In deepest Oxfordshire, between two days of torrential downpours, Phil Spillane, the Seasonal Bee Inspector, came to inspect our Soho Farmhouse apiary.
Held up by traffic on the Oxford by-pass, Phil had called ahead to let me know that he’d be late. All the better, really, since the clouds were still rolling away and the July sunshine was just beginning to tempt the bees out of their hives to start the day’s foraging in earnest – at 2pm in the afternoon!
Phil suited up and we walked to the hives, greeted on the way by Anna Greenland, as we crossed her thriving production garden. We soon got down to business, lifting the roofs, spare supers and the outer “lifts” which form a skin of insulation for the graceful WBC hive, loosening the strap and gently levering off the crownboard to see the bees.
When you first open a beehive, all you see is the bees. They are lovely and utterly absorbing. But all the information which a beekeeper requires is not found by looking at the bees. It is in the comb. The comb is the hexagonal wax living quarters of the bees – and that is where the eggs, larvae, sealed brood, pollen stores, honey and anything else is to be found (…although “anything else” is not what you want to find!).
So Phil was searching for signs of Brood disease, like American Foulbrood (AFB) and European Foulbrood (EFB) (see here for detailed explanations of these bacterial infections), which are the most common problem encountered on inspections.
But in this case, the inspection would focus on a hunt for two additional pests: the small hive beetle (confirmed sightings in Italy) and the Asian Hornet (which is relentlessly advancing northwards across France). Entymologists say that it is only a matter of time before these destructive pests join varroa as the bane of the British beekeeper.
The point of these APHA inspections was to allocate resources to those areas most likely to be an entry point to the UK for these pests. That is where the phrase “Exotic Risk” comes in. On Beebase, you can see two specific, identifiable risk sites in the vicinity of the apiary. One is an airport. The other is a queen bee importer (from Italy).
Whereas our island race’s natural inclination towards invaders is to “fight them on the beaches”, modern logistics mean that either (or both!) of these pests could first pop up in the heart of the Cotswolds. So the inspectors are keen to cover that eventuality as comprehensively as possible, given the resources available to them, by visiting apiaries in the vicinity of these vulnerable zones.
That’s just as well. After a breezy summer’s afternoon on the hives, it’s hard to contemplate the horror of either the insidious small hive beetle, or the voracious raptor, the Asian hornet, predating these placid, industrious bees.
It’s bad enough to find a heavy varroa load, the tiny brown carapaces glinting in the sunshine on the yellow inspection board, or etched like henna tattoos on the glistening white bodies of drone larvae.
So Phil left the Soho Farmhouse bees with a clean bill of health and compliments about the apiary location and layout – and, most importantly, the mild-mannered, harmonious bees themselves. He even gave me a useful tip about the spacing of frames of foundation in supers. (Essentially, put in spacers for 10, rather than 8 super frames to prevent the bees from improvising wax comb where they shouldn’t – a bit technical for the layman, but I shall certainly be using his advice next year).
The thing about beekeeping is that everyone can come out a winner. And you meet the nicest people. Bees included, naturally.