Archives for posts with tag: honey bee

This is the time of year when the honey bee’s are thinking of swarming. Sometimes people get worried about it, the sight of several thousand bees on the wing crossing the landscape can be pretty awe inspiring, so I suppose it is understandable. But while they are swarming they are very gentle, and are far too intent on finding a new home to worry about bothering any humans they come across.

It takes place during mostly during May and June and is really their way of reproducing. They have two methods of reprodction, the queen lays an egg and that hatches, pupates and eventually emerges as an adult bee, but without a second colony scale method of reproduction there would only ever have been one colony of bees in the world. Swarming is evolutions answer to this problem.

This is how it works. Inside the colony in response to a number of external stimuli the worker bees start to draw out queen cells. You can see one of these cells below.

Several of these cells are made and the queen lays an egg in each, when the egg hatches the grub is fed excess quantities of royal jelly (a special kind of bee food or “milk” secreted by the worker bees). All bees are fed royal jelly as they are developing, but the excess quantity fed to the grubs in these special cells is what causes them to develop beyond an ordinary worker into a queen with fully functioning reproductive organs.

When the cells are capped over the old queen (seen above surrounded by a retinue of workers) leaves, she takes with her half of the workers from the colony, with those who remain left to keep the colony running until a new queen emerges. This way the colony has divided (or reproduced) and two colonies have been made out of one. The old queen and the several thousand workers who have left usually cluster together in a low lying tree or bush while scout bees find a new home for them, they are looking for a hole in a tree or building and will move on once a suitable spot is found. Unfortunately while they are waiting they often come into contact with people again, and here is the problem, people don’t like playing host to thousands of bees in a big mass.

This is where I often end up getting involved. As a local beekeeper I end up getting calls from all manner of people in the area who have a swarm in their garden or on their house and would like it removed.

Now, it used to be said that a swarm in May was worth a load of hay, and a swarm in June was worth a silver spoon. Sadly the presence of a number of bee diseases mean that is no longer the case, and often it takes quite a bit of effort to turn the swarm into a productive colony. Sometimes they just don’t make it, but, it can be done, and as bees are having such a hard time at the moment I like to try and do my best for them.

A week or so ago I got called to a swarm just down the road in Camelsdale. It was clustered in an oak tree at the back of a garden, the owners were particularly keen to have it removed as one of them is alergic to bee stings.

The way they were clustered on the side of the tree (and about 15 foot up it) made this one a bit of a challenge.

But a bit of effort with my trusty pillow case sewn onto a pole soon had most of them (literally) in the bag. The trick then is to tip them into a box you have set up nearby and get the lid on sharpish! If you have the queen the bees in the box will soon realise it and start to send out pheromone signals encouraging the other bees remaining in the tree and in the air to come and join them.

Of course if you don’t have the queen the bees you have in the box come straight back out bringing with them a bit of an attitude about having been treated so rudely! But, all went well and they signalled away to their fellow workers, who over the course of the rest of the evening (while I went away and cooked some tea) came down and joined them in the box.

Then it was relatively simple to go back at dusk, collect the bees (not forgetting to block up the entrance!) and take them back to my apiary where I could put them into a new hive and beging the process of turning them into a viable colony.

Last year we started up a new beehive here at Swan Barn Farm with a small colony of bee’s, over the winter I was really sad when I discovered that they had unfortunately died out. As many of you will know varroa (a small parasitic mite) has been giving bees a really hard time in recent years, I am not completely sure if it was solely because of this or other factors combined with it. I guess it was just one of those things, I was especially gutted as the colonies I keep in my own apiary came through the winter unscathed, it might have been easier to bear if it hadn’t been the new Swan Barn Farm colony that had died out. I guess thats the thing about looking after any creature or animal, it teaches you about the cycle of life, and sometimes the lessons that brings are pretty hard to swallow.

We have restocked the hive at the basecamp now, and the new colony seems to be doing well so far. I am hoping they will do better this time. The reason I got involved in beekeeping in the first place was because it is such a fascinating hobby, it gives you the cance to see the natural world from a completly different perspective, and marks the passing of the seasons as the bees go through their life cycle in time with the passing of the year.

I have all my fingers and toes crossed for the Swan Barn Farm bees this year, I will be doing my best for them, and hoping that some of the people who come here will get a chance to learn about them and their fascinating life cycle. I am still fascinated by the bees, for me over the next few weeks that will mean some of my evenings will be spent collecting swarms and providing them with new homes where I am able to.

Coming up on the 1st October (10.30 till 3) we have a community apple pressing day here at Swan Barn Farm. It will be an opportunity to see the Speckled Wood Building, as well as to take part in pressing and processing any surplus apples you can get your hands on. The idea is that you bring along any apples you can beg, borrow or scrump and then join in the fun of chopping them, feeding them through our scratter (which crushes them) and then the apple press to produce the finest tasting apple juice you will ever come across.

The scratter and press are both historic pieces of equipment, and people have a lot of fun helping us to operate them. The team here will check how many apples you brought and then dole out a fair portion of juice for you to take home. You can either enjoy it fresh over the next couple of days, or, even better still, follow the instructions we give you to turn it into cider!

The team here have been responsible over recent years for planting 3 new orchards, and will also be on hand to try and answer any of your apple or orchard based questions.

If you can’t find any apples (and I’m sure a bit of inginuity will lead to finding a few) you can always just come along, partake of the tea and cake that will be on offer and join in the fun processing and pressing the fruit. The postcode for the Farm is GU27 2HU, hope to see you there!

Meanwhile, back in the orchard, the bees have been busy making honey. This was recently removed from the hive for processing. They are a new colony this year, and as such I had not been expecting much of a crop, but they have done really well, and we should get a few jars so our volunteers can get a taste of the local wildflowers.

The bee’s store the honey in a box called a super (because its for honey which is superfluous to their needs) which sits at the top of the hive above their nest.

The frames within a beehive encourage them to build nice straight combs, this makes handling and managing the bees much easier as without frames the combs can twist and turn all over the place. This is fine for the bee’s, but makes the beekeepers life a bit problematic. You can see this effect in the piece of honeycomb in the picture below which one of my colonies recently built inside the roof space in their hive.

When the supers get back to the honey processing room (kitchen in my case) each frame has its cappings cut off and is then put into the extractor.

The extractor is like a sort of giant spin drier, it spins the frames round fast and the honey flies out of them and collects at the bottom of the vessel.

The honey is then filtered and bottled. I don’t heat treat it or change it in any way, it comes in the jar just as the bee’s made it, a natural product which is full of character and of benefit to the local environment. Honey bee’s are having a really tough time of things at the moment, and without beekeepers to look after them would have pretty much dissappeered from the countryside. The problems are caused by a parrasitic mite which sucks the blood of the bee’s and spreads diseases. This mite is very difficult for them to control without help and can kill off entire colonies in no time at all. We all rely heavily on honey bees, both for our food and polination of many species of flower and tree. The simple action of putting honey from a local beekeeper on your toast in the morning can have knock on benefits across the countryside.

There are a number of ways of managing the mites in a colony, I try to avoid chemical input wherever possible, and one of the methods I use is placing a small tray of thyme oil in the colony after the honey has been removed.

This natural oil has a narcotic effect on the mites, knocking them off the back of the bees. Its just one of a range of weapons being deployed at the moment in defence of the bees.

This years honey crop turned out to be a big surprise to me. Haslemere is surrounded by heathland, and for all the time I have been beekeeping people have been telling me how lucky I must be to get heather honey. Its a highly sought after product which commands a high price. Up till now though I have hardly ever had any, the heather is often really difficult for the bee’s to work, as it flowers when the colony is starting to wind down for the winter. Its a useful source of winter feed, but I rarely see any in my jars.

This year though the supers were packed full fo the stuff. I did the extracting with a freind who is also a beekeeper, we were extracting from three diffent apiary sites around the town, mine, his and Swan Barn Farm, and each one of them was packed full of heather honey. Fantastic tasting stuff and as I said highly thought of, but an absolute pain to extract. It is one of the only substances in the world which is thixotropic, this means when it is stirred or agitated it turns liquid, but when it stands still it is a solid, most unusual. The extractor got properly clogged up and we made a bit of a mess. We managed to get it out of the combs in the end, but it was really difficult work. I had noticed the heather was flowering really nicely this year, but hadn’t been expecting this. Its the first time I have seen it in eight years of beekeeping, I wonder when I will see it again?


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