Saving a bee colony

honeybee2

Apis Mellifera – the honey bee

There’s a knock on the door.

Something of a nightmare to a writer. You are mid chapter, mid sentence even, and the words are flowing. All stop. I know some who ignore callers, phone calls and all other means of communication when they are ‘in the groove’.

I try. But a knock at the door is normally just the postman or a courier. So I tend to answer the door. This time it’s not a call I would expect.

This time it’s a local building contractor. Merv the swerve, we call him, on account of the way he drives his tracked excavator. Merv is a local character. Always to be seen with a large cigar on the go, he breeds horses, farms and does extra work with his diggers. Merv is the only man I know to own a tractor made by Lamborghini.

‘You keep bees don’t you, Matt?’ he asks.

I do. I’m something of an amateur, not terribly experienced and not what you might call talented. But yes, I do keep honey bees.

‘Any chance you could come and take some away?’ asks Merv. ‘They’re in a barn we’re converting and we’re all a bit wary of them.’

I agree. After all, a colony of bees can cost upwards of £150, so an opportunity to catch a swarm for free appeals to my idea of a bargain. So, I close down the computer, grab my bee suit and gloves and arrange to meet Merv at the nearby farm, where he will be waiting for me. I take a box – to contain the bees – and a sheet to wrap around it to prevent escape into the car.

So far, so good.

I arrive at the farm. The yard is alive with bee traffic. I can see them heading towards a boarded up window on a rather ramshackle barn that appears to be the one intended for development.

bee-swarm

A typical honey bee swarm

Now, with most swarms, the bees have settled in a large cluster on something or other. It might be a gate post, a tree branch or even on a car. They settle while ‘scout’ bees are looking for their new home.

Swarming is how bees reproduce. Once a home has become too crowded, the queen takes a large proportion of her colony and heads off in search of pastures new. Worker bees left behind will sense this is about to happen and will have been feeding a few larvae on royal jelly. These grow into queens and the first to hatch will become the new head of the colony that has been left behind.

What I wouldn’t have expected to see on the farm yard was a lot of bees on the move. A swarm would be settled. To me, these looked like foragers, bees leaving and returning to a colony on the search for nectar and pollen.

And that is what they were. For this wasn’t a swarm I had been asked to look at, it was an established colony.

Perhaps a year earlier, a resourceful swarm had found a nice, safe home behind a boarded up window in a deserted barn, in the space between the board and the bricked up wall inside. And now, rather sadly, they were to be evicted to make way for human occupants.

Having never before captured a colony, I did some research. I watched some YouTube videos of how it can be done, even seeing some experts working without a bee suit. Not for me, I wanted protection!

I needed an ash collector, it seemed. The kind that is used to clear a log burner. The principle is to open up the hive and then ‘hoover’ the bees into the container ready to install them in a new home. That home needed to be more than two miles away or they might just head back to their old abode.

I had the perfect site in mind.

I got my equipment ready. Crowbar – to remove the window frame. Jig saw – to cut the board as it was nailed from the inside. Hoover, ash collector, extension cable etc. I also had some empty bee frames.

bees-empty-frames_1726407c

 

The bee frames were going to be important, I had learned. Once I was into the colony, I need to cut several sections of comb containing brood – bee larvae – and pollen/honey, ready to install in the bee’s new hive. That would be key to persuading them to take up residence in their new home. It had to smell like their old one.

And so, I set to work. I smoked the entrance and waited. That’s what you do with a hive. Distract them, make them head for the honey and then they settle down. All very good, in theory. Merv beat a retreat, at first to the safety of his car and then off-site altogether. The reason – the bees were not at all happy when I started to break into their palace. And a palace it was, for this was not a small colony.

The sound of an angry bee colony can be very intimidating. When not one, but thousands of flying insects hit the air and start to seek out ways to penetrate your bee suit, you really do have to have faith in your protection. They found a weak spot. Right forearm picked up a sting. Ouch! That hurt. One success acts as a trigger to others who then tend to focus on the same area. Another penetration, more pain. This wasn’t going well.

At the point of removing the window frame, I had picked up seven stings. I then decided to temporarily retire. Not just because of the pain I was now feeling in my arm, but also due to what I found behind the frame.

bees 2

 

I was reminded of that scene in ‘Jaws’ when police chief Martin Brody is on the back of Quint’s ship and he has first sight of their target. ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ he says in what must be one of the most memorable moments of the film.

I was going to need a bigger can. The colony was HUGE.

I headed home, rubbed some cream onto my wounds and took an anti-histamine. I don’t normally react too badly to bee stings but I was all too aware of anaphylaxis, so I was being careful to avoid any further pain.

Time to start the capture.

By the time I returned to the farm yard, the bees had settled down. Although clearly unhappy with the damage, they were less angry and more concerned with making repairs than seeing off their ‘rescuer’.

I connected up the hoover and started collecting.

bees 4

From this point on, things went well. No more stings, in fact not even an attempt. It seemed that the bees were resigned to their fate, whatever that was. There were thousands of them, tens of thousands even. And among them was the one most important bee to capture intact – the queen.

bees 3

But how I was to locate her amongst all the others? I had no idea. If she was marked – an escapee from a ‘looked after’ colony – then I had a chance. I looked, searched, saw no sign. I simply had to keep hoovering and hope that she went into the ash can with her friends.

I saw drones – the males – and many nursery and forager bees but, by the time the can was full – after over an hour – I saw no queen.

By now, it was turning dark. I decided to call it a day, move the bees I had captured and the made up frames to their new home. A nice clean hive with new frames and a sugar syrup feeder to make sure they didn’t go hungry. I tipped them in, and crossed my fingers that they would stay until the morning when I could return to collect the others.

I was up early. Again, I met with a placid and non-aggressive colony.

bees 5

Vacuuming continued. Another can-full meant just a few remained.

I headed back to the new hive and was pleased to find that the original bunch were still in place. I lifted off the roof, tipped in their friends and stepped back to admire a job well done.

For the next week or so, I will now leave them undisturbed save for keeping their supply of sugar syrup feed topped up while they source local supplies of natural food. If all goes well, the worker bees will draw out the frames with comb and then the queen will start to lay eggs. Once that happens I will know that she is present and that the colony has fully accepted it’s new home.

And given that the alternative to eviction was a visit from the pest-controller, I think that a few stings and several hours of my time was a small price to pay to give the colony a chance to survive. I went back a third and a fourth time, to mop up stragglers, mostly foragers that had been in the fields at the time of my visit. In the end, I estimate that I had captured virtually all of them.

And who knows, next year I may well be rewarded with some honey.

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