Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

The bees come home from the orchard

Not that it felt like that to them. Of the approximately 100,000 bees that I brought "home", all but one had been born and raised in the orchard. That was their home, as far as they were concerned. The single bee with a longer memory was Queen Mab. She had travelled to the orchard from our old apiary, spent the winter and spring there, and has now (I hope) moved with us to the new one. With her came the bees of her own colony, plus a division of her colony that I had partitioned off in an artificial swarm, who hopefully by now have a new queen although I haven't found her yet. And with them came two further colonies - the two halves of the former Queen Lois colony, which I split after she swarmed. Those two daughter colonies are now, as I recently discovered, headed by Queen Romaine and Queen Storm respectively.

In the orchard we left two further new queens, who will make that apiary their own and be cared for by our beekeeper friends whose orchard it is. They are Queen Boudicca (daughter of Queen Mab) and Queen Nefertari (daughter of Queen Nefertiti).

As to the move itself, I dare say there's nothing quite like complete success to make for an uninteresting blog post. I do not, for instance, get to regale you with tales of how our trailer came unhitched on the dual carriageway just before dawn, and we got a police escort while being urgently towed away before the sun rose and the bees began streaming from their hives.

Well, "complete" success is over-stating it, but we did okay. We started at the orchard at 8 pm, took two and a half hours packing up the hives as dusk fell and darkened, then drove the hives home and carried them to their approximate new locations in the apiary by torchlight.

A couple of errors (by me) meant we did lose some bees.

Error #1: when we separated the first vertically split hive (a tall tower, which we were dividing to make portable), I took the top box off the board that divided the top and bottom boxes, and put it on a travel board. Mistake, because there were several bees on the top of the dividing board (which had been their floor), who were then left out of the hive. Some stayed put, clinging to what was now the outer cover of the lower box, as we transported it. But they were then exposed to the turbulence of being in an open trailer on the open road. Others took flight, and logically returned to the closest thing to their own hive, namely the hive next door, which we were leaving behind. But then...

Error #2: ...the entrance to the hive that we were leaving in the orchard faced a different way from the Snelgrove entrances in the top boxes of the tall hives. If only it had faced in the same direction, the stray bees might have found it, as they flew to the remaining hive and tried to get in. The remaining hive looked similar, and was adjacent in position to their old hive, but alas they couldn't find the door. They walked round and round the spot where the door had been on their old hive:

Lost bees!

Poor bees. We learnt from this so that when moving the second vertically split hive, we took the top box off together with its floor, and added a new "ceiling" over the lower box instead. Much better.

But the journey was no picnic for the bees in their travelling hives. As carefully as we pulled the wheeled trolley through the orchard, the hives still jolted and lurched with every step. We positioned the boxes in the trailer with their frames (and hence broodcombs) aligned parallel to the direction of travel, which is the recommended way, as it should limit the frames' swinging back and forth as the vehicle changes speed. The frames will, however, swing side to side in this arrangement, potentially crushing bees with every corner you turn.

After we got the bees home to the apiary, I left them shut in their hives overnight. This allowed me to sleep in a little, since dawn comes early at this time of year and I still wanted to make adjustments to the hives and positions before the bees got up. In the morning, I positioned the hives on their new hive stands, swapped temporary travelling floors and covers for "real" ones, and left them with open doors for the bees to venture forth and orient.

Queen Romaine's hive (left); Queen Storm's hive (right)

New colony (left); Queen Mab's hive (right)

I made a short video of the bees orienting in front of their hives. When bees are foraging, they fly out of the door and zoom off, making a beeline for wherever they are going, while returning bees fly back to the door and go in. In this video, you won't see that. These bees are bobbing up and down in the air while facing the hive. Learning to recognise it and its position in space relative to the new surroundings. Warning: if you have the volume turned up, be prepared to hear the bees too!

Writings, images and sound recordings are by the beekeeper unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.

Logo artwork © 2015-2019 Susan Harnicar Jackson. All rights reserved.