LEABees Summer Gathering

It was time for the summer meeting of LEABEES, London Ecological Api-centred Beekeepers, and what better place to have it than the epi-centre of sustainable beekeeping in North London, Highgate. Leabees members braved the steep hills and intense summer lightning storms to gather and talk bees.

Beekeeping can be a bewildering experience for novices and experienced beeks alike so events like these where we can share stories, seek advice and opinions, and get inspiration and encouragement from fellow beekeepers are vital. For those of us inclined to seek a more sustainable beekeeping practice spaces like this are few and far between. We often find ourselves in local association meetings isolated or even facing outright hostility. However the beekeeping landscape is slowly changing. Across the country like minded beeks have begun to gather to discuss this heretic beekeeping in small curious groups and happily this curiosity is slowly becoming infectious.

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Here’s hoping this quiet revolution rolls on and the beekeeping hegemony gracefully crumbles, leaving in it’s place a more diverse landscape of beekeepers focused on doing what’s best for bees.

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It’s getting swarmin’ here

This year has been extraordinary for swarms. Our apiaries are growing faster than I can build hives and the bees still seem to be going. For me swarming is sign of health, it is the birth of an new organism, so swarming is a delightful moment to be around bees. It also has a certain intensity. Excitement and wonder are often part of my emotional response to a honeybees swarm but this season, for the first time, I’ve found myself wondering ‘how much excitement and wonder can I take?’.

The intensity, in part, comes from the bees and the process itself. Twenty thousand bees co-coordinating a whole series of complex behaviours most certainly has an energy to it. Ask anyone who anyone who has every been around a honeybee swarm and they’ll agree. The sheer noise of that many vibrating wings is certainly enough to catch your attention and invariably whatever you were doing before gets put on hold. However a honeybee swarm isn’t at all a frantic affair. If you stumble upon the bees in the cluster phase of this process notice a stillness and peace that is hard to put into words.

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The franticness and intensity for the most part come from the human world not the bees. Often the swarm call comes in a spectacularly inopportune moment and is followed by a series of phone calls rearranging meetings, apologising for inevitable lateness and sweet talking bee-loving friends with vehicles. Then, for me, there tends to be an excited cycle ride, often going slightly too fast for comfort, to pick up the assorted bits of technical equipment – namely a few old sheets and a appropriately sized cardboard box. After all this only arriving in the calm presence of a honeybee cluster can settle me down.

Sometimes you get lucky and happen to be around. Standing in the apiary next to a hive as a swarm left the parent nest has been one of the highlights of my beekeeping year so far. Me and Rosie were in the apiary doing the weekly observation of the hives and just finished writing ‘will swarm soon!’ in our records as the blue hive started to swarm. I had the amazing opportunity to crouch down next to the entrance as what seems liked an improbable amount of bees streamed out of the hive. We then stood smiling in the middle of swirling cloud of bees waiting for the mother to land and a cluster to form around her.

This swarming season I’ve been involved in catching 13 swarms, so far. When I think back each one has been a opportunity to connect with people and talk bees. Some swarms have arrived in expected places and other have drawn me off my expected swarming map. I’ve made many new friends and hopefully a few now feel more connected to honeybees. Having said all that moving into July comes  with a sigh of relief as it marks the swarming season drawing to a close and the yearly cycle moving into a different phase.

I’ve included a selection of photos from some of the swarms I’ve re-homed this year with slight embarrassment. As I look through my camera roll at the endless pictures of bees I’m reminded of new parents inflicting untold pictures of the little one to friends and family whether they like it or not. So please feel free to smile and nod, feigning interest as best you can.

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Me and Beth keeping it real – Urban style

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A swarm on the high street causing no disturbance 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The obligatory cardboard box 

 

Solar wax extractor and top bar spacer

A beekeeper friend of mine briefly explained how to build a solar wax extractor and I decided to give it a go. It worked a treat and was very easy to do. Here’s how I did it…

So I started with a polystyrene box

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I then lined the inside with reflective bubble wrap insulation. I don’t think this is essential but I had some off-cuts lying around so I used them.

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I then made a roof from double walled polycarbonate sheet. Again I used this because I had some. Glass would work as well.

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I made a timber frame so it would sit snuggly on the poly box.

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I then added a pyrex dish to collect the wax and a stainless steel baking tray. The tray has holes drilled in one end and is raised up by screws at the other end. This created the slope so that the wax drains into the pyrex dish.

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The wax is then placed in a sheet of muslin in the baking tray. The lid is placed on and then it is left in a sunny spot.

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After a week in the sun.

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The finished wax

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All in all it took me an afternoon to make. I paid for the baking tray but is would be totally possible to make this for free.

I also just made this top bar spacer. Easy to do and makes the fitting top bars correctly easier.

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Swarming season @ the Castle

The Castle is an amazing place to be at swarming season. The Garden is well used and the people who use it are very considerate and mindful of the honeybees on site. This means that it is very likely that someone will notice when the bees swarm. This year there have been lots of swarms and it has been an wonderful experience, clearly showing me what an opportunity honeybees swarms are to inform people about the lives of bees and to give people a visceral experience of being in relationship with honeybees.

I offered some training before the swarming season started with various members of staff. This meant that many people within the centre understand the biology of honeybee swarms and know how to respond. It has been amazing to watch people get involved. We now have an experienced team of swarm catchers all confident and comfortable around the bees.

The other reason why it is great at the Castle is that it is full of people with the technical know how to climb more or less anywhere. So when our first swarm of the season landed high on the ramparts of the Castle, Gav and Dan didn’t bat an eyelid and swiftly arranged what was needed to safely access the cluster. This swarm was a delight to catch and is now settling in to the topbar hive in the apiary and building comb at an impressive rate.

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This swarm landed on the rampart above the buttress with the apricot tree growing on it. Probably 10m high(ish)

 

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Here’s a close up. This was a relatively large swarm and the bees were spread out on the surface rather that in a tight cluster

Gav took some amazing footage and compiled this video

 

Since then we have had several more swarms. James heroically caught a swarm when I wasn’t around and then drove it up to my other apiary. I’ve never had a swarm delivery before! We are now at the point where the Castle staff are totally relaxed when the bees swarm and are willing and able to catch the swarms themselves. The Castle apiary has now grown to 3 families. They are all settling in, building comb furiously and foraging well.

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This is the most recent swarm. They settled in a beautiful cluster that was easy to access. 

This is another video Gav made of us catching the latest swarm.

 

With the advent of more bee families at the Castle we decided it was time to name them. We opened it up for volunteers and staff to suggest possible names (which they did with gusto!) and after a rigorous decision making process we settled on Notorious Bee. I. G (for the older warre), Hive rise (for the new warre) and Beyonce (for the topbar). The notable runner up was Beeda Fabrizio!

The Saga of the Log

Last summer I was kindly offered a log hive hive from a beekeeping friend of mine. The log had been roughly constructed and the venue that was to be it’s home pulled out – this is where I stepped in. I offered to put the log at  one of the sites where I manage an apiary. I was instructed that the log would arrive on a flat-bed lorry with a crane. The site where I would position the log is not near road access so my plan was to crane the log onto a tipping trailer, drive this up to where we wanted it with a tractor and tip the log into a pre-prepared hole. The log was somewhat larger than I was expecting. As it was lifted onto the trailer and I saw the sheer size of it a Triceratops came to mind. The hole that I had dug needed to be made 4 times bigger!

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Robert resting after finishing the hole.

The log was so heavy that the trailer wouldn’t tip – this gave us an estimated weight of 3.5 tons. My fantasy of a swift installation in time to catch the end of the swarming season were shattered and a period of intense head scratching began. Many possible solutions were proposed but most of them involved abandoning the plan of using the log as a tree hive, rolling it off the side of the trailer and turning it into a bench. This is when I called on a good friend of mine, Steve, who is a tree surgeon and specializes in moving ridiculously heavy logs. He had some specialist equipment including a very heavy duty winch so we decided to give it a go.

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Theo driving the log to it’s new home.

The tractor pulled the trailer to where we wanted it easily enough so the next stage is getting the log off the trailer with killing anyone. The plan was to back the trailer into position, then using the winch drag the log off the back and drop it into the hole.

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We attached the winch and began to attempt to drag the log off but it wasn’t moving. We then added levers to wobble the log to get some movement happening. With Steve rocking the log and me winching, it slowly began to move.

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Inch by inch the log moved further towards the hole until finally, with a crash, it dropped.

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The next challenge was to get the log upright. If we continued to winch it there was nothing stopping it rolling to the floor so we decided to add a strop pulling at 90 degrees attached to Steve’s truck. In this way we could control the lift more easily.

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The log then gently rose into it’s final resting place.

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Triumph!

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Rigorous health and safety checks were carried out.

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Tree pose

The log is oak as are many of the standard trees on site. With the log now in position it looks as if it has always been here. Now the log needed to be prepared for the bees to move in. The door to the cavity itself is extremely heavy and took 2 people to lift while I fitted the hinges. I then drilled 3 entrance holes for the bees and added spales in the cavity to support the comb and some wax and propolis to make the cavity smell attractive to the bees.

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Wax and propolis around the entrance holes.

 

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The inside of the cavity, with spales to support the comb and sawdust debris on the floor.

I am now happy to report that bees have moved into the log and are beginning the process of building a nest. I will post some more photos and an update of how this new family is doing soon.

Learning about bees

The season is in full swing. Hawthorn and Horse Chestnut are in full bloom and after a strange and changeable winter, spring is now exploding in all it’s intense glory. I have been somewhat slack in my blogging responsibility but better late than never, so here goes.

This last weekend I taught a weekend introduction to sustainable beekeeping. The temperature had dropped after a glorious week beforehand but we had a dry forecast all weekend.  The participants arrived from their various far flung locations (Astrid winning the prize for cycling from Australia!) sharing a common curiosity about the wonderful world of the honeybee. We spent the first day looking into the fascinating life of the honeybee super-organism. Our approach here is to attempt to understand the nature of honeybees as deeply as we can as this is always the foundation of our practice. Only after this has been established do we begin to look into how and why we make interventions into the lives of the bee.

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The whole group was incredibly engaged all weekend with questions firing all the way through. For me teaching people about bees is at once energizing and humbling. It is such a privilege to watch eyes open and jaws drop in wonder as more is revealed about the nature of honeybees. We plan to run another course in September so if you are interested you can book a place here – http://www.organiclea.org.uk/2016/03/learn-about-bees-3/

 

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Here is a link to a blog by someone who attended the course. She gives a lovely description of her experience. Well worth a look – https://foxcottagegarden.wordpress.com

A swarm in the vineyard

Recently we had one of those special moments in beekeeping. A moment when you witness in wonder the life of the bees and share that with others. This moment was a swarm – a spectacular event in the life of the Honeybee and one that often people haven’t had the privilege to see first hand. Marco, the vintner at hawkwood, had spotted a large cloud of bees in the vineyard. I quickly gathered what equipment we needed and went to have a look. The Bees were just landing on an elder tree, and the air was still thick with bees. Quite a few interested people had come to have a look at what was happening and while we waited for the swarm to settle I spent some time explaining what happens when Honeybees swarm.

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The first thing you’ll see when a honeybee colony swarms is the a cloud of bees taking flight eventually they land and form whats called a cluster. Before this though the colony has been preparing for days, slimming down the queen for flight and engorging on honey so the the workers will have the food they need to get through the time without a nest and food stores.

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While the majority of the swarm is hanging in the cluster hundreds of scout bees are out scouring the surrounding landscape. They are looking for a suitable nesting site, a new home. These scouts are looking for an ideal nest with very specific parameters. They are assessing distance from the parent nest, height from the ground, volume, entrance hole size and evidence of previous occupation by bees. When a scout has found a nest site that she thinks has potential she comes back the cluster and dances on the surface informing other bees of the nest location (if you are wondering how that works here’s a video that should answer your questions – www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U). If you observe the surface of a cluster you will see that over time various locations are being danced for. Over time a consensus forms as to the best nesting site and the cluster will take to the sky again and move en masse to the new nest. If you would like to understand this amazing process more deeply then I would highly recommend Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley.

We didn’t allow that process to fully happen because we had a hive ready that we wanted the bees to nest in. So I carefully cut away the surrounding branches and then could access the branch that the bees were clustering on. I then cut this branch and moved the bees into their new home – the Topbar Hive in the Terrace apiary. The Terrace apiary is the second apiary to be created at Hawkwood. We have been working away to get it ready and these are the first bees to be sited there.

Moving the swarm wp  This is the first time we have used a Topbar hive at Hawkwood. Topbar are one of the staple hives used in sustainable beekeeping. They are an elegant design that is easy to build and simple to use. We have plans to build more this winter. If you would like to find out more about Topbar hives the check out Phil Chandlers website – www.biobees.com. There’s loads of info including plans for how to build them.

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The swarm settled into their new home with gusto, building comb faster than I’ve ever seen. They have now built 12 combs of wax and are looking like a steady, strong colony. The experience of catching this swarm was, for me, a confirmation of how rich the space is between humans and honeybees. I believe that bees offer us an opportunity to learn if we are willing to listen and that apiaries in a community setting are vital to expand the possibilities of this learning and connection.

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