A beekeeper’s notes for March

“It’s going to be cold till June,” said a courier dropping off some boxes to our house on Saturday. I was dismayed to hear his gloomy forecast, because it meant the bees would wait a long time for spring to return. The bright yellow daffodils had come up in our garden and the robins were fighting sparrows for fat balls on the feeder. Hopefully, the birds and the plants knew differently.

White, blue and pink flowers greeted me along the apiary path as I arrived in the late afternoon. It was heavily overcast and windy, and there was a feeling of dampness in the chilly air. The poor weather hadn’t deterred beekeepers from turning up for Clare’s tea and chocolate cakes. “What are you going to do with your bees?!” demanded John Chapple. I was wearing my bee suit, but explained this was to check the feed under the roof and nothing more. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to open up the hive and expose the bees to unfriendly elements, John returned to his tea.

A beekeeper who is also a doctor was standing next to me. She doesn’t visit the apiary often but I enjoy talking to her when she does. A few years ago I was stung by a bee while checking Pat’s hives at Osterley. The sting was my fault – the hive roof had a sign saying ‘Nasty bees’ and I opened up without my gloves. The next day the sting on my finger had swollen half my arm and I was at A&E.

“Is there a way to be test for allergy to bee stings?” I asked her. She shook her head to explain that the allergic reaction depended on many factors from how quickly the sting is removed and the amount of venom received, to how warm your body is, the flow of blood, and many other variables. Wearing a bee suit at all times is the best precaution we both agreed, watching Tom and Jonesy venture behind the green netted area without their suits.

The afternoon wasn’t getting any brighter so I put over my veil and went to visit the bees. German beekeeper Jochen had arrived to lend a helping hand. The sky was very dark by now. I lifted the roof of each hive to empty the feeders of old syrup and pour in ambrosia from a spare can that Jonesy had brought over. Chamomile’s bees had drunk all their feed and one of her workers was determinedly trying scare off Jochen.

Fortunately Jochen was more delighted to see how well Chamomile’s and Chili’s workers appeared to be doing from their vigorous climbing around the feeders. “What a lovely change,” he said.

It was disappointing not to look inside the hives to check the queens and brood nest. The bees were spilling in and out of Melissa’s and Pepper’s colonies where we had removed the old sugar and cleaned up the crownboards with a damp cloth. Bees, beekeepers and flowers were ready for spring but the weather wasn’t.

The kit boxes are prepared for the season to start too. You can see the pine cones for smoker fuel that John and I foraged for in Rye last autumn.

After Jochen and the others had left, I sat at the apiary table to catch up on writing hive records for March. I put each record in a sleeve under the roof, then wiped down the varroa boards and left one under each hive.

Using a bucket of soda water and old cloths I wiped down all the equipment of our three empty hives and evicted some huge spiders. During the week I had made up the frames for the comb change. The British weather forecast is notoriously unreliable, which means that next week’s chilly outlook could get sunnier.

On my way out I noticed a worker bee clinging to the side of her hive. A few breaths of warm air and she was ready to fly home. With a quick turn to look back, I had left the bees and hives at the apiary as ready as they can be for the clocks to go forward to British summertime.

When does spring come for the bees?

bee crocus

As every beekeeper, and aromatherapist, knows spring can come more than once for the bees and the flowers. Today was a perfect spring day with glorious sunshine, balmy blue skies and a warm 14–15°C. There would be only one thing on the minds of beekeepers across the UK – the comb change.

Each year many British beekeepers give the hives a spring clean. The bees are moved onto fresh comb in cleaned-up brood boxes to start the season again. The comb change may be carried out using a shook swarm or Bailey depending on the health and strength of the colony, and also relying on ongoing warm weather with availability of local nectar and pollen.

emily blowtorching

The reason for the comb change? To keep down the diseases and pests in the colony. The timing of the comb change? That’s up for discussion.

There are some beekeepers who like to shook swarm their hives as soon as the weather allows in late February to early March. The reason being that the earlier you shook swarm the less brood you lose, and the bees can get a head start to the season.

Then there are some beekeepers who prefer to change the comb from late March to early April. They like to wait for consistently warmer days and for the trees to be blossoming.

bee drinking

In March the weather is not always consistent and spring can come and go a few of times before it stays. It is important to get the timing right for the comb change: too soon for a weak colony or before a string of warm days might make it more difficult for the bees to recover from a shook swarm or to build-up a Bailey; too late in the season means losing more brood (in a shook swarm) and perhaps leaving the bees less time to yield a honey harvest that year.

A couple of experienced beekeepers at the apiary had already shook swarmed some or all of their hives. If you’re a more professional beekeeper or commercial bee farmer with 50, 100 or more hives, I can understand the eagerness to get going early in the season.

For the hobbyist or backyard beekeeper with three or five hives, perhaps we have more time on our side to do a couple of inspections first and wait for the warmer weather to hold before carrying out a comb change.

a jonesey beekeeping

When do you prefer to do your comb change? And how do you decide when spring has arrived for your bees?

The first best day of the year at Ealing apiary brought bigger concerns for the beekeepers. Who was making the tea and would there be cake? Luckily Emily had baked a cake and Elsa was busy making tea to keep everyone content. We had a couple of German beekeepers visiting the apiary who were fascinated to learn more about our bees. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake, Emily and I satisfied their curiosity, and ours, by taking the first look inside the hives this year.

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A feast of tea and cake for beekeepers.

a robin feast

A feast of mealworms and biscuit crumbs for the robin.

Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives were doing very well with bees busily pouring in and out. Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives were weak and though both queens were spotted there was virtually no brood. We closed up the weaker colonies with dummy boards to keep them warm and fed them spring sugar syrup to try and stimulate their activity.

a queen chili

Pink-crowned Queen Chili was easy to spot.

a queen chamomile

Queen Chamomile sees her first sun of the year.

Jonsey kindly helped us to blow torch the empty brood boxes in readiness for the comb change, and Emily and I have started to make new brood frames. Tomorrow forecasts rain with cooler temperatures to follow next week. Spring should be here to stay, hopefully, by the end of March and we can move our bees into cleaned hives, though we may need to make a decision about our weaker hives before then.

bees play crocus

A beekeeper’s notes for February

purple crocus opens

On Saturday 14th February I saw the white snowdrops in flower and the purple crocuses opening. Winter aconite and catkins of the hazel and the willow will also blossom bringing the year’s first forage for bees.

Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for their monthly meeting. I stood outside the entrance of the hives and noticed not a single bee took to the wing. The stillness made all other movements sharper.

I watched a red-breasted robin hopping in the thorny foliage and breathed as a magpie swooped down to pick a twig to build her nest.

I found a spider crawling on the fondant under the roof of a hive and two slugs sliding in the dead leaves beneath the floor of another.

snowdrops

Alan Gibbs arrived just as I had put under varroa boards to check this month’s mite drop. He had come with his spade on this cold, rainy day to lay more paving stones in the communal area. Betty Gibbs was sensibly waiting in the car outside the apiary, reading a book.

We then looked at the fondant under the roofs. I had brought more in case it was needed, but Alan said they had “quite enough”.

A chilly February can be a time of uncertainty for beekeepers with thoughts of wakeful bees kept inside the hive as the winter larder runs bare. I gave each hive a heft for weight of stores. In particular Melissa’s and Pepper’s were very heavy, while Chili’s and Chamomile’s were lighter. Nothing to do but observe, February is also a time to rest and wait as everything unfolds.

With that, I said goodbye to Alan and the bees, and waved to Betty on my way out. John too was sensibly waiting for me in a warm car. There were flowers, cards and chocolates sitting at home.

valentines flowers pink

This is a short and sweet post like the month.

Emily and I have decided to use paper records for our hives again. Our blogs provide an online diary of beekeeping, and I’ve found electronic records or apps sometimes difficult to access or just fiddly to use on my phone during a hive inspection. Also, it seems better to keep records under the hive roofs at the apiary, in case other beekeepers need to read them.

Here’s a start on preparing our hive record sheets for the season ahead, based on others we have used and ideas for monthly reminders. Let me know in your comments if there’s anything you would include, I’d be interested to know how to improve them:

Hive records 2015 pdf
Hive records 2015 Word doc

And a note on something less practical and more frilly… Sometimes there is snow in February, which makes me remember my favourite passage from The Snow Queen, A Tale is Seven Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen.

In the second story about a little boy and a little girl, Kay and Gerda sit by frozen windows to watch the snowstorm. They lay heated copper farthings on the windowpane to make a peep-hole to look outside…


”Look! The white bees are swarming,” said the old grandmother. “Have they a queen bee, too?” asked the little boy, for he knew that there was a queen among the real bees. “Yes, indeed they have,” said the grandmother. “She flies where the swarm is thickest. She is biggest of them all, and she never remains on the ground. She always flies up again to the sky. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows, and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”

“Oh yes, we have seen that,” said both children, and then they knew it was true.

“Can the Snow Queen come in here?” asked the little girl.

“Just let her come,” said the boy, “and I will put her on the stove, where she will melt.”

But the grandmother smoothed his hair and told him more stories.

In the evening when little Kay was at home and half undressed, he crept up on to the chair by the window, and peeped out of the little hole. A few snowflakes were falling, and one of these, the biggest, remained on the edge of the window-box. It grew bigger and bigger, till it became the figure of a woman, dressed in the finest white gauze, which appeared to be made of millions of starry flakes. She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them. She nodded to the window and waved her hand. The little boy was frightened and jumped down off the chair, and then he fancied that a big bird flew past the window.

The next day was bright and frosty, and then came the thaw—and after that the spring.”

valentines flowers white

A beekeeper’s notes
A beekeeper’s notes for January

Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

honeybee on snowdrop

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

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

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

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

varroaboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bumble and honeybee on lavender

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

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

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

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

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

oilbeeswaxmix

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

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

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

bodybuttermix

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

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

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

bodybutter

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

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

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

pearandgrape

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

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

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

frostfairies

Nature magic or nature science? Both are beautiful.

A beekeeper’s notes for January

apiary curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fondant bees

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

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

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

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

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

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A Christmas letter

christmasmoomin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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