Friday, 2 May 2008

Anita's hive report

(written by Anita)
I can now, with some confidence, state that the bees have a new home. I was hesitating because initially they all made it clear that they felt they were downsizing. Somehow, being asked to make home in a hive (a simple hive, I ask you!!) after having chosen to be part of haute art, must have been a let down.

We decided to introduce them to their hive on Monday. I cleaned it and put new wax foundation in the frames. We placed a piece of plywood in such a way as to form a ramp from the garden to the hive entrance. That we covered with a clean white sheet (to give them good grip). Then I gently eased the bees out of the box onto the sheet. Slowly, but surely, they moved to the hive entrance and then in a wave marched up into the hive. I saw the queen, who was messing about but I steered her to the entrance. As the stragglers worked their way up to the hive we went in to have our dinner. 20mins later we realised that, as they had all marched in nicely (one by one and in twos) they marched out and got back into the box!!! There they hung with a visible air of sulk!!!

This one required thinking through, so we shortened the ramp, once more tossed out the bees onto the sheet. This time no gentle easing out. Shock tactics, no alternatives, do as you are told!!!! I took the box away and stood back. 30 minutes later they reluctantly, visibly dragging their little feet, got back into the hive. Dusk was setting in.

I fully expected them to depart next morning, but they did not. They did make their point by not settling onto the nice sweet smelling wax foundation but in an area of the hive where there were no frames. But by yesterday evening they seemed to be reconciled. I am trying to stop myself from poking about prematurely and to leave them to make home.

You have a lot to answer for, having given them ideas above their station. But I do hope they will be nice now. They seem to wake up early. Even when the morning is chilly there is quite some activity in the morning. I will wait to see bees flying in with pods of pollen as that will be a sure sign that the queen is laying eggs and that that they are hatching. Pollen is used to feed the little grubs. My two cats seem to think that this will be great fun, hunting down those darting little things that go into the little shed at the bottom of the garden. We are counting out spare change for the vet as inevitably one of the silly mogs will try and catch a bee in its mouth. They only do that once! Later they learn to keep to their side of the garden.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

My first swarm - in my back garden!

They came . . .
High Noon. A Sunday in mid-May. I'd settled down at my laptop on a table in our little garden, deluding myself that I'd get some work done in the stifling heat when I knew all that was really on my mind was lying back and enjoying a Pimms. The kids were in the communal garden just over the low privet, the paddling pool providing them with respite from the sun. Then, I became aware of Natalie calling to me and of the hurried shepherding of children through the gate towards me. "Look!" and as I glanced up they caught my eyes. Thousands, and making such a buzz I wondered how I'd not been aware earlier. They were swarming, indeed they were, over the neighbour's garden and then slightly over ours, the lowest about 2 meters up in the air, the gyrating cloud about 10 meters round: magnificent and intimidating. Though my laptop still lay open on the table, I watched the cloud warily with Nat and the kids from inside the room on the first floor where we kept the balcony door open, trying to feel brave.

They saw . . .
The cloud moved slowly over our garden, and stopped. We became aware that the space taken by it was beginning to shrink. More and more bees were joining a mass that was forming on the Pittosporum: a "beard" that over the next 15 minutes contained nearly all the bees in a dark hanging mass on one side of the bush. One crawled on other crawled on other, and the air cleared so those spinning around numbered only in the hundreds. We ventured out closer to marvel and at the loud fluid swarm. Curious and concerned neighbours passed by with quizzical looks on their faces. What next? More buzzing and they were off, though not far. As the cloud grew slightly again, a few bees dropped down to a small statue which stood directly below the bush. More and more followed.

They holed up inside my mother-in-law's statue. . .
Initially they swarmed over the outside of the statue, hiding its white porcelain totally. Then, after scouts had delivered the "OK", they began venturing inside. Soon only a few thousand covered the upper "horns" of the statue, and the cloud around it had shrunk again. Inside the statue my mother-in-law had loaned to us we later estimated there were well over ten-thousand bees. Again we ventured nearer, and with our neighbours began to scratch our heads. What on earth could we do with them? They had issued forth from next-door's high chimney where a colony had lived for several years. The year before we had briefly had a swarm in the communal garden, and for each of the two years before that we had seen swarms on the street out the front of the house. This phenomenon happens as the queen leaves to make home elsewhere, making room for the succession of a daughter. She takes with her a loyal following who, following her powerful pheromones, search a new palace.

She came . . .
And then something odd happened. Ruth, a passing friend, said, "A friend of mine keeps bees. I'll give her a buzz." Several phone calls and a swift drive across North London and back delivered Anita to us. How lovely, both in person and in coincidence. That we were able to get in touch with her had been unlikely, but that she had lost her own colony the previous winter and wanted another, and that she could be with us so soon in our hour of need, was happy happy indeed.

She saw . . .
My excitement and the sweltering heat were not helping. As we faced the statue I was unable to wipe the steams of sweat from my temples: we had kitted up. Netted hoods were zipped over our heads from shoulder to shoulder. Trousers were tucked into socks. Canvas jackets were zipped. The gauntlets Anita had offered me were far too small but I squeezed them on. Her plan was simple: I was to lift up the heavy statue, shake the bees into a waiting box and she'd be back a few hours later when they'd stopped buzzing a bit to take 'em home. It sounded simple to her anyway, whilst to me it was terrifying! Well, in reality grabbing the statue was hard enough. I crawled around the back of the bush, then gingerly wriggled my fingers in position, gently brushing clear the bees as I gripped. There was no chance of resting the statue on my chest or hips as I had no intention of genocide and was understandably somewhat nervous of fully embracing the swarm at such an early stage. With this poor hold I lifted, and as I did a huge dollop of bees fell out of the base of the statue and oozed across the slab beneath. I staggered forward towards Anita, whose rather calmer hands were waiting. We juggled and juggled. A few of our insect friends did not live to see their new home, snuffed under boot or glove. My head spun, the cloud around me adding to the effect (that night in bed all I could see when I shut my eyes was this spinning bee effect). We juggled some more and then stood back and admired our work. The statue rested upside-down against some pots, the bee-travel-box (itself upside down) atop the open base of the statue. "The main thing is that I hope the queen's in there," Anita said, telling me that the bees would simply follow her up. Buzz. But Anita did not rest, her keen eye wandering to where I'd initially lifted the statue. "Look," she said, "they should have left there by now." On her hands and knees she searched across the slab, parting bees as she went. "There!" she cried. "There she is!" She furrowed further, then grabbed, then cupped her hands in a ball as she rose to her feet and issued further welcome instructions. I righted the box, hardly registering in my daze that by now it was full of countless bees, and Anita threw the queen in. Quick as a flash she flipped the box upside down on the ground, propped up slightly at one end. Standing back and brushing off the pheromone hungry bees from her hands she suggested we put the statue on its side next to the box to ease the journey of the remaining bees.

She slung ten thousand bees in the back of my car and cheerfully promised me some honey as I drove her home . . .
Anita returned to my house that evening to collect the bees. By then we'd happily gone through the afternoon with the kids playing in the garden, the bees all happily inside their (open) box. I'd shaded the box from the hot sun to keep them cool, and they seemed content with their temporary home. It was, after all, a day when they'd worked hard and there seemed no sense to buzz off and find another place to stay until the next day. Anita had again donned her kit, this time with her partner as a more competent aid. They juggled the bees some more (some were still hanging to the side of the box) but soon had righted the box, slapped the lid on and gaffer taped it on, a good thing too else I might have been less happy with slinging the box in the back of the car.