I've had a long standing invitation from my friend S in Corsham to go and visit his new bees. These were acquired a few months ago, but it was a chance encounter with his partner L on the train to London on Thursday that actually saw us make a tentative arrangement for me to go and see them yesterday.
I phoned up in the morning to confirm arrangements. Yes it was OK as long as it wasn't raining and not too windy for them - so I wouldn't have been able to see them any earlier anyway as that's just how our weather's been for ages. But a miracle occured - the sun shone and it was actually quite warm. Too warm for someone asked to don themselves in long trousers, a kagoule and gloves to protect herself from the bees, S not having a spare beekeepers outfit to hand.
So apart from donning my 'safety outfit', I confirmed I wasn't allergic to bee stings (I don't know I haven't been stung by one before), wasn't wearing perfume (the smell can make bees go mad and attack you) and I was wearing the right kind of deodorant (preferably none, for the same reason as the perfume, but my unscented stick variety was deemed acceptable). S donned his safety outfit and went about making some smoke to calm his charges down. This comprised of a funnel shaped tin with bellows attached containing some lit cardboard. I was put in charge of gently pressing the bellows for a while to keep the vessel smoking whilst S went to get the rest of the stuff he needed. Whilst he did that I took this badly posed one-handed photo of the smoke generator.
The bees are at the bottom of the garden, just past the orchard area. As S got them late in the season, they're not collecting sufficient nectar and pollen for their winter stores, so he's having to supplement it with a sugar mix. The bees are busy putting their stores into the cells and ensuring there's enough of next year's brood locked in with the food. Already most of the chambers in the hive were turning yellow, where the cells have been capped with wax. S also showed me some uncapped cells and you could just see the grubs of the new worker bees in them. One chamber held a surprise, the cells were looking quite different and he thought this was the start of making the new drone component of the colony. It was either that or for a new queen bee, but as the worker bees were shaking their bottoms skywards at the entrance of the hive (bee language for 'the queen is here, so all's well'), S thought it was more likely these would become drones. I think that means the colony's pretty healthy: the male drones only serve one purpose - to help breed a new queen (thus they're only good for one thing - sex, typical!), so there has to be a healthy supply of female worker bees around first to provide enough food for the survival of the colony, before 'thought' can be given to making drone and queen cells.
It was fascinating stuff. S hasn't perfected his smoke yet, so I was hastily despatched to relight the smoker at one point. And whilst I thought I'd battened down the hatches with the hood on my kagoule to protect most of my face, a bee did manage to find it's way in there at one point, buzzing angrily in my ear until I was able to remove myself from the vicinity of the hive and let it out. Bees hate vigorous movement, so all this had to be done in a very calm fashion otherwise I would have been stung. It didn't put me off. I'd dearly love to have some bees of my own, but I don't think my garden's suitable. They need to be in a spot facing the rising sun and in sunshine for a good part of the day to keep them warm. That would mean putting them on the patio, which I suspect is too close to the house. I don't think they'd be acceptable on the allotment either - our plot contract says no animals. Do you think I could get away with saying they're insects, not animals?
Update: S is keeping a blog about his bees - Diary of a Novice Bee-keeper.