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Monday, 3 August 2015

Beekeeping Bother: An Inspector Calls...

Probably one of mine!
I keep bees, although I never thought I could do it in a million years. The ideal beekeeper is well organised, calm, ready to turn their hand to remedial woodwork or a bit of flat-pack assembly at the drop of a hat, and accepts bee stings as just part of the job spec. I'm disorganised, anything but calm, hopeless at DIY and with a morbid fear of being stung.  I'm not even very keen on honey, so you might well ask why on earth I'm a beekeeper. It's because there are so many advantages, they far outweigh any problems.  Making an effort to plan, to record, to learn new skills and—stealing a phrase from Susan Jeffers—to Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway—far outweighs any downside. Unfortunately, something happened recently that cast a big black cloud over me and my bees.

I love gardening, cooking, and anything to do with wildlife.  If I could create infographics, I'd put one right here, with beekeeping at the hub of my favourite things. It's lovely to watch bees buzzing through the flowers on a lazy summer afternoon. The work they do in pollinating our  apple, plum and pear blossom provides us with fruit.  Later, at dusk, it's fascinating to stand in the apiary (as a collection of beehives is called) and hear the bees humming inside their hive. With a large and busy colony, the noise is loud enough to be heard from quite a way away. It's made by bees vibrating their wings, to drive off moisture from their haul of nectar. Concentrating the liquid means it will store without fermenting. If the weather's very hot, bees will bring water into the hive and evaporate that too, in order to cool their home. It's the original form of air-conditioning. How fascinating is that? I use honey in cooking to roast vegetables, and make cakes. Its anti-bacterial properties make it a great home remedy, too. The juice of half a lemon and a spoonful of honey, diluted with a splash of hot water makes a comforting drink if you've got a cold, or a sore throat. It's dangerous to promote anything as a cure-all, but beekeepers are a pretty healthy lot (we'll tactfully forget about the possibility of stings!)

My little apiary has been bumbling along (!) quite happily for about eight years. Then, the day before I was due to leave for the Romantic Novelists' Association's conference in July, I got the worst possible news. The expert who sold me a colony of bees a couple of years ago had diagnosed American Foul Brood (AFB) in his apiary. That's the equivalent of Foot And Mouth disease in farm animals. It's about the worst news any beekeeper can get. As my supplier is a diligent beekeeper, he gave the details of everyone who'd bought bees from him to the Seasonal Bee Inspector, who had to visit every contact on the list and check their bees.

Last week, my bees were up for inspection. Although I check them for disease during all my weekly hive inspections and have never spotted anything, I was really worried. What if I'd missed something? The queen bee lays an egg in each of the familiar hexagonal cells of the colony's honeycomb (don't worry, in a properly-maintained hive, she can't enter the part that provides the honey we eat. There's no chance of eating baby bees with your breakfast!). Foul brood in a hive produces a horrible smell, as you might guess, and the bee larvae are deformed and mushy.  The larvae in my hives were all fat, white and curled up in text book fashion.  That didn't stop me stressing.

If my bees had AFB, they'd all have to be destroyed, and my equipment burned. Okay, so "they're only insects", but they are my responsibility, and I had duty of care. Bees are in enough trouble worldwide, without me adding to their problems.

I was so concerned I posted about my worries on Facebook, and was touched by all the good wishes and promises of crossed fingers I received.  Thanks, everyone, I really appreciate your kind thoughts!

By the time the Seasonal Bee Inspector arrived, I was a bag of nerves. I was so concerned, I'd ironed my bee suit. I never normally iron anything! He was very kind and understanding, but his inspection took forever. He checked everything—and then he checked it all over again. As a matter of course, my bees were examined for any signs of deformed wings (caused by a different virus). They were brushed from their comb so the inspector could check the state of the wax cappings over the developing larvae. The appearance of everything was checked down to the smallest detail—several times.

I hadn't been sure whether the bee inspector would be able to give me the verdict there and then, or whether I'd have to gnaw my fingernails and wait for lab results, but I was too nervous to ask. Luckily, he didn't find any trace of anything nasty. He was able to give me the all-clear straight away! There was no sign of either AFB, or European Foul Brood (EFB), so I celebrated by writing full details of his visit and contact details down in my Apiary Record Book, as every conscientious, well-organised beekeeper should...:D

Incidentally, although the bee inspector was doing the insect equivalent of taking the roof of a huge maternity department and rummaging about among the staff and babies (for what felt like hours), neither he, nor I, got stung (thank goodness!). My bees have been selected to be docile, and despite this extensive disruption to their routine, they took it in their stride.

I include news about my bees and seasonal recipes as well as giveaways, and updates about my writing life in my newsletter, which I send out two or three times a year. The next one will include details of a short story due for release in the autumn, My Dream Guy, and  Heart Of A Hostage, which is the third title in my Princes Of Kharova series for The Wild Rose Press.

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