Argus reporter Andy Rutherford tries his hand at beekeeping
AN everyday tale of pouring rain, grumpy bees, a blowtorch and a close and painful encounter with a hammer.
IT is an awful shame that after a fascinating few hours learning about the whys and wherefores of beekeeping, I had to come away without seeing the inside of working hive.
But like so many other things in the last few largely soggy and overcast months, that particular pleasure had to be postponed due to what are euphemistically called 'adverse weather conditions.'
That is, it was chucking it down. The usually spectacular views to be had from Calwyn Glastonbury's Gilwern garden - including the Blorenge, the Sugar Loaf and unbroken miles of the Usk Valley - were severely curtailed, said sights swathed in low cloud and sheets of rain.
And of course, as anyone with even a smidgeon of knowledge of bees should know, that means the hives stay shut.
The bees still venture out but, it seemed to this observer at least, merely to check that the sun was nowhere to be seen and once this was confirmed, back inside they went.
Rainy conditions make bees grouchy, a bit like usually active children denied a kickabout in the park by the elements. The difference is, there are 30,000 bees confined to home.
There are plenty of jobs for them to do maintaining the hive, keeping disease at bay, sustaining the necessary temperature, keeping an eye on the queen's wellbeing.
But what about the beekeeper? The same goes for him or her.
Think of beekeeping and the image that usually springs to mind is that of a blazing hot summer day, bees in and out of flowers, the hive and its environs it a riot of activity. Within this idyllic scene, the beekeeper moves from hive to hive, harvesting the golden honey packed within each one.
It is not quite like that on a very damp, mid-autumn day, but there remains plenty to be done.
Mr Glastonbury, a former steelworker, now divides his time between maintaining several dozen hives and developing his skills as a painter and ceramicist.
"It should ideally be six months for each, but it's not that straightforward and the beekeeping seems to take up more and more time," he said.
A trip into his garage loft gives an indication why. It is piled high with brood boxes - hundreds of them - and other hive-related paraphernalia.
These boxes are what comprise the majority of a hive, mounted on top of one another sometimes several stories high, depending on the success or otherwise of the bee colony. Within them are rows of super frames, within the framework of which cells are created by the bees.
As the rain continues to fall, I am set to work making first a super frame. Thankfully for a carpentry novice, it comes as a flatpack, but even after a quick demonstration, I manage to get one piece back-to-front before a nail has been banged in.
Duly corrected, I'm off, and in minutes, my super frame is complete. But given that a single brood box can contain 12 of them, their construction can be a time-consuming business.
And so, onto the brood box. I pass the key test, making sure the pieces fit together so the specially designed external sloping surfaces face the right way to allow water to run off.
I'm flying, only to be brought to a very painful halt by missing the nail and smashing the hammer into the soft pad of my left thumb. I yelp like a chastened pup but soldier on, completing my brood box only to discover I have bled all over it.
But I am on a roll and complete a hive roof too. It is all fairly straightforward , but the prospect of building dozens of supers and brood boxes, even prepared ones, is not something my sore thumb and I particularly relish.
Another job to catch up on in the autumn and winter, at least for the multi-hive beekeeper, is the cleaning of queen excluders. These are (usually) wire framed squares or rectangles, edged with wood, which prevent queen bees getting into the part of the hive where honey is stored.
They get clogged up with wax but can be cleaned quickly with a blowtorch, the sort of quickfire result I like.
The rain remained heavy, but I wanted to get up close to a hive. So it was on with the bee jacket, complete with rather fetching head guard.
Checking the hive weight gives a good idea of how much honey there might be inside and a 'veteran' of seven years' beekeeping like Mr Glastonbury can tell to within a couple of pounds how heavy a hive is.
Tilting the hive up slightly from one end to try to gauge the weight was rather more nerve-wracking than I had bargained for, given that it contained tens of thousands of grumpy bees.
The closest we got to a peep inside, given the weather, was in taking off the top of a couple of hives, to check if the bees had enough food.
Honey is bee food, but we take it for ourselves, and sometimes they need a top-up of specially made sweet fondant, or a home-made sugar and water mix, contained on a level immediately under the hive roof.
That provided a tantalising glimpse of the life of a hive but alas, as for much of the past six months, this was not a day for the innermost secrets to be revealed.
CALWYN Glastonbury has hives in different locations in Gwent and bordering counties, and sells different honeys under his Usk Valley Honey brand.
"I can be out from 10 in the morning until seven at night checking them and collecting honey, checking the queens, making sure everything is all right," he said.
This is one of the attractions of beekeeping. You can have as many hives as you want. Plus, like any good hobby, or whatever you wish to call it, it can pay for itself.
ANYONE considering taking up beekeeping can find plenty of useful information through the Gwent Beekeepers' Association (GBKA).
In turn linked to the British Beekeepers' Association, the GBKA runs a website at www.gbka.co.uk which carries details about the craft, courses for beginners, and plenty of contacts.