Our apiary

For several years, we've been keeping colonies of Western honey bees at our apiary. It's situated within roughly an acre and a half of native Wiltshire woodland. Trees growing in the wood include oak, ash, field maple and silver birch. The wood is itself situated on a farm rearing cattle and sheep grazing on wild grasses, flowers and herbs. The same natural environment provides an rich environment for our bees to forage from.

We practice beekeeping for its own sake. Rather than focussing on production of honey, our aim is to establish and support honey bee colonies, as well as developing our own methods as we work with the bees. However, in the seasons when the bees have produced more honey than they need, we take a small harvest to share around. Throughout the beekeeping year, friends and family occasionally come to visit the apiary and help us out with inspections or other jobs that need doing.

Recent updates

25 May 2024 · Colonies in all states.

For a couple of years the apiary has been ticking over, generally going well, we've been managing disease when needed, keeping things tidy, doing the odd experiment, and learning as we went.

For the first time, today's inspection gave us a radically different situation in each hive. One had a queen laying only drone brood, another was plain non-viable. Then the other three hives gave us reasons to be happier. One had a near-perfect configuation. Brood was in its typical shape in the brood box with off-white honey collecting in the supers. The two remaining double-brooded hives showed astonishing productivity, both in terms of laying and honey production. We had to perform a split on one of them there and then. They didn't like it much, but hopefully it was for the best.

I could write a lot about this inspection, but our general feelings were something like the following:

  • Double-brooding hasn't worked. At one point, we wanted to expand the number of hives we have, so we began using double brood boxes. The bees didn't agree with this plan in any of the colonies and generally only used one of the two boxes, even if they were running out of room in the one they did use. We're moving back to single brood boxes again now and consciously abandoning the ambition of growing the number of hives. Instead, we'll likely be stacking supers like you'd see in a more conventional apiary.
  • The fight against varroa goes on. We're observing varroa on some of the pupae in a couple of colonies. We should review our treatment plan for the winter and keep a closer eye on things.
  • In a damp woodland environment, hives need to be in the sun. We learned this from a mild dysentry problem a year or two ago. Anecdotally, the hives that receive warm rays from the sun seem to do better. They seem to have less disease, mould, and generally have more laying and honey production.

I'll be going to the apiary a couple more times this week to trim the rapidly-growing vegetation, change over some old comb, add a super or two, and maybe even to peek at the bees.

13 April 2024 · Le charme des abeilles.

Every now and then we get out the nuc hive and try our luck at catching a swarm by putting some drawn comb in it and using it as a bait hive. Two years ago I even made up my own artificial pheromone from shop-bought essential oils. Truth be told, I've never been at all successful, but why not give it a try if you have empty hives in the house doing nothing? A few weekends ago, I spent many hours sorting through the majority of the bee equipment I've collected here, finally constructing everything still in flat-pack form. Among the collection was a tube of le charme des abeilles, a scented paste that Thomas Apiculture claims will attract and direct swarms to a trap hive. The nuc is now out in the apiary, with le charme des abeilles spread over the entrance and a few old drawn-out frames. Time will tell whether any bees move in.

6 April 2024 · A few surprises.

Although today was the warmest day so far this year, the wind was gusty. Undeterred, we fired up the smoker and got out to the apiary. The goal was to check whether the bees had enough room and to determine whether their stores were enough for us to take a little. In the end, though, we dealt with a few surprises left over from winter.

In one hive we came across two tree wasps, successfully killed by the bees. Also in there was a huge spider with her egg sac. The lesson here, then, is that entrance blocks are required and should be installed early. In the next hive we found the bees doing well but also evidence of mould and frames that were in need of replacement, so we substituted seven of them for some newly-constructed ones. All the interference was upsetting the bees, so we called it a day at that point and spent the rest of the afternoon at a nearby country pub.

31 March 2024 · Secrets of the smoker.

So far the Easter weekend has given us two days of really good weather. We got out to the apiary at a point in the day when it was 13°C and sunny. Dan got there first and shouted back at me that there was a lot of activity in front of every hive. A couple of weeks ago, Dan expressed concern about the state of one of the brood boxes, so today we constructed clean frames and put them in a new brood box and replaced the whole section. While putting the hive back together, we had a look at some of the frames from the upper brood box, the one we hadn't replaced. Brood was abundant and in all stages. A healthy, active queen was wandering over the comb. They were surprisingly docile and it felt a lot like those sunny, unhurried, relaxed inspection days in the woods that I remember from last summer had already returned.

At the house, Dan had cleaned up some rusty old ammo tins that we bought in the local army surplus shop. The plan was to use them as smoker boxes. Their rubber gaskets mean their lids have an air-tight seal and so they keep the smoky odour in. We've always had what we considered bad luck with our smoker, with it going out within minutes of us setting out to the apiary. It turns out we were doing it all wrong, and there's better ways to light a smoker than to just point a lit blowtorch at some wood chips. Today, as an experiment, we lightly packed some dry grass into the fire box, lit it, and then slowly added wood chips. The smoker lasted for hours and we barely needed to use the bellows.

17 March 2024 · All five colonies have survived the winter.

Today was the first day of the year when the sun came out and the temperature went above 15°C. Spring has been a long time coming around here, so we spent the much of the afternoon touring pubs and beer gardens in the local villages, before finally heading back to the apiary to see how the bees are.

Our woodland bees have quite a few potential attackers, so the hives were covered in anti-woodpecker chicken wire and fortified with mouse guards. We removed both from each hive so we could take a look at what the winter had left us. As the headline says, all five colonies made it through the winter. We have three strong colonies, and two weak but viable ones. No colonies showed any immediate potential or need to split. None of them were exactly overflowing with honey either, but we'd left them with a lot of honey in autumn which we assume they've been using up in preference to the trays of fondant. Dan noticed signs of dysentery returning to one of the colonies but now sunlight and warmth has returned to the wood, we're hoping to see less evidence of the damp in the hives that causes dysentry.

The first inspection of the year often comes with some trepidation, given all the ways honey bee colonies can succumb to the harsh northern European winter. It's been wet and, at times, cold. To see they are starting the season healthy and with a good chance of getting stronger is great.