BEE DEMOCRATIC

I\’ve been enthralled by a wonderful book about bees – this one is called \”Honeybee Democracy\” by Thomas D. Seeley. It\’s beautifully produced, beautifully written and tells the story of how a colony of bees swarms and finds a new place to live. Not only does he tell the story – he also explains how he knows. The book gives the painstaking scientific background to a fully formed scientific statement. When he says what kind of hollow tree bees prefer, he knows because he\’s checked. I admit his explanation is hard to read because it involved poisoning bees with cyanide. That was back in the heedless 1970s though. I think Seeley would do it differently today.
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You don\’t need to be interested in bees to be amazed by the story of how a swarm of bees effectively vote on where they\’re going to live – politicians and historians might find insight into ways a large group can come to a decision as fairly and efficiently as possible.
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The only criticisms I can think of are the cost of the book (it\’s gone down since I last checked) and the fact that being a large hardback makes it difficult to read in bed – for goodness\’ sake, will somebody please publish Seeley\’s work in paperback?

Surprise festival

Slightly peeved (and hungover) I loaded up the car on Saturday with a ton of beekeeping stuff, quite a lot of honey cake and my wonderful folding table to go to Woodland Valley Farm for what I thought was just a country fair and a day of boredom.
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Far from it. We had avid listeners for beekeeping talks at our rather well-put-together stall (gazebo and information displays part-erected by yours truly with only a bit of whingeing about the bad design of the gazebo). Mike, my beekeeping mentor, stayed stoical and good-humoured despite my help. The free honeycake I was giving out may have helped.
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Lots of people are very interested and concerned about bees and beekeeping and several went away with information about beekeeping courses with the Cornwall Beekeepers Association. The kids gasped and thrilled to the horrific news that:
* all bees are girls
* except for the drones who are boys
* the queen lays about 1500 eggs a day at the peak laying season
* when a drone mates with her on a mating flight, he dies (happy).
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And then in the evening I bopped to Bands in the Barn, and wolfed down excellent barbecued sausages and salad and some very good home-brewed ale.
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No, I didn\’t do any coursework over the weekend. And no, I\’m not doing it now. I will. Honest.

Bee sociable

Beekeepers are very social creatures. They also seem able to negotiate with the Cornish weather-gods. So the Roseland beekeeping group\’s barbecue yesterday evening was absolutely lovely – outstandingly well-organised, fantastic food, lots of fascinating conversation about varroa-control methods and requeening… Well, OK, I find it fascinating.
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Being a shambolic creature myself, I\’m always amazed and impressed by good organisation. I gaze in admiration as you do when some ordinary person bounces across a mat doing somersaults in the air. Everything worked. There were marquees in case it rained – though in fact it didn\’t. There were tables and chairs. Everybody brought a plate of food that had clearly not only been beautifully cooked, but often lovingly home-grown as well.
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And the setting (once I found it) was idyllic, in a little green valley near St Austell. The only slight downside was that there was so much delicious food that I had to have seconds of everything, thus branding myself quite clearly the greediest person there.

Bee Happy!

My bees were inspected yesterday by David Packham, one of the local official Bee Inspectors. He checks hives regularly for signs of disease and is the kind of expert who can explain what he knows.
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So there we were: the Cornish rain gods were havin\’ a laff, opening up the clouds for a bit of sun and then chucking down the rain; sun, rain, sun, rain! Wind. Rain! Sun! It was truly bonkers weather.
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First he checked the hive belonging to the lovely lady who allows me to share her little apiary space, at the end of a garden stuffed with beautiful flowers. As she thought might have happened, they\’d swarmed and there were two sealed Queen cells, which look just like peanut shells stuck to the bottom of the comb. Lots of bees wandering around, no eggs. There was a virgin queen there, making a high-pitched piping sound too high for me to hear. That\’s so that her younger sisters will pipe back at her from their cells so she can go and sting them to death before they hatch and fight her. In the course of his inspection, despite the two umbrellas being held up by suited spacemen, I think it rained three times.
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Then he looked at the first of my two hives – the one that wanted to swarm and which we did an artificial swarm from. I\’ve been worrying pointlessly about this one because the last time we looked, there were no eggs, no brood, no sealed brood. The only thing that reassured me was that the bees seemed quite happy: they make an anxious unhappy sound if they don\’t have a queen.
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Tantara! They did have a Queen! There were eggs (very hard to see as they\’re about the size of white commas at the bottom of the broodcells), there were pearly white brood and there was sealed brood as well. She must have been in there last Friday and we just didn\’t see her.
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Luckily one of the other Roseland group beekeepers spotted young Madame on the comb. David took his gloves off, picked her up gently and marked her with the Tippex I\’d brought along just in case. It was so deft and quick – I was amazed.
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I put feeders full of syrup on both hives because the ghastly wet weather (here in drought-ravaged Britain) means there are hardly any flowers around for them to forage.
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And off we went in convoy to see the next hives. Before we left I did my Yess! There\’s a Queen! Dance which I think might have frightened the other beekeepers a bit. But if the bees can dance, why can\’t I?

Bee careful

Now I\’m worrying about my bees because the weather keeps being warm and sunny and then pouring with freezing rain and then back to warm and sunny inside fifteen minutes. My bees are yellow-stripy Italians not black British bees, so they no wanna fly when itsa wet. British bees (naturally) fly through the rain, cos they\’re tough, mean, hard bees but they\’re quite rare now because they were badly hit by varroa (the sneaky UnBritish parasites!).
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I can\’t go check them and feed them syrup because I\’m still not allowed to drive. I\’ll be watching them beeing inspected on Saturday and I\’m really hoping that the hive we took the swarm from will have a mated laying Queen. They seemed all right and not too unhappy when we looked at them last Friday, but I still worry.
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Oy. Those bees.

Madam and the Gels

Ferried by my kind Beekeeping Mentor to the Tregothnan estate to see how the bees are doing: Madam is in her new house, quite perked up by last week\’s adventure, laying away and looking very elegant, while the gels have drawn comb on no fewer than six frames.
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Meanwhile the bees in the parent hive have five queens waiting in their sealed queen cells, plus one larva still munching the royal jelly. Some beekeepers say you should destroy all but one of the queen cells, some say you should let cruel mother nature take her course – and any two beekeepers will normally have three to five opinions on the subject.
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I tend to prefer laisser faire so we left them and hope the queens don\’t wipe each other out when they fight. Apparently, the worker bees sometimes hold the younger queens back in their cells until the first to hatch has got back safely from her mating flight and started to lay. That way they have a failsafe if a bird eats her – very clever.
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All seemed well in the two little cities so we put the roofs back on and left.

Bee busy

I couldn\’t do any thing yesterday because I was rushing around – I had to be ferried to the Tregothnan estate by my Beekeeping Mentor as my gels were plotting another swarm. I\’m rather offended by this as the colony I\’ve been looking after has just been split and Madam and half the bees were moved in their lovely new hive to a lovely new place full of flowers near the only tea-growing estate in England.
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No dice. We counted five queen cells with larvae and royal jelly in them on Saturday and once the process has started, it\’s not really possible to stop. And these are notorious swarmy bees anyway. So Beekeeping Mentor drove me back on Sunday, having made eleven brood frames for me. I got number 2 son to hammer in the final nails so the gels would have a roof and we did some cunning swapping of hives so that the gels would think they\’d swarmed already and calm down about it.
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In the process we nearly lost Madam. We were transferring her in a queen trap to a brood frame with no queen cells – two queens in one hive will fight to the death – when Madam just climbed up and flew off. We couldn\’t see her anywhere and we were about to give up when I luckily found her again just next to my foot. A moment later and she was back in her new hive – very relieved we were too.
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I hope she\’s got over her mad lust for adventure. You\’re a bee, Madam. Birds would eat you. Stay put now, please.