A Helping Hand

Words by
Ron Hunter
Swarm Coordinator

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I had an unusual phone call from a gentleman last week, ‘I have a colony of honey bees in my apple tree, they have been there for several years and they keep swarming,’ he said. The tree was due to be cut down as it was rotten; it was in the centre of the garden at the rear of the house. This story begins on 18 January 2011.

I ascertained that the entrance used by the bees was in the trunk, 8` foot off the ground. Never one to ignore a challenge I said I would call round and have look in a few days time. So when I went to have a look three days later, I found the tree had already been cut down. The bottom of the tree trunk was resting on the stump which was 2` feet off the ground, and you could see the comb in the bottom of it. I arranged with one of our members who I knew to be a qualified arboriculturist to assist me on the following Saturday.

Luckily when the great day came around it was minus 3 degrees. So there we were my wife and I, kitted out in our bee suits and boots. My colleague with his chain saw, body armour, head protection, ear defenders, and a veil to keep the bees off; you can never be too careful.

We lit the smoker. On going into the garden we found the crown of tree had already been cut off exposing the comb inside, and that the tree was now fully on the ground. I wonder if the bees suffered a collective headache, I mean one minute your home is 8` in the air and the next you’ve come crashing to the ground. We managed to put some wooden blocks under the trunk, which was extremely heavy, so that we did not damage the chain saw, as the tree had to be cut into sections to expose the brood nest. We began to cut through the trunk about twelve inches at a time, and after removing three feet of trunk we came to the brood nest; I wondered if the bees would be ok after all this noise and disturbance. We smoked the opening at the base and stapled a piece of fine plastic mesh over the hollow to stop the bees coming out, and then did the same for the entrance. So we ended up with about 3`6′ of apple tree which we wheel barrowed to the back of my van, and strapped down securely. All the off cuts which had honey in were placed in plastic bin liners.

On arrival home, as we unloaded the tree trunk from the van, my next door neighbour happened to walk past us and did not say anything to me as though it was an everyday occurrence. I think he must be used to me unloading strange items!

It was a strange sight to behold; a Langstroth hive perched on top of an old apple tree

We managed to get the trunk on a hive barrow which was then strapped securely and wheeled down to the bottom of my garden. Getting it to stand upright was tricky, not only because of the weight but because of the shape of the trunk, hence the use of steel angle for support. It was a strange sight to behold; a Langstroth hive perched on top of an old apple tree, not the most attractive garden feature, but only intended to be temporary. We sealed the original entrance in the tree so that the bees had to use the brood box entrance. The plan was for the bees to go up into the brood box containing drawn comb, and when established, to remove it. However, the bees were obviously attached to their original home and steadfastly refused to use the penthouse suite provided.

After a few weeks of watching workers bringing lots of different coloured pollen, but not having a clue about the state of the colony or brood development, we chose a warm day at the end of March to dismantle the structure and remove the comb. The aim was to tie the combs into frames. Fortunately we found the queen quite quickly and were able to contain her and several frames of brood in a brood box. We then needed another brood box and empty brood frames to tie in the rest of the combs of brood and stores. All of this was very messy. The brood all appeared to be healthy, the bees were quiet and there was no sign of Varroa. It turned out that for all the comb and stores, there were actually not many bees; however, we had high hopes for this little colony.

This summer, the bees have prospered in their hive. They have built up all the frames in their brood box from foundation, and have enough stores to see them through the winter. They did unfortunately acquire some Varroa mites from their neighbours.

We wait to see what happens next summer.

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