This weekend I rolled up my sleeves with a group of other people to learn how to make a skep under the expert tuition of Mike Male from the Newton Abbot branch of the Devon Beekeepers' Association. This was the first of a two-day workshop for beekeepers - both novice and wiser - to make their own skep in time for the swarming season.
I've only been a beekeeper for 8 months and must confess that the swarming season fills me with both dread and excitement at the same time. Dread because I've yet to experience carrying out an artificial swarm, or even seeing a swarm issue from a hive. And excitement because it's going to be a challenge to see how well I do in preventing my girls from swarming themselves.
Here in this patch of East Devon, there was a sharp frost on the ground this January morning but as the sun began to rise, it soon disappeared leaving a beautiful sunny day. As the temperature rose, I looked across the garden to where Lizzie and her family reside in their beehive and there was a wonderful display of bees orienteering - getting to know where home is. Looking closer, I could even see one or two of the older bees bringing back yellow pollen. Sitting alongside a beehive, listening to the buzz of bees on a warm winter's day - perfect way to relax and enjoy the day.
This is my first winter as a beekeeper and I've been attending all my monthly branch meetings during the year, reading up on bees and what the beekeeper can expect in December in the many beekeeper diaries you read both in books and online. Quite a few said it's a time to relax, put your feet up and enjoy the season's festivities before getting back into the swing of routine inspections and hopefully extracting honey later in the year - if we've looked after our bees well. Having said that, it's obvious that the bees themselves have thrown the books out and have other plans of their own.
Three weeks ago, I wasn't looking forward to the job in hand - that of treating the girls with oxalic acid - to try and bring under control the high level of varroa mites that Lizzie and her family are carrying... literally! The worry of vapourising the colony, as a new beekeeper, is quite daunting when you've never done something like this before. The way I looked at it was I had to be cruel (to the mites) to be kind (to the bees). So how are they doing?
Peering outside this morning, I looked across at the girls and all was quiet on this cold and drizzly sort of day. Interesting to see that where Lizzie and her family are clustering towards the front of the hive, there's a dry shape on the outside of the hive. The weather this month seems to bring with it a range of different temperatures. One day there's a hard frost, the next bright and sunny and the girls are out flying. With the frosty weather last week, it was ideal to venture into unknown territory for me as a new beekeeper...
It's been a while since I last wrote about my beekeeping journey and the books tell us that as the autumn months slip away, our bees should be preparing themselves to see them through the winter. This is a time when the queen stops laying, the drones (boys) will have been kicked out and the colony reducing in size. With the hive all closed down, there's no inspections to do, other than to check the reduced entrance, heft the hive to gauge amount of honey stores inside and generally check around the hive to make sure all is well.
With beekeeping inspections coming to end at this time of year as the girls start to prepare themselves for winter, myself and two other beekeepers have got together to begin a correspondence course which will hopefully lead us to become more knowledgeable about honey bees and may even lead us into areas of beekeeping that we would like to venture in the future. This distance learning course is a long road ahead of us right now but we're aiming high to get our Intermediate Theory Certificates and then on to the Senior Theory Certificates.
It's late September, the sun is shining and taking a walk around Budleigh Salterton, I don't have to go far before I see flowering ivy that has attracted a wealth on insects, including honey bees. This creeping plant, which produces flowers in the autumn, is the last source of natural food before the girls will start to hunker down for the winter months. Before setting off, I looked across at the hive and saw a lot of activity around the entrance which means they were on a mission to bring back stores for the colony.