Tuesday, 7 July 2009

hive alive

Why are you reading this and not cavorting outside from dawn till dusk? Why am I sitting inside writing this? I'm far too busy being obsessed with sailing boats and allotment and bees. This last fortnight has been dramatic on the honeybee front. First, three young lads pushed over the beehive in the churchyard near my house in Lewes and ran off. Thanks to my neighbours I was alerted and the hive and bees, clustered together in the toppled box, were reinstated a day later.

Then Mike, who's one of my friends developing the natural top bar approach, helped me catch a swarm from a hedge in Newhaven, and I put it in a topbar beehive I'd made over the winter. Normally, on a secondary swarm, or caste, the virgin queen is bullied out of the hive by the workers into her once-in-a-lifetime mating flight with 5-15 male drones up there in the drone congregation area. But when we peeked in the hive we noticed the young queen staggering about, unable to make it out of the hive. And the next day she was dead, surrounded by workers on the hive floor. A hive without an egg-laying queen is doomed to die, so when a few days later Mike and I took another swarm from a low hedge in Rodmell, we decided to unite this with the queenless swarm in the hive. Unfortunately, although they did unite, they decided to swarm off together, clearly unhappy with the situation. I caught the swarm first time, hanging outside the hive in a cluster. But they swarmed again, this time to a branch of a nearby holly tree. Again, I got them in the box, but they'd already decided to fly far. I hope they found a dry place, or even better, were taken by a beekeeper.

I was feeling pretty low about losing all the top bar bees, though there is a conventional colony in the churchyard and one in the woods. But Mike invited me to visit his bees today - he's taken three swarms this season and they are well established in his top bar hives on a farm outside Lewes. They were actively flying in and out of the hives and took no notice of us gingerly lifting up the lid. Inside the hive it's nothing like a standard beehive. The bees get to make their own comb, hanging in arcs from the topbar. I don't think I can describe both how natural and right that appeared. It's what I was trying to say last week - the man/nature balance; it's subtle and we need to do things differently. This fortnight I made some mistakes and also the bees had a mind of their own. I learned a lot, and I feel more humble.

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