Let me start by very briefly introducing myself to you. I live in Dannevirke, a small town on the North Island of New Zealand. I live here with my husband (Ron) and our Cat (Wedgley). Ron runs a small furniture making and repair business from home. An advantage to this is that I always have access to the required tools if I need to make repairs to beehive boxes.
This has been my first winter having bees and so far, so good; they have survived the winter. We have a small home orchard of twenty-one fruit trees growing on espalier wires and a vegetable garden and for pollination we used to have bumblebees but they do not overwinter in a convenient location such as a hive, so I decided to change over to honey bees.
So, as one does, I gained local council permission to have a beehive and started doing a beekeeping course as I did not want to somehow kill the bees. After completing the course, I would go out and get my bees and get started. Well, that was the plan anyway. Of course, it is not what happened in reality. In my third week of doing the course training, I went to visit my nearest beekeeper, who just happened to be the local council person who gave the required permission to have bees. We suit up and go and have a look at his own hives and he asks me if I have made up my bee boxes yet. No, I tell him, we have to wait until it comes up as an assignment. Well, he says, best you go out and find a box to put some bees in because there is a swarm in the tree behind you.
Five minutes later, he was up a ladder and I was underneath holding a large bucket above my head and he starts to shake the branch. I had never seen a bee up close and there I was in the middle of a bee-rain shower. All I could think to myself was “do not scream”. It sounded like being in a tent in the middle of a hail storm. I managed to get the bulk of the bees in the bucket and ended up with half a twenty-litre bucket of bees. I only managed to get stung once, a bee was in my armpit area and of course, I put my arm down to put the bucket on the ground, and hey presto, you know how that feels. A dozen phone calls, and two hours later, I had purchased a single box complete hive set-up. Congratulations, I am told, you are now a beekeeper. Wait, what, now what do I do?
We bundled up my new hive into the back of the truck and off I went home in time for lunch. I get home and Ron asks “so, how did it go looking at some bees, do you think you could handle getting some?”. “Yeah, about that”, I replied, “Ummm, you know that spot in the corner of the vegetable garden I was thinking of putting them? Well, guess what – they’re there already, ta-dah!”.
A few hours later in the day, I get a phone call, I’ve got your bees in the bucket again for you to collect. So off I went to pick up my bees again. This time they had collected themselves at the bottom of the next tree. I bring home the bucket of bees, but this time there is only about half of what I had collected before. I open up my hive and realise that all my first lot of bees were still there. I ring up a friend asking for guidance on what to do now as I still only have one beehive and I am sure this is a second lot of bees. Douse them all with sugar water and pour the lot together, then see what happens. A few days later, I thought it all looked fine in the hive; I did not have masses of dead bees everywhere so it must be fine.
Let me just tell you now that patience is not my strongest skill. I check the hive every few days to see if all was well. The bees seemed fine and happy, and eventually, I even spotted some bees taking pollen into the hive, but still, there was no brood. Three weeks after having placed the bee hive at my house, I finally spotted some eggs. A local commercial beekeeper told me that I must have inadvertently got a swarm with a virgin queen and now that I could see eggs, I needed to quickly put another box on top because my one little single box was bursting at the seams with bees and would soon not offer enough space to house the newly emerging bees.
In my newfound confidence and after some deep thought, I decided to bite the bullet and get my second hive a week later. I’m sure if I can handle one, then I can handle two hives. It was always my plan to have two hives so that I can compare them to each other and if something went wrong in one, I would still have the other. These new bees were the same breed but a bit darker in colour. I found out very early on that bee colonies can have different temperaments. My swarm hive is very placid and easy to deal with. They do not mind me poking around in their hive, learning stuff. The second hive, however, is the complete opposite. The little guard bees have a high-pitched buzz and are on to me as soon as I take the tension off the strop that is holding the hive down to the pallet. (I have been advised to do it this way as we live in an earthquake-prone area, and this will prevent my hives from toppling over). For months they copped the nickname of the “nasty hive”. Every time I got a bee sting, it was from this hive.
I now have to remind myself that when I go to inspect the hives, I do the “nasty” one first. This is because I suffered a fall eight years ago and ended up having two spinal surgeries. I have had to find a way to adapt and come up with ways to be able to do late-season inspections using a spare box as I can no longer lift a box once the bees fill it with honey. Anyway, if I attend to the “nasty” hive first then I am more energetic than when I attend to the second hive. This hopefully means that I will be calmer and less tired when the little guard bees do their dive-bombing exercises and use me as their target. I never really thought about bees having personalities until I compared the temperaments of my two hives, and as I say, they could not be further apart. My next task is to see if I can breed a queen from the placid hive and replace the one in the nasty hive.
My two hives in the corner of the vegetable garden
In all honesty, the placid hive is called Pinus and the nasty hive is called Cupressus as the hives are either made of pine or cypress brood boxes. The Pinus hive is the one facing the fruit trees on the right, and Cupressus faces the windbreak and away from the vegetable garden, on the left. I have decided not to paint my hives, but instead oil them with natural oil to help protect them. I like the look of the wood and I think it blends in better and in a more natural way, especially when we dump a new load of sawdust from the workshop into the vegetable garden.
All in all, both hives appeared to do well over the summer and each produced a full depth box filled with capped honey. I left this on each hive so the bees would have food to get them through the colder winter months. As luck would have it, it was one of the mildest winters that I can recall. We had snow for only one day and a handful of light frosts. I am so grateful for this as I am sure it helped my bees get through the winter fairly unscathed, as I still had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I had completed the training course and looked at dozens of books, but academic information and reality seemed like two different planets. I still have so much honey left over that I cannot use as I left the super on the hive whilst I treated it with OAV due to having a varroa outbreak in New Zealand. This was obviously a case of accepting the wrong information and leads to me having to dump about twenty kilos of honey that is not fit for human consumption and I need the super frames empty to put back on the hives soon. This is one downfall of a mild winter that I can live with. Depending on how much honey I end up with from of these frames, I may be able to freeze it and feed it back to the bees next winter. We’ll see what happens.
So, from humble beginning to the present, which was only a ten-month gap. Down-under, here in New Zealand, spring is so close you can almost taste it. The Kowhai tree (Sophora microphylla) has just started flowering; this is always a good indication that the finer weather is about to arrive and it will become warmer again. The sad thing about this, from the perspective of a bee, is that Kowhai nectar has a narcotic effect on honey bees due to the alkaloids reaching the flower nectaries. Mortality of narcotised bees may occur, especially if they are exposed to the low temperatures that are common in spring. Luckily, we only have a few of these on the property and the bees have to compete with the Tui, which is a native New Zealand bird that loves the nectar from the Kowhai flowers.
Tui in the Kowhai Tree, taken last summer
Living on the edge of a township there are plenty of other sources of nectar and pollen for the bees to forage. I had a look in the drop tray the other day and the pieces of pollen that had fallen into it. Both hives must have different foraging areas as the colour of their pollen is different. Pinus’ pollen was more yellow and orange, whilst Cupressus’ pollen had a darker mustard colour, yellows and even some green colour in it. It’s great that both hives have found sources of pollen and today there must be a lot of it as the bees are bringing back lots. I will take this as another sign that my hives are hopefully going to thrive this summer and make lots of honey, maybe even enough that I can take some for home use and still leave enough for them for the next winter. Maybe some bee logic and planning is starting to rub off onto me, this last winter has only just finished and I am already thinking about next winter.
Bees bringing home the pollen
I wonder what the bees will be teaching me this coming season. I did pinch a frame of honey from each hive earlier this year and was quite surprised that it contained a lot of manuka honey. Unfortunately, when you spin it out, the manuka honey gets mixed with all the other honey stored in the frame. It still tastes good though. I will endeavour this coming season to photograph a frame of honey containing manuka as it is darker than the other local honey and you can clearly see the difference in the frame.
Whether or not I will be able or ready to breed a new queen from the Pinus hive to replace the queen in the Cupressus hive remains to be seen. It looks like a complicated and advanced process and maybe a bit beyond my level of competence, then again, drive, determination, and stubbornness also have a lot going for them – I make no promises either way.
I am going to sign off for now as I still have a few calls to make. New Zealand is yet again in lockdown mode, so I am responsible for keeping in touch with approximately one hundred and twenty veterans and elderly people, a few of which know that I am now keeping bees and want to know all the latest antics that I have been up to with them. Until next time…