According to Resolutions of a (Nearly) 40 Something, the person I was back in January 2012 believed that to claim the resolution of “to be a better beekeeper” passed, it would be a MUST to have achieved the following: (1) find an unmarked queen; (2) mark a queen; (3) not kill a queen while finding her, marking her or generally doing anything at all with a hive; (4) do a successful artificial swarm; (5) pass the Welsh Beekeeping Association Basic Exam.
The person I am now, sitting here in pyjamas and dressing gown on a wet Sunday morning in autumn, having just waded through the wettest UK summer in 100 years, is grateful just to have a honey bee colony at all! Nevertheless, lets look at the evidence and see how it stacks up against my best intentions.
In January my apiary was home to three hives each containing a colony: one a captured swarm, one built up from a nucleus purchased in June, one being my long suffering but surviving first colony. I knew in my heart the swarm and nuc colonies should have been united before winter and were the most at risk, but whilst I procrastinated and generally ummed, aahed and hesitated, autumn became winter and the moment had passed. It came as no surprise therefore that come March the swarm colony was no more, just a tiny cluster of dead and dying bees starving amidst plenty. I was heart broken, guilt ridden, and just a little bit peeved that my bravery up a tree capturing the swarm with a brush, a big stick, a box and a blanket had come to nought. All was not lost, however, as the nuc colony seemed to have survived, the queen was laying and the colony starting to build up. All was lost, however, when a month later the nuc colony dwindled, the queen stopped laying, the bees shivered and starved in the space of two weeks. The reason for this dramatic and disastrous turn of events is still a mystery to me, but what I do know is that I won’t be using VitaGreen (a natural oils based product that is supposed to stimulate colony development) ever again.
So far the evidence is stacking up against me. Looks like I have more chance of being a better astronaut than a better beekeeper!
In my defence, not all of my self-imposed goals has gone unachieved. I scored a hat-trick with Goals 1, 2 and 3 hot on the heels of kicking Goal 4 into touch. The queen reared from my artificial swarm is a beauty – more of an Italian honey bee golden brown than a dark Welsh honey bee – but beggars can’t be choosers when you have track record as bad as mine for losing queens. The big yellow blob I’ve daubed on her back rather spoils her natural good looks, but she (and all her daughters) should be thankful my shaking hands didn’t run her through with the pin of her own marking cage. I’d post a photo of her in all her glory, but if I woke her up right now for a photo shoot she’d be grumpier than a teenager with an alcopop hangover on an early Sunday morning.
I’m sorry to say that the queen in my original colony fared less well. More to the point, she upped and left. She didn’t even leave a note. Just left a box full of her angry kids for me to look after. Her replacement – safely installed and accepted by the colony back in July – took exception to be being treated for varroa mite. Horrid little bugger the varroa mite. Visible to the naked eye, on the back of a bee it’s like a small backpack, but without the tasty picnic inside.
I had to treat the colony, the infestation was too bad to risk going into winter untreated, but the treatment is harsh. Imagine if someone dumped a vat of jello in your attic for you to wade through, with clumps getting stuck to your skin, clothes and pretty much everywhere in your house, and emitted fumes to make your eyes water and your nostrils sting! My bees put up with a lot, but it seems this was the last straw. I don’t know if the queen rolled over and died or simply walked out the door, but after a few weeks it was pretty clear she’d abdicated and there was nothing for it but to unite the orphaned bees with my remaining colony. And so two colonies munched through a sheet of newspaper and became one. It’s now a waiting game. Did the remaining queen lay enough winter bees in time? Have the worker bees capped enough stores to feed the family over winter? Will the winter weather be kind to the bees? Did I achieve my last remaining goal and pass the Welsh Beekeeping Association Basic Exam? Only one of these questions can be answered with confidence. No, I didn’t pass the exam. But then I didn’t even take the exam, so that’s one less thing to beat myself up over.