Yes, I know, I have not posted Part Two yet. But I feel I am justified in skipping ahead of Part Two, where I was going to tell you about doing the Natural Beekeeping Course with Tim Malfroy, through Milkwood Permaculture. Not because this is more exciting than the course, oh, OK, actually it is, but that is not to say spending two days with Tim Malfroy isn't exciting... it is! But this, well, read on, and you tell me if this experience we just had wasn't worth a prematurely published posting!
So, we had this dream that one day we would keep bees, and in October and November this year, it started actually happening, with us both attending beekeeping courses, and buying a warre hive from Tim! We knew, however, we had probably left our run a little late, to not only acquire a swarm, but for them to have enough time to set up and get stores in by Winter, wasn't likely to happen. We kept on going though, oiling the hive, putting the starter strips in with melted beeswax, finding the location and setting up the foundation underneath it. When we got to the point of thinking we were basically ready, we made some calls and messages to people we knew either had hives they were considering splitting, or who may come across swarms. In Canberra, we have the ACT Beekeepers Association (ABA), who may be a conventional beekeeping group, but who have also fallen under Tim's spell, and some are learning the way of warre. One such person offered to sell us a 'nuc' of bees, and given the low chance of getting a swarm now, we said yes.
However, as luck would have it, the next afternoon, we got a call from a member of the ABA, who had a swarm in a cardboard box (see above), ready to be picked up. Well, The Bowhunter and I had the impression it was a swarm, which he went to pick up later that evening, and pay *ahem* $50 to the man for his help (the man only wanted $20, but my overly generous husband couldn't help himself). Only to discover, it was not a sedate, healthy swarm with a strong queen who merely would require transferring by shook-swarming into our new hive. Oh, no, it was not! And that is where the real excitement began! It turns out, the hive was in a birdbox (which had been put into the cardboard box shown in photos above), no doubt having swarmed there earlier in the season, and having nicely set themselves up, only to be evicted (box and all) from their chosen home. They would not be sedate, as swarms generally are, and they would NOT like being moved into a lovely new home, when they had a great one already, full of honey and brood comb. Oh well, since when do we shy from a challenge!
So, the next day, after getting Grandma & Poppy to take the kids to gymnastics and to their house, so we wouldn't have any distractions, we geared up. By the time The Bowhunter got out of bed though, and the kids left with their Grandparents, it was already quite a warm day. We put on our jackets, long pants and socks, sturdy shoes, gloves and sweated like the novices we were. We lit the smoker (and really, we should have practiced keeping it alight before we actually had the bees... it was on my To Do list!) and had a spray bottle of light syrup with peppermint essential oil (as advised by a wonderful fellow beekeeper, who has topbar hives) to mask pheromones on stings, or in my case, to spray as a whole gang of angry bees attacked my gloved hands.
We took the cardboard box off the birdbox, and of course, the bees went crazy. There was quite a lot of them buzzing in the air, and gathering on the birdbox, especially at the entrance point (top two photos shown just above). This wasn't too bad, but I did mention (again) to The Bowhunter at this point, that maybe we just leave the birdbox here, and let them 'relocate' themselves into our warre hive. Surely they might just decide to do that, allowing us to not have to jimmy open a wooden box full of angry bees! Surely! The bees, and my husband, were not in agreeance with that option.
So, let Operation Holy Shit What Are We Doing begin, and my husband prised off the top lid of the birdbox with the claw part of a claw hammer. We'd been standing around 'thinking' a bit by then, about what was best to do. The bees had been flying around 'thinking' about how best to defend their home. It seems as we decided to just open the box up, and brush the bees into the new hive before then trying to 'chop and crop' the comb, they had decided to try stinging the crap out of us to get us to piss off. The lid came off quite easily, and wow, wasn't that a sight to behold (photo just above) all that full honeycomb, and all those bees. The Bowhunter then held the birdbox over the warre hive, as I attempted to brush (using a special 'bee brush') them into the hive. They do not like this, despite that it is called a 'bee brush', it should be called a 'get bees to sting your gloves multiple times brush' because that is what happened. I was wearing gloves made from leather and heavy elastic, which ended up with about 6 to 8 stingers on each of them, and somehow, one actually made it through and stung my thumb.
Up until this point, we had both been fairly calm about what we were doing. I mean, a certain amount of novice beekeeping adrenaline was pumping, but I wasn't scared by the bees or what we were doing. I didn't feel panicked in any way. Even when I was stung, I wasn't upset, I just thought, crap, I need new gloves! And crap, there are a lot of bees on my gloves, trying to sting me. And crap, my thumb is hurting quite a bit. The Bowhunter told me to go, and I went back to the patio, spraying wildly with my peppermint spray solution, no doubt looking slightly mad. I took my gloves off, which was a bit dumb, as there were still bees around me, so I hid my hands inside the jacket sleeves, and The Bowhunter came around and suggested rubber gloves, like he was wearing. I got some, and those darn 'eco' rubber gloves looked pitifully thin, so I double gloved, with those underneath and my other gloves on top. I wish I had time to take a photo of my gloves before I started using them again. There were multiple little stingers stuck all over them! (Poor bees!)
So, back to it, and I continued brushing the bees off the birdbox into the hive, until my husband could get a hold of some comb inside. The idea of 'chop and crop' (a term I had not heard of until the day before doing this!) was to use established comb and secure it into the empty wooden frames, so the hive would move in and already have some comb with honey and brood (babies) in it. This would make them want to move in and stay, but also help them get established and healthy in time for the cold weather. We'd been given some thin wire to secure the comb to the wooden frame (as done in conventional beekeeping), but had been advised by my beekeeping mentor to use cable ties instead (poor man, he doesn't even know he is my mentor, but he knows lots and is willing to help, so I am taking advantage of him!) However, due to my husbands tardiness in getting out of bed early, and the time of year when it is already bloody hot by nine in the morning, the comb was too soft to handle.
Oh no! There goes this supposed chop & crop idea we were going to do. There was no going back though. We couldn't put the lid back on the birdbox, and come back when it was cooler. There were bees everywhere. Poor, lost, confused, angry bees. And hopefully a queen. So, we did a bit more thinking, I offered a solution, The Bowhunter ignored it, we thought some more, I might have yelled, I definately swore, then we went ahead with my solution, which will call the Chop & Drop. This won't be something the beekeeping society will be latching on to anytime soon, to call their own. This is a desperate move performed by idiot beekeepers who have no fucking idea what they are doing, but who have no way out. We had four boxes for our warre hive, but had planned to start with two (Tim Malfroy explained how to shook-swarm a swarm into two boxes of the hive, then add more boxes as the bees expanded. He did not explain what in the hell to do, when you have a birdbox full of bees, and soft comb, and a smoker not staying alight, and a delivery guy bringing groceries in the middle of it, and several more stings each. No. He did not explain what to do in that scenario now, did he!)
My brilliant idea was to put two empty boxes on the bottom, then two boxes with frames & starter strips of beeswax 'foundation' on top of those. The empty boxes had no frames along the top of them. We placed, carefully as we could, the pieces of comb out of the birdbox. The Bowhunter checked them for brood (and possibly a queen) as we went, but really, we just wanted to get them into the bottom of the hive, and put it all together, in the hope that the bees would then get into the hive (and stop dive bombing us from their crazy flight pattern of doom above us). If they would move into the hive, go up to the top boxes (as bees like to do) to start a new home on the starter strips, there was hope for them. If we left the brood and honey comb down the bottom, the queen might be there, or they might be able to raise a new queen from those brood cells they had. They could scavenge the honey too, perhaps, as there may not be a lot of nectar around as we are in a very dry, flowerless period here in Canberra.
In reality, we probably accidently killed the poor queen, and even if they hatch a new one from existing brood, there won't be any drones around at this time of year for her to mate with. We probably just have a sticky mess of comb and honey and dead baby bees in the bottom of our hive to clean up. We also worried that sticky mess might have been blocking the entrance in and out, to the frames up above, that we wanted them to move into. I wanted to stick a hive tool in, and jimmy an entrance out of whatever comb might have been blocking the entrance. The Bowhunter wasn't keen on this. Nor were the masses of bees gathering around the entrance trying to get to their brood (and hopefully their queen). So, we left it. I got the washing off the clothesline in my beekeeping gear, the poor chooks didn't get any outside time, and we retreated to the sanctuary of indoors, with ice packs to comfort our wounds, and war stories to tell.
I had read ages ago on Camille's blog, Wayward Spark, about pressing honey in a potato ricer, then sieving it to get any miscellaneous bee parts out. It worked a treat on the small amounts we had, and I will also clean the beeswax up too. OK, so we usually buy honey from a farmers market, as 'local' as we can, and it is raw and tastes great. But this, well, it is AMAZING, and my use of capitals should clearly demonstrate by just how much I mean that statement. It is rich, sweet, and not at all birdbox flavoured.
I took some more photos this morning. The bees still seem completely dazed, lost, buzzing all around the area (but not nearly as many), no particular flying patterns being taken. I guess they are finding out where in the heck they are. They are trying the 'usual' bottom entrance, as well as the temporary one higher up, so hopefully the hive might be already building on the starter strips, and also accessing the honey down below. Who knows! They could be trying to purely rebuild down the bottom, using the comb that we placed there, and we'll have another big angry mess when we open it next! They are scavenging (and possibly drowning) in the miscellaneous pieces left in the tub, but there are less of them stuck all over it now (photo on right). We plan to take that away (and process it) later this evening. We plan to leave the pieces inside the bottom of the hive, and the two 'empty' boxes on the hive for a few more days, at least. We want any undamaged brood to be hatched (if such a thing would even still happen), but not long enough for it all to be glued by the bees to the very bottom of the hive, as that will stay there. Who knows how hard it will be to remove the mess and the boxes, but that is what we decided to do in the middle of the crazy scenario we had found ourselves in the day before.
So, what did we learn. That we are beginners given a baptism by fire into the world of beekeeping. That we make fairly unattractive 'beek's. That we may have saved the hive from being poisoned or destroyed by exterminators only to massacre them and destroy their comb anyways. That double gloving isn't just for surgeons and scrub nurses. That getting up early when you have a birdbox full of bees in your backyard in Summer is probably a good idea. That stings are somewhat painful, then itchy and sore for days to follow, but sweet gooey honey makes it all worthwhile!
So, what did you do on your weekend!