Tuesday 25 February 2014

Bee Space

We progress! We received today through the post, our Pig Herd Number and the paperwork we are required to keep all the time we are pig keepers; all the triplicate, multi-colour forms and A4 blank proforma sheets for such as our internal Register. This makes us all official and is required by the responsible breeders before they will allow you to buy and take away their pigs. Still a way to go, of course; we have to do fences, build an ark and actually go and get some pigs, but we are all excited for those days - it will be another new adventure for us. Neither of us has had anything to do with pigs before.

We have also been to Longford again for Lesson 2 of "Bee School", this one a nice lecture by an experienced bee keeper from Co Lietrim, name of Eamonn T which he entitled "The Hive and Its Inhabitants". He brought along a hive similar to the one we are building (a UK National Modified Hive) and talked us through the parts and their functions before then moving on to the bees and how they go on inside, frequently referring to our own local expert, Dieter, to compare experiences. I would not even want to cover all that was included but there were 2 aspects that were new and worth noting. The first was that bee keepers now think that there are no longer any 'wild' (or feral) honey bees about and the second was the subject of 'bee space'.

It is the varroa mite (which you may have heard of) which seems to have done for the feral colonies as it is so successful a parasite that it easily spreads between colonies, especially via the male 'drone' bees and easily between domestic and feral colonies. In domestic (hive) colonies the mite can be controlled using pesticides and its numbers stay low and the colony can thrive, but in the wild situation the bees get no such protection and the mite wipes out the colony which would be in a roof or an old hollow tree. The Department scientists here are now sure that this has been so bad a collapse that the only bees here in Ireland now are in hives or in recent swarms from same. It makes the beekeepers job even more vital to the bee-pollinated crops and wild flowers so it is good to see that our own group and the training classes are so well supported - there is a huge surge of interest in bee keeping going on at present.

Bee hive entrance, 7 mm high give or take.
I was also fascinated to see demonstrated and hear Eamonn's stuff about "bee space". You may be able to see in your mind's eye a typical hive - ours are a 19 inch square set of stacking wooden 'boxes'. But inside they are not just an open void full of random bees. They contain a set of ten or eleven hanging wax frames looking a bit like short files in a filing cabinet. Bees in an empty box would build a similar arrangement of vertical sheets of honey comb hanging from the roof but you'd struggle to get in to examine them, check on them or harvest the honey, so we give them a blank 'brood nest' on which to build and the frames can be slid out vertically.

One of the Bee School hand-outs
The bees move about within this box and between the 'files' like  people in a library, facing the shelf of books but with their backs almost touching the shelf behind. If the space they are moving in feels too 'wide' they build out more comb from the foundation till their backs are again touching the comb 'behind' them. The hive design is set so that bees will build comb from either side of an 'aisle' to the depth required for storing honey or housing the growing baby bee (larva) and to recreate the 7 mm "bee space" between the two sheets of comb. Give them too much space and they will build deeper ('brace') comb which can make it difficult to ease out the frames. Give them too little and they will not be able to go into the 'aisle' and will seal up the gap with resinous 'glue' called propolis to stop the draughts and glue everything very tight together. So hives not only have their frames at the correct distance apart but also have to have all the cross-ways tunnels and pathways of that spacing too - above the frame tops, along the side under the ends of the frames, moving around the floor of the hive, between its layers of frames and across the 'ceiling'. It's all a pretty exact science and they say that if you are going to DIY your own hives then you can do what you like with wall thicknesses and exterior detail as long as you can build to exactly the right internal dimensions. It's called the 'Bee Space' and it is almost sacred.

In one area, though, we are tapping our fingers at lack of progress. We have, as you'll know, our 'magnificent' (our unbiased opinion!) wildlife pond all planted up and filled and bristling with skaters, boatmen and fly nymphs. We have deliberately stocked it with NO fishy predators. We have seen frogs and newts among the long grass in 2013 and some of these we have dropped into the pond just so that they know it is there. We have seen people's pictures of frogs spawning in December 2013 in Cork and now in Kent in February. We have sent out invitations. We have even seen road-kill frogs on the lane here this week, so we know they are starting to move about, seeking out those breeding ponds. We have NOT, however, seen a single frog or newt in our pond. Patience, you wildlife gardeners. If You Build it, They Will Come.......

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