Builders and bees

Here's a long story from last week.

Bees don't like vibrations. If my dad, or one of his friends, runs a tractor engine within 10m of them, they will get agitated and come out and sting everyone they come across. They don't like people strimming or mowing near them or hedgecutting with electric tools. They don't like people bumping into or knocking on the hives they live in. Some people have told me that this is especially true in wasp season, or at times when they have a lot of stores to defend. That is, about now.

Our current colony came from the garden of a beekeeper about 2km from their current woodland home. I've been meaning to ring him for a while to ask about the origin of the bees, whether they came from a breeder, etc, and in general how he came to be their beekeeper. But on Wednesday morning he rang me, explaining that the building work being done on his house, work involving diggers, drills, saws and so on, was causing his bees some concern. Specifically, they were attacking the builders. The builders, understandably, didn't want to return until they could work without worrying about being stung.

So, on that Wednesday morning, the work on the house had to stop until the bees could be taken care of, one way or another, with all the cost and the stress that the stopped work entailed.

The beekeeper asked us if we would be willing take the bees until the building work was done. In general, this would be fine, I said. But I know that they say that you should never move bees more than three feet (roughly one metre) or less than three miles (roughly five kilometres). We were within this zone, and, checking with very experienced beekeeping friends back home in Somerset, there aren't really any exceptions here. The bees would, it was thought, attempt to get back home to an absent hive, either in whole or in part.

But the bees had to be gone by that evening.

So, calls were made and a beekeeper in Devizes, well over 20km from here, kindly offered to look after them for three weeks while they forget where they'd been kept. The plan was to keep them there, and then move them into the woodland to spend the winter. The builders could then come back and continue work on the house. Once the three weeks are up, most of the original flying bees are already dead, so the second time the hive is moved, there will be very few that remember it.

Moving bees is not as difficult a process as it might sound. Of course, it's best to not move them, but as we'd learned, circumstances change, and it's no longer convenient to keep a colony where you'd like. There are even times when it's in the bees' interest, such as when you have access to land with lots of resources that would make them healthier or otherwise more successful. Of course, bee colonies are highly affected by the passage of the seasons, and there are good and bad times to move them. Winter, once they have formed their winter cluster, is a very bad choice, whereas the season in which they are active is a better idea.

The general process is to prepare for the move during the day by checking for gaps. The crownboard can be replaced with a travelling screen to permit ventilation, and the roof removed. During the journey the hive can sit in this roof and the beekeeper can spray water through the screen to help cool them. The hive is strapped up with a ratchet strap. We used two, but one is better to give easier access to the entrance. Come nightfall, the entrance is blocked with some foam rubber, with any bees clustering outside to be gently smoked inside.

The hive is loaded onto the vehicle, and taken to the destination. The hive strap is removed and the entrance re-opened. In our case, this is approximately what happened, but not quite. When I got there, the bees had indeed clustered around the hive. But it had been dark for two hours, and this was more than a cluster. This was a layer of bees about eight deep, covering the floor. The hive had a mesh floor, and not a solid floor. We had no access to either a solid floor, nor a travelling screen. The bees were simply not in the hive and we should have waited for them to go back in over the course of a day or even two days.

But the bees had to be gone by that evening.

So, for better or worse, we scooped the bees from the bottom and put them back into the hive. Some made it into the hive, and some escaped. Some stubbornly went back to where they were, perhaps attracted by the queen's pheromones, perhaps too limited by the wasp guard fitted to the hive.

It wasn't too far to the destination site, and, since they were being transported in a small car, the beekeeper put the entire strapped hive into an air-permeable bag and loaded the whole thing onto the back seat. The intention of the bag was mostly to avoid bees in the car. The beekeeper originally set out to do this with only a veil, but felt (understandably) that driving at night in a bee suit was simply swapping one danger of stings for a danger of collisions.

So, there we were, a bag of bees on the back seat, headed for Devizes. We turned up with the whole thing, put it on a stand, and I opened the bag and removed the entrance block. Bees flew everywhere and we left them.

The beekeeper in Devizes gave us valuable feedback later, but besides some mistakes in things like strapping up the hive, I got the sense that we 'did what we had to do'.

Initially I thought this whole process had cost me (and the colony) only four stings, but getting home, there were about ten, with four on my head. This isn't surprising really, because the bees were not at all happy about their move, and I was doing the majority of the strapping and scooping, and I was the one with full PPE (actually doubling up on my torso) while my partner beekeeper wore a veil, and Marigolds. In spite of this, he ended up with the same sort of sting count. I've been stung before, by up to thirty or forty at once, and only felt sore. This time, for the first time, my body decided to mount a more systemic allergy response and the day after I had headaches and muscle aches. This is all really par for the course, and with no sign of anaphylaxis, I wasn't really worried. My face had puffed up, though. In trying to get rid of the apitoxin, the body struggles at sites on the scalp and uses fluid nearby instead. That is, around the eyes. The bridge of my nose had puffed up comically and two sad, sunken eyes peered back at me in the mirror. I have a well-stocked first aid box, and over the two days of the reaction, my treatment for this went from hydrocortisone, ibuprofen, mepyramine maleate, loratadine, chlorphenamine maleate, to finally end up with the steroid prednisolone as a result of the pharmicist recommending I flag things up with the surgery. But thankfully no epinephrine, no auto-injectors, and no need to stop beekeeping. My GP turns out to be a beekeeper too, so it was nice he could explain things in medical and apicultural terms.

I think although we made broadly good decisions about the move, it's clear with better equipment and more time it could have been a better experience for the colony. This missing equipment can be home-made but costs less than £20 and will be on my next order from the supplier. Even given the hard requirement that the bees had to be gone that night, it would have been better to prepare the hive during the day, and to have woken up at 4am in order to move them before daybreak, spending the evening gently and patiently getting them inside.

This situation is far from rare. When utility companies need to do work near bees, they will pay to have them moved while the work is undertaken. A cursory look at risk assessments for construction also seems to suggest that risks from (and to) stinging insects are rarely considered unless what is being constructed is an apiary. In this case, the company was informed in good time, at the very start of the project. If we, as a species, are to manage these important insects and their place in our ecological systems, I would recommend that planners of construction projects consider measures to protect the (domesticated) honey bee colonies living on their sites, as well as other bees, vespids, and other pollinators. Colony relocation is a procedure undertaken for all sorts of reasons, even economic ones like pollination contracts, and such services could be systematically considered by the construction industry, as with other species' habitats, in planning a job. But, of course, it's perfectly legal to poison bees, wasps and indeed any other insect here in the UK, and likely rather cheaper to do. Presumably, were the beekeeper faced with this situation not so ethical, asking a pest controller to 'fix' the situation with a nerve agent would have been a lot less stress for everyone. To be clear, he assures me this would never have happened, but I'm sure it does elsewhere.

But the mystery still remains of why they were congregating under the floor in such numbers, and why they were so keen to go back even during a perceived hive attack. An escaped queen? A traffic jam after sunset? Something else? As beekeepers, we often struggle to interpret the root causes of colony behaviours we observe. Where we are unsure, perhaps the attitude of many of the beekeepers back home, to leave them since they know best, is the most sensible.

A few days have passed since I wrote all that. We were invited over to the bees' temporary home to do a supervised inspection. We got a lot of advice so it's really worth writing this up for the future.

So, first, the inspection. The morning after we took the bees there, the news came that none of them were on the woodwork, and things seemed bleak. However, giving them a few more days, the hive had become more active again. Opening it up, there were thousands of dead bees everywhere, with many of the living ones acting as undertaker bees and removing the dead. Though this was a regrettable sight, there was reason for hope with what came after. The hive was full of stores. Varied pollen, dark honey. There was brood in all stages, with even a little drone brood. And the queen was there too. She was given a mark like the other colony. And, like the queen in the other colony, she had dark orange stripes, very similar in appearance to Colony 1's queen.

Throughout this, there were no more attacks. Not even a sting. Not even when marking the queen. Their temperament is very similar to that of the colony that swarmed from them. There was a little varroa, but not enough to be of concern.

You'll remember that under the hive, there was a collection of several thousand bees. Though many of them now formed the trail of dead, there were still maybe five hundred bees under the hive. It's still a mystery, but the theory is that a cast swarmed below at some point, with a new virgin queen. This queen, we think, didn't make it back from her mating flight, and the cast just stayed there. It may have been there for quite some time. This is what complicated the move, really. This additional, aggressive colony on the bottom, being scraped off, shoved into a bag with nothing around them to protect them, and maybe even with a queen in there somewhere. And this was still the concern, so we put a queen excluder on the top of the hive, and shook the cast (or what remained of it) back in. With the queen excluder acting like a filter, we looked on top for her, but no sign. The bees were left to get back inside, while we went into the conservatory for Vimto and to talk about bees.

I learned a few other things:

  • The bees could not have stung my head nearly as easily if I had been wearing a baseball cap with my hood. The peak of the cap pushes the veil out, clear of the scalp and face. This may have avoided the allergic reaction.
  • Gauntlet-style gloves attract stings in the cuff. I had already just switched to nitrile, but perhaps this is worth noting. In any case, my gloves were too bulky.
  • Our bees are likely not feeding from the rapid feeder because they consider they have enough stores for now. Also, one effect of a swarm setting up home in a new hive is that the distribution of jobs in the colony may be different. The jobs that a worker bee does through her life is largely dependent on age. This will lead to differing numbers of foragers, for example, than in an established hive. Anyway, the general thought agreed with that of Dan and me. That is, to remove the feeder and replace it with fondant from now on. This will mean the hive will be smaller, and easier to thermoregulate and defend, etc. We were encouraged to heft the hive to estimate stores over the winter, though this made me tempted to get a passive hive scale. I won't, though!

So, there we have it. Given how horribly they had been treated, they seem to have got back to normal fairly fast, and back to their remarkable docility. The timer on the three week re-orientation started on Wednesday, so in two, three, maybe four weeks, we'll hopefully do the move. We have a plan in place for this, but that can wait for another blog post. In the meantime let's hope they continue to do well and for a mild October.