Moving bees

Although the winter months are quiet for the bees with the temperatures too cold to fly, and little or no pollen or nectar available, you may think that it means a quiet time also for beekeepers. Not so! Winter is the time for moving bees, cleaning tools and empty hives whilst preparing for the next season.

This week was a perfect time to move a couple of colonies from a friend who is planning to move house. She’ll be moving over 200 miles away, which although not impossible, it would be a stressful operation, both for the bees and their keepers!

With the help of Joe & Linda, my ‘Bee Team’, we set off just after 8am, having loaded up the landcover pick up with every possible gadget and tool that we may need.
The colonies were in Warre hives, kept naturally by their keeper for several years. The entrances were blocked up by metal plates after dark on Tuesday evening to be sure that all the colony were tucked up together in their hive.
When we arrived we were excited but also slightly apprehensive. Strong winds had built up over night and the hives were located half way down a very steep hill, through an orchard.
The smaller colony were quiet and just one or two bees were flying around the entrance. These must have been particularly keen bees that had managed to squeeze through a tiny opening and we did our best to wrap them together with the hive entrance in the bubble wrap we’d brought. The hive was strapped to the picnic table they were sat on and we detached it from the table and re secured it to itself.
There is always a worry that the ware boxes may ‘slide’ apart when moved which would then damage comb, expose the bees to both freezing temperatures, as well as the people moving them… not a good occurrence!

I had some rolls of cling wrap, from my gallery and painting days, which were perfect from wrapping around the hive to hold it securely together.
Joe & Linda then moved the hive onto the sack truck ( my husband’s cider making trolly!) and it was pulled by Joe up the steep hill. Linda and I pushed from behind.
Our landcover is a very old Defender 110 hicap with plenty of space in the back, but a bit cosy in the cab for the three of us!
Our neighbour lent us some brilliant wheelchair ramps, without which we would have had to lift the hive around a meter high to reach the back. We really were very grateful of Mr C’s suggestion that we borrow them.

Note to self- and all beekeepers, these ramps are VERY handy indeed!

With two of us at the base of the trolly, one at the side and a very strong Joe on the truck, the trolly was pulled and pushed up the ramps and onto the back. We could then manoeuvre the hive to the cab end ready for securing.


With colony no1 all aboard we then returned to the larger colony, also wrapped up with bubblewrap and cling film but with a few more bees buzzing around. Confident that there was only a handful of ‘lost bees’ we performed all these operations unsuited and without veils. It was sad to leave behind a few bees, but we had to think of the good of the whole colony, and any outside, due to the cold, would be unlikely to last long anyway.

With a little more effort, we managed to load the second colony onto the trolley and Joe soon hefted them up the hill with the rest of us pushing from behind and getting them near the truck. This time we needed two on the truck and two below, again the ramps were invaluable and the colony was soon positioned next to the first against the cab.

Bee hives all loaded up and securely wrapped

We had blankets and, more cling wrap and some handy, tough straps with ratchets. When they work they’re fabulous, but loosening ratchets, no matter how many times I’ve been showed, never comes easily!

The lane to the hives was full of potholes and so driving our fragile load, whilst mindful of the increasing gales, was quite an art. Those poor bees were being trundled on a half hour journey, on far from flat and straight roads, across Somerset to their new homes.

We were warned that the larger colony had been a bit grumpy since the old queen swarmed last year so with this in mind, we felt they would be the better bees to place at my friends market garden. Linda was having the second colony and she has young grandchildren and would be keeping the bees in her garden.

We were able to drive quite close to the new location at Bengrove Market Garden, in between their poly tunnel and a very large greenhouse. We planned to move the bees off the truck and into their new location, let them settle, put our bee suits on, then unwrap the hives. With this plan in mind, Linda positioned herself with grower Liam at the base of the positioned ramps, and Joe and I manoeuvred the large colony onto the sack trolly and towards the ramps- oblivious to the increasing number of bees flying around the base of the hive!

Linda suggested, with her more enlightened view, that maybe we pause, suit up and then continue the operation. Joe & I, mid tipping the colony onto the ramps, felt we should just get them moved as soon as possible and stick to the original plans.

The bees agreed with Linda, and then around 50 flew out, first chasing Linda and Liam, then up to the truck to Joe and I!
We rapidly replaced the hive and all ran to a safe distance. Sadly Linda received two defensive stings on her face.
Joe had wisely picked up our suits as he left the truck and so we all suited up.

‘One man down’, Joe and I decided to get these bees into their new position as quickly as possible and it was whilst Joe lowered them to me at the base of the ramps that I could see what Linda must have seen earlier- a clump of bees beneath the hive, on our side of the wrapping!! There must have been a hole in the hive base that the bees could escape from whilst their entrance was blocked.

With slightly unhappy bees buzzing around us, Joe and I lowered the hive down the ramp and pulled the heavy trolly the 20 meters to their new location. They were to be placed on top of a platform made of wooden pallets and so the ramps had to be retrieved and replaced so that we could pull the trolley up onto the pallets.

Once in position, we reorientated the hive so that the bees would face away from the main footpath and began to unwrap. We could both sense the huge sigh of relief from the bees when their entrance was unblocked, the roof replaced and all the wrapping removed.

Securely strapped ready for the strong winds
Phew! Fresh air!
Calm & happily getting on with their cleaning up.

Thankfully none of the boxes had shifted and we hoped that their wax comb inside was not too damaged from the drive or the tilting up and down ramps. Joe & I strapped the hive to the pallets, ready for the increasing winds that evening.

At this point we all felt for large bee farmers, and their bees, who are moved from farm to farm during the summer for pollination. This was not a pleasant experience for any of us so we were glad that we didn’t have to do it often. It was also some comfort to know that these bees could continue their natural existence in a beautiful organic environment, cared for by natural beekeepers and with a year round diet of organic produce!

With the bees calmer, Linda’s stings smothered in Lou’s pot of organic honey, and us all able to observe the bees from a closer range, we decided it was time to finish the job and deliver the second colony to Linda’s garden, hoping that they wouldn’t be so cross!

Keeping our bee suits on, we continued the journey, another 25 minutes, and arrived prepared for the worst, but hopeful for a smoother delivery. The new site was prepared, ramps positioned and the smaller colony lowered and trundled to their new home, with a spectacular southerly view across Dorset.
This was a very smooth and stress free operation, for all involved, and again the bees were delighted to have their entrance unblocked and breathe in the air of their new surroundings. As they took their first orientation flights, they emitted pheromones to guide the scouts back to their new home. A delightful mix of honey, wax and propolis.

Free at last!
Linda & Joe clearing the flight path

Relieved and feeling far more experienced as ‘bee movers’, we retired for a much need cuppa, and the picnic lunch that our Bee Team has become accustomed to after each round of inspections of the hives we care for.

This is our time to review and share our observations and discuss further bee adventures.

Both hives survived the gale force winds on their first night. Sadly Lou was stung by  one of her new guests the following day, she feels it was because she got too close, curious about how they were settling in. Hopefully they will learn to live together in harmony! Final count 3 stings in total.

In case you’re planning to move some bees here’s a short list of what you need to do, and have handy!:

  • Be sure to block up the entrance of the hive to be moved, after dark, using a metal sheet or sturdy cloth, the night before
  • Aiming to arrive before the bees would normally start flying, approach the hive and observe any ‘leaks’ of bees.
  • If possible, remove any pitched roofs, of course ensuring that an insulation layer and crown board are still in place. This makes securing much easier.
  • Using bubble wrap or old sheets, securely bundle up the colony. If moving a National or square hive, this may not be necessary. We were unsure of how ‘propolised'( stuck together by the bees own propolis) the boxes were to each other and as they needed to be placed on a trolly and tipped, there was a risk of them sliding apart
  • Bee suits or veils
  • Gloves, if you use them
  • We didn’t use smoke but some may prefer to. I am not so certain that this ‘calms’ the bees but more triggers a stress, fight or flight response.
  • Trailer, van, ramps and trolly. Small colonies can be lifted by hand and placed in a boot of a car.
  • Pen knife to cut wrapping
  • Straps, with and without ratchets
  • Calm and mindful attitude! Leave fear behind, the bees can sense it!


Settled in their new home

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