18.11.2014 - 20.11.2014 38 °C
Inside, the air is warm soup; outside the wind is the breath of a dragon. In the shade the temperature measures 34. The last couple of days have begun in cloud and relative cool, preventing us from getting at the bees – an overcast day works them up, Al says. By the late afternoon the sky is clear, some tatters of cloud high above, and the land seems to gasp as the heat lessens. A minute after showering you're bathed in sweat again.
Minus bees, we check on the chickens, change their water and feed them a mix of grain with a tiny amount of sulphur, which apparently kills parasites.
Today, between two layers of mesh on their pen I find the blackened, scorched body of a cane toad. On my first day here Al casually kicked a better preserved, freshly dried one aside.
(Cane toads are huge brown things with venom sacks on either side of their heads. It's apparently common to find a dead snake with a cane toad in its mouth; certain birds have learned to eat only the rest of the body. Humans being humans, old hippies took to licking cane toads as the venom's quite hallucinogenic).
As soon as a gap in the clouds allowed us, we got into the bees. This mean carefully removing the frames, layer by layer, from a hive, so we could move them into a new, clean box. The safety suit sweltered as soon as it was on, and behind the veil I instantly developed an itch. Al showed me how to use a smoker – basically a small device that contains some slow-burning wood. Bees will fly away from smoke, and we used the smoker to get them out of the way. We carefully levered the frames out using a metal stick, trying not to crush too many bees in the process.
Al pointed out the larger drones, and even found the queen for us – hiding in the bottom layer. She was harder to spot than I expected – a bee with a long brown abdomen, a bit larger than the other bees around her. She was just over a year old (so well within the accepted commercial age of a queen, which is about two years) but seemingly not laying much. A couple of frames were heavy with honey, but not many of them were capped (so, filled completely with honey and sealed in with wax). It's been too hot and dry for the last year or so; the bees are hungry.
We also saw a few dummy queen cells – the special chambers the bees build in order to create a queen. The queen cells are big, roundish structures that stick out from the rest; inside, the chosen larvae will eat a special 'royal jelly', grow and develop the ovaries that the worker bees won't. Apparently the workers choose and create queens; the queen, meanwhile, decides which eggs will be workers and which will be drones by measuring the size of the cell she lays into. Bees are pretty fascinating critters. I'll miss them when I buzz off.