Bees are fastidious creatures and do not like having rubbish dumped in their houses
Saturday 08 March 1997
In an ideal summer, combs come out the hive loaded with liquid honey, each cell lightly capped with wax. To release the harvest, all one has to do is slice off the capping with a hot knife and spin the combs in a centrifuge, so that the honey is flung out and the cells are left empty but intact. The frames can then go straight back into the hives, or be kept in store, for the bees to use again.
Yet ideal conditions seldom prevail. All too often nowadays, some or all of the cells turn out to be full of honey from oil-seed rape, which is white and stiff, like candy, and cannot be extracted. As a result, you are left with a frame full of goo unshiftable by human hand. The only remedy, I have found, is to stand frames along the fence of the orchard and wait for the bees to recycle the fruits of their own labours. After a week or so, the combs are clean, and the frames can be put away.
Unless, that is, badgers find them. Last summer the reject frames survived one night intact. On the second morning the orchard looked as though it had been hit by a bomb. The grass was trampled flat. Frames had been dragged about and flung in all directions. Some had even been heaved through the sheep-netting and carted half-way up the field.
From the violence of the onslaught, I suspected that the raiders had been displeased by the thin wire which runs through each comb in a zigzag, to give it strength. Probably this had caught in their teeth as they guzzled; nevertheless, they had managed to devour the contents of about 40 frames, rape honey, wax and all.
Hence the need, at this time of year, for repair work. It is easy to buy new sheets of wax foundation from specialist suppliers, but to fit them into place requires dexterity and patience. Each frame has to be partially dismantled: slim panel pins have to be eased out, and the thin little bars which have to be detached are easily broken. The whole contraption is usually encrusted with old, dry wax which has to be scraped off; bees are fastidious creatures, and do not like having loads of rubbish dumped in their houses.
Gently does it, then. Each frame takes several minutes to restore, and I find I can complete only half-a-dozen or so before starting to feel that I should be doing something more urgent. With 50 or more to be tackled, the prospect can seem daunting.
The pleasure of the operation derives from producing order out of chaos, and from letting one's mind range ahead to next summer's honey harvest. Every winter brings a great fear that the colonies will not survive - that they will freeze or starve to death - and I can scarcely believe that they are going to come through.
I know that bees survive cold weather by forming a cluster which continually adjusts itself, the insects rotating from cool periphery to warm centre, and vice versa. Yet a severe frost fills me with dread on their behalf, and when they re-emerge - as they recently have from all five hives - it seems a minor miracle. Now, with a feed of candy in the top of each hive, they should go from strength to strength.
As I work on the eaten-out frames, I wonder why badgers do not knock my hives over, especially in winter, when food may be scarce: they must be able to smell that the brood chambers still contain stores of honey. Attacks on hives have been known, and badgers frequently dig out wasps' nests to get at the grubs, apparently impervious to stings. Besides, a well-used badger run passes straight through my orchard, so I know Brock is about most nights. Maybe some unwritten pact is in force between us: he knows that I do not harass him in his sett at the corner of the wood, and in return he does not harass me.
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