There is an ancient symbiotic relationship between the walrus and the honeybee. We have all heard the expression, “float like a walrus, sting like a bee”, and this bond has been forged over millennia – we depend on each other. It’s not always easy though. I have had plenty of disasters in my beekeeping time, but my stripy furry little friends are very forgiving, which is why, despite everything, I still have a few colonies and some of these even give me honey.
As I referred to in my last post sometimes things can get serious. The deliberate killing of a queen is not, on the face of it, a very supportive act. But re-queening is the best thing for the colony as a whole, if not for the unfortunate exiting monarch herself. The introduction of a healthy young queen in August will hopefully result in more eggs laid in the Autumn, and consequently more bees to help keep the colony strong through the challenging winter months. It should also lead to a quicker build up of new bees in the Spring, with perhaps a lower propensity to swarm. That’s the theory anyway. If it’s good enough for Mike Palmer, it’s good enough for me.
I spent a few days with Mike’s team in Vermont as they moved from apiary to apiary, inspecting every colony meticulously in order to be able to make the big queen related decision: should she stay or should she go? His beekeeping helpers are a great asset to Mike, showing that he has the people management skills to match his affinity with bees. They work hard, help each other out and have some entertaining conversations whilst picking their way through more frames of bees in a day than I do in a month. Oh, and yes, they do get stung. One of them said to me, “I’ve been stung thousands of times over the years, and one thing I’ve learned – it never hurts any less.” Apparently being stung just inside the nose is the worst place. I look forward to that one.
So, back to my modest apiary near Lymm in Cheshire with my daughter Clíona, fresh from the Vermont trip, bursting with our new found knowledge. My efforts at rearing my own queens, having been less than resoundingly successful, had led to me buy mated queens from a stunningly good queen breeder – Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives. I now know for sure what good queens can do – I have seen it in Vermont. My queens were pretty average. Quite prone to swarm, a little bit moody, and not, apart from one hive, making a lot of honey. Our mission was simple: replicate what Mike Palmer does and re-queen if necessary.
Most of my queens were unmarked (no coloured dot on the thorax). These are described in my notes as “NDQ” (No Dot Queen). They have a very effective cloaking device making them extremely hard to locate. The expression “needle in a haystack” could easily be changed to “queen in a summer colony”. One little queen amongst fifty thousand workers. Hay doesn’t crawl or fly either.
It took five hours to re-queen my colonies. Five hours of lifting bee boxes, shaking bees, staring endlessly at masses of bees hoping to catch a glimpse of the large abdomen and distinctive gait of the queen. Once the old queen was squished, the new one was introduced using a wire push in cage (see photo). This keeps her in the colony on a frame with some emerging brood but apart from the workers, because surprisingly often a newly introduced queen is killed by them. They see her as an imposter, possibly because of her smell, and at first she is probably stressed, dehydrated and not laying eggs. I kept one of my own queens because her brood pattern was perfect and all was going exceedingly well, but the rest were replaced with a new YDQ (yellow dot queen).
We have to come back in four days to check that she is laying, that there is no other queen in the hive (it happens), before pulling off the wire cage and releasing the new mother of the colony to meet her new family. This method of queen introduction is the one with the best success rate according to many honey farmers, past and present.
After all this sweaty, smoky, stingy, back achingly seemingly endless work, I returned home, had a quick bath, and promptly fell asleep in my walrus rocking chair. I briefly stirred to eat dinner but soon went to bed and slept the long deep sleep of the marathon runner.
If I had to do that every day I’m not sure how long I would last. I go to the gym, I walk my dogs and take hiking holidays in the hills. But five hours lifting bee boxes and finding queens is seriously hard work. I have a new found respect for all the hard working men and women who do that for a living. All I can say is, honey is seriously under priced.