Best laid plans…

I am about to go into my fourth year of beekeeping and I’ve been looking back over the last three years at how I have progressed, and at my plan going forward.

frame of bees.jpg

My first colony of bees were given to me in spring 2015 but, sadly, they did not survive their first winter. In April 2016 I bought an over-wintered nuc and started from scratch. I have continued to be mentored by G, a very experienced and patient beekeeper – he has been so generous with his time and has been a great support.

My plan for my second year had been to take two colonies into the following winter. To cut a long story short it was a difficult season at the end of which I had achieved two colonies but they were very weak. After much deliberation, I united them. I learnt a lot that summer – especially that things don’t always go to plan.

The start of the 2017 season was a much happier affair and my decision to unite was good as I started with one very strong colony. Such a relief after the previous experience. G asked me what my plans were for the year. My answer was obvious – two strong colonies by the end of summer. I thought that was pretty ambitious after the previous year!

But that that was not what he meant! Instead, what was I planning to do to take my beekeeping forward. I didn’t set myself any outlandish objectives, but decided I really needed to learn to pick up, mark and clip a queen and, of course, maintain two strong colonies. I also thought. I would do some studying.

multiple queen cells on base of frame

Although the colony was doing extremely well and expanding rapidly, I wasn’t properly ahead of the game and foolishly didn’t provide enough space – and by the second week in April they were showing distinct signs of swarm preparation. Prevention was required, and, by the middle of April I had made up a nuc and used another cell to make up an Apidea – this was the first time I had done this on my own so I was pleased that it worked out. Within two weeks, I transferred the nuc into a hive. But it wasn’t until the end of July, that the Apidea was transferred into a nuc.

Earlier, in April, I had bought an over-wintered nuc. This involved a very early trip to the Oxfordshire countryside. It was a beautiful, quiet misty morning and as we stood in the apiary with the sun coming up, a sparrowhawk flew through the hives – it was a lovely experience – and one that I wouldn’t have had without my bees. I was very excited about a second hive, but sadly, it didn’t go very smoothly. Although they were beautiful calm bees, there were issues with dysentery, I also found wax moth (I probably should have gone back to the supplier), and after about six weeks I noticed that the queen was looking a little sluggish. But I wasn’t experienced enough to know if a sluggish queen was an issue.

It obviously was, as the following week she was nowhere to be seen and the hive was full of queen cells! Eventually it all sorted itself out but I was left with decidedly unpleasant and stroppy bees – and they had been so calm when I first had them. This was NOT part of my plan.

marked drones.jpg

I clearly remember the first time I watched G pick up a queen. I was completely fascinated and couldn’t imagine I would ever be confident or skilful enough to do it. But I had to start somewhere. I have very long-suffering drones and I started with them. The marks were a bit splodgey to start with. But I gained confidence  and managed to mark them more delicately and succeeded in clipping their wings (from experience I can say that this is a decidedly more delicate task from clipping those belonging to a chicken!).

marked and clipped queen

By late June I had two hives with unmarked queens, so I had to put the practice into action. The key thing was preparation – having everything to hand. I had extremely clean gloves, the pen lid loosened and the scissors to the side. I managed to find her easily which meant I was probably relaxed and consequently more confident.
The mark was a bit mess, as you can see in the photo above, and I am not sure that I clipped a perfect third. But I did it and she survived and, more importantly, continued to lay. I was was over the moon. I really didn’t think this was something I would be able to do. That WAS part of the plan, so I could tick that off!!

I had a lot of difficulty finding the queen in the ‘Oxford’ hive – I wasn’t particularly worried as she was laying well, but I did want to have another chance to practice my new skill. In September she obligingly made herself known. The sense of achievement was wonderful. Fortunately, this mark was much cleaner than the previous one. I think she was better clipped too.

However, there’s another problem – my bees are not very nice and one colony in particular is decidedly unpleasant. I was not enjoying my dealings with them and was in danger of avoiding inspections so I bought a new queen. But before I introduced her the colony calmed down considerably and became quite easy to handle. I made the mistake of dithering and not working to plan.

Instead of putting my lovely new queen in the hive (like a sensible person) I decided to make up a nuc. Consequently, by the end of September I had three strong colonies and two nucs. This was not in the plan either. I have, however, picked up, marked and clipped a queen. So something went right. I also took Module 1 – I am not sure it was terribly successful and I have a nasty feeling I might be taking that again next year!!

My problem now is that I have unpleasant bees in at least three of my colonies. I am getting ready to unite the nuc (with the calm queen) with the worst of the hives. While the weather has been cold I have brought the nuc alongside the hive in preparation.

new shed

Winter is a good time to get ready for the spring. Apart from cleaning and sorting all my equipment I am getting ready to install a new shed. I was given this for Christmas and I am looking forward to having somewhere to keep all my kit – it really does start to mount up very quickly and no-one tells you about this when you start!

Plans for next year? Sort out my stroppy queens and learn how to maintain three hives with lovely, calm bees… This is important for two reasons. 1. stroppy bees are anti-social and unnecessary, and 2. I can start wearing thinner gloves, rather than my marigolds.

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