The image of country beekeeping is sedate, dreamy, redolent of a bygone age. Take, for example, the Soho Farmhouse apiary which I designed, installed and currently maintain. Nested up on a south-facing Cotswold hillside, it sits on top of the Farmhouse’s gorgeous production garden – an array of 10 WBC hives, knee-deep in wildflowers.
Better yet, the Soho Farmhouse honey we produced in 2015 was good enough to win on second prize in the Oxfordshire BKA Honey Show. A good start, yet things have got even better. I have been intensively mentoring Anna Greenland, Wil Fuller, Alice Jeffreys and George MacColl in 2016 and I’ve been impressed by their growing proficiency, confidence and can-do attitude with the Soho Farmhouse Bees. While we had a 20% overwintering loss rate, the apiary has recovered nicely, despite the monotonously wet weather. Pretty much ideal, this country beekeeping lark. What could go possibly go wrong ?
That’s what I was thinking last Saturday. I arrived at the Farmhouse and Anna and Wil mentioned straightaway that the groundsmen had noticed bees coming out of a manhole cover at the furthest extent of the property – Cabin 31 – so we went to investigate. Most sightings of bees are assumed to be honeybees, even though the honeybee is just a single one of over 250 species of bee which are native to this county – and most turn out, unsurprisingly, not to be honeybees. So I approached the project with a healthy dose of scepticism. What are the odds of a subterranean colony of honeybees ?
As it turned out, these were indeed honeybees, flying for forage to and from the lifting-key holes in the manhole cover. I put on my bee-thinking cap: since there was plenty of pollen going in, the bees would have brood. If they had brood, then it would be in wax honeycombs. If there were combs, they would be hanging down from the underside of the manhole cover. Sherlockian.
I donated my bee-suit to AJ, who arrived to lift the manhole cover. To keep the comb intact, I advised AJ to lift the cover well clear of the drain and put it down on its metal edge. Soon under interrogation from a few dozen testy bees, AJ pulled up the metal cover – and with it three discs of white comb, covered in bees, young brood and honey. The bees were understandably enlivened by their impromptu eviction and a thick cloud formed over the brood nest, just in time for a German cyclist to arrive on a bicycle. Clearly impressed with the theme-park authenticity of the Farmhouse’s country charm and three people in white onesies – we held her up for a chat until it was safe to pass by the re-settling bees.
I separated the comb from the metal cover and deposited it in a nucleus (half-size) hive, then we scavenged up the one segment of comb which had fallen to the bottom of the culvert with two rakes. The point of this was to ensure that we had the queen bee in the hive – essential if the bees were to stay there – and remembering that this queen could fly (which was how she got there in the first place – unlike our Soho Farmhouse queens, whose wings are clipped to prevent them from swarming).
We shook reluctant bees off each comb and into the nuc box, searching for the queen as we went. No sign. Soon we had all the bees on 5 frames of wax foundation (one with its centre cut out and a patch of young brood inserted to convince the queen to stay). Wil was deputized to look for the queen – and he found her, stubbornly clinging to the side of the culvert, where the fallen comb had been detached and popped her into the queen cage. Wil is fast gaining a reputation as our Queenfinder General.
This was the breakthough: I marked the queen, as big as a bull-frog, with a white dab from a Posco pen on her thorax, gently clipped a wing and popped her in a cage, blocked with a pinch of fondant, to anchor her to the hive while the bees build new wax for her to lay in and then release her by eating through the fondant. Now we knew that all the bees would enter the nuc hive. We smoked the remaining bees out of the culvert and sealed it up, to prevent any recurrence.
A few hours later, a gentle rain falling, Anna and Wil went to fetch the nuc on a Soho Farmhouse buggy and bring it into our apiary. Sounding the horn on the bee-wagon, they returned triumphant, their faces wreathed in smiles!
Make no mistake, this was a tough assignment. We had excavated and re-hived an established subterranean bee-colony, found the queen, added the bees to our apiary workforce and eliminated an inconvenient element from the Farmhouse’s guest offering. I’m proud of Anna and Wil, who did an excellent job under pressure from clouds of disenchanted bees – especially Wil, who had only recently put his swarm-capture technique to the test by taking his first swarm from a tree next to the Soho Farmhouse swimming pool.
That was particularly satisfying, since we had done an artificial swarm drill in an earlier session – and had then performed an artificial swarm for real in the apiary just a week before. While that procedure, witnessed with beatific patience by the Seasonal Bee Inspector, Phillip Spillane, would have been a perfect wrap for a Keystone Kops movie, our mission had been accomplished and the basic swarm control techniques had been assimilated.
Oh yes, Phillip Spillane had been inspecting the Farmhouse bees at our invitation, checking for brood disease or the presence of exotic pests (such as the Asian Hornet, whose arrival on these shores is presumed to be imminent) 10 days previously. We received a shiningly clean bill of health. That was as expected, but also came as a relief, especially since three outbreaks of American Foulbrood (AFB) had been found in Oxford and two more in Woodstock, even closer to our location.
AFB is a pernicious bacterial infection of bee-colonies, treated only with the slightly medieval remedy of digging a deep pit and burning the whole lot – bees, frames, hives and all. On that note, this may be a good time to sign off with the question which I was asking earlier about this country beekeeping lark: what could go possibly go wrong ?