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.

Trick or treat bee!

Our bees love when it rains sugar! Happy Halloween from the honeybees!

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing

Mod 6.5 leadA worker honeybee is patrolling the hive. She walks around the colony watching her sisters clean cells, nurse brood, build comb and fan nectar. She sees drones being pushed aside by returning foragers impatient to unload heavy baskets of pollen. She turns as the queen walks past looking for suitable cells to lay eggs.

Such is the constant activity of the hive that it almost causes her to miss a haphazardly laid egg. Almost. She pauses. The egg lies lopsided along the wall of the cell, not neatly deposited at the bottom. The queen, a precise egg-layer, is never so careless, so the worker climbs in the cell to investigate. Every egg laid by the queen has a signature scent (pheromone) but this egg does not have her mother’s tag – it has been laid by one of her sisters, a rebellious laying worker.

The queen does not need to fear insurrection because her daughters are very efficient at policing themselves. Without hesitation, our worker eats her sister’s egg and if she happens to catch her sister laying more eggs, she will not treat her kindly.

My fourth post for BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour covers syllabus item 6.5, which discusses the social organisation of the honeybee colony as a well-structured and highly hierarchical community. This time my revision notes are summarised and illustrated by beautiful infographics created for my blog by designer Keith Whitlock.

6.5 The social organisation of the honeybee colony including worker policing.

The honeybee is a eusocial insect, which describes an advanced level of social organisation. The most familiar examples of eusocial insects are bees, ants and wasps, which all belong to the insect order Hymenoptera.

Eusociality is demonstrated by:

  • colony of overlapping generations from eggs and larvae to young and fully mature adults
  • caste system that divides labour between reproductive individuals (queen) and sterile individuals (workers)
  • responsibility for rearing young shared by large numbers of sterile individuals on behalf of the reproductives

The organisation of a honeybee colony revealing a eusocial society is given below:

Mod 6.5 infographic eusociality

Now that’s understood, here’s how the bees get organised inside the hive.

The queen
(diploid, fertile reproductive individual)
The queen is the most important bee in the colony. She lays eggs, providing a constant supply of new bees, and produces queen substance to control the workers and keep the colony working together as a cohesive whole.

Egg layer
The queen fulfils the role of egg-layer thanks to the royal jelly that she is continually fed in copious amounts as a young larva, thus ensuring she has fully developed ovaries and is able to mate. It is only the queen who can lay both fertilised eggs (which become female workers or potential new queens) and unfertilised eggs (which become male drones).

The queen mates not long after hatching and lays around 1,500 eggs per day; she may live between 3–5 years (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). She is not only a prolific egg-layer, she is also precise. With her long abdomen, she carefully deposits one egg, placed neatly in the centre, at the bottom of a cell (fertilised with a single sperm or left unfertilised) and marked by a pheromone so that the workers can recognise eggs laid by the queen.

Queen substance
The queen secretes a substance from her mandibular glands called queen substance – a heady mix of chemicals of which the main component is the pheromone 9-oxodec-2-enoic acid (9-ODA). The queen substance is constantly spread throughout the hive as workers lick the queen and then pass the chemicals to other bees. Queen substance, combined with a pheromone given off by her own brood, inhibits the development of the workers’ ovaries – effectively it acts as a natural contraceptive! It is quite effective as normally only 0.01% of workers can produce full-sized eggs and only 0.1% of drones in a hive are the sons of laying workers.

Queen substance modifies worker behaviour in other ways:

  • inhibits building of new queen cells
  • stimulates foraging activities for nectar and pollen
  • encourages workers to build honeycomb

The pheromone 9-ODA is also released by the queen as a scent to attract male drones during her mating flight.

As the queen gets older her queen substance becomes weaker, and her egg-laying decreases, so that she has less control over her workers. They will eventually build queen cells to replace her.

Mod 6.5 infographic queen

Workers and worker policing
(diploid, infertile non-reproductive individual)
If you see a honeybee foraging on a flower in spring and summer she is likely to be a female worker. Almost every bee inside the hive is a worker and female.

Workers are the worker caste and carry out all the tasks for the colony (see revision post 6.1 the role of the worker bee). They live for around 40 days in spring and summer and between 5–6 months over autumn and winter.

Development of infertile females
After hatching, all young larvae are fed royal jelly for three days and then put on a diet of brood food, unless specially selected to become queens. Larvae who are continually fed royal jelly become queens with fully developed ovaries and are able to mate. Worker larvae are not fed royal jelly after day three of their development, have under-developed ovaries and are not able to mate. Their ovaries are unlikely to develop as adult bees due to the pheromones given off by the queen substance and the brood.

Worker policing
However, some workers may produce full-size eggs in their ovaries and become laying workers. Their progeny are destined to become drone because they cannot mate and have no sperm to fertilise their eggs.

Laying workers are quite careless. They may lay more than one egg per cell and because their abdomens are shorter than the queen’s the eggs are often laid haphazardly against the cell wall. They do not differentiate between worker-sized and drone-sized cells, laying drone eggs in worker-sized cells that hatch as drones with stunted growth.

Most importantly, worker-laid eggs are not marked by the queen’s pheromone, which helps other workers to police their illegal egg-laying activities. Worker-laid eggs are usually removed from cells and eaten by other workers (a practice known as oophagy).

Mod 6.5 infographic worker police

Drones
(haploid, fertile reproductive individual)
Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). A drone hatches from an unfertilised egg and inherits one set of chromosomes from his mother, the queen; for this reason, a queen cannot mate with drones from her own colony due to the risks of inbreeding.

Drones that mate with a virgin queen on her mating flight will die in the act, and drones that don’t mate but live to the end of the summer will eventually outlive their usefulness to the colony and be evicted by their sisters.

Drones do no work inside the hive, although beekeepers have observed in spring and summer that colonies with fewer drones can be bad tempered. Perhaps drones fulfil another purpose not yet discovered.

Mod 6.5 infographic drones

I’m looking forward to exploring the next item on the syllabus – dancing bees!

Related links

BBKA examination path and BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 4th Honeybee behaviour revision post: social organisation of the colony

Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading

Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513

No incidental music please, say the squirrels

Before going on holiday to North Carolina, my options were to leave incidental music playing on my blog or a time-release post about squirrels. I chose squirrels.

So here’s an exposé of the infamous squirrel mafia at Regent’s Park. Enjoy!

A generous passerby looks for a biscuit in her bag to feed a hungry squirrel.

She is too slow for the squirrel who decides that he will do a better job of looking for himself.

Mission accomplished.

Here’s my beautiful, kind friend Helen. Also foolish and unsuspecting – not realising she is being set up…

…for a squirrel ambush!

You wanna piece of me?

As naughty as they are, I was having a lot of fun taking pictures of squirrels until they called in the paparazzi police…

‘No photo!’

This cheeky squirrel even had time to stick out his tongue before making a quick getaway.

Not all wildlife in Regent’s Park is shy about being papped. Apologies to my friend, Danielle, if she is reading this post, for the pigeon…

Magpie, squirrel and… ‘Don’t forget me!’, says the pigeon.

There were a lot more squirrel photos too, but I was feeling quite unwell at the time of preparing this incidental piece. So for more squirrel shenanigans do check out this fun post at Garden Walk, Garden Talk: Shock and Awe – Squirrel Style. And happily, as you read this, I’ll be curled in a comfy armchair beside a log fire in North Carolina, still sleeping off Thanksgiving Dinner!

Lions and tigers and bees…

The magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger. Sadly, only 3,000 tigers survive in the wild today. Just 3,000. Image courtesy of anekoho / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

‘I’m not a cat person because I’ve never been bitten by a radioactive cat,’ said Ed Byrne, speaking at last night’s ZSL London Zoo ‘Roar with Laughter’ charity comedy gig. The event was hosted at Hammersmith Apollo Theatre in London, with top comedians Phill Jupitus, Andy Parsons, Jon Richardson, Sarah Kendall, Richard Herring, Ed Byrne, Lucy Porter and Greg Burns who all generously donated their time to make us roar with laughter and help ZSL to save the tiger.

The fundraiser for tigers was a lovely night out with Emily and Drew. We enjoyed the comedians and wearing our free tiger masks! I had booked the tickets weeks ago to celebrate the end of a challenging year of beekeeping. The London Zoo comedy was a poignant reminder that honeybees are not the only creatures who are disappearing.

So this week’s post is dedicated to two stripy species in need of SOS! Tigers and bees – sorry, no lions.

Save our stripes

The tiger is my favourite wild cat, so it makes me sad that these beautiful animals are endangered and may soon vanish from our forests. Only 3,000 tigers survive in the wild today and just 300 wild Sumatran tigers remain in Indonesia. Tiger populations are threatened by deforestation as humans push further into tiger territory, which has shrunk to an estimated 7% of its former size. Tigers also face threats from poaching for medicine, magic and souvenirs.

I met this lovely Sumatran tiger at ZSL London Zoo earlier this year. While I would dearly love to see tigers living free in the wild, sometimes the wild is not there.

ZSL is raising money to help save the Sumatran tiger through conservation activities in natural habitats as well as building a new Tiger Territory at London Zoo. The exhibit is due to open in spring 2013 and will cost £3.6 million to build.

If you would like to find out more about ZSL’s field conservation work in key tiger ranges including Russia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, the new Tiger Territory and how to help support the tiger SOS, visit ZSL Sumatran tiger campaign.

‘With just 300 Sumatran tigers left in the wild,’ says ZSL ‘[We want] to take action to ensure this vulnerable sub-species does not face the same fate as the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers, now lost to the world forever.’

Bee lovely and help save the bees

A lovely bee that I saw munching on pink flowers in Regent’s Park this summer.

Loss of habitat and human activities also threaten the honeybee as well as many other bee species and insect pollinators. So I was very pleased to hear that Neal’s Yard Remedies (NYR) has re-launched the Bee Lovely Campaign to raise awareness for the plight of the bee. The campaign urges people to sign the petition to ban the use of powerful pesticides, neonictinoids (neonics), in the UK.

‘Using new technology, neonics penetrate the plant and attack the nervous system of insects that feed off them – posing a deadly threat to all pollinators. Neonics are 7000 times more toxic than DDT, a chemical pesticide the UK government banned in 1984,’ says NYR in their press release for the campaign.

The petition will be taken to Downing Street when it reaches 100,000 signatures. Last year it was signed by over 92,000 people worldwide, so please ‘bee lovely’ and spread the word! Supporters can sign the petition at NYR stores nationwide or online, click here. The petition closing date is 30 November 2012.

Tiger-bee! Orangey and stripy!

The campaign also features a beautiful range of bee-inspired products that blend organic honey with divine orange and mandarin essential oils. The Bee Lovely range includes: Bee Lovely Busy Bee Balm, Bee Lovely Bath & Shower Gel, Bee Lovely Handwash and Bee Lovely Body Lotion. A beautiful book about bees accompanies the Bee Lovely Campaign when you buy a product in store!

To find out more about NYR’s Bee Lovely Campaign, click here. I will be posting NYR’s blogger badge on my blog, so please share it too!

Related links

ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?

ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day': dreams do come true

‘Stick together and don’t split up,’ warned specialist keeper Mick Tiley, as we entered the penguin enclosure. ‘The penguins get suspicious if you split up.’

The penguins cautiously eyed our group as we walked slowly round Penguin Beach and started to scrub the sides of their spacious pool. Waddling up to investigate, a couple of nosy blackfooted penguins decided to help out.

Being accepted by the penguins was only one of the highlights of ZSL London Zoo’s ‘Keeper for a Day’. I fed a tiger, got licked by a giraffe, pawed by a spider monkey and climbed on by lemurs. This amazing scheme offers ordinary members of the public, like me, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a zookeeper for the day. As part of a party of five, we were assigned to an experienced keeper, kitted out in overalls and given various tasks from mucking out enclosures, preparing food and devising enrichment activities.

'Oh yeah'

'That's good'

'Jealous'

'Nice welly. Cath Kidston?'

I have wanted to be a zookeeper since I was nine, so going behind the scenes and meeting my favourite animals was a dream come true! Sitting in the sand playing with penguins, I wondered, does it get any better than this?

Our group was led by Mick Tiley, specialist keeper, who has worked at London Zoo for over 30 years. Mick shows groups round several times a month and I soon realised how privileged we were to have him as our guide. It was clear that Mick loves his job and has a wealth of knowledge about the animals, which he was keen to share.

‘I lose very few people,’ said Mick, as we shovelled zebra poo and laid out fresh hay and sand in their stables. He was pleased by our willingness to get stuck in. ‘Some people are given the day as a gift and arrive with no idea what to expect.’

I certainly didn’t expect this…

'It's unsanitary!'

Feeding the giraffes slices of white bread for their mid-morning treat, Mick told us, ‘They don’t like brown bread’. The giraffes were incredibly polite and waited patiently as we tore off bits of bread, daintily wrapping their long tongues round each morsel.

'They are so cute from a reasonable distance'

The ‘Keeper for a Day’ experience helps ZSL London Zoo to fund conservation programmes in Britain and over 50 countries worldwide. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is a charity devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

However, this was a behind-the-scenes adventure for me. Have you seen those staff-only entry signs? We went past all those points! At ZSL London Zoo Aquarium, Mick took us through a door only for zookeepers and down a narrow walkway eerily lit by tanks of mysterious sea beasties. Giddy with excitement, my fish-fear was forgotten until I saw we were standing above a tank with a yellow warning sign for dangerous animals.

Piranha don't swim round the tank like other fish. They hang there, watching, waiting...

‘Some species of piranha are vegetarian,’ said Mick, explaining that putting our hands in would not result in a feeding frenzy – unless it was the dry season when they get aggressive. These were not the veggie-eating sort and I didn’t fancy a fish manicure.

It was feeding time and we were handed a bag of squiggling worms and crickets to feed the piranha. Scooping out a generous handful and throwing them in the pool, they were gone in 60 seconds. As a beekeeper, I felt I should be on the side of the insects. So when a couple of worms fell on the floor, I didn’t say anything and let them escape the massacre.

Feeding frenzy!

Our next task was to prepare lunch for the bearded pigs from Indonesia, who enjoy a healthy five-a-day bucket of fruit and veg. The keepers’ kitchen had whiteboards on the walls showing personalised menu plans and particular dining preferences of the animals. There were quite a few fussy eaters, I noticed.

Me Love Gorillas

No training, no banana!

As we chopped apples, oranges, carrots, potatoes and bananas, I was starting to get hungry and worried that there would be no training and no banana for me. Fortunately, that rule doesn’t apply to higher mammals. The day’s experience included a generous free lunch in the ZSL staff canteen with a delicious hot and cold buffet on offer, although I was more excited that we were sitting to eat with real zookeepers!

A dinner fit for a keeper. So happy.

Mick had no chance to rest and eat while we interrogated him for insider information. One of our group asked, ‘Do you think animals should be kept in captivity?’ Mick’s answer gave us food for thought. ‘Of course, we would all love to see animals living in the wild and many of our breeding programmes are about conserving species in their natural habitat,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, in many cases the wild isn’t there.’ As a beekeeper, I understood this only too well. Loss of natural habitat is a major cause of insect pollinator decline – no forage, no bees – and it seems that humans are increasingly encroaching on the habitats of other species too.

'The wild? Are you nuts? That is the worst idea I have ever heard!'

The zoo was now getting busy with visitors and our afternoon ‘enrichment’ activities were attracting attention, and some envy, from onlookers. While the zoo isn’t the wild, the keepers like to encourage the animals’ natural behaviours such as climbing, digging, foraging and problem solving. This is called ‘enrichment’. An assortment of handmade objects such as feeding apparatus and challenging toys are used to encourage exploration, while herbs, spices and even perfumes help to stimulate scent marking. ‘The tigers go silly for chili,’ said Mick.

The spider monkeys were not so easy to please. As we held out our hands with an offering of pumpkin seeds, they were more interested in what we were wearing.  ‘Don’t get too close,’ warned Mick. ‘They will untie your shoe laces.’

'Here come the people! Oh, I love the people!'

'It's fun people fun time!'

'If you have any poo, fling it now'

Mick teaches the spider monkeys to tell time.

The Sumatran tigers had no time for such foolishness as they paced up and down their caged interior enclosure like a domestic cat waiting to be fed. Standing behind the yellow line, we gave them chunks of raw meat using metal tongs. Sumatran tigers are smaller than the Siberian tigers at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, said the tigers’ keeper. They looked huge to me and, as the smallest member of the group, I noticed the male tiger fixed me with his eyes.

The tigers' keeper didn't like my beekeeping wellies...

The tigers didn't seem to mind. Come closer...

'You look delicious'

To be so close to these powerful, magnificent animals was a privilege. They were not tame tigers, but neither were they afraid of us. This makes them even more dangerous than tigers in the wild, explained their keeper.

The Sumatran tiger’s status in the wild is ‘critically endangered’ and their numbers have dropped dramatically below 300 individuals. ZSL has plans to introduce a new breeding programme in 2013.

We were exhausted but we didn’t want the day to end. There was one last animal to visit – the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar. The task was an ‘enrichment’ feed to encourage the lemurs to forage. However, as I sat with a lemur on my lap and fed it from my hand, I wondered who was receiving the enrichment.

A lemur is sitting on my lap. A LEMUR IS SITTING ON MY LAP!

'Welcome, giant pansies'

'Please feel free to bask in my glow'

The lemurs had soft little hands that they used to satisfy their curiosity about us before carefully picking out their favourite pieces of fruit. We sat there for a while enjoying being in their company.

It was a day that I will never forget – rewarding and educational, exciting and fun. I got a goody bag with ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’ certificate and t-shirt too! I will be scheming like a spider monkey to do it again next year.

Thank you to my mum and dad for giving this amazing gift for Christmas.

Useful links at ZSL London Zoo
ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’ experience
Meet the Penguins encounters
Wildlife Photography workshops
Adopt your favourite animal
Become a member of ZSL
Donate to worldwide conservation of animals
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL)