A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

Lock the gate before the horses

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There was nothing to be done for the beginner’s hive. Overhead a dim sky cast a heavy gloom on the apiary and the air felt warm and close. The bees were bearded under the hive floor and Tom suspected a queen was in the cluster waiting to fly off with the swarm. “He had three queen cells in the hive last week, all sealed.” I recalled. “I suggested an artificial swarm but…” Tom, Emily and I stood in front of the hive that was once headed by Queen Chili. The colony was no longer ours, having been sold to the beginner a month ago, so we couldn’t open up and see what was happening inside. The cluster looked quite small – a cast off perhaps and the old queen flown off?

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Emily had already inspected Pepper’s hive and the artificial swarm, and she confirmed that both colonies were fine. Tom was about to open Ken’s hive to check the bees. The colony had improved in strength and temper. The brood box was almost full and the bees were placid despite the humid weather.

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“Have you seen Albert’s new bees?” asked Tom. Emily and I walked over to the polynuc and watched as the apiary’s most recent arrivals flew in and out of their new home. The colony was a swarm collection.

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The only sign of Queen Melissa in our longest-standing colony were eggs in cells that I could barely see in the clouded daylight, and bees that were behaving contentedly queen-right. The nest had an average count of brood and stores, but with two supers above maybe the bees were focusing on the nectar flow rather than brood rearing.

The varroa board count for June was around 25 mites for Pepper’s and Melissa’s colonies (above 30 mites may be cause for concern) and, as I would expect, a lower mite drop for the artificially swarmed colony which has yet to build up as much brood. “You’re very good monitoring the mite drop each month,” said Tom. It certainly helps get a better picture of the natural peaks in the varroa cycle throughout the year.

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The afternoon was still and quiet. The Ealing Beekeepers were away at the association’s summer barbeque. Tom was heading off to inspect his hives at the bee hut in Perivale Wood and invited us along. It’s been a year since I was last at Perivale Wood and Andy Pedley greeted us at the gates. The bale hut was coming along nicely and people were picnicking in the field.

“Watch out for the horses!” The woodland’s community, the Selborne Society, had recently bought four new horses as part of its century-long management plan to keep the surrounding fields grazed. “They’re a bit skittish,” explained Andy, “Make sure you give them a wide berth and close the gates behind you.”

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We arrived at the bee hut without disturbing any grazing horses and put on our bee suits. The bee hut is a large shed with four hives inside and entrances on the outside for the bees to come and go.

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From swarming bees to swarming ants, Tom revealed a nest of ants as he lifted the first hive roof. Flying ants taking off and worker ants carrying cocooned eggs showed the full life cycle of this other order of Hymenoptera. I would have liked to remove the ant colony from the roof of my hive, but like a true naturalist Tom had observed the ants’ behaviour in previous years and was not concerned that anything needed to be done. “Last year they flew off once the flying ants had all come out.” The ants were just passing through then, like an airport terminal, and there was no need to interfere, just yet, with an event that had probably occurred in these woodland hives for years.

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It was a very calm inspection with no bees flying around our veils in the bee hut. The apiary environment is different even for mine and Emily’s gentle bees. Tom explained that the bees flying in and out of the hive entrance were probably less aware of us, because we were inside the hut doing the inspection while their outside environment appeared unchanged with no beekeepers standing about.

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The three of us took the scenic route back to Perivale Wood’s decorative iron-wrought gates. Andy was talking to Elsa when we rejoined him. “There was a fly survey of the woods and they identified over 100 different species of flies,” said Andy, pleased to report the findings of the woodland’s diverse ecosystem. “That explains all the flies in my kitchen!” said Elsa, who lives closeby.

At home there are fewer flies in our kitchen since the fish pond was cleaned by aquatic expert Luke during the week. The fish had enjoyed their holiday home while the pool was cleared of an accumulation of sludge and the fountain fixed. They are now happier than ever swimming around the new lilies and playing beneath the water spray.

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A walk around our garden completed a day spent outdoors and my sense of wellbeing was remarkably restored after a busy chaotic week in the city. Birds sang, mason bees hung out of nesting tubes, and bumblebees dangled their legs in front of beguiling foxgloves. The clammy, drizzly start to the day had turned out, in fact, to be a perfect Saturday for a beekeeper.

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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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A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

A winter’s tale

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There is a bee legend handed down from bee generation to bee generation about the mysterious appearance of the great whiteness.

“Ooh the great sparkle,” say the bees as they see the twinkling stars and the early evening frost. “Get inside quickly before the instant freezing grips you in its icy hold.” Then they all settle down in their nice warm hives to listen to the tales about Jack Frost.

It is a fable, of course. Frost fell on the farm in Hereford last weekend. I imagined the bees belonging to the neighbours’ hives peering out at the frozen fields.

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Yesterday was another beautiful winter’s day when Emily and I met for lunch in Ealing, back in London. A mushroom risotto warmed us before getting the bus to Perivale. The clear blue sky had a tinge of orange as the late afternoon sun shone through the tree tops.

Emily’s marmalade cake caused a stir among the murmur of beekeepers who had gathered for tea. “Your bees have been flying like hell,” said Stan, as I cut a slice of cake.

Another bee legend at Ealing apiary, Alan, gave Emily and I tips on insulating the hives with the foil bubble wrap. Here he is showing Emily how to cut squares around a queen excluder to fit into the roof.

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Alan then helped us to fit the foil bubble wrap inside the roof of each hive. The colony will do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter, but the foil will help to reflect the heat back into the hive. Hopefully, the bees will feel even more cosy.

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Bees tucked in for winter, I got a surprise by lifting the roof off an empty hive to put away some equipment. A sleeping wasp with her wings folded neatly by her legs. A bit further along the wood was a desiccated spider and a ladybird who may have died in suspicious circumstances… What dark fairy tale had unfolded?

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I gently placed the roof back on the hive to not disturb the sleeping beauty. She looks small for a wasp queen, perhaps a worker who had abandoned her dying nest? In any case, few hibernating wasp queens survive the winter, either succumbing to the cold or spiders, she’ll have as good a chance as anyone else.

The hives had become still as Emily and I got out the chicken wire to make a start on wrapping the bees for Christmas. The dusk was chasing away the day.

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… As usual and as happened every year, there were those bees who didn’t heed the warnings of the legend. They got caught by Jack Frost’s creeping, sometimes sudden, appearance. The late returning foragers caught frostbite on their wings, or even worse turned into instant bee statues. Those whose wings were caught could only be saved if they happened to be on the hive, so they could walk in and thaw. These lucky bees were the ones who told the tales that were handed down.

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It is a story, of course, as we left the quiet hives behind us to keep their winter secrets.

Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

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This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

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I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

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What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

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While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

The wasp palace

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The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

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This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

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EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

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There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

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We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

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The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

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With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!