What Were The Odds?

20th July 2015

Harebells. My favourite wildflower. A short buzz from the hive site.

From the early days of spring, I'd been harbouring an unfortunate secret. The winter hadn't been a particularly harsh one, yet my last little hive of bees hadn't made it through.

As late as February, I'd seen them crawling out of the entrance and heading off into sunny, frosty days. But then the flying had stopped and when I’d summoned the courage to open the hive I had found a mass of corpses and mouldering stores. I fear it was the lack of numbers that had killed them. This was a hive that I’d re-queened, combined with a similarly weak hive and packed with emergency winter fondant. But once again I’d lost my bees and was trudging away through the spring grass, gloomy as anything.

Every time I’d got bees, the result had been the same. Whether through the combination of washout summers and the harsh upland weather, or, as the case last summer, a misfortunate decision not to deal with wasp nests near the hive (just one of many novice mistakes), every swarm I’d caught and brought to the hive site had now died. This last hive had been my strongest, but like all the others it was now gone.

As spring drizzled down, filling the day with the smell of new life, I cleaned out the hive and was going to pack it and the other empty hives away when I thought ‘sod it, I’ll leave them as bait hives. I’ve dragged too many bees to live with me. Let them decide if they want to make a home here’.

This summer has been warm days and sleeping plants. Everything has come late and nobody I speak to, not even the garden team at Newby quite knows why. Caught up with organising NiddFest and garden design studies, weeds were allowed to grow in the central flower bed in the hive site. I’d go out and look over the hive site wall, looking for signs of bees and ignoring the mess. What are the odds of swarms turning up? In an area with lots of beekeepers, perhaps one in three. But I know of only a few beekeepers in upper Nidderdale, so I put my chances at one in ten or twenty.

A swarm simply happens when a hive becomes full in late spring/summer and a new queen is born. Then, typically, the old queen departs with half or more of the bees in the hive, leaving the new queen to rule the old roost. The swarm won’t go far in the first instance, often clinging to a fence or the branches of a tree, while scout bees are sent out to look for a new home. These were the bees I was hoping to see as I looked into my hive site; maybe one or two going into one of the bait hives, then flying off to spread news to the swarm of good lodging.

I watched and waited. Nothing. The local beekeeping group reported good swarming towards Harrogate and Ripon. I toyed with signing myself up as a swarm catcher. No, the bees would come to me of their own will this year, or not at all. The weeds kept growing. Although bees don’t mind about weeds and mess, I decided to be a good prospective landlord and ‘refresh’ the accommodation on offer. It took two days to root the weeds out. The long grass around the hives was strimmed. When I opened the hives to check for visitors, the honey smell of old comb was as delicious as ever. Bees have a terrific sense of smell, so I wafted some frames of comb around in the breeze, despite the voice in my head calling ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’.

But what do you know? A few days later, there were bees going in and out of the biggest hive. Then there was a pause. A long, frustrating pause of three days, by which time I was giving up hope. The third evening was hot and dry. I walked out to the hive site, getting midged, as the swallows who’d taken up residence in the eaves went skimming past. There were bees flying too. I walked quicker. At the edge of the hive site I could hear them.

It was a large swarm, filling the air around the biggest hive. Not bothering with a veil, which isn’t a good idea but they seemed peaceful, I crouched close to them and told them about their new home and the members of my family, including a much hoped-for late autumn arrival. Which was as idyllic as can be until they had enough of my blather and chased me off.

A month later there are now three full hives. A second swarm came of its own accord, and (because it seemed silly not to), I picked up a swarm from a friend. What were the odds? What will the future bring us?

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