Summer’s end

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The moments of sunshine appear in and out of showers in these end of summer days, as I notice the bees nipping in and out of the fading flowers for every last dusting of pollen.

With the cooling of the summer’s warmth, is it my imagination that the bees’ furry coat becomes fuller?

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We spent the last week of summer visiting John’s family in Hereford where the round bales of hay were being rolled in the fields and the trees were showing the first tinges of autumn.

I’ve always liked the autumn and winter months, perhaps because I was born in the winter. At the same time there is also a feeling of sadness as summer ends.

My grandad used to call it ‘the ebb time’. I feel the retreating evening warmth in the buzzing of the bees and watching them eagerly gathering every last flowerful of nectar from the Japanese anemones in the garden.

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This year it’s different because I see the summer sunshine in my bees’ honey. I can appreciate the hard work of summer’s end and enjoy the beginning of autumn as we take the harvest and prepare the hives for the winter.

In Hereford I saw the richness of the harvest in the fruits of the fields as we picked blackberries, plums and apples for pie and crumble.

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The cows were watching as we filled up tubs with fat juicy blackberries from the hedgerows. They (the cows) were inquisitive, said John’s mum. So was The Gruffalo, the magnificent new bull, but he got fresh hay, not blackberries, for supper and enjoyed his nose being scratched.

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After the bank holiday’s rain had passed, we drove ‘abroad’ to Wales to view the impressive Victorian dams set in the beautiful Elan Valley in Rhayader. The country is always changing in Wales. It’s stunning.

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A visit to the Elan Valley “never fails to delight and inspire” says the information at the visitor centre. I could imagine that living here would inspire creativity to flow from every pore.

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There is a feeling of spending time in nature that I can only describe as contentment.

We met a friend of mine for lunch by Hereford cathedral and he put into words exactly what I felt. In London there is everything to do and no time to do it. Here, there is a lot to do and more time to do it. While being on holiday puts everything in a romantic light, I could easily imagine swapping city life for living in the country.

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On the farm John’s dad brought home a bunch of hops and asked if I knew what they were. I didn’t.

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He also found a dead grass snake in the corn field to bring back for show-and-tell. We laid him to rest behind a tree in the garden.

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The last day of summer was the best day with deep blue skies and golden sunshine. I sat on the back of the bike as John cycled from the cottage to the farm house, listening to the birds and bees and watching the cats preen lazily in the yards.

We enjoyed a full roast dinner before saying our goodbyes and driving back to London. John took the very scenic route through Gloucester and Burford in the Cotswolds, and we eventually arrived home just before sunset. Our small London flat smelt of the honey that had been slowly dripping from frames hanging over a container for a week. Patience and perseverance has paid off, I may be able to return wet supers with drawn comb to the hive to give the bees a head start in spring.

Autumn is now here and as the sun rises lower in the skies so the afternoon shadows stretch longer and further, and the days grow shorter. My kitchen is overflowing with summer’s bounty of apples, plums and honey ready to make honeyed fruit crumbles and pies. Winter is coming so I’ll leave this memory of a playful calf frolicking at summer’s end.

Remembering Myrtle

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Myrtle emerged inside the hive in July 2012 after a dramatic season of monsoons and regicide. It was during the London 2012 Olympics, her grandmother Lavender had swarmed and left behind her mother Neroli who failed shortly after. We were delighted by Myrtle’s gentle and playful nature, and she would become our most successful and long-lived queen.

Two year’s later, Myrtle disappeared in a suspected supersedure and we have anxiously waited a month for the new queen to show herself and start laying. The beautiful picture above was taken by John during our trip to Lancashire last month. I’ve posted it today in remembrance of our lovely Queen Myrtle.

And yesterday we spotted her beautiful daughter, here’s a blurry close-up.

IMG_4565We were fairly sure the new queen was Myrtle’s daughter, rather than from the frame of eggs put in by Emily from Chamomile’s hive, but I wanted to check our records at home first. The timing is right, the new queen is from Myrtle’s line. I’m so glad that we patiently waited for the queen and the bees, rather than combining the colony with another.

I have the perfect name for Myrtle’s daughter, although I won’t reveal until telling Emily. I’m just so happy and relieved that our long dynasty of gentle queens continues. Here are some of Myrtle’s old daughters looking content with their new matriarch.

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Emily was just finishing an inspection on Chili’s hive when I arrived yesterday. Chamomile’s bees instantly stung a beginner beekeeper, British traffic policeman Rick, as he pulled the first frame. It was Rick’s first day as a beekeeper, I hope he didn’t feel like arresting our bees. You can see Chamomile at the bottom of this picture.

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Fortunately it takes more than one sting to put off the British police. Rick inspected Pepper’s hive, who were cautiously well behaved. He spotted the queen on the fourth frame in and seeing that all was well we finished the day’s inspections. Emily smoked down Pepper’s bees to avoid squashing them when the super went back on.

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Emily and I are extracting the honey at my dad’s house today. Four strong hives (though one not so healthy) and two supers of honey. I feel like it has taken a long winding road to get to where we are today, a bit like crossing a river of stepping stones. So here’s another lovely photo by John as this year’s beekeeping season comes to an end.

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Myrtle links

Myrtle, the quiet one

A plant study of Myrtle

Olympic queens (Queen Myrtle is named)

The story of our summer bees

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

A tale of two colonies

A case of supersedure and a super goes on (our last sighting of Myrtle)

A flurry of honey

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Jonsey had been stung twice by the time I arrived at the apiary. “I put my head around the net and they got me,” he said, pulling on his suit. It was a hot and humid Sunday. We were taking off the honey, although the muggy air was the more likely reason for the bees’ defensive behaviour. Jonsey was helping out while Emily was away.

I had put a clearer board underneath a super in Myrtle’s hive on Saturday afternoon. A clearer board has one or two ‘escapes’ that let bees go down but not back up, so ‘clearing’ the super of bees. I took off the roof and saw that the clearer board had done the job. Jonsey carried the super to the apiary table where we brushed off stragglers and wrapped the box in plastic to prevent more bees, or wasps, from flying inside.

That was two weeks’ ago. Since then Emily and I have taken off a second super, both are sitting in my dad’s kitchen ready to spin the honey.

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So what about the bees? Our favourite hive may be queenless. Myrtle mysteriously disappeared a month ago with strangely squashed queen cells found inside the hive. The workers are behaving calmly, not erratic like a queenless colony, but there is no sign of a new queen, eggs or much brood. We put a second test frame of eggs from Chili’s colony into the hive to see if the workers try to make queen cells.

Emily inspected Pepper’s hive and reported all was well, though the queen was in hiding. Queens Chili and Chamomile did make an appearance. Can you spot Chili in her queen cage? She has a pink crown.

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Chamomile was hiding in a crevice underneath the comb where we couldn’t cage her. A few bees were crawling around with shrivelled wings, a sign of deformed wing virus (DWV) which can be transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. We also saw black shiny hairless bees who may have chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), which is thought to be transmitted by varroa. Soon we’ll be starting varroa treatments on the hives.

So that’s where we left our bees at the weekend with the honey harvested and the queens still keeping us guessing. Jonsey observed drones cowering in the corners of frames. The season is nearly over and they know what is to come…

Here’s a big beefy drone who fell in love with me. He sat on my yellow gloves during a recent inspection, fluttering his wings. I felt like a queen bee.

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The month of honey

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So England has lost and is out of the World Cup. There is still a promising summer ahead and today was a beautiful day for beekeeping with blue skies and sunshine.

Festivals were taking place all over London from Hanwell to Greenwich, but I was more interested in celebrating bees and honey in Perivale. Last Saturday Emily and I had put a super on top of Myrtle’s hive and today we would see what the bees had done with it.

They did this…

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Evidence.

Beautiful drawn honeycomb on every frame glistening with honey ready to be capped. We couldn’t help but spend a few minutes admiring it. Honey. That Myrtle’s colony has moved so quickly to fill up a super shows they had really needed the space. We lifted the super to one side and covered with the crownboard to keep the bees warm and protected from robbers.

Myrtle’s bees had been caught playing with the idea of building queen cells last week, although there were no larvae inside the cells. I read in Ted Hooper that removal of two-year-old queens should take place in late August to early September, because of the advantages of having a young queen for wintering. She is less likely to die or become a drone layer, and she keeps the brood nest active for longer in the season, which means younger workers do not have to live as long in winter conditions. (Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper.) Emily and I have never removed a queen unless it was necessary for the colony’s survival, such as a drone layer, and we’ve never bought a replacement queen, preferring the bees to make their own and decide when to do so. That’s worked out, so far. I have a feeling that the bees might supersede Myrtle in August without our interference. We’ll wait and see.

The queen in question was spotted during the hive inspection. “Look how calmly and slowly she walks,” said a beginner. Myrtle is our loveliest queen, regal and elegant with a skip of playfulness. I adore her. We saw more drone cells in the middle of the frame rather than the edges, which can be another sign of an ageing queen. Oh, Myrtle.

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More evidence.

Jonesy lifted the super back on the hive and we put a second super on top. The lime is out and the bees will be flying. “You might need supers on all your hives,” said Jonesy. Hopeful. Though the two hives that were split into four on 11th May must build their brood to full strength. The colony of Chili’s daughter is on its way with plenty of brood and stores. However, the colony of Chamomile’s daughter shows signs of a failed queen. When Emily had spotted cells containing two eggs last week, we gave the new queen the benefit of the doubt and more time to get used to her egg-laying duties. Today we saw much more drone comb, fewer worker brood and young larvae, and no sign of the queen. I suggested a frame of eggs from another hive to test whether the she was still in there – if not, then the bees would build another queen cell – but as usual the workers were one step ahead of us. On the second-to-last frame we found a queen cell. Inside there was a pearly white larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly.

This was the first time in five years that I have seen a queen larva curled in her cell waiting to be sealed. I was tempted to take a picture, but conscious that the future of this colony is perilous and that queen larva in their cells are easily damaged. Returning the frame to the hive with care, we had two choices. The first to take down the queen cell and unite the, probably, queenless colony with its mother colony, Chamomile’s, to make one stronger hive with a laying queen. The second was to give the bees a chance to make their queen and become an established colony in their own right. We chose the latter, but their chances aren’t good. It is six weeks’ since the colonies were split and waiting for a new queen to emerge and mate will set back this colony another few weeks. As workers get older they become less able to nurse and raise brood. Nurse bees are usually between 5 to 10 days old and eat a lot of pollen for their glands to produce royal jelly and brood food. We don’t know how many workers in this hive are still nursers, but we may have to revisit our decision if the situation deteriorates and unite colonies for the wellbeing of the bees.

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Chili’s colony is starting to fill the brood nest, although not with the same gusto that her bees had at the start of the season and before the split. Her bees were testy today. The same was true of Chamomile’s hive, except that our feistiest queen was in a fairer mood and her bees were behaving nicely. Having five hives to inspect is like going through every temperament of bee in an afternoon. You can see Chamomile in the picture above getting a licking from her workers as she walks across the frame. Her pheromones are being spread throughout the colony as her workers lick her and then each other, telling the entire court that the queen is present and well, and to do her bidding.

Today we left the apiary with our dreams of honey coming true, and thoughts of the first taste of Myrtle’s honey to come…

I taste its juice; sweet gods of the evergreen
woods’ taste;
crushed music, bars and epiphanies of dripping air;
aggregated cells
of each and every flower’s oddness there;

this sugar-map.
Bee Journal, Sean Borodale

Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

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Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

A tale of two colonies

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‘Your blog is like a soap opera. Each week I tune in to find out what the bees will do next,’ my friend Danielle had said a few years ago. ‘The twists and turns of your queens has been really dramatic!’ She was talking about the bee saga of 2012 when a season of prolonged rainfall and drone-laying queens had made beekeeping more interesting than usual.

This year I was hopeful for strong colonies, steady queens, fair weather and plentiful flows. How we get the season going is an important part of its success and this year we were well prepared, but as Emily and I have learned, anything can happen in bee land.

This is a long post, written in the raw to get my thoughts and feelings down.

Day one

Last Saturday’s all-day sunshine made it a great day to kick off the season. The apiary was pretty in the sun as I waited for Emily. We were going to change the comb. Regular readers will know that beekeepers in the UK are advised to replace the old brood comb once a year, with fresh comb, using methods like the shook swarm or Bailey comb change. The thinking behind this is to manage the levels of diseases and parasites that often live within a bee colony. Even if you can’t see any visible signs of disease, there are parasites that live with the bees all year round and it’s best not to let them get out of hand.

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For the past two years we had used the Bailey comb change, because this is a gentler method, and while we had enjoyable seasons beekeeping and learned a lot, the bees had not done that well. They were slow to complete the Bailey – whether due to poor weather, failing queens, or the collective characteristic of the colony being too complacent and slow – and last year our longest-standing hive didn’t complete the Bailey at all, which meant some comb was now two-years old.

I had a positive experience in my first-year beekeeping of shook swarming my hive. The bees had risen to the challenge and the colony had boomed, thrived and burst over with bees and honey. Having thought and read about this for months in winter, I wondered if it was time to try out the shook swarm again, at least with a couple of colonies, to re-invigorate the bees and to get rid of comb that wasn’t changed last year. Emily’s inspection of the bees, while John and I were in Dubai, showed Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were strong enough to shook swarm, but Chamomile’s was weak and might be better for a Bailey.

That decided, I lit my first smoker of the season and we opened up Myrtle’s hive. After a few frames in, I was delighted to see our favourite queen. There she was big, beautiful and dark with an amber tinge. Emily gently caged her with a few workers to keep her company, then placed the cage in a small blue tub to the side of the hive, in the shade to keep the queen cool and safe.

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That done, we did the business of the shook swarm. The original hive was moved to one side and a clean floor placed on the original hive site – so the foraging bees will not get confused when flying home to the same spot – then we placed a queen excluder on the floor, so the queen can’t abscond with her colony after the shook swarm, which she might do if the upheaval upsets her. On top went the new brood chamber with fresh frames, the centre four frames removed to provide a space to shake all the bees from the old combs.

I shook the bees from the old hive into the new hive as one of my first-year mentors had taught me: holding each of the old brood frames a third of the way into the empty chamber of the new hive and giving a sudden shake downward, careful not to knock the frame or bees against the sides. My shaking method was successful as almost all the bees fell off, leaving Emily and I to brush off the rest with leaves.

Incredibly, we barely had to use the smoker at all! Our lovely girls were well behaved throughout the whole shook swarm process and we worked quickly together as hive partners to make sure the upheaval to the bees was over as soon as possible. I shook and handed Emily the old frames to put into bin liners (to be tidy as we worked) ready to be discarded into the apiary’s burner.

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The old brood frames, some with unhatched brood, is burned. Thankfully, as it is still early in the year, there was not much unhatched brood on the frames, so we wouldn’t have to destroy many un-emerged bees. I noticed a few bees were starting to chew away the wax cappings and, not being completely heartless, I suggested Emily use the tweezers in our kit to help these bees emerge before the frames went on the bonfire. Emily rescued as many unhatched bees as she could, while I continued shook swarming.

It was soon over. We carefully put Myrtle into the new hive with her daughters and placed the crownboard (not a queen excluder, this is an important point to remember later in this post) on top of the new brood nest. The bees would now be busy drawing new comb from the foundation in a completely clean hive for a fresh start. I was particularly hoping the shook swarm would invigorate this laid-back colony, though it is my favourite, from ambling around all summer to properly ‘get-going’ this year.

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Even so, shaking two boxes of bees into another box isn’t easy – a lot of workers stubbornly stayed in the old hive boxes around the corners and sides. I used Joseph’s trick of propping up these old hive parts near the entrance of the new hive. The bees would soon figure out that the queen was inside and walk in to join her.

Next, Chili’s hive. This queen took us longer to find than Myrtle, but then we spotted her familiar red dot and long orangey-brown striped body. I thought again how lovely it was to see our queens after winter. We caged Chili and shook swarmed her colony into the new hive, propping up the old hive boxes to the entrance so unshook bees could walk in.

Both Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies would now be fed lots of sugar syrup over the next few weeks to help the hives build up – the bees use the sugar to produce wax for comb-building. The nectar flow is strong at the moment, so if the bees don’t want the syrup then they can leave it, but we liked it there just in case.

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As Chamomile’s hive was weaker we decided to leave the comb change till next week, to give these bees a chance to settle into the season and us more time to decide what to do. The apiary was also starting to get busy with beekeepers and I always find it harder to concentrate when there are lots of people around.

Pat had kindly helped Emily get started with the burner and as the fire roared the old brood frames were destroyed, to be hygienic to the apiary and neighbouring hives. I had a quick scout around the apiary to collect up dead wood to be burned.

Walking back to our newly shook-swarmed hives, I saw Joseph’s trick had worked its magic again. The straggler bees had gone into the new hives and the old hive parts were now completely empty. I neatly stacked them the side and cleared everything away into our kit box. These empty hive boxes, along with wooden dummy boards, crownboards, queen excluders, roofs and floors, would be blow-torched clean in a few weeks’ time, ready to fill with new frames should the bees expand this season or kept aside for next year’s comb change.

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With our two hives shook swarmed I suddenly felt very nervous. What if it was not the right decision? What if our colonies were not strong enough to survive the upheaval? The Bailey now felt like a better choice where we didn’t lose all the honeycomb, brood and stores from the hive in one day and anxiously waited a week for the bees to recover and rebuild. However, if I’ve learned anything as a beekeeper it’s that I must have the courage to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. The decision to shook swarm seemed right at the time given the strength, personalities and circumstances of the colonies in past years where the Bailey hadn’t quite worked. So we’d just have to wait and see.

I think it’s important as a beekeeper to try the different methods and observing their effects a number of times for yourself in the first 5–10 years’ beekeeping, because you build the skill and experience to know what to do and how to do it when faced with different colonies in different situations. Whether it’s a shook swarm, Bailey or doing nothing at all, it’s about having a big bag of tricks as a beekeeper. I’d only done a shook swarm once before, it was time to learn about it first-hand again. Nature would soon tell me if I was wrong.

Day two

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The day after the shook swarm John drove me back to the apiary to refill the feeders with syrup. I remembered in my first year that shook-swarmed colonies need to be fed a lot of sugar to help them recover. John waited outside as I suited up and walked to the hives. I took the roof off Myrtle’s hive and my heart stopped. There she was, our precious queen, floundering in the feeder with the workers. Her long body dipping precariously in the syrup.

Before I could think why the queen had wandered into the feeder, where she should never be, I quickly removed it, got out the queen and hastily put her back inside the hive where she rolled unceremoniously to the floor. The bees were furious and I had to ignore them as I closed up, this time putting a queen excluder on top (remember earlier, the shook swarm instructions don’t include putting an excluder above the nest) so the queen could not possibly find her way into syrup again. As I topped up the feeders in both Myrtle’s and Chili’s hive, I reflected on why Myrtle had walked up there. Day two after the shook swarm, the queen has nowhere to lay eggs and nothing to do but wait for the workers to build comb with cells to lay eggs. To do this, the workers need lots of energy, from sugar, to produce wax, and they would all cluster in the feeder taking down syrup. It was probably warm and tempting up there for Myrtle, who went to join her daughters or maybe she was just looking for a place to lay. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t risk this inquisitive queen falling into the syrup to a sweet sugary death.

I thought about putting a queen excluder on top of Chili’s hive too, but it was late in the day and the bees were testy after the disturbance. So I left the apiary and worried about the bees for three days.

Day five

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Midweek I went back to the apiary to feed the hives again. Myrtle’s hive had half taken the syrup down and Chili’s had finished theirs. I’ve read that you shouldn’t disturb a shook-swarmed hive for a week – just feed and feed – but I couldn’t resist a peek inside Myrtle’s colony to see all was well. Taking off the crownboard, I stared through the queen excluder and five seams of bees stared back at me. To my relief the colony was calm, suggesting Myrtle was alright, and appeared to be building wax across five frames already. I closed up and left the bees in peace.

Day eight

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Yesterday Emily and I carried out the first inspection on the two hives since the shook swarm. I was nervous what we would find – and it was a happy discovery. Myrtle was alive and well in her hive, walking in her playful way across the frame. The bees were building comb across five–six frames and the queen had even laid eggs. Not bad for our normally complacent bees, they had risen to the challenge and I was very proud of them. The more cautious Chili was found scrutinising cells in her hive and her bees had industriously started drawing comb on eight–nine frames, there were even rainbows of pollen alongside glistening stores of nectar.

While I’m not sure that I would shook swarm every year, it felt like what was needed this year and so far the signs were good. Let’s hope it stays that way.

We fed the bees more syrup and will continue feeding them until they don’t want it anymore. Emily also left pollen supplements alongside the frames – as we’d caused the upheaval to the bees, it was up to us to give them a helping hand.

The overcast weather meant it wasn’t a good day for a full inspection, and we were satisfied that we’d seen the queens and the two colonies were recovering well from the shook swarm. So we closed up and went for a cup of tea and cake.

While all this drama was happening in Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives, Chamomile’s hive was having its own misadventure. More on that next time.

Reflections…

This was a difficult post to write – I expect many beekeepers, particularly those who use natural methods, will disagree and criticise me for doing a shook swarm. I’ve nothing against any method, in particular, if it works for the beekeeper and their bees. But I need to learn my own way. Here, I’ve dissected all my thoughts and feelings around the decision to shook swarm and my reaction afterwards, and I’ve been harder on myself this past week than anyone else could be. Whether I shook swarm again or not, this was a valuable learning experience to record, so that it will help guide me in future years as a beekeeper.

Small thoughts on Bug Hotels

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‘With a cold snap on the way, it’s nice to give solitary bees and other useful insects a place to stay,’ I posted on my Facebook wall last Sunday with a photo of a pretty bug hotel I had bought in the afternoon at Westfield shopping centre. ‘Though I don’t yet have my own garden, hopefully it will find a quiet, undisturbed corner in a friend’s backyard.’ The post was inspired by a recent article on A french garden‘s blog, More on the mason bees, and proved popular with family and friends. I hoped they would be inspired to build bug hotels in their gardens.

This small thought grew in the week as I tweeted: ‘Building a bug hotel is so easy, looks so pretty and makes bugs so happy ow.ly/qUmTd #homesfornature #bug @Natures_Voice‘. The link was from a website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). RSPB is running a wonderful campaign named Giving nature a home. The idea is that anyone can make a home for nature no matter how big or small a space you have to give.

There’s even a useful free guide on how to help wildlife on your doorstep.

My tweet was also popular and @MrKevinMatthews tweeted me a link to his blog post on Insect House in the middle of their street. Well, it’s in the middle of their garden fence, but you get the idea. It’s a fabulous construction that not only makes an attractive garden feature but creates many homes for nature. Another thought – imagine if all fences and walls along our streets and around our parks were built with insect houses? Entrances could face away from traffic and glass-panes on the back could provide observation panels for curious passersby? I think insect manors would be a great feature for any city! Welcome to bug capital!

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St James’s Park near my new place of work. A five-minute stroll for me but a long trek for a little lacewing.

Parts of towns and cities can be a desert for our insect pollinators unable to find a nearby tree or flower to feast. Local wildlife can become homeless as compost heaps are swept away, fallen twigs and leaves tidied up, and messy hedgerows cut back. While the walk between the office and the nearest park at lunch may be five minutes on foot for me or you, it could be a day’s journey for a hungry lacewing or tired beetle. Bug hotels placed here and there would make ‘bridges’ or places to rest for small creatures trekking between one habitat and the next. I think they would make our cities more pleasant and interesting places for humans to live too.

Why? Because who doesn’t enjoy the first fat bumblebee popping out of a daffodil in spring, or being surprised by a ladybird landing on your coat, or sighting a dragonfly purposefully darting in and out of reeds? Spaces for nature, big or small, will help keep nature in our lives and ensure today’s children grow up seeing butterflies and bees buzzing in our towns.

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In the late autumn gloom of the apiary on a rainy Saturday a few weeks ago.

All is still at the apiary as honeybee colonies cluster together for warmth deep in the darkness of the hives. Emily and I miss our bees over winter, but we often think of solitary bees and bumblebee queens nestling away from the cold. We feel sorry that they don’t have keepers to insulate their homes and feed them fondant and pollen cakes when stores run low in February.

I hope our apiary provides a messy sanctuary to the wildlife we can’t see hiding beneath deadwood and wet leaves.

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And as regular readers know, in sun, rain or snow the apiary is home for beekeepers who are partial to tea and cake…

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Today’s high tea was delicious iced chocolate cakes made by Emily.

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Some beekeepers have been losing sleep worrying about woodpeckers! Jonesy kindly helped Emily wrap our hives in chicken wire, while Thomas has provided insulated roofs.

Honeybees get a lot of attention but other insects need keeping too! Bug hotels are great alternatives to supporting local pollinators and encouraging other bees (around 25 bumblebee species and around 240 other bee species including solitary bees in the UK) into your garden, local park or place of work. Hives make attractive features but so do bug hotels and they come in many more varieties – look at this incredible collection: Insect hotels on Pinterest.

This winter I’m writing to councils, parks, golf courses, schools and businesses to ask them to get involved by encouraging bug hotels. As my friend Suzanne would say, ‘It’s not asking for the moon-on-a-stick’ – just a little bug hotel on the back of a garden shed!

And if you need any more inspiration then I’ve collected these links and more at the end of this post. I’d love to see pictures of bug hotels that you build for a follow-up post in spring.

Useful links
More on the mason bees by A french garden

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB):
Giving nature a home
Twitter @Natures_Voice
RSPB Love Nature Facebook (wonderful for sharing inspiring ideas and stories)
Download RSPB’s useful free guide on how to give nature a home

More Bug Hotels:
Insect House by @MrKevinMatthews
Build a bug mansion by Wild About Gardens
Making a bug hotel downloadable leaflet by Royal Horticultural Society
Make a bug home by BBC Breathing Places
How to make a bug box by Gardeners World
Handmade Homes For Snug Bugs by Bug Hotel

Finally, thoughts from 2012 on why our native habitat maybe disappearing:
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch? A past post reporting on a talk by Dr Stuart Roberts of Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research, speaking at the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Association’s annual Beekeepers Day on Saturday 25 February 2012.