Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

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As February is around the corner, there’s a chance for new beekeepers to visit the apiary ahead of the beginners’ course. This year’s cohort are keener than ever to look inside the hive, but the recent cold snap has meant roofs are just briefly lifted to check the fondant.

Last Saturday I took out the varroa monitoring boards beneath the mesh floors to count the mite drop for the week. Andy Pedley used this as an opportunity to give the beginner beekeepers a lesson in what you can learn under the hive.

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You can tell a lot about the colony in winter by looking at the varroa board, including its size, position, and activity. I held up Pepper’s varroa board (above) as Andy examined the ‘evidence’ like a crime scene investigator. “You’ve probably got around six seams of bees filling the brood box,” he said pointing to six ‘lines’ of debris that had fallen down from the brood frames. There was a pile of wax cappings: “The bees have been eating their honey stores in this spot here…”. We also counted 19 mites had dropped onto the varroa board in a week, which is not too high.

Next we looked at Melissa’s, Chili’s and Chamomile’s varroa boards. What can you tell about life inside these hives from the boards below? I’ve marked up Pepper’s board to make it easier to spot the clues.

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Unfortunately, Melissa’s and Chili’s bees had around 30 mites dropped in a week, which might be more of a concern. There’s not much we can do about that now, but regularly monitoring varroa levels over winter may give us a better idea of what to do in spring.

Chili’s colony looks smallest and least active and Chamomile’s colony showed worrying signs of nosema (see the red ring around a spot of dysentery). Hang tight ladies, not long till spring!

We’ll put a varroa monitoring board under the hives again for one week in February.

The varroa boards are all yellow and it’s much easier to spot a red varroa mite against a yellow background. I don’t know if this is the reason that varroa boards are yellow, although I read a really interesting article on entomologist Simon Leather’s blog: Entomological classics – The Moericke (Yellow) Pan Trap. The post explains why many entomologists use yellow pan traps because the colour yellow “is highly attractive to many flying insects”. Varroa aren’t insects and don’t fly, but I found it interesting that varroa boards and pan traps are both yellow all the same.

Today the crowd disappeared even quicker than last week, Emily and I used the opportunity to clean up our kit boxes.

The apiary’s snowdrops are still peeking shyly from bright green shoots. The cold weather hasn’t quite coaxed them to unfold their pretty flowers. Instead, I’ve drawn what they might look like in a couple of weeks visited by a bee.

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A beeswax-and-lavender butter and a pear-and-black-grape delight

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The frost fairies left their sparkle on cars and rooftops every morning this week. On Saturday there was plenty of crisp sunshine to continue winter checks on the bees.

Afterwards I went home to warm up in the kitchen. It’s been so chilly that my skin was feeling chapped and dry. I’m also trying to be healthier, which means eating as much fruit as I do cake. So I made a couple of recipes that are fun and easy to do: a comforting beeswax-and-lavender butter for winter skin, and a delicious poached pear with black grapes and honey for cake-filled beekeepers.

Beeswax-and-lavender butter
Lavender is an old friend. I have used the herb and the essential oil since I was a teenager for homemade lotions and potions. My grandmother would make buckets of lavender water from the bushes in our garden. She taught me to pick the lavender when the bees were feeding, because they knew when the plant was at its best.

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Lavender is one of the most popularly used oils in aromatherapy, it is well balanced and remarkably versatile in its actions. There are several different types and I tend to use that known as true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). You can read more about living with lavender in my essential oil profile, from folklore to chemistry, here.

Lavender stands out in skin care for its moisturising and healing properties for almost all skin types from dry and oily to problem and sensitive. I love using this butter in my bathroom after a shower to deeply nourish dry skin and to relieve aching muscles. I also find the fragrance is calming and uplifting.

When I make aromatherapy recipes I do so instinctively, because they are familiar to me. A cup of olive oil, five or six teaspoons of beeswax, two or three teaspoons of distilled water or herbal tea, and drops of essential oil until it smells right… That’s not very helpful though, this time I’ve measured the recipe as I made it.

Ingredients
• 30g beeswax
• 100ml olive oil
• 3 tsp distilled water
• 15–25 drops of lavender essential oil

Method
1. Put the beeswax and oil in a heat-resistant glass bowl. Then place the bowl in a saucepan of shallow water. This is a make-do Bain Marie method.

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2. Slowly melt the beeswax in the oil over a low heat as you stir.

3. Once the beeswax is melted into the oil, remove the bowl from the heat. The oil-and-wax mixture will take some time to start to set, stir steadily and be patient.

4. Stir until the mixture feels it is ‘trying to resist’, then add distilled water a drop at a time, using a hand whisk to blend in completely.

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5. Pour into a jar before the butter starts to cool and stiffen. Add the drops of lavender essential oil and use a chopstick to stir in.

6. Leave to cool before placing the lid on the jar to avoid condensation gathering under the lid and on the surface of the butter.

7. Label the jar including the date. The beeswax-and-lavender butter should be stored in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight.

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The beeswax-and-lavender butter usually lasts a week in my cupboard, it is a winter treat. Only a very small amount is needed to rub on parts of your body, or a tiny dab as a rich moisturiser for hands and feet. I make smaller quantities of recipes with added water, because, without preservatives, the water attracts bacteria and makes homemade cosmetics go off faster. I also prefer my cosmetics to have a subtle delicate fragrance and find 15 drops of lavender oil is enough, but you can add up to 25 drops.

I always add a safety note to my recipes with essential oils (leaning towards over-caution when giving a recipe online) and here it is advised not to use the lavender oil in the first three months of pregnancy, and thereafter at a lower dilution of essential oil (perhaps 10 drops) with advice from your GP or midwife.

Pear-and-black-grape delight
This recipe is really easy. Core a pear and replace the cored flesh with chopped grapes and runny honey. Steam lightly for 20 minutes and enjoy a healthy dessert or snack. I’ve used medjool dates instead of black grapes for this recipe in the past, which is yummy.

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I was disappointed this weekend to miss Harrow Beekeepers wax workshop, particularly as I’ve kept beeswax in my kitchen cupboard to make homemade products for years. Harrow runs many excellent courses, which I hope to go to in future.

Something else I learned this week that’s quite interesting, shared here as an aside, is the difference between frost and frozen dew. This is frost – it is feathery and white in appearance with crystal formations, while frozen dew looks like droplets of frozen water. How does this happen?

Dew is formed at ‘dewpoint’ when the ground is cold and the moisture in the air goes from gas to liquid. If it is cold enough, the liquid dew freezes to become a solid – frozen dew. Frost occurs at ‘frost point’ when it is below freezing and the moisture in the air goes from gas to solid. You probably already know this, but I found it fascinating.

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Nature magic or nature science? Both are beautiful.

A beekeeper’s notes for January

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We’re into January and it’s wild and windy. Storms urge on the rain and frosts strengthen the cold. On some days the sky is covered in a grey blanket and on other days it is crystal blue.

At the apiary the green netting that separates the bees from the communal area had almost fallen down. The shape of hives seen through a veil of hazy sunshine was enchanting, but there was tea and a panna cotta cake on the table.

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I love spending a Saturday afternoon at Ealing apiary. It is like a pocketful of country life with beekeepers sharing stories about winter bees and swopping homemade recipes for jams and, in particular, marmalades.

Elsa was going to Greenford market to forage for Seville oranges and she got a good tip from John on using up frames of crystallised honey: “It’s all good for marmalade”.

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John Chapple looking cosy in a Christmas pudding hat and a tea-filled Tigger mug.

But the shorter daylight hours in January means beekeepers have less time to stand around and chat, and those beguiling bees were waiting for us, behind the curtain in the fading sun.

Beekeepers have few tasks for January but they are important. First, we unwrapped the chicken wire from the hives and checked under the roofs. Emily and I had put on a second block of fondant on each hive two weeks ago. Melissa’s and Pepper’s bees had made a hole in theirs, but Chili’s and Chamomile’s bees were slower eaters. The heat coming off the crownboards was remarkable and reassuring. We could see and feel that our bees are warm and well-fed.

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Melissa’s bees have eaten their way through to the second block of fondant, although the hive is still heavy with honey stores. I suspect that they just like nibbling icing sugar!

I hefted the weight of each hive and put in a varroa board to monitor for levels of mite infestation next week, and Emily checked the entrances were clear of debris and dead bodies. Entrances sometimes get blocked and make it difficult for bees to come and go on cleansing flights or pollen-collecting.

That done, we wrapped up the hives in chicken wire again to prevent hungry woodpeckers from pecking at the wood. I’m sure any local woodpeckers have easier treats to find than tasty bee colonies in this mild winter, but better to be safe than sorry.

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While the wintry weather is setting in, the snowdrops on the ground and the green buds in the trees whisper that spring is fast approaching.

The next few weekends will be about clearing out and mending old hive boxes, making up new frames, cleaning kit and getting fresh record cards for the year’s work ahead. I suspect the bees will be coming out of winter soon.

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My insect reflection

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The frost arrived as silently as the dew on a crisp and cheery morning in December. I grabbed my camera and raced outside, struck by the simple beauty of sparkling crystals of ice on earth, grass and leaves.

Winter is a surprising season for photography. The sun is low in the sky, the light is soft, and the colours and textures subtly blended. But my eyes were drawn that day to a hidden world of star-like beauty and wonder.

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Frost is dazzling in macro. A million little crystals of glittering frozen icicles on mosses and grass. I got out the extension tube to fix to my standard kit lens and zoom in closer, with elbows rested on knees for a make-do tripod. My shoestring macro method worked. Look, nature is magical even in a patch of scrub growing next to a concrete car park.

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For me spending time in nature can help to bring a positive perspective. There are amazing things to be seen from the smallest to the largest objects in the universe. How do you compare the spectacular rings of icy water droplets swirling around a gas giant planet to the simple crystallisation of water on a frosted flower?

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The sharp delicate flakes shone like stars. I can understand the frosty glow must be a lure to the light-receiving ocelli eyes of a bee as she peeks out of the hive and sees the ground glistening on a winter’s day.

I’ve heard it said that each sugar crystal of honey too is as unique as a snowflake.

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Getting into macro photography lets me imagine the world through the eyes of the smallest creatures. How differently does life appear to a bug in all its wonderfully infinite and diverse combinations? In their tiny environments do they see nature more widely than we can?

I hope 2015 brings more time to notice the simplicity and beauty in the world around us.

A Christmas letter

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Once again Christmas in Hereford was a magical experience. We arrived from London in time for the candlelit carol service on Christmas Eve. A starry sky and glowing barns lit up the muddy foot path to Amberley Church. We sang as the cows grazed contentedly outside and the fairy lights twinkled inside.

Christmas Day was another beautiful day of bright sunshine and blue skies. It was bitterly cold but that didn’t matter with a log fire roaring in the living room. After dinner, we watched The Queen’s Garden on ITV, presented by Alan Titchmarsh, for an appearance by John Chapple, Queen’s Beekeeper and Ealing member.

A bee on the thumb of Royal Beekeeper John Chapple, taken at London Beekeepers Bee Health Day.

A bee on the thumb of Royal Beekeeper John Chapple, taken at London Beekeepers Bee Health Day.

Alan Titchmarsh spoke to John about keeping the royal bees as he helped to harvest honey from the hives. “Nectar of the gods,” said John, scoring honeycomb with his hive tool. Alan described the taste of the honey as like “dessert wine” and asked what made it so good. John explained that there’s a large variety of trees and plants in the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace, which gives the honey a unique flavour: “If it’s in here, the bees will find it, and we’re tasting it”.

The honey is used in the Queen’s kitchen and she has even given some to the Pope. John must be very proud. It was a pleasure to watch him talk about the bees on TV just as he does at Ealing apiary. Andy Pedley was also there on the day of filming and is John’s Assistant Royal Beekeeper. (Thomas Bickerdike says you can hear John tell Andy to put the queen back in the hive!)

If you missed the Royal Beekeeper on Christmas Day, The Queen’s Garden episode 1 is available to watch here for the next 30 days. My work is just round the corner from Buckingham Palace and I enjoyed watching the hidden treasures of its gardens.

John Chapple is well-known authority on beekeeping and he gave our new queens the thumbs up.

Here’s John Chapple inspecting our bees at Ealing apiary with beekeeper Rosemary watching.

It rained on New Year’s Day washing the world clean outside my window. The first Saturday back at the apiary I had a cold and it was drizzling, but that didn’t dampen my spirits or those of the beekeepers chatting over tea and a table of Christmas leftovers. I was also wearing my new Joules bee wellies, a Christmas gift from my boyfriend John’s mum, which were much admired by the women beekeepers.

Jonesy and Albert were giving their bees oxalic acid. “You’ve already poisoned your bees, I hear,” grinned Thomas. “Yes” I said, “But they are on a January detox.”

Emily and I checked the varroa boards under our hives to find varying results of mite drop. Still it is good to see mites on the board rather than in the hives. It has been an unusual winter, the bees haven’t slowed down much and already I saw signs of buds and blossom in the bracken. Here are more Ealing beekeepers at work on the first cold rainy Saturday of January.

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There was more to tell of this afternoon’s beekeeping, but I’ll leave those stories of craft and sneaky bees to Thomas and Emily to reveal on their blogs.

I had brought new fondant for the bees, who had mostly munched their way through the first block. The warmer autumn might have meant that they had used their winter honey stores more quickly.

We followed John’s tip of cutting a hole in the middle of the old block and the new block, then carefully placing the new fondant on top for the bees to crawl through. This helps to avoid squashing the bees by removing the old fondant and putting on new fondant.

Our four hives are doing very well this winter and I am hopeful that they will be strong in spring. John has said, wryly on occasion, women make the best beekeepers because we are gentle and patient with the bees, although I learned that from him. He also attributes our good fortune at Ealing apiary to witchcraft! I’ll leave you to decide which is true…

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In more good news, another Ealing beekeeper is blogging – the inspiring Matwinder Randhawa tells us about her travels in Postcards from San Francisco. Do join her “journey of unbelievable adventure and beauty” in 2015.

A new chapter begins

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My first venture into the world of bees began before I was even born. At seven months pregnant, my mum remembers on a hot sunny day a beautiful big fat bumble bee landed on her bump. It sat there comfortably then started to crawl slowly up, before my mum asked a young man walking past to shoo the bee away.

After I was born, my mum took me out in the pram to lap up the sunshine of my first summer. She strolled along Oldfield Lane South, in Greenford, near to where Litton Local Nature Reserve is situated today. A small dark cloud appeared and a swarm of honeybees flew over my pram as I slept.

Our family moved around London over the years, but on a winter’s evening I found myself, now an adult, walking up Oldfield Lane South to Litton Local Nature Reserve to start an introduction to beekeeping course at Ealing and District Beekeepers. How funny that I was here again, where it had all begun, about to begin a chapter as a beekeeper.

That was six years ago. From my first hive bought from Ealing beekeeper Ian Allkins to the four colonies I now share with Emily Scott, keeping bees has opened up a treasure trove of discovery and adventure. Each year as the wheel has turned through the seasons, the secret life of bees has been revealed from spring to summer to autumn to winter to spring…

Today is New Year’s Day. In a matter of weeks the hives will be flying and the dance of the bees will bring the earth back to life as trees blossom and flowers open.

This year will bring exciting new possibilities and I can’t wait to start an all new chapter. My blog has changed as my life has changed, which is a good thing. Alongside those changes, I’m looking forward to rediscovering pastimes of drawing, painting, photography and aromatherapy, as well as writing about bees. I made a start today getting out my pencils and paper to practise drawing honeybees and comb before painting the hive boxes for spring.

Every season is full of promise and 2015 is going to be an exciting time. I wish you all health, happiness and a very Happy New Year!

A stocking filler from the bees

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Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

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I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

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There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.

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I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.

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Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!

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Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

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See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil

Method:

  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.

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