Beekeeping at Hidcote

Hidcote's volunteer beekeepers checking the frames

Wednesday is beekeeping day at Hidcote. Hidcote’s volunteer beekeepers, Bill Crofts & Tracey Calcutt, maintain the hives in the main apiary which can be found on the west side of the Long Walk. An inspection of the hives is carried out most Wednesdays during the season and this may include other work to help preserve the Hidcote bees.

In line with Hidcote’s status as a world-class garden, every attempt is made to provide a high-standard of beekeeping husbandry. The apiary holds three working hives, and for each hive there is storage for a spare brood box (where the queen lives) and spare super boxes (for honey production). There is also a spare nuc box for each colony (the narrow boxes in the storage row). These are specifically used to carry out a ‘swarm control operation’ at the first sign that the bees are about to swarm. Bee swarming is a natural occurrence and is how the bees normally form new colonies. However, we would rather not lose our workforce for the season, and we don’t want to have to section off part of the garden until the swarm is over. So we try to spot the signs and find the queen a nice new home to save her swarming in the first place.

Gently smoking the bees at the start of the inspection
Gently smoking the bees at the start of the inspection
Gently smoking the bees at the start of the inspection

You can watch the inspections being carried out at Hidcote, though obviously from the relatively safe location of the fence that borders the adjacent pathway. We try to relay what we are checking for and what we are finding, and will show you anything interesting that we are able to safely. Apart from checking how much honey is being produced, and when it is ready for harvesting, the inspection concentrates mainly on the brood box at the bottom of the hive. We are looking to see…

• How many frames of brood there are

• Are eggs, larvae, and capped brood evident (see adjacent picture of a healthy brood frame)

• Are the brood cells and the bees on the frames looking healthy

• Are there swarm cells present – if so put the ‘swarm control’ method into operation!

Drone brood uncapping showing varroa mites
Hidcote beekeepers checking for varroa mite
Drone brood uncapping showing varroa mites

We do a great deal to try to prevent pests or diseases unduly affecting the bees. If you are watching an inspection in progress at Hidcote, you will see that hygienic methods are employed in order to prevent cross infection. We wash our gloves and hive tools in dilute washing soda before moving to the next hive. Each year, all hives have their brood frames changed in order to reduce the potential for disease build up, and we scorch all of the hive boxes with a blow lamp to sterilise them. We also carry out a range of measures (chemical and biological – using knowledge of the bee lifecycle) to try to prevent build-up of the endemic varroa mite. We have generally been very successful in keeping these problems to a minimum.

The bees we have at Hidcote are derived from Apis mellifera mellifera (often referred to as the ‘British Black Bee’ or ‘European Dark Bee’). We introduced them because there was interest in the fact that they would have been the predominant type of bee around, pre-first World War, when Lawrence Johnston was developing the garden at Hidcote. They are also thought to be better suited to our British climate, and there are claims that they are more resistant to the effects of varroa mite.