The Duckybee Colony rescue - June 2021
PART ONE - RETRIEVAL
I received a call from a lady who told me she ‘had honeybees in a box, quite a lot, with honey running out’ – eventually managed to glean that they were in a bird nesting box by a pond, but that was about it.
Promptly e-mailed Pam and Roger for assistance, and we agreed to go over that evening to assess and hopefully hive the colony. There followed a frenzied hour of gathering kit – poly nuc, empty frames, scissors, twine, bee inspection kit, damp cloths, straps….and set off to meet Pam and Roger early evening. Within 5 minutes realised I had 1. No inspection kit and 2. No beesuit. Swift 3-point turn and return home to collect, then hot foot down to Beauly.
After a catch-up with Pam and Roger in Beauly square we headed up to the croft where the colony was residing – up in the hills between Beauly and Glen Affric. Greeted on arrival by a pair of swans (honestly!) and numerous domestic fowl, the owner pointed vaguely down at a pond with a whin bush and said ‘over there’. Not far away – but far enough and a fairly steep bank to navigate. Could be interesting with a full box of bees on the way up!
Off we went to said whin bush, swans hooting us on our way, no sign of any boxes of any description to begin with but closer inspection revealed a rather large and very solid duck nesting box, firmly fixed into the ground by way of a wooden post, nestling right in the bush. There were plenty of bees flying around but we couldn’t work out where they were going in and out, so decided to get our suits on and take all the kit down to investigate more closely.
Suits on, kit gathered, back down the bank we went to see what we could do. I took loppers (luckily always have them in the Landie for stray trees!) and began to clear away the whins round the nest box. The bees were utterly unperturbed – totally ignored us. We discovered that the box had a sort of porch on the back where the bees went in, and then within that was a pop-hole into the main box. Given that it was nearly 8pm there weren’t too many flying bees and I jokingly said ‘we could just take the whole thing’. Further discussions and in the end we decided….to take the whole thing!
Next job was to assess how to remove it – substantial and well-built, we wanted to keep it as whole as we could so that we could return it at some point. We found that rocking it did move the anchoring post a bit and debated just levering it out but were worried we would crack the floor so back to the Landie I went to see if I had my small bushman’s saw – sadly not. I found a very small hack-saw, barely larger than a pen-knife but that was it. Back down to find Pam and Roger had begun to gently rock the nest box to see if it really would be possible to lift the whole thing out – and it was clear that with some leverage and huffing and puffing it could well work. So we set about with a suitable plank as a lever, with R levering and P and I supporting/rocking, and eventually lifted it and the substantial stake out. Next problem – what to do about the stake? Couldn’t cut it….OK, can we gently lever it off without breaking the floor? Short answer was YES! Slightly nerve-wracking as it creaked and groaned but off it came and no bees emerged – note the bees are still totally chilled out and not bothering us at all!
We quickly bunged another piece of wood over the small hole that had opened up, and used a hive strap to secure it in place. We blocked the entrance porch with a block of polystyrene and taped that on to prevent leakage. Then we put another hive strap over the whole thing the other way and tried to lift it. Hmm….heavy.
Back up to the house, secured a wheelbarrow, back down and began to heave the box of bees the short distance (including over the pond exit stream) to the wheelbarrow – all 3 of us – LIFT…..walk walk walk…..DOWN…..Breather…..Lift…..walk walk walk…..DOWN etc until we managed to get it in the barrow. Then with 1 supporting the box, 1 on the front of the barrow and 1 on the handles we began our ascent. ‘DON’T JOLT!!’ ‘CAREFUL!!’ ‘BREATHER!!’ was the mantra and eventually we arrived back in the yard. We managed to heave it into the Landie (VERY high back!) and make it secure, then back down for all our kit and away we went – but not before looking into the most glorious polytunnel that contained not flowers but a swimming pool! Not quite what we expected!
Pam and Roger followed me home and we went through most of the process in reverse – heaved it out of the Landie into the barrow, across the garden to the other hives, selected a good spot, assessed where it needed to be to make it easily accessible for the next stage, set it down, removed the straps and took the polystyrene block out of the porch. Bees came out, had a look….didn’t bother us at all. I am liking this colony and their approach to life!
On the way home Pam and Roger had been discussing the best way to get the colony into a hive…and that is to follow in part 2!
PART TWO – HIVING THE COLONY
Before leaving after the retrieval, we measured the nesting box and measured my brood boxes, and Pam and Roger took the measurements away with them. Meanwhile I made up foundation frames and prepared syrup to help them draw out the foundation.
Pam and Roger returned on a warmish day and unpacked numerous bits and pieces from their car – the idea was to invert the nest box, remove the floor, put a new floor on where the old floor had been, with the centre cut out, with my brood box on top, and hopefully the bees would go up onto the new wax. Roger had also made a raised plinth with a bee-space doorway within it fixed to the new floor which my brood box would hopefully sit on IF our measurements were true – YES!! A perfect fit! The theory being that the bees will come up, find the new door and come out that way, which would also aid in getting them to move up. Sounds good to me!
We took up position, braced for the lift, inverted and rotated the nest box, and set it down again. Still no trouble from these lovely gentle bees, who were mildly interested but no more than that. We then blocked up the porch door again and taped the block firmly in place. We unscrewed and levered the floor off, but as we did so we saw ‘something’ begin to subside within the box – but what was it? Whatever it was, it was collapsing into the combs – not good! We got the floor off as quickly as possible and investigated – it was years and years of nesting debris, soil….a piece of cloth….all gradually sinking into the combs. I ran for buckets and small shovels and we began to lift it out as carefully as we could – and then realised we needed to be even more careful as there were antiquated duck eggs in there!! We dug and brushed and sifted and sorted and eventually had a bucket pretty much full of debris, and could see the combs quite well – and thankfully not too damaged and a broken piece of comb revealed brood indicating the presence of a queen.
We then put the new floor on, with my brood box on top of it, plus a super and the feeder, crown board, roof, and then began to collect clusters of bees from the side of the box and brood box, from the ground, from the next hive, and we popped them on their ‘new’ entrance in the vain hope they would go in. Quite a few flew…but YES! Some went in and some began to fan! We were ridiculously delighted!
The next task was to sift through the bucket of debris again and retrieve as many bees as possible – this took some time as we were lifting them out one by one and putting them on the new entrance. The memory of Pam peering into an ancient half eggshell saying ‘you have to come out’ to the bees inside will remain with me forever! Eventually we couldn’t find any more in the debris, so turned out attention to any others that were confused – we smoked a lot away from the neighbouring hive and brushed some off the sides of the brood box and nesting box – until we realised that we could do no more and had to leave them to work it out. My yellow hive tool was (and still is!) on the new doorstep as a guide – I’ll get it back one day!
PART 3 – WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
Currently the bees are happily going in and out of the new entrance, and though I haven’t done an inspection of any depth there are quite a lot of bees on the frames at one end of the brood box, directly above where the combs are in the nest box, and I can see a lot of bees still on the original combs. I wanted to open them up and have a look in the nest box again, and maybe manipulate the combs a bit to encourage them to move upwards, but work and weather have so far been against me! Hopefully I can do that in the next few days and get a better idea of the colony strength. They are small dark bees and Pam thinks they could be almost pure Scottish Black Bees – they are much smaller than any of my hybrids. I do wonder if I will ever manage to find the queen!
The bees are still lovely and gentle, and if this all works and they thrive I will definitely be considering using their eggs to re-queen my own grumpy stock in due course! It always helps to get new blood into an apiary.
They will forever be the Duckybees.