Thursday, June 05, 2014

Where's Wally ? ( ... or find the Queen)

Where's Wally ?
The barn renovation-into-a-gîte project that, I’m embarrassed to say, started way back in 2006, is entering its final phase. Last Sunday, on a sunny day he should have better spent relaxing in the warm bosom of his family, our friend Bruno generously gave up his time, his expertise and his personal recipe to help us trowel earth plaster onto the wall between the bedroom and the living area.

We started promptly at 9 o’clock, wetting the walls again, tacking mesh to the inside of the doorway and then mixing riddled subsoil rich in clay with building sand, a few handfuls of chopped up flax stalk and a mug of flour paste. This was smeared onto the walls with a float and, when it had dried off a little, polished with a dainty, handmade, flexible Japanese spatula.

I left Gabrielle and Bruno to go and light the barbeque. As I approached, I heard the unmistakeable, heavy buzz of a bee swarm and looked up to see a swirling cloud of bees. Smallholding’s a bit like that. Fully absorbed in one task, with not a moment to spare for anything else, something presents itself, requiring immediate attention.

Voila! One swarm, still attached to the branch.
We started the year with two healthy hives. At the beginning of April, we opened them up to mark the queens with a spot of paint and noticed that one colony was particularly strong. It was therefore likely to create new queens soon although there were no queen cells at that time. 

Bad weather prevented us from looking again and the very day that we had agreed to conduct an artificial swarm (where we control what’s happening) they beat us to it and swarmed. Now we had three colonies. A cast swarm followed, which we failed to collect and bee life settled down again. We had no idea that the weaker colony had put on such a burst of fecundity and were ready to swarm.
I throw the bees onto the board

They swarmed onto the outer branch of an oak tree. I erected a scaffold tower, made all the more difficult as I was wearing full protective clothing on a hot day. As I got ready with loppers and pruning saw to go up and cut the swarm down, I noticed they’d gone … into a nearby myrobalan tree. I moved the scaffold tower and Gabrielle joined me at altitude to carefully remove the branch to which the buzzing ball of bees was attached. I’d placed a ramp up to the entrance of a “Nuke” (nucleus) box and with a violent shake of the cut branch, dumped the whole lot. Seconds later, the bees started moving upwards to the hive entrance. It’s normally the old queen—which we had marked—who leaves with the swarm. 

While I was filming, much like finding Wally, I suddenly spotted the queen amongst the crowd, which was both exciting and reassuring that things were playing out as they should. We watched her all the way into the hive.

Back to the barbeque, lunch, and then the afternoon earth plastering. We now have four hives of bees and a beautiful deep orange wall.


Unknown said...

If your into permaculture. Then you should look into natural beekeeping. You find its more in line with what your doing . Assuming your organic ..

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Hi Ryan and thank you for posting a comment. Before we started keeping bees we read a lot about Warré hives, top bar hives and other alternatives. We decided to start with standard French Dadant hives for many reasons. All the people we know who keep bees, and would therefore become invaluable sources of support and advice, used them, the local garden centre (which is conveniently a specialist supplier of bee equipment) sells them and we have to register and be subject to visits from the local bee inspector. We thought it would make sense to learn conventional bee keeping before going more left field. Over the three years we have been keeping bees, they have proved to be the most complex and complicated things we have on our smallholding. We have always kept all our colonies over winter and now have four healthy hives. The bee inspector called last week. He inspected all four hives. He was very satisfied with what we where doing, using words like "manifique" and "parfait", so we are happy that we're doing the right thing in conventional bee keeping. Any transition to other types of bee keeping will be done gradually and alongside what we currently have set up. All the treatments we use to battle varroa are recommended for organic bee keeping We're always interested in learning more, so please do tell us your own experiences of keeping bees naturally.