23 January 2015

When we opened our beehive last Friday it was a sorry sight. The bees were sluggish, and there weren’t many of them. There was a small amount of larvae but we couldn’t see any eggs, and we couldn’t see the queen. She’s quite distinctive – not only is she much bigger, but she has a blob of red paint on her abdomen, added by the people we bought her from. A hive can make a new queen, but it needs to be done from the egg stage. No eggs equals no new queen.

We were bad hive parents. Something had gone wrong, and as new hive owners it was bound to be our fault. We went to the monthly beekeepers meeting on Sunday, crestfallen. But the beekeepers are an immensely generous bunch, and nothing pleases them more than helping their fellow beekeepers, no matter how stupid they’ve been. They’re a bit like bees in that respect – it’s all about the group. So we came away from the meeting with many offers of assistance, plus an offer of a new nucleus – a queen with a few frames of her worker bees. We discussed how to manage our existing hive alongside the new nucleus, and the general consensus was that we should combine them using the newspaper method. In this method you put one box (the stronger colony) on the base, then a sheet of newspaper, then the box of the weaker colony on top. We were instructed on it, we were shown it, we looked at it on YouTube and we tried to absorb the many intricacies of this seemingly simple procedure. Wouldn’t all the bees escape during the moving of the boxes? No, they go back to the hive with their own pheromones. Wouldn’t they all fight and die? No, because they have to chew through the newspaper to combine, and by the time they’ve done that they’ve become accustomed to each other’s pheromones and they won’t fight. What if bees from the old hive fly in at the bottom where they are used to flying in? They’ll probably be ok as they’re bringing in food, not trying to rob it. And so on and so on.

Last night we picked up the new nucleus, along with the warmth and expertise of our new mentor. We drove home in the thick sultry night, surrounded by heavy air and stars, the bees strapped in to the back seat of the ute. And this morning we started the procedure. We talked about the steps we were going to follow, we got the smoker going, we put on our bee jackets, we took all the equipment down to the beehives. We opened our original hive for one last check. There were bees everywhere. Bees buzzing in and out of the front door, climbing all over the frames, busily depositing pollen and nectar, feeding larvae, tending to the queen … her tell-tale red blob of paint was slightly diminished, but there she was, her bum in a cell, probably laying an egg. On another frame a large bulbous cell stuck out – a cell that grows a queen. From seeming to have no queen we now had one alive and one in production. We closed up the hive and went to ring our mentor.