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We have been visiting the (TECT) All-Terrain Park for a while, but only for ‘non-beekeeping’ meetings. This weekend was first time the group was to see the apiary at the Park. We met up at the Visitor Centre as arranged, and car-pooled for the five minute drive through the park to the apiary.


The apiary is currently being operated, with the help of a local beekeeping business, for teaching students on a tertiary-level Apiculture course and has about ten FD Langstroth hives. Often, the back-yard hives we meet on our apiary visits are not particularly well populated; the colonies, by commercial standards, are small. I think that’s mostly because hobbyists (and sub-urban ones in particular) are less keen to walk the cliff-edge that separates strength from swarms.


These hives were all reasonably strong, nothing remarkable but a pleasant surprise given the weather this year; all double-broods, although the supers above were little used. We split the visitor into two groups so people could get a better view and hear what was said. A student member took one, I took the other and we had a look inside. There were two main things I was interested in, how well were they foraging, and what tips can I pass on for handling larger hives. Commercial stands are typically fours (a pallet) which can limit your manoeuverability.


The site is about 30km from any urban centre, elevated (@450m asl.) and exposed to the north. Most hives are moved into this area for a crop, and then moved away to somewhere more benign. There are no year-round commercial apairies. It’s a fairly typical mix of wooded gullies, cleared pine slash, native tawa/rimu bush and drystock grazing. All the usual bush nectar sources, like rewarewa, tawari, kamahi, are finished and nectar sources are now usually pasture or scrub plants, like blackberry (mostly gone), lotus, clovers, and the asteraceae. The switch to shallow-rooted plants makes nectar flows much more ephemeral, and the strong winds we’ve been having don’t help. These hives had some store combs, but were also bringing nectar and pollen in. One count found five different pollen colours. The nectar was mostly in the brood boxes, which is what I’d expect if it’s opportunist or interrupted collection of dilute nectars. Six-to eight weeks ago, if I recall, some of these hives were close to starving, so that was comforting. The queens were laying and the larvae were fed.


In this late summer period here working hives can spark robbing, and hot thundery days covered in convective cloud and defensive hives make manipulations miserable. These hives were busy foraging but at this time of year caution is worthwhile. Bigger hives anyway take more skill and expose sloppy practice. I like to work with a plan, and don’t advise tourism. There is very little to be learned from supers above an excluder (the weight tells you what you want to know) so I take them off and stand them on the lid. I like to stack the boxes off-set on each other so I have eight small contact points and not all four sides. They don’t stick together when I pick them up and I don’t squash too many bees. I keep the crown board/hive mat on top of the stack and that keeps the bees calmer. If I think robbing is on the cards I’ll stack normally and limit exposing the combs any way I can.


When I get to the excluder the quickest thing to do is take it off, turn it over, and add it to the stack. Now, you turn it over because the queen might be on it’s underside, especially if you’ve driven her up by pouring smoke into the entrance, and by turning it over you don’t transfer her into your stack of supers. You’re supposed to check she isn’t, but… The thing to understand is that as soon as you expose the queen to the light she heads for a dark place – that’s how they’re wired. If she is now on the top of your inverted excluder she can’t go down into the supers but she can walk to the edge and down the outside of the boxes. If that isn’t exciting enough for you when you take the first brood box off (if you have two) and put it on your stack you can squash her using the bottom of the frames, or on the edge. While it isn’t as thrilling my preferred method is to pick off the excluder, hold it over the box, and strike the hand holding it with my free hand to jar the bees off into the box below. I do not jar it on the edge of the box because banging on the hive sides is a really successful way of drawing attention to yourself (but not in a good way), and because you’ll put plenty of bees (and your queen) on the ground and not in the box.


If I’m doing a full inspection I’ll always examine from the bottom box on the floor UPWARDS. If I work down to the bottom box the tendency is to drive bees down into the dark. By the time you get down to the bottom box these bees have been reinforced by flying bees, and by those from any of the equipment you are taking off and it will be so full and active bees will be boiling over the sides and you’ll never see anything. On the other hand, if you go straight to the bottom box you’ll get there before it gets busy, it will be much easier to find the frame ends to pick up and you’ll have a much better view of what is going on. As well, when you go back to the box on the stack you set aside, the bees will be leaving and flying home, easing your inspection of that box. Look at that box BEFORE you put it back.


The second box is usually the trickiest to put back. If my stack is off-set I can quickly smoke the bottom of the box (to chase clustering bees out of the way), then the top of the receiving box. Wait until the bees have mostly run down into the frame gaps and then move the top box over. If you can, put it down on an slight angle, and rotate it into line, otherwise put it down on one edge and then lower it slowly jiggling it up and down to give the bees in the edges a chance to move out of the way. You will find your own way, and judge the result next time you pick up the box! By not squashing loads of bees every time you put a box down you will limit the amount of alarming sting venom in the air and your life will be sweeter.


Of course all the other tips for working bees still apply. Learn your smoker skills (most people are poor because they don’t pay attention to how it works), pick your weather, stand in the right place, don’t pass the ‘tool between hands over the top of the box, ease out frames vertically without tilting or twisting, create plenty of working space, handle frames sensitively, and work confidently, calmly, without jarring or dropping anything. I thought about it for a bit, and the best single word to describe it was ‘mindful’. Big colonies of bees will test you. Be mindful.

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