trials of a backyard beekeeper
One of our hives put out a swarm. Unexpected, unseasonal, and not a good sign about the health of the parent hive. We’ll look into that another day.
Anyhow, we now had a new, unexpected swarm to deal with. They alighted in the thick, tangled vegetation which sprawls over the 2000 litre water tank in our veggie garden.
It was quite a small swarm, unlikely to survive the winter, but worth saving. Moreover a swarm uncaught is going to fly off and set up home somewhere, which might be a neighbour’s roof.
It was late in the afternoon and the bees seemed to have settled in for the night.
Note to the reader: After leaving its parent hive, a swarm will send out scouts to investigate potential nest sites and choose the best candidate. This process can take hours or days.
I decided to leave them be and tackle the swarm first thing in the morning, when the swarm will be chilled (forecast: 10˚C overnight minimum) and therefore docile.
2.30 a.m. I wake up, worrying about bees. Where the hell to put another hive? We’ve already got two.
4 a.m. Plan of action is developed over a cup of tea. There’s a likely space in the front garden tucked behind the lemon tree. Back to bed.
6.30 a.m. I’m dressed and out the back door with the secateurs, garden shears, a bucket and an empty hive box. I hack away at the geranium-hardenbergia-capsicum-tomato conglomerate covering the tank.
Having cleared a space below the swarm without dislodging it, I suit up. No point in getting stung if you don’t have to.
Suitably attired in my fetching white beekeeper’s suit, I knock the swarm into the bucket, tip the bucket into the hive box. Lid on. Job done. All good!
As long as the queen is in the hive box, the rest of the swarm will stay with her and start to build comb.
7.00 a.m. Coffee!
8.00 a.m. Work.
10.30 a.m. Enough work! Breakfast.
11–1 p.m. I’m bumbling around my workshop looking for hive components. Looks like I need a quick trip to the hardware store. Meanwhile I’m keeping an eye on the bees. They seem happy enough in their new hive box, indicating that the queen is present.
2 p.m. I phone the hardware to order and pay for the stuff I need. Click and collect. In the car and off to the store.
3 p.m. The stuff is duly collected. Back home, I make up eight waxed frames for the new box, and other bits.
4 p.m. Ready to go! I don my bee suit. Light the smoker. Direct a few puffs in the hive entrance. It seems a bit quiet in there …
I open the hive, expecting a not-very-enthusiastic greeting from about 5,000 bees … to find … TWO bees. Looking up at me sheepishly. They’d all buggered off while I was at the hardware. Ingrates!!
Aftermath and notes on natural beekeeping principles
Upon checking the parent hive I found that the problem was a severe small hive beetle SHB infestation. I had been aware of the infestation for a while, monitoring it via a beetle trap in the floor of the hive.
However, the natural beekeeper’s response to SHB in most cases is ‘benign neglect’. Opening the hive and attempting to remove infested combs usually exacerbates the problem, as hive beetle are attracted to and exploit stressed hives. They can detect honeybee stress pheromone from 10 km away. They are also highly mobile little critters and well able to hide away. So the best response is to open the hive as little as possible. Two to three times a year is sufficient.
Beekeepers untroubled by natural beekeeping principles will treat a SHB infestation with an insecticide such as Fipronil. As natural beekeepers, we are unwilling to go down that route. Our bees are already dealing with a wide range of environmental toxins: introducing more to the delicate environment of the hive is simply not an option.
Some you win; some you lose …