Saturday, 14 May 2011

Keep Calm & Carry On

I procrastinate. A lot. When I’m not procrastinating I’m getting distracted. In between procrastination and distraction I’m writing lists of things to do that I can procrastinate over and be distracted away from. Absent deadlines or pressures I’ve morphed into a butterfly brain flitting and not completing. No surprise then that this week I found myself in possession of a swarming bee colony.

The fact is that honey bees live to swarm. It’s their bee all and end all! No swarming, no procreation of the species, and if ever there was a species that needs to procreate it’s apis mellifera. Sitting in bee school lessons hearing of swarms, how to catch one in a cardboard box, how to prevent one happening in the first place, was all well and good, but the whole time a voice in my head was saying, “don’t worry, it’ll never come to that”. Somehow I convinced myself that my colony would break with thousands of years of evolution and be the colony that never swarms but lives happily ever after in the same hive just churning out honey and causing no trouble. Admittedly this was flying in the face of the evidence before me at each hive inspection. Ostrich. Head. Sand. My bees were intent on building queen cells. Every queen cell is a potential swarm. At the last count I had six of the beggars. And still I procrastinated. The books said I should create my own artificial swarm immediately. My head said, maybe tomorrow.

And so it came to pass that on the only day in the calendar so far this year when I am out all day and due to go out the same evening, a quick post-polytunnel watering hive check revealed that all hell had broken loose at bee central. Bees were pouring out of the hive. Before my very eyes the front & sides of the hive were blackening with a blanket of bees. It’s compelling viewing. The air was thick with bees. If I lose the swarm I lose two-thirds of my colony. At current prices for a new honey bee nucleus, that’s potentially £120 pounds worth of bees flying off over the hedgerow. If it was a deadline I’d been waiting for, I certainly had that now!

Bee suit on, with heart pounding, I tracked the line of bees.


The buzzing grew louder and louder and reached a crescendo about 15 feet along the hedge line. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. So into the grassland, round the other side and into the ditch I go, and sure enough hanging in the thick of the blackthorn tree was a small rugby ball shaped cluster of my bees. I’d never seen a real swarm before. I thought I never would. Now face to face to with one (or rather face to thousands of 5-eyed fuzzy faces), I felt strangely calm, albeit a hot & sweaty kind of calm. I spread my sheet in the ditch, placed my bucket under the swarm, and reached for the branch loppers. Damn and blast, the angle was all wrong and there was no room for manoevre. I swapped loppers for big stick and gave the branch a whack. Dave chuckled at my performance as the Ninja Beekeeper in the hedge inexpertly abusing a tree with her Kendo sword.


Easy to laugh when you’re watching from a very safe distance.

According to my bee book, one whack of the branch and the whole swarm should fall in heap into your bucket and stay there. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, sweating in your bee suit, what you actually get is a face full of bees. The bombardment on my suit sounded like a heavy shower of gold ball sized hailstones. Very persistent hailstones that keep coming back for a second, third, fourth attack!

Some whackings later, I had a bucket of bees. Me and my black cloud of angry bee followers headed back to the apiary (grand name for a patch of grass and two hives). According to my bee book, it’s a straightforward task to tip your bucket of bees into your empty hive brood box. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, dripping with sweat in your bee suit, what you actually get is a trickle of bees dropping into your brood box and flying back out to join the bees that escaped en route. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hedge, the swarm was re-forming. If I don’t get the queen, this could go on forever. It took four increasingly fraught and sweaty trips before the swarm stopped re-forming. My state of mind wasn’t helped by the fact that Steve was determined to test the “curiosity killed the cat” theory to the limit, to-ing and fro-ing across the field with me. It’s difficult to reason with a cat at the best of times, but trying to do so while holding a bucket full of furious bees was never going to work.

The next morning all was quiet down at bee central. The only clue that something untoward might have taken place was the presence of discarded lopped off tree branches scattered amongst patches of flattened grass.


Muted buzzing sounds emanated from the new hive. My swarmed colony had survived their first night. By midday bees were emerging from the hive – thankfully one by one not all at once!


Monday, 9 May 2011

What big eyes you have!

I take back what I said about pesky foreign imports. Or at least I redirect the insult from the nest cam to the Japanese made TV. Turns out that nest cam was in perfect working order. Hats off to the import company who took it back, replaced it without question, and probably put our names on the blacklist of numpty luddites not fit to own gadgets. Although we now had a working nest cam in our possession, it was way too late in the nesting process for us to set it up again. Mrs Blue Tit would be none too happy with a ham fisted human lifting the lid on her house, rummaging around in her nest & leaving her with the beady eye of Big Brother watching as she pops out an egg or two or ten.

Dave came up with a cunning plan to turn the bumble house into a weather-proof camera box (don’t worry, no bumble bees were evicted as the box has only ever housed slugs, spiders & the occasional mouse), cobble together some supports from his ever expanding collection of random bits of wood that may come in handy one day (a true Welsh farmer in the making), and erect the contraption on the tree opposite our owl box.


We’d long ago given up hope of our resident barn owl finding himself a mate this year. He screeched himself hoarse but we’d only ever seen him on his own, so assumed his dulcet tones were not doing it for the females, or worse, that the harsh winter had been too much for all his fellow barn owls. Owl cam proved us wrong. Mrs Barn Owl was in residence. We were even treated to grainy footage of what looked like a spot of owl loving!

Owl cam has no lights and makes no noise, but I’m sure the owls somehow know that they’re being watched. During the day all that can been seen is the sleeping form of huddled up owl, with the occasional wave of the wing or twitch of an eye if the chickens are being particularly shouty about their egg laying. Come nightfall though, Mr Barn Owl starts playing peek-a-boo with the camera….


… before clambering over Mrs Barn Owl and exiting to bag himself a vole snack, leaving Mrs Barn Owl behind.


Yesterday Mrs Barn Owl also left the box for a very short while. Owl cam picked up the shadowy form of the treasure she’d been guarding. Yes, the owl loving has borne fruit and we think there are at least two eggs in the box. We’re bemused as to why she has chosen to lay so near the entrance and our hearts sink every time we see Mr Magpie hovering near the box. He has his own family to look after up in the ash tree behind the house and I fear he has plans to feed them an owl egg omelette. Don’t panic, magpie scaring patrol will now be part of the daily rounds and fingers crossed we’ll have news of owlet hatchings to report very soon.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

It’s official, Springwatch is coming to Ynys Hir

It’s finally been announced that the RSPB reserve I have started volunteering at has been chosen as the location for the BBC Springwatch program for the next 2-3 years. Ynys Hir is a cracking little reserve between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, it has ancient oak woodland descending into a wetland reserve and onto the Dovey estuary. I had a fab day yesterday as I was allowed to join the nest box inspection team who weekly check the 300 nest boxes to log the nesting activities.


John and Neil checking a box amongst the Bluebells


I was lucky to check the first box on the reserve to contain chicks, which weren’t much bigger than my thumbnail! This one was a Blue Tit nest.

The rest of the day was spent constructing a ramp to the new overflow car park to accommodate the influx of visitors expected once Springwatch starts. Our workshop at the reserve is currently being transformed into the main studio for Humble and Packam, but as of yet I haven’t been asked to do any ‘spots’ on the show itself, but it can only be a matter of time.


After being taught the technique for checking nest boxes, we decided to check the three boxes I put up at Banceithin. I made a little cork stop to put in the hole prior to opening the box. This is to stop any bird flying off, as they don’t tend to fly out of the lid when that is opened. We luckily have two boxes with tiny little Blue Tit females sitting on their eggs. At this stage we can’t tell how many eggs there are, but there can be up to 10! We have also had the House Martins return and are busy nesting in the eaves, a Magpie nest in a tree by the back door, and a Red Start building a nest in the loft, which is very unusual. There are lots of Swallow but I have yet to track down their nesting sites. We have also got some great news about our Barn Owls, but Philippa is going to dedicate a full post on that!