Two years in and wondering what has gone wrong!

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This is aimed at bee-keepers with one or two years experience who may feel that bee-keeping is not as easy as it appeared! None of what follows is intended as anything other than tips for an easier life. My methods will not suit everyone so please pick out the parts that are relevant to you and adapt them if necessary to suit your own situation.

I remember the feeling. That tight knot in your stomach as you realise that it is time to make another inspection of your bees. They used to be so calm but lately they seem to be more aggressive.
We all keep bees for our own reasons but my logic is that if you are ‘keeping’ bees for whatever reason then, at the very least, they need to be cared for and that means that in certain months of the year they need to be inspected regularly. It should be a pleasurable thing that you look forward to and not a chore that you worry about.

When we start beekeeping the expense of all the equipment is a little staggering. You buy one of everything and then you realise that you need two of everything plus extras. However the one item that I would encourage you to spend money on is the best suit you can possible afford.

It took one inspection of a hive for me to realise that a hat and veil that had elastic under the arm pits was not going to be sufficient for my needs. It culminated in me running up the garden shouting “They’re in my veil. I’m being stung!” and my wife, who was watering the garden at the time, replying “Well don’t bring them near me” and turning the garden hose on me. Ironically this did the trick as I ripped off my veil and clothes and she hosed the bees off, although the picture of me being watered down with the garden hose practically naked in the garden seems to come up in conversation after every Christmas dinner!

The trouble is you see all these experienced beekeepers in a thin veil, t shirts, a pair of jeans and bare hands but I am afraid that is not for me. I actually don’t like being stung and will do the best I can to avoid it. That means a quality suit with a quality veil, ditch the stupid leather gloves which do nothing but attract stings and wear at the least one pair of nitrile gloves. Don’t be afraid to wear a couple of pairs if necessary. I use plastic gloves with gauntlets and contrary to popular belief I can feel the bees through them. I understand those that say you should try and use no gloves but don’t feel you are failing if this is not for you. One day you may feel confident enough to give it a go.

I react to stings, sometimes badly and sometimes hardly at all. I have no idea what it is dependant on but bad swelling and 24 hours of itching is not my idea of fun so I like to be fairly bomb proof.
When you know that there is a 99 percent chance that a bee cannot sting you then your confidence as a new beekeeper will rise in leaps and bounds. I work on the premise that a bee climbs upwards. So my trousers go inside my boots. I also prefer full suits so that bees cannot climb up into your jacket. Your suit should be relatively loose fitting and all the zips should have a cover where they attach. My first suit lasted me 25 years so the expense was worth every penny and even then it only got ditched because it got a little thin. That wouldn’t have mattered but one day, as a result of a rotten leg on a hive stand, I knocked three hives over. It was a bit like a pack of cards. One fell on the other which in turn fell on another. It was at that point that I realised my suit needed to be replaced!! Accidents happen.

Have you ever noticed that when you are with another beekeeper that bees seem to sting you and not them? This can be for so many reasons. It might be that you washed your bee suit and they don’t like the smell. I never use conditioner for that reason. I also find that certain smells can make them edgy. The smell of alcohol on your breath, the smell of a freshly eaten banana, even the smell of some toothpaste, perfume, aftershave or shampoo may have a detrimental effect. You may find that a simple mint mouthwash, a clean but natural smelling suit and a pair of gloves with no residual stings left in them might just do the trick.

If you are able to choose what time of the day you inspect your hive you may find some times are better than others. Personally I like to look in at about 11am. In my experience foragers start in earnest at about 10am so by 11am they are hard at work and they are less interested in me. I find that evening times they are preparing to settle for the night and if they have had a hard day they are more likely to be grumpy.

When you open the hive you will soon know what sort of a mood they are in. On the very odd occasion they will ‘boil’ out of the top. There is nothing wrong in closing them up again and returning the following day. Remember you don’t know what happened just before you arrived, Maybe the woodpecker had been hammering on the side, wasps had been attacking, the squirrel had been sat on the roof opening nuts, or maybe they were just having a bad hair day!

The next most important thing is to be prepared. Ask yourself why you are going to inspect the bees and what do you expect to find? Can you deal with it if you do find it? And do you have the right equipment available. It is no good thinking you will mark your queen but when you suddenly find her the marking pen is not to hand. Take your eyes off the queen for a second and she disappears as if by magic!

So often I see new beekeepers stood with a frame of queen cells thinking ‘what do I do now?’ Whilst these quick decisions may not be totally disastrous they might not be in the best interest of the hive so at least think through what you will do if that happens and have the minimum of equipment available to deal with it. But however prepared you are the bees seem to have a knack of doing something you least expected so a tool box full of kit including extra smoker fuel and a gas lighter, marking equipment, a spare of everything I can think of and finally a can of liquid smoke such as Fabispray for emergencies is useful!

Work to a regular system as you dismantle the hive always putting hive parts on a firm surface. I use a 2 inch eke to put boxes on so that any brace comb on the bottom of a box will not hit the ground possibly killing bees and pushing frames out of alignment.

So to recap, feel comfortable and safe to inspect. Be prepared for eventualities and have the right equipment with you and have a plan of action and stick to it and then close the hive up.

Next month a few tips on actually opening the hive and handling frames. But for this month remember to check your bee clothes before you need them. Mice love to eat the fingers out of your gloves for Christmas dinner!

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