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.