The Adventures of a Novice Beekeper

Page 2 of 3


First of all, an apology. There are still no pictures. This is basically because I’m still getting the hang of faffing around with a reluctant smoker and a general feeling of not having a clue what I’m doing, with the result that photography has temporarily sidelined.

However, the good news is that things are progressing well in the hive. The queen appears to be producing plenty of brood and there also seems to be some honey being produced in the super. Yup, real honey.

So it’s all looking quite promising.

The only complication is that when I inspected the hive on Sunday there were a couple of queen cells lurking there. Now this is a perfectly normal thing to happen, but it requires management. Because if another queen comes along, this hive ain’t big enough for the both of them. And one of them is gonna leave, taking at least half the workers with her in a swarm.

There are two ways of dealing with this. Either you can simply remove the queen cells and dispose of them, or you can go through the procedure known as artificial swarming, where you transfer half the population, plus the new potential queen, into a new hive. This is quite exciting, because it means that you’ve gone from a one-hive beekeeper into a two-hive one.

However, this option wasn’t available on Sunday, because I haven’t yet acquired a second hive. So I opted for regicide. Sorry, bees. Next time, maybe.

Aaaaaaand we’re off…

After last week’s failed attempt at an inspection, I was feeling somewhat despondent, despite the fact that the bees appeared to be doing fine. As luck would have it, however, the local beekeeping group had an apiary meeting scheduled for Sunday morning, so I decided I should go along. You usually get cake at these things, so it’s worth going  just for that.

This turned out to be a very good move. Not only was the flapjack excellent, but I also had the opportunity to hang out with a dozen other beekeepers and, more importantly, handle bees again. I came away feeling a lot more confident and ready to tackle my own hive.

First things first, however. I needed to put my super together. A super is a half-depth box that sits on top of the main brood box, containing eleven frames full of wax foundation ready for the bees to store their honey in. The frames come in kit form so you have to assemble them yourself. I didn’t take any pictures of the process because it’s very similar to assembling brood frames and I already have a whole load of pictures of that. (Yes, I know I haven’t put those up yet. I’ll do that next time, OK?)

Anyway, armed with my super and the queen excluder that sits between it and the brood box (so as to ensure that the queen doesn’t start laying eggs there), plus my new-found smoker skills, I made my second attempt at an inspection yesterday. I decided to leave my camera behind on this occasion because I wanted to stay completely focussed on the job in hand.

The first thing I noticed was that the grass in the field was now almost covering the hive, so I went and fetched the hand lawn mower and long-handled clippers. The process of cleaning up the area around the hive seemed to upset the bees and – not to put too fine a point on it – they went for me. I hadn’t fully suited up at this point either, so I beat a hasty retreat, but before one of them stung me on my left wrist. Bees 1, Jon 0.

I returned to the task in hand, now fully suited, and finished off clearing away around the hive. Then I got the smoker going, a task that predictably took longer than it did on the first attempt, now that I was actually in the field. Also, lighting matches wearing rubber gloves is surprisingly challenging. However, after a while I succeeded in getting a nice regular supply of smoke, so it was time to go into the hive.

The bees were once again very aggressive. This is actually a good thing, because nice, docile hippy bees tend to be hopelessly laid back about making honey and tend to give it away to anyone from another hive or even a passing gang of wasps if they get the chance. Hard-nosed entrepreneurial capitalist bastard bees, on the other hand, are brilliant honey makers and guard their produce well. (Actually, given the set-up in the hive, it’s probably closer to a North Korean-style personality cult than true capitalism, which only goes to show that you can only extend a metaphor so far before it breaks into a thousand pieces.)

The smoker, however, did at least calm them down sufficiently for me to take a peek inside the hive, even if one of them did manage to find her way under my glove to give me a matching sting on my right wrist. Bees 2, Jon 0. I checked out all the frames, and there was a nice brood pattern: plenty of bees on the way and no queen cells yet. The latter is important, because the potential arrival of another queen is an event that requires management on the part of the beekeeper. If you don’t do anything about this, half your bees can swarm off with the new pretender.

The best thing was that this time I actually managed to get a sight of the queen herself. The chap I’d got the brood from had already marked her with a white dot, so she should have been easy enough to spot, although I’d completely failed to find her last autumn. I think I was able to see her this time because I was feeling a lot more relaxed, stings or no stings.

As I looked through all the frames, I removed all the sticky wax gunk that was protruding from the top, which I’m assuming was there because there hadn’t been a super on yet, and dropped it down into the hive to be re-used – bees are excellent recyclers. I put the queen excluder on, then the super, then the crown board and finally the lid. Job done.

Next time, I’ll take some pictures.

Busy Bees

Having established that my bees were – in spite of everything I’d failed to do over the winter – still alive and apparently thriving, my next step was, once again, to do nothing. According to the literature, this is round about the time when I should be inspecting them once a week, but as of this afternoon, I still hadn’t done anything approaching a proper inspection.

Excuse #1 was that I hadn’t yet got to grips with using the smoker. Without a smoker, a hive full of bees is, frankly, more than a little scary, especially when you’re dealing with it on your own, and I remembered how useless I’d been with the smoker last time I’d tried it.

Excuse #2 was – no, there weren’t really any decent excuses, actually.

So today I thought I’d try firing up the smoker and getting stuck in. I fired up the smoker. It went out. I fired it up again. It went out again. I fired it up a third time. It seemed to stay alight. I put my rubber gloves on. The smoker went out again. I tried lighting it wearing the rubber gloves. It briefly stayed lit, before fizzling out just as I took the crown board off the hive. I gave up on the smoker.

However, this is what the hive looked like:



and this is what the crown board looked like:


I had two reactions to this.

Reaction #1: Whoops. Better get a super on quick.

Reaction #2: Whoa. That’s a lot more bees than last time I looked.

At this point, the combination of smoker failure and reaction #2 brought the inspection to a close. Yes, I know there are people who happily dive in without a smoker, but this lot of bees seemed to be on the aggressive side and I need a bit more practice to get back into the swing of things. Oh, all right. I’m a wimp. Have it your own way.

I put the crown board and lid back on, and decided on a plan of action:

1. Learn how to use the sodding smoker.

2. Make up the frames for the super.

and, contingent on 1 and 2:

3. Do a proper inspection and put the super on at the same time (thus avoiding upsetting things too much).

So I looked up how to use the smoker and found this site. I liked the opening sentence:

Probably one of the hardest tools to use properly in beekeeping is the humble smoker.

But I practised with using hay as a suitable smoker fuel and – lo and behold – it stayed lit. It started to go out after a few minutes, so I added a bit more fuel and pumped the bellows. It still stayed lit. Amazing what can happen if you try doing something properly.

Tomorrow I’m going to make up the frames for the super. And then we can really get started. I can’t help feeling, though, that the bees are getting on pretty well without me.


In Case You Were Wondering…

Oh dear. I had big plans for what I was going to do with this blog during the close season. I was going to do posts on what my hive looks like, how you construct Hoffman frames, maybe even review a few how-to books, all that sort of thing.

But life got in the way. I had day job stuff to do and I got tangled up in getting my next book published and what with one thing or another, the bees took a back seat. What was worse is that all the time there was this feeling lurking in the back of my mind that maybe I should be doing something with them over the winter. Had I fed them enough? Should I fit that mouse guard I’d bought? Wasn’t there some other treatment I was supposed to apply?

And then that developed into one of those cycles where you don’t want to look up what you’re supposed to have done in case it’s too late, which makes any action potentially even later with even worse consequences which makes you want to look things up even less and this carries on until you eventually reach the point where you’ve pretty much assumed that your bees are dead, you’ve wasted your money and everyone’s going to think your an idiot and every time someone asks you “How are the bees then?” you look at your feet and start muttering that you’re definitely going to check next week but in your heart of hearts you know it’s a complete waste of time.

But one spring morning you notice that one of the shrubs in your garden is positively humming with bees. Now clearly there was no guarantee that they were my bees –  it wasn’t as if they shouted “DADDIEEEEEE!” and gave me a big hug when I went near them, after all. Also, you’d be surprised how many beekeepers there are around here – and yes, I know I should be asking them for advice, but I’m a bloke and asking for advice is not in my skill set.

However, they were still bees.

So I finally plucked up courage last Sunday to go and have a look at my hive, and lo and behold there were hordes of the buggers flying in and out, positively loaded with pollen. (Although I should say that by the time I’d taken a half decent picture, they were beginning to get a little annoyed with my presence.)

P3300103(Hmmm. Grass needs a bit of a trim there.)

Anyway, the important thing is, I STILL HAZ BEES.

This is where the fun starts.


Winter is Coming

Whoops. I meant to write a version of this post a couple of weeks back, but completely failed to do so, for no good reason other than I got tied up with other stuff. What makes things worse is that what I’m going to talk about here is stuff that I should have done earlier anyway. So imagine it’s a month ago and you’re in the last days of August.

Nice, isn’t it?

There are two things that need to be done. First of all, there’s the question of Varroa treatment. Varroa (or to be more precise, Varroa Destructor, which has to be the coolest name for a pest ever) is a parasitic mite that on the increase throughout the beekeeping world and has been implicated in colony collapse disorder, which is clearly something that one wants to avoid. I’m taking a two-pronged approach with this.

Prong number one is the addition of a varroa floor to my hive. We’ll cover this in more detail in another post, but basically it’s designed so that if a mite attaches itself to one of my bees and then falls off, it won’t be able to get back into the hive again. Prong number two is the use of a thymol-based gel called Apiguard.

Here’s what a 50g tray of Apiguard looks like:



and here it is in situ:



Basically it sits there on top of the frames, giving off fumes and upsetting the Varroa mites. (Yeah, poor mites!) In theory, I leave this there for a couple of weeks and then replace it with another one. However, given that it’s a very new colony, I probably won’t need to do this.

The second thing to do is feed the bees up a bit to make sure they’ve got sufficient feed stores to get them through the winter. For this purpose, I bought a 2.5kg bag of Ambrosia fondant and a feeder. Now I could probably have just laid out the fondant as it is, but I got a feeder anyway, so I’m sure as hell going to use it.

Here’s what the feeder looks like:



(I think that transparent thing at the back is only used for liquid feed, so we’ll put that to one side for now.) Here’s the feeder packed with fondant:



Nom nom nom, eh?

Now we have a problem here with adding this to the hive, because there isn’t room for the feeder in the space between the frames and the lid of the hive. So this is what we’re going to do. First of all, we remove the bit of mesh from one of the holes in the crown board (that’s the bit the goes on top of the frames – again this will make more sense when we’ve done the “this is what a hive consists of” post):



And then we add a “super”. This is one of the half-height frame boxes that I’m hoping will contain next year’s honey. However, this time round, we’re just using it to add the necessary height to the hive to hold the feeder:

P9090078And now we add the feeder. Voilà:



Put the lid on, and there’s a happy, healthy and well-fed hive.

Now of course, you’ll be wanting to know if (a) I’d managed to position the feeder correctly over the hole in the crown board and (b) if the bees had managed to find the food, right?

Here they are a week later:

Bees feeding


Dinner is served, ladies!


I’m a Joker, I’m a Smoker

After the mild trauma of my first inspection, I decided to leave it a week or two before I poked around in the hive again. I did observe that the traffic in and out of it seemed a bit more settled after a day or two and I came to the conclusion – rightly or wrongly – that I’d simply been a bit hasty in bothering them so soon after they’d got here.

What I also decided to do was make use of my smoker this time. Now opinion is divided – as it is on practically everything in the beekeeping world (get two beekeepers in a room together and you will have at least three opinions) – as to the efficacy of smokers. Some people swear by them, others never bother.

Well, I’d bought one, so I thought I’d better give it a try. This is what it looks like:


Basically you put stuff that burns into the body of it, set light to it, close the pointy lid and pump the bellows:


Easy, huh? Except that if you decide to use the stiff brown paper from some packaging that was lying around as your material (and not – as I’ve since found out – more durable burners such as wood shavings, grass and so on), you will find that by the time you get to use the smoker, it will have gone out.

Worse than that, you will also find that when you pump the bellows at your bees in order to calm them down, instead of smoke, it will pump cold air in their direction. Unsurprisingly, they find this massively annoying, with the result being the precise opposite of the one intended.

The other annoying thing is that by the time you have finished messing about with your smoker, you will find that you have That Song By The Sodding Steve Miller Band lodged in your head for the rest of the day.

And, almost certainly, so now will you.

Sorry about that.

First Inspection

Well, that was interesting.

I dropped in on my bees the morning after they’d arrived to see how they were doing. It all seemed a bit quiet:


So I thought I should really kick things off with a proper full inspection. This morning, I suited up and took the lid off. Now that’s more like it:


(Poor photo quality due to trying to take it with an iPhone wearing rubber gloves…)

Then I realised that they were a bit livelier than the ones I’d seen when I’d been looking round other folks’ hives. Of course, based on my earlier viewing of the activity around the hive, I hadn’t bothered to bring the smoker along (we’ll talk about that piece of equipment another time). This was a bit of a mistake as they turned out to be quite upset at my interference in their lives.

As a result, I had an early opportunity to discover whether or not I am allergic to bee stings. Turns out I’m not, although I did check the British Beekeepers Association leaflet for details of the symptoms for anaphylactic shock just in case. These include “feeling of impending doom”, although I tend to have this most days anyway, so it’s probably not a sure-fire indication.

What with being (a) mobbed by a bunch of angry bees and (b) being stung (note to self: tuck your gloves inside your bee-suit next time) it wasn’t a wholly satisfactory first inspection, as I abandoned it around halfway through. I’m a bit annoyed at myself about this, but I guess I’ve learnt one or two lessons.

From what I did see, my bees do seem to have been working hard at laying down food stores and I did get a glimpse of the queen. How could I tell she was the queen? Well, my supplier had very kindly marked her with a white spot. I’ll try and get a picture to show you next time.


Just a very quick post to say that, finally, I have my bees. I got the call from my supplier to say that, following lengthy negotiations, the workers had finally accepted the new queen, subject to ratification at conference, and that as a result my hive was now ready for me to pick up.

My excitement was tempered by the fact that I was now faced with that three-quarter-of-an-hour journey over those Somerset country lanes to pick them up. Or, to be precise, the journey back with them sitting in the back of a small car. Here they are, perched daintily on top of the Tescos bag and the other crap that gets thrown in the back of said car:


(Note the small piece of foam rubber blocking the exit. The only thing between me and a swarm of angry bees.)

I’m exaggerating of course. In the event, I didn’t hear a peep out of them the entire journey – possibly because it was in the evening, long after they’d finished flying around and settled down for the night.

Once I’d brought them home, I took them straight to their final home in the middle of some apple trees. Cosy, isn’t it?


I gingerly removed the hive strap and foam rubber and stepped back. Nothing happened. Well, they were probably tired after their long journey. Car journeys do that to me, too. We’ll take another look tomorrow to see if they’re going to venture outside and check out their new home.

The Bees are Revolting

Just my luck to get a bunch of radical bees. After delivering my empty hive to the chap who’s providing my nuc, I didn’t hear anything for a while. So I got back in touch and it turns out that there’s been a bit of a hitch. Apparently, not long after the bees were transferred to the hive, they turned on the queen and “balled” her.

In case you were wondering (because, I must admit, so was I) balling looks like this:

Nice, huh? The colloquial term for this is “cuddle death”, which also just happens to be the Best Short Story Title Evah. I’m definitely going to use that one some day.

The odd thing is that my bees have done this to a perfectly healthy mated, laying queen. My supplier is at a loss to understand why, as it’s happened to a few of his nucs this year despite never having done so before. The most likely explanation to my mind is that the worker bees have acquired some revolutionary tendencies along the way and are almost certainly engaged in a reign of terror right now. The tumbrils are being loaded up with recidivist drones even as I write.

Meanwhile, my poor supplier is going to have to introduce a new virgin queen from another hive. I just hope Madame Robespierre Bee takes kindly to her…

Preparing for the Nuc

The time is drawing near. Back in March, when I’d completed my beekeeping course, I was given the names of a couple of people who could, in due course, supply me with a nuc. Nuc (disconcertingly pronounced “Nuke”) is beekeeping slang for a nucleus, which basically amounts to roughly half a hive of bees. I got in contact with one of them and it turned out that my nuc would be ready for me end of June / start of July.

In other words, about now.

All of which led to me thinking last week that it was probably about time I bought a hive. So on Friday I went to see a chap called David Pearce, who is pretty much Somerset’s Mr Hive. It’s worth dropping in on him just to see his workshop, by the way:


(“If I’d known you were going to take a picture, I’d have tidied up … nah, only joking”)

Anyway, I bought a National hive from him, plus a super and a set of Hoffman frames (we’ll come on to all that stuff in a later post), along with some other important bits and bobs, such as a hive tool, a smoker and – the bit that’s worrying me the most at the moment – a hive strap.

Why did I need a hive strap? I’ll tell you.

On Saturday morning, I took my spanking new hive down to the chap who’s providing my nuc so that he can transfer the bees into it. Once they’re ready, which will be some time this week, I’ll go down there, pick them up and bring them back to their new home. Great!


There’s just one minor detail that’s bothering me. I’m going to have to drive back with a hive full of bees in the back of the car. A three-quarters of an hour journey over some extremely bumpy country roads. On a hot day.

Well, what’s the worst that can happen?

I just hope that hive strap keeps it all together. Still, exciting, isn’t it?

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