The combined colony is being rehomed now to another HBKA member as we just don’t have room for any more!

Dumbledore in Watford

No, not Albus Dumbledore who “lives” a couple of miles up the road at the Warner Brothers’ Studio, but dumbledore the bumblebee.  (Dumbledore is an old English term for a bumblebee).

Most beekeepers are almost exclusively concerned with the one species of bee that makes honey in commercially-viable quantities, the aptly-named HoneyBee (Apis mellifera). However we’re all familiar with Bumblebees, of which there are about 250 species in the UK. Ranging from rather small insignificant bees, to real bruisers of things that can measure an inch long, we see them in their ones and twos and often they are out and about at the end of winter, long before the first honey bees emerge from their winter hives. Bumblebees live in colonies just like honeybees, with a queen, workers and drones. They do store nectar in the hive, but don’t process it into true honey.

The bumblebee, however, can be quite a character and it can be fun to spot and try and identify the different species. Beekeepers are often amateur entomologists too and can’t help but take a healthy interest in anything bee-related.  The “general public” too often find the humble bumble quite cute and endearing, but nonetheless when they get in the way and become inconvenient, look for ways to “deal” with the problem. Being on the “swarm list” we sometimes get calls from people concerned about bees in their garden / shed / loft / chimney and one of the first checks to make on the initial phone call is to verify whether the problem relates to bees or wasps (if the latter, we refer them to the council or a commercial pest controller). If bees, we need to establish if they’re honeybees or bumble bees. Most people can tell the difference but it’s fairly easy to take a description over the phone and be pretty sure.

When we get a call relating to bumble bees, the bees have usually been there for quite some time, and it’s always difficult to remove a well-established colony of any species. However occasionally we get a call that we can do something about, and this happened just a couple of weeks ago. Someone called in with a bumblebee problem; they were nesting in an old bird box, but their flight path was directly over a children’s trampoline and with the warmer weather, there was a risk of a child / bee interaction which could be nasty for both parties.  Since the bumblebee nest was already very well contained within the birdbox, we made an exception to our usual “no bumbles” rule and that evening, after dark, the box was carefully removed from the tree, wrapped in a sheet and brought home.

In retrospect we should have sited them a little further back on the roof; where they are now, they’re a navigational hazard when accessing the shed or garage. But they’re a nice novelty and very welcome here, even if they will never fill the honey bucket and pay their way.

Welcome, Dumbledore and friends.

Into the melting pot

Most people have heard of beeswax but may not be too sure what it is, how it’s made, or what it’s for.

Worker honey bees secrete wax from glands under their abdomen, and given the thousands of bees in an active colony and enough time, substantial quantities can be produced. The bees use it as a building material, crafting it into the familiar hexagonal “honeycomb” arrangements that so efficiently make up individual containers for pollen, honey or larvae.

To make life easier for the beekeepers, bees-wax most people “prime” their frames with a sheet of preformed wax that even has slight bumps to help the bees with their geometry. This “foundation” wax comes in standard size sheets and slots into the wooden frames, encouraging the bees to fill the corners of the frames and maximise storage space.

Combs of honey are “capped” with a layer of wax when they’re at the right consistency, and when the beekeeper extracts the wax the comb is usually damaged beyond re-use by the bees. However brood comb is cleaned out by the bees after a young worker emerges, can can be re-used. Eventually however the comb becomes worn, damaged and discoloured. To ensure good quality, healthy comb beekeepers periodically replace old comb, both brood and honey. The simplest way to do this is to use a “solar extractor”. This is a simple, eco-friendly device like a tiny greenhouse. Trapping the sun’s heat under glass the temperature can quickly rise and melt the wax of any old frames placed inside. It trickles down inside and collects in a tray at the bottom. Then the beekeeper can remove it and either use it directly themselves, or sell it back to the foundation manufacturer who will filter, clean and sterilise it before re-forming it into foundation.

The recent hot weather has provided ideal opportunity to melt down some old comb, clean up the wooden frames and refit new foundation. This is just another of the many “housekeeping” tasks that can take quite a time but helps to ensure that our bees stay healthy, and achieves that in an eco-friendly way without any waste.