Pink queens and a swarm?

photo4

It seems neither the British weather forecast nor the British weather can be relied on after Saturday’s predictions of thunder, lightning and hail proved false. Saturday was a beautiful day for beekeeping, but Emily and I had already made other plans thinking there would be storms and rain. So we met on Sunday at the apiary beneath clear skies and decided to make short work of inspections. I checked Pepper’s hive while Emily checked Chili’s, then we both looked inside Myrtle’s and Chamomile’s hives.

Pepper is our newest queen and living up to her namesake of black pepper essential oil – a personality who finds it hard to show love! Her bees were feisty so Emily had to take over half way through the inspection as I had forgotten my thicker beekeeping gloves. We didn’t spot Pepper, she might have been sulking at the bottom of the hive.

Chili’s family looked well, said Emily. There was also a surprise when we spotted the queen – she was marked pink! Last Saturday at Andy’s party we had joked with Pat and John that we’d like our queens marked pink. The elder beekeepers do listen to us after all.

photo1

With two supers full of honey on Myrtle’s hive, you need a hive partner to help lift the heavy boxes in an effort to avoid squashing bees. Myrtle’s brood nest had a less welcome surprise inside. No sign of Myrtle for the second week running, in the middle of the third frame were six queen cells that looked strangely squashed, and the tenth frame had two surviving queen cells. What could have happened?

We knew the apiary hives may have been checked during the week before the beginner beekeepers’ assessments, and I wondered if the queen cells had been squashed to prevent a swarm or culled to select the best candidate for supersedure. Was the queen present and should we do an artificial swarm though? It was really hard to decide what to do without knowing what might have happened, so we decided to send an email and find out first before taking action. Depending on the outcome, Emily and I may be back at the apiary after work this week.

photo3

Chamomile’s moods can be as unpredictable as the British weather, so we’re never sure what to expect. We wanted to reduce her nest from a double-brood to a single-brood. I found Chamomile on the second frame and caged her to keep her safe during the procedure. We moved the frames of brood into one box and put the frames of honey into another box. Emily shook the bees into the bottom box as I held Chamomile safe and then released the queen back into her nest with the queen excluder placed on top. An empty brood box was placed between the brood nest and the brood box with honey frames to create a space that will encourage the bees to rob the honey from the top and take it down below. Emily scored the honey frames with her hive tool to make the task easier for the workers.

By then another beekeeper had arrived to check his hive and Albert turned up too. “Is it Saturday?” he asked.

photo2

When John picked me up the weather was still clear, so we went for a walk around the 14th-century grounds of St Mary’s and stopped to sit on the green. I watched a common carder bee hovering over a clover before visiting its neighbour.

As a beekeeper and an aromatherapist I was doubly pleased to find out that bees and flowers do ‘talk’ to each other. In a wonderful new BBC bee drama Hive Alive, presented by Chris Packham and Martha Kearney, the secret language of flowers and bees was revealed. A flower has a negative charge that gives off an electrical signal to a bee. The bee has a positive charge that changes the electrical field of the flower when it lands to forage. This tells other bees that the flower has been visited and to come back later when it has replenished its supplies of nectar and pollen. Just amazing.

Hive Alive episode one aired on BBC2 this week and the second episode is due on Tuesday 22 July, 8pm, BBC2. I can’t wait!

Notes: In August the apiary hives are given Apiguard treatment for varroa that has a strong thymol smell which taints the honey stores. As Emily and I will miss each other at the apiary for the next two weeks, we’re harvesting our crop in early August. So there’ll be a short gap in bee posts until then.

A birthday for a bee and a beekeeper

001

A bee was born last Sunday afternoon along with a few hundred others in his small queenless hive. The drone chewed away the wax capping of his cell and emerged from a frame as Emily held it up to inspect for signs of a queen. He would have blinked at us, if he could.

The new queen had been missing since she was first spotted at the end of May. She had looked long and beautiful after her mating flight, full of promise for her colony. A couple of weeks later something had gone wrong. Emily found cells that had two eggs laid in them, usually a sign of a laying worker or sometimes a new queen getting used to her duties. We gave the queen the benefit of the doubt but the following weekend we found a queen cell with a small pearly larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly. The workers were trying to make a new mother and the unnamed beauty was nowhere to be seen. Two weeks later their attempts appeared to have failed and Emily and I decided to unite the hive with its original colony, Chamomile’s.

We met two weeks ago on Sunday at midday to go through the queenless hive using a method that John Chapple had taught us to make sure there is no queen or virgin hiding away. We took out each brood frame, inspecting in turn, and placed them in spaced-out pairs in an empty brood box to the side. If we did miss a queen on a frame then the bees would betray her by gathering around the frame she was on. We didn’t find her, but we saw emerging drones, drone brood and multiple eggs in cells. I saw a varroa on a worker, when looking through photos on my way home, this was not a healthy happy hive.

004

Emily had inspected Chamomile’s colony the day before and all seemed well. We removed the queen excluder from Chamomile’s hive (the queen-right hive) and placed sheets of newspaper on top of the brood box making small slits with our hive tools. We then placed the brood box of the queen-less hive above. The bees will chew away the newspaper as they become accustomed to each other’s smell and unite as one colony. That is, if Chamomile accepts the return of her prodigal daughters, and sons. We put on the roof and hoped for the best.

That was two weekends ago. This Saturday came with surprise sunshine instead of expected rain. The bees were on the wing and making honey. Emily and I arrived at the apiary for midday inspections ahead of Andy’s 60th birthday party that afternoon. It was hot work going through four hives in a mini heatwave, but wonderful to see our colonies bursting with bees and heavy frames of honey.

008Chili’s colony had made a good start on a super that Emily had put on last Saturday. Chili is a slender bright orange-red queen like a tiny beautiful chili pepper. Her temperament pervades a hive of energetic and lively, but steady bees. We soon spotted her walking over the top and down a frame, and caged the queen to keep her safe during the inspection. We saw some queen cups and a cell that could have been a long drone or a queen, but these were too few to be attempts at swarming and were probably late summer plans of supersedure or workers playing as they do. I released Chili from her cage and she climbed onto my glove for a mini adventure before dropping into the hive.

The split hive from Chili’s colony is coming along nicely, although they haven’t made much work of their super. We saw the new queen, Chili’s daughter, who looks just like her mother. I had a name for her on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t quite think of it.

Myrtle, our favourite queen and matriarch of our longest-standing hive, has given us two magnificent supers of honey this year and I’m really proud of the lovely queen and her bees. Myrtle’s gentle workers were noticeably more alert – not quite feisty but they have lots of honey to guard now.

007

We didn’t see Myrtle but there were eggs in cells so a queen is there. Earlier in June we found a couple of queen cells in Myrtle’s hive which led us to suspect the workers might try to supersede their two-and-a-half year old queen this summer. Perhaps mother and daughter are inside the hive now, tolerating each other until the workers decide the old queen’s time is done.

Last we opened Chamomile’s hive to see whether the bees had happily united. We went through the first brood box holding our breaths, it is always a test of nerves to find out if a hive combining has worked. There were eggs – single eggs – in cells of the former queen-less brood box which meant Chamomile had been upstairs and started to lay. The bees had chewed away most of the newspaper and were co-living contentedly. Chamomile was found in the bottom brood box along with a couple of queen cells that might again be signs of supersedure. Will we have all new queens to take our hives into winter?

That done, we changed out of hot beekeeper suits and went to Andy’s 60th birthday party where more bees awaited – chocolate raisin bees.

002

This delicious-looking honeybee birthday cake was baked by Andy’s clever wife Penny Pedley. The beekeepers at the party noticed that the queen sitting outside the hive entrance was marked with a red spot rather than a green spot for this year. “That makes the queen around 53, not quite 60,” said Andy wryly as he cut the cake. Penny had made the sponge using honey from Andy’s hive and so the cake was a birthday present from his bees too.

As this was a beekeeper’s birthday there was, of course, a beer hive…

003

… for beekeepers to enjoy a long cool dark beer after a hot day’s beekeeping.

005

Emily and I chatted to John Chapple about our bees while eating the buffet and cake. He asked about the ratio of brood, bees and honey in the hives, and we reported that all hives were producing less brood. “The bees are telling us that summer is coming to an end,” said John. But not quite yet.

009

The name for the new queen, Chili’s daughter, sprung into my mind as we sat in Andy’s pretty garden. Emily and I have a tradition of naming the queens of the hives we share after essential oils, so I asked Emily if she liked Pepper for black pepper essential oil. She did.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a dark, intense and interesting aroma. In subtle aromatherapy the essence “will help us ‘get a move on’ at times when our lives feel ‘stuck'” (The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia). Perfect for a late spring queen who needs her colony to get a move on before autumn.

A rainy day in the honeybee year

20140628-192956-70196554.jpg

Some say the beekeeper’s year starts in late August to early September after the honey has been harvested and the bees are preparing for winter. In July the flow of nectar should be generous and foragers seen flying home with heavy loads of pollen.

So on Saturday 28 June I stood in front of our hives appreciating that we are on a tight schedule. After getting the bees going in spring, there is a narrow window during which the colony must be strong and conditions must be right to produce a super of honey.

Emily and I have missed that window for the past two years contending with rain, failed queens and small swarmy colonies, but this year our hopes are pinned on two supers on Myrtle’s hive.

With five hives we can’t yet claim the honey as ours. Good weather and strong queens are needed for the bees to make enough stores to see all colonies through winter and to give us a harvest.

20140628-193059-70259744.jpg

Today we wouldn’t tell if the bees were on track. We were rained out and though some beekeepers did open their hives, they were met with a roar from the bees. Albert’s artistic ladies had been playing in the roof making a construction worthy of Tate Modern.

20140628-192813-70093211.jpg

Thomas’s Italian ‘teddy bear’ bees were remarkably calm despite the rain and nursing queen cells. The nuc with the old queen had been experimenting with natural comb. Thomas explained that they start by building two oval segments on either side of the frame before joining them up.

20140628-192912-70152504.jpg

The rain was falling thick and fast now, so we gave up for the day. On my way home I reflected so much time is spent wishing for honey, we forget that the bees are doing something even more amazing all the time – building honeycomb.

20140628-193849-70729407.jpg

I’ve blogged about the wonder of honeycomb before, but it’s worth repeating.

The honeybee builds honeycomb from wax secreted by the abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. She builds row upon row of perfect six-sided cells in a precise hexagonal array.

Marcus du Sautoy gives a lovely explanation of why bees choose hexagons to build their comb on BBC’s ‘The Code’. “The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible.” To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build and stores the highest volume of honey, which makes it the most efficient shape. “It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,” says Marcus. “Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.”

Rain or shine we will get wax from our bees, and watching this brings a new appreciation for candles.

The month of honey

charing cross

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…

evidence

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.

honey

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.

queen chamomile

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

A case of supersedure and a super goes on

brazil day

The World Cup opened in Brazil with a swirl of colours, dance and controversy. In London it was blue skies and sunshine as Brazil Day landed in Trafalgar Square giving citygoers a taste of Rio.

Today the sun slept-in after shining all week and a spectacular show of solar flares captured by NASA. The weather was hot, humid and overcast when Emily and I got to the apiary to light up a smoker and start Saturday beekeeping.

Last week we had left the unnamed queens of our split hives to settle-in and lay. There was concern that neither had started to produce eggs, and that one queen looked small and unmated.

The first hive we opened was artificially swarmed from Chili’s hive. Chili is a good queen and I was pleased when we did spot her daughter walking confidently across the frame. The new queen is now bigger (she has mated) and inherits her mother’s tiger stripes and colours. Emily spotted eggs and the colony seemed content. We closed up as there was no need to disturb the queen further and gave her small colony more syrup for the week.

photo3The second artificial swarm was split from Chamomile’s hive and her daughter was spotted by Freddy, a keen beginner beekeeper, only two weeks ago. She was a big dark beauty, again like her mother. We didn’t see her today, but her bees looked more purposeful and eggs were seen, so the queen has started to lay. Emily spotted cells that had two eggs inside them, although the eggs were at the bottom of the cells, where only a queen could reach with her long abdomen. It might be that she is just getting used to her queenly duties, rather than a laying worker inside the hive.

I’m glad we gave the new queens more time to settle-in before deciding to combine the colonies. It can take a new queen longer to mate and begin to lay than the books say. Other factors can affect her egg-laying, such as poor weather, lack of forage and stores. In these circumstances, the workers might feed the queen less to slow down or stop her laying. This might be because they don’t want more hungry mouths to feed during times of scarcity.

photo5

Myrtle, our favourite queen, was next. Her hive is almost bursting with bees and I feel that the shook swarm at the beginning of the year worked to reinvigorate this slow-moving colony. The brood frames were lower on stores than I would like, although when the foragers returned home at the end of the day this hive would be quite crowded. The workers can’t fill all the cells with stores because the queen needs space to lay. So, for the first time in two years and with great excitement, we decided to put a super on this hive!

There was also another development. Emily had successfully caged Myrtle and was keeping a close watch on our escape artist queen. This was when we saw signs of queen cells being built in the middle of frames, although there were no larvae inside them. I suspect Myrtle’s bees might be planning to supersede her, because she is over two years old and her laying pattern is becoming patchy. It is something to keep an eye on.

Three hives down, we had a tea break and enjoyed a slice of marmalade cake made by Emily. Then it was back to work. I oversaw as Freddy inspected Chamomile’s hives and Emily helped Jonesy with his hive.

photo6

Freddy has the makings of a good beekeeper and he would like to keep fierce bees to learn how to handle them and to get lots of honey. We are thinking of selling him Chamomile’s hive. However, I would prefer that he does a few inspections on this colony first, and find out whether he can get along with this feisty queen.

He did very well and Chamomile’s colony was recovering from the artificial swarm and building up nicely. I pointed to a worker with blobs of shiny red propolis on her hind legs, which the bees will bite off and use to disinfect and insulate the hive. Freddy was surprised when I told him that London bees might collect propolis from tree resin or roof/road tar, whichever source is more convenient!

photo1

Chili’s hive was next and both queen and bees were happy to perform today. Her colony is also recovering fast and well from the artificial swarm. We will have to wait another two or three weeks, I think, before deciding which hives to combine or which queens and colonies to sell. But that’s a nice problem to have.

Our beekeeping done for the day, and some teaching fitted in, we visited the other hives. Sadly, we heard that David’s fierce ‘Welsh’ hive has gone as the bees were sick. It is a shame as the colony was well-established and fondly thought of, I shall miss them.

Thomas has been experimenting with natural comb in his supers, but his bees haven’t quite got the hang of it. While Jonesy was hovering about vying for queen cells to requeen a nasty-tempered hive. He was taken by the ‘cuddly’ Italian bees, although I have noticed that their gentle temperament can turn within a couple of generations, usually when the new queens mate with local drones, and become ill-tempered. Another reason I prefer our mongrel, dark, homegrown London bees.

photo2

photo4

The sun came out for the end of the afternoon and I was satisfied that the bees were much happier than last week – they even let us finish-up in time for the football. Tonight’s big match is England vs Italy, Emily is supporting Italy and I’m for England, the bees aren’t bothered. I wonder who will win?

Has the June gap come early?

june gap

After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.

bumblebees

A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.

20140607-174352-63832680.jpg

The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.

20140607-175757-64677447.jpg

Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!

grandad

Five years a beekeeper

20140531-174652-64012058.jpg

As wet bank holiday weather drizzled into the week, I found myself thinking of the virgin queens emerging from our split hives waiting for a dry spell to fly out and mate.

Three weeks ago Thomas and Jonesy had artificially swarmed Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies after finding queen cells in the hives, leaving Emily and I two new hives and queens-in-waiting.

20140531-174923-64163286.jpg

Last Saturday’s approaching thunderstorm had given the bees a headache and made hive inspections impossible. Then as the storm broke it became a typical Ealing beekeepers’ day with beekeepers huddled around tea, accompanied by Polish cheesecake made by a beginner.

Thomas returned to inspect his hives later on that weekend and checked ours too, reporting back that it appeared a queen cell had been torn down in the hive split from Chili’s colony and that a queen cell was open in the hive split from Chamomile’s colony. Our other three hives were doing well, he said, and he had spotted queens Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile, although the latter’s hive was not much bigger than a nuc.

So that’s where we left the bees, seemingly well since I had seen them two Saturdays ago. I got to the apiary early today as there would be five hives to inspect, and I wanted to consolidate our hive equipment to make sure we had a complete hive ready should Myrtle’s colony also decide to start building queen cells.

20140531-175032-64232036.jpg

A keen beginner Freddy arrived not long after and was interested to hear all about our latest hives. Freddy thinks he might like to keep fierce bees, because they make more honey and he would like the challenge. In that case, I told him, he is welcome to Chamomile’s feisty hive! Although Emily and I need to wait a few weeks to see how the split colonies develop, find out who are the best queens, and decide whether we’re recombining or selling hives.

Another beginner arrived as Freddy and I were talking so it seemed a good idea to open up and start inspecting. A look through Myrtle’s colony showed no sign of the queen except some young healthy larvae, and the laying pattern of the brood was patchy with drone comb spotted in the centre of some frames. Not a great sign of a well-laying queen but otherwise the bees looked happy. The stores seemed surprising low compared with two weeks ago, so I put on a syrup feeder.

20140531-175140-64300543.jpg

Emily arrived as I was about to brave opening Chamomile’s hive, which I was feeling nervous about. Thomas was right, this was little more than the size of a nuc colony and Emily noticed they had almost no stores. I felt annoyed with myself – I’d been so good all year feeding up the bees until the start of May, when we had started to reduce feeding, and it had seemed all was well two weeks ago, that I hadn’t thought to continue feeding. Now the bees were looking starved and miserable because of a couple weeks’ rain. We put on a feeder and luckily the syrup I had made for the bees before taking a break for three wedding-themed weekends would be enough for all five hives today.

Chili’s colony was next and though I didn’t see the queen, again the bees seemed calm but needed feeding. ‘Is that all now?’ asked Emily. No, we still had our two split hives to check – five hives is really quite a lot!

20140531-175242-64362245.jpg

Fortunately Freddy wasn’t tired of looking at bees and did a beautiful job of inspecting our first split hive and finding Chamomile’s daughter – the new queen looked just like her mother, I hope she turns out to be better tempered. We then turned to our second split hive and were unable to find a queen or sign of one. I suspect this split has failed and will need recombining with Chili’s hive next week.

Five hives doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake, and by the time we had cleared up our equipment the chattering crowds were gone from the apiary.

20140531-175318-64398383.jpg

Five years a beekeeper and five hives on there is much to think about how and why I want to keep bees in the future. Honey is playing on my mind, but for now it was time to go home and leave the bees to decide what they will do next.

Bees or honey?

beesorhoney1

“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.

Queen cells x3

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.

beesorhoney2

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!

beesorhoney3

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.

beesorhoney4

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.

beesorhoney

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.

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden

Waterfall

Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

Nature magic: twilight for the bees and a mystery object at the apiary

00 Dreamy hives

I arrived at dusk at the apiary after the last bee had floated home. It was my regular mid-week visit to bring sugar syrup since shook swarming the hives. Strangely, the apiary takes on a life of its own in the twilight hours. The place is silent of beekeepers clamouring over tea and cake and beginners enquiringly asking questions, and the air is empty of humming honeybees. The hives sit quietly in rows, nettles and bluebells sway gently in the soft glow, and trees secretly rustle. I think this is a time for nature magic.

01 Overgrown apiary

As you can see the path to the apiary is now overgrown – nature has taken over and the bluebells have arrived early. There are lots of wildflowers for the neighbouring shrill carder bees who have been frequent visitors. However, something else was waiting inside that gave me a start. What is this mystery object standing in the gloom in the middle of the apiary? What have the elder beekeepers been up to now?

02 Mystery object mating nuc

I took a picture and tweeted it. Replies soon came back suggesting it was a mating nuc or bait hive, or perhaps bumblebee nesting box. Whatever it is, I may now have to wait till after Easter to find out.

The daylight was fading fast so I lifted the roof from Myrtle’s hive and saw half the syrup in the feeder had been taken down. This is our nicest, and slowest, colony, so I was pleased. I emptied out the remaining syrup – homemade sugar syrup grows mould – and cleaned the feeder – because I’m an obsessive cleaner – placing it back on the crownboard filled with ambrosia. Ambrosia is a special mix of syrup that lasts longer and contains other nutrients for the hive. The bees love it, and the hive raised its hum as workers rushed up to drink.

03 Ambrosia bees

There is plenty of nectar and pollen about, of course, and our bees are probably strong enough to forage to feed themselves. I like to keep feeding, particularly after a comb change, until the hive has fully built up again. The feeders filled with sugar syrup in the roof are for a rainy day – if our girls don’t want it then they won’t take it.

04 Ambrosia bees close up

I fed Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives next. These colonies had taken down all the syrup and were hungrily licking their tongues around the bottom of the feeder for more. I’ve been worried about Chamomile’s hive since her colony tested positive for nosema and we found unhealthy looking larvae in there on Saturday. Cold weather at the weekend delayed the comb change, and though we’re eager to get this hive onto clean frames, Chamomile has had to wait.

Beekeeping done, at the end of my evening visits I enjoy walking around the apiary to check all is well with the other hives and to Instagram pictures of the other residents. Flowers looks so pretty at dusk.

05 Apiary white flowers

06 Bluebells

07 Cherry blossom

A small mouse peeked out from between the flowers and looked up curiously, but I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture before she ran away. The bees were tucked up and well fed for Easter, and it was time to leave.

Happy Easter to humans and Hymenopterans alike!