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!

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.

A string of warm days and daffodils

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While we waited for the bees, the snowdrops came and withered back into the earth and the crocuses arrived with offerings of vibrant saffron-orange pollen and then quietly faded.

Now is the time of the daffodils bursting up everywhere in patches of bright sunshine-yellow flowers. Each year I’m tempted to pick a bunch for a vase on the kitchen window, but I always resist to leave much-needed spring forage for the bees.

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When Emily mentioned that daffodil pollen might be too toxic for honeybees, but perhaps OK for bumble bees to forage as they don’t store the pollen for as long, I was curious to find out more. Emily’s source being an article in a past BBKA news (the newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association), but after turning pages on-and-offline I couldn’t find the reference. However, I did rediscover this useful article in The Guardian on spring planting for bees, which suggests honeybees and bumble bees will forage on daffodils if there is nothing better around. If any bee expert does have an answer or published paper on daffodils and honeybees, I’d be interested to know.

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From daffodils to housekeeping, a string of warm days had speeded up the arrival of spring and preparations for the active beekeeping season. This week John and I had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Dubai – where I didn’t see a single bee. While we had sandstorms and desert temperatures of 38 degrees in Dubai, London had a pleasant spell of sunshine that made the apiary abuzz with bees and beekeepers. So I was looking forward to a nice Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping with tea and cake, but first there was work to be done.

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Emily and I had ended last season with four hives – including two colonies on a double-brood – and a recent stock check showed that we didn’t have enough of the right hive parts for a shook swarm or Bailey comb change. There were plenty of spare supers, crownboards, queen excluders and frame pieces, but not enough empty brood boxes, floors or roofs to move the colonies in spring. We had been far too successful in increasing our bees last year.

Making up a complete flat-packed hive from roof to floor, frames included, takes a couple of hours (at least, for me) and I had no time at all to spend almost a day building four hives in the next few weeks. I made a decision before our holiday to order budget hives, fully assembled, from Thornes, and it was a nice relief to go away knowing that new hives would be there when we got back.

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Here they are, our new hives standing next to the old ones all ready for the bees to move in. I went to the apiary on Saturday morning to unpackage, set up and tidy up. All the parts of our old and new hive equipment were labelled ‘Emma & Emily’, which is quite important when you keep bees at a shared apiary! Then I cleared away rubbish, debris and bracken from around the hives.

To prove that an Ealing beekeeper really can be very organised, I had brought tidy boxes to store our kit at the apiary so we don’t get caught short. Essential items and things that you’d never know you’d need until keeping bees for a few years: burning fuels, tape, drawing pins, wedges, tweezers, newspaper, cloths, queen cages, pens and marking kits. This will also help to keep the hives tidier under the roofs, which is where we used to try and stuff everything away after inspections. I haven’t felt this prepared since my beginner beekeepers assessment – we are ready for anything now.

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Any good beekeeper should, of course, keep records of their hives, so a quick stock check of what we have at the start of the season:

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Myrtle’s hive is on a double brood with an empty super to store fondant (we’ll move to spring syrup for all our hives next week), and insulation in the roof still for chilly days. The hive is quite heavy.

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Chamomile’s is also on a double brood with an empty super storing fondant and insulation in the roof. The hive is a healthy weight.

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Chili’s hive is on a single brood and the bees have been hungrily eating the fondant. The colony is quite light.

When the three colonies at Perivale apiary are moved into the new hives, we’ll blowtorch clean the old hives ready to use for artificial swarms in the season ahead, or to set aside for next year’s spring move. The fourth hive at Hanwell is eventually to be taken to another apiary, along with spare hive parts kindly given to us by Hadi, where Emily will be keeping this colony.

I then walked around the apiary to clear and tidy away old wood, empty syrup canisters and bits and pieces into the observation cage.

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That done, the Ealing beekeepers started to arrive and, more importantly, Emily with fresh-baked coffee bean chocolate cake. With the kettle on, we could now begin a proper Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping at Ealing apiary.

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‘Welsh bees!’ It wasn’t long till we heard the clamour of familiar voices. This exclamation came from a group inspecting David’s hive, a Welsh beekeeper with a notorious colony of very fierce bees, but arguably the most long-standing and successful hive at the apiary. The war-like bees seem to withstand varroa well, survive all winters, and make lots of honey. I rather like them, but I wouldn’t go too close.

Bees are also very nosy creatures and I’d already spied some of our girls popping out to take a look at their new hives. By this time, John had come to pick me up for a trip to Dunelm – we recently had the bathroom painted by an excellent decorator and were going to choose new accessories – and to help take away the Thornes packaging. So we said our goodbyes and went. The afternoon’s adventures continue on Emily’s blog with comb up a tree.

Next week, Emily and I may shook swarm and Bailey comb change the hives, if the weather is nice. A beekeeper’s work is never done.

And seeing as the bees don’t seem to want them, I’ve now got a bunch of pretty daffodils siting on the kitchen window. Happy spring!

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A break in the clouds

our hives

After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.

The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.

The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’

Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.

purple crocuses

What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.

This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:

‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’

Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.

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Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’

Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.

Links of interest:

The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.

Blogs to read:

If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.

 

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

While listening to the restless humming inside the hives, spring seemed a long way off this weekend. Though rumours of snowdrops persist and the daylight is stretching further, I’m impatient to open our hives and see whether our queens, Myrtle, Chamomile and Chili, have survived the winter. As I walked home, I remembered this inspiring TEDTalk by Marla Spivak, a researcher in bee behaviour and biology, and watched it again for a dose of honeybee. Here it is, in case you missed it.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing 

Our fascination for this wonderful creature, the bee, grows as does our need for them. The bees are disappearing, while there is ‘Worldwide 300% increase in crop production requiring bee pollination’, says Marla. But her talk is hopeful because it reminds us that there is much we can do to help the bee. Get planting bee-friendly flowers for spring: RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.

I hope you enjoyed this video as much as I do each time.

Marla’s talk is on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing.html
Her bio is available on TED’s website: http://www.ted.com/speakers/marla_spivak.html

For more TEDTalks:

TED.com http://www.ted.com/
Follow TED news on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tednews
Like TED on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TED

And it rained…

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Our hives survived December’s wind and rain, while John and I spent Christmas at his family’s farm in frosty but sunny Hereford. The first Saturday in January, we went to the apiary in the afternoon and found a small crowd huddling around tea and Clare’s gingerbread men and women. Emily was then stranded at Drew’s family home in Cornwall due to floods.

The pink- and blue-iced gingerbread people looked very tempting, but I was keen to see our hives were still standing after the storms that had torn across the UK. They were. John watched as I hefted Myrtle’s hive, which was too heavy to heave, and Chamomile’s and Chili’s hives, which also felt a good weight of stores and bees.

Winter checks include looking into the entrance to make sure it isn’t blocked by dead bees. You would expect more dead bees at the entrance and lying in front of the hive in winter. Workers can get cold and weak even in the cosy warmth of the cluster, and a few may fall to the bottom of the hive and die. Of course, a whole pile of dead bees on the floor might be something to worry about.

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Raindrops on winter blooms at White City tube station last year.

Undertaker duty is a bit neglected in winter, when poor weather prevents flights or the workers may not have enough energy to carry dead bodies away from the hive. So it falls to the beekeeper to gingerly poke a stick through the holes in the mouseguard and tease out any dead bodies, so they don’t pile up and block the entrance.

I was wearing my full suit and veil to do this, despite mocking from some bearded beekeepers, because bees don’t take kindly to sticks being poked in the hive in winter, or, incidentally, at night. I wanted to avoid an indignant guard charging out and stinging my eye.

Hives heaved and entrances cleared, we went back to the apiary table for tea and gingerbread. Clare mentioned the apiary was showing Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s documentary More Than Honey the following Saturday. I had already watched the film over Christmas, a surprise gift from John. This led to lively debate. More Than Honey contains both incredible and disturbing scenes of bees and beekeeping around the world. I’m writing a review on my blog towards the end of this month, although I may not be able to include some comments made at the apiary about the pollination industry. If you can’t wait till then, Emily has written a thoughtful review on her blog.

There was a good turn out of Ealing beekeepers talking about their bees and buying oxalic acid. Sara, of lovely homesteading blog Hen Corner, was chatting to Elsa about great posts she has written recently on the pig process. Thomas, who was conferring with Jonesy about bee matters, has also started a blog about bees and life on the river.

Eventually, we all drifted away from the apiary and back to our other lives.

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A peek under the umbrella at rainy London on my way home from work.

There are so many things to do in winter like visit the Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop days, coming soon, or the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, now on.

John and I went to NHM with friends last weekend to see this year’s gallery of astounding wildlife photography. My favourite was this picture of two grumpy-looking bedraggled lions in the rain. I know how they feel!

Invertebrates seemed rather under-represented, I’m thinking of entering bee photos to the next competition – entry details here. So come on all you Hymenoptera and other invertebrate people! Let’s not have the tiny animals forgotten!

'Where the hell can I get eyes like that?'

Bumble bee precariously balancing on echinacea in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians.

The wheel turns

‘Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The sun was hard and bright as we drove to the apiary on Sunday morning. With the passing of the winter solstice the days begin to lengthen. The honeybee colony senses the incremental increases in daylight hours and the queen stirs deep within the cluster. She will soon start to lay for the coming spring.

In the UK beekeepers treat their hives with oxalic acid around 21/22 December. This is thought to be an effective anti-varroa treatment when there is little or no capped brood inside the hive. The varroa mites have nowhere to hide and are most vulnerable to treatment.

Last year I made this video of Emily dribbling oxalic acid on our hives.

As I wrote then, ‘Giving the bees oxalic acid‘, the treatment is given as a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup with 5ml of solution dribbled across each seam of bees.

Emily had treated our Hanwell bees with oxalic acid and now we had three hives waiting at Perivale. John waited outside the apiary as I pulled on my beekeeping suit and untangled the hives from wrappings of chicken wire.

I opened up Myrtle’s hive – our oldest, and my favourite, queen – and peered into the still darkness. All was quiet. Then the workers ran up as one and peered back at me. To anyone but a beekeeper it would be disconcerting. A couple of young-looking fuzzy workers flew out and buzzed curiously around my veil. I realised it was time to stop enjoying the bees. They were losing precious heat, so I dispensed oxalic acid between each frame and closed the hive.

Next, Chamomile’s bees were clustered above the frames tucking into fondant. They were slightly more indignant, although not bad tempered, at being disturbed. So I didn’t linger. Last, Chili’s bees, having strangely taken to the medicine with the sugar, were too busy investigating the sweet drops to make a complaint. Yes, I too have noticed Chili’s bees are a bit weird.

Recent research has challenged the traditional way in which we give oxalic acid treatment, as Emily reports in her post ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. While I enjoy a midwinter visit to the bees, I feel uncomfortable about disturbing the winter cluster. The thought of a further inspection and destroying sealed brood when the colony is about to enter its most perilous time of year fills me with doubt.

However, as I reach the end of my fourth year as a beekeeper, I realise that I must become less sentimental about the bees. As beekeepers we love every bee and often anthropomorphise about life inside the hive, but the honeybee colony can be a ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ intellect acting as one mind. Workers will dispose unhealthy larvae, retire old queens and dispatch drones for the good of the whole. If this new research proves to be the best approach then we may have to change the way oxalic acid is given in future. But for now, I’d rather wait and see.

It has been a busy year for our bees, but we have reached the end. I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays, so here are some of my favourite beekeeping moments from 2013.

Happy Christmas everyone and see you in the New Year!

Best beekeeping pictures of 2013

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Snowmageddon – Emily finds evidence of woodpeckers in the snow.

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My first sighting of a honeybee this year foraging on a purple crocus.

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This could get out of hand – our bees make new queens.

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A wonderful Bee Surprise from my boyfriend John and his friends.

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Autumn is coming – the year passes too quickly and soon the bees are preparing for autumn.

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My favourite queen Myrtle walking across the frame. She’s a long amber beauty.

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Our bees love building wax comb where they’re not supposed to!

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One of my favourite pictures of Emily beekeeping this year – What is a swarm cell and what is a superseder cell?

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Beekeepers in Iceland!

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And last but not least, a congregation of Ealing beekeepers.

Who keeps the beekeepers?

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Winter is here and, as every beekeeper knows, you will get asked at least once a week ‘What do bees do in winter?’. People are surprised when you say that bees don’t hibernate in winter and they are fascinated to hear how the workers cluster into a small, tight ball around the queen, vibrating their flight muscles to maintain a core temperature of around 21–24°C inside the hive. The winter bees eat the honey stores made by their summer sisters, because generating that much heat requires energy. ‘During the winter a colony will use an average of about 1kg per week just for heat production. (So do not skimp on feeding!)’ says Celia F Davis, The Honey Bee Inside Out. On a clear, mild day, the workers venture outside to stretch their wings or on a ‘cleansing flight’ (bees don’t like to poo indoors).

Honeybee colonies are much smaller in winter – on average, around 10–15,000 workers and the queen – so there are fewer bees to keep, but still beekeeping to do. Insulating roofs to conserve heat energy, checking mouseguards are secure and entrances clear, wrapping hives in chicken wire to deter peckish woodpeckers, and hefting the weight of stores. Beekeepers can then look forward to the tradition of giving bees a gift of fondant on Christmas Day, although many of us leave the fondant under the roof much earlier.

Sadly, people rarely ask what do beekeepers do in winter, who keeps the apiary warm or who maintains vital stores of tea and cake? Luckily, at Ealing apiary there is a hard core of beekeepers who turn up every Saturday afternoon to keep each other. And while we can’t vibrate our flight muscles like bees to maintain a tropical 24°C, the urn is boiled, tea is poured and cakes served warm from the oven. I arrived at the apiary yesterday to find a small crowd chatting over cups of tea, two varieties of cake and curious about my offering of a packet of jaffa cakes.

As regular readers know, there is a show-and-tell each week at our apiary. John Chapple was showing a photo of a strange numerical construct built on to the front of a house ‘for the bees’. I never got to the bottom of what it was. Thomas had brought a pretty collection of beeswax balms made by a lady beekeeper at Walpole Friends apiary, which the Ealing (men) beekeepers thought were good for buying, sticking on a gift label and saying ‘here, have this’ at Christmas.

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Beekeepers are great hobbyists and have many hobbies to keep them occupied in winter. One of those hobbies is talking to other beekeepers about their bees. I had a fun chat with Andy, a beekeeper who admitted that Emily and I are not the only Ealing beekeepers who name our queens. While Emily and I use a naming convention of essential oils, Andy names his queens for famous female scientists. So far his queens have included Rosalind (Rosalind Franklin, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer), Jocelyn (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Northern Irish astrophysicist) and Valentina (Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and engineer). Valentina swarmed with her colony which, said Andy, taught him not to name future queens after astronauts or aviators, ‘There will never be an Amelia’.

The apiary’s core temperature of around 8–10°C doesn’t allow sitting for long, so we joined Andy Pedley and the other beekeepers stretching their legs around the hives. Albert noticed a few dead bees were blocking the entrance to Chamomile’s hive and Thomas thought the bodies might be trapped by the way our mouseguard was placed over the entrance reducer. ‘I noticed lots of hives here have entrance reducers and mouseguards on, but this might make it too difficult for bees to get in and out,’ he said. Thomas and Albert helped me to reposition the mouseguard and remove dead bodies. As soon as the entrance was clear a worker bee flew out impatient to get past and buzzing loudly. Perhaps she had been waiting for a cleansing flight for a long time.

There was not a sight of a bee outside Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives and I hoped our queens were well inside. I shouldn’t have favourites but I am fond of Myrtle, who was named for my favourite essential oil and, like her namesake, is a gentle and kind queen. Here she is walking elegantly across a frame this summer.

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Satisfied the bees were well being kept, the beekeepers drifted out of the apiary and all was quiet and still again. The day was getting darker and colder, so I was grateful when Stan offered a lift home to Northolt.

Today is the 1st of December and John and I are putting up the Christmas decorations. I will, of course, save some tinsel for the bees.

Further reading

Hivernation – a useful read on what the bees get up to in winter, by blogger Apis.

Understanding bee anatomy – Thomas found a fantastic blog by a doctor and Master beekeeper, very useful for winter bee studies.

Beekeeping in Iceland

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Image by John Maund

I watched our bees fly home on a mild autumn day with the treasures of their colourful forage bulging out of pollen baskets, and wondered when they would start to huddle up to survive the forecast of a long, harsh winter. I couldn’t imagine then that a colony would flourish in a place where autumn cooled to 0–3°C during the day and dropped to below zero at night.

The following week John and I flew to Reykjavik in Iceland for the first year anniversary of when we met expecting to see glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes and, of course, the Northern Lights. We had packed thermals, knitted jumpers, hats, scarves, gloves and waterproofs to prepare for wind, rain and snow, although we soon found that the weather report changed from hour to hour and, as the locals said, ‘If you stand still for five minutes you will have all-new weather’.

We had a full itinerary to explore the eclectic city of Reykjavik and discover the strange and fantastical country of Iceland. We hoped also to find time to meet an Icelandic beekeeper, Hjalmar Jonsson, who had contacted Emily through her blog and, after hearing that John and I were visiting Iceland, had generously offered to show his hives and take us around Reykjavik. When I emailed to arrange to meet on Tuesday, he replied that we were lucky to arrive early in the week as ‘strong wind from the Northern Pole was on his way’.

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Image by John Maund

Iceland was not the first country I thought of when thinking about bees and beekeeping, but Hjalmar is part of a growing beekeeping community in Reykjavik and neighbouring towns. After meeting at the Grand Hotel, he told us a bit about beekeeping in Iceland as he drove us to see his hives. The honeybees in Iceland are Italian and usually imported from Sweden or Norway where they are bred. We were told the colonies have little or no disease or problems with varroa due to their isolation. The main challenge the bees face is not the snow and cold but wind and rain. Hjalmar uses polystyrene Langstroth hives to help keep the bees warm and we later saw that these were firmly strapped down and lined up against a wind barrier of trees and bracken.

This year the summer in Iceland was wet with prolonged spells of rain and a poor honey harvest for Hjalmar, who has two hives, and his neighbour, who has six or maybe more! But Hjalmar was content to have two strong colonies to overwinter and had even set aside two jars of honey for myself and Emily. A very valuable and generous gift!

The day was full of cold bright sunshine with a sharp bite in the air as we walked along the path to take our first view of Icelandic bees. We could have been looking at a row of hives in London, it was all so familiar. We took a few photos and Hjalmar said ‘Now let’s take a closer look.’

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Image by John Maund

A deserted Warre hive stood empty to the side and in which Hjalmar said the bees had only built two boxes before giving up. He thought the Warre hive might not have been warm enough to keep the colonies going. There was an observation panel at the back revealing the beautiful emptied nest of natural honeycomb inside. I thought how much fun it would be to observe the hives this way in winter, although our bees would likely propolise the window to stop us from being nosy.

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Natural honeycomb built by bees inside a Warre hive.

We walked back towards the Langstroth hives where Hjalmar pointed to a piece of honeycomb lying outside the entrance, he thought it was drone comb. ‘This is when it is hard for us males, John,’ he said. ‘To see when we are no longer needed by nature.’ He was referring, of course, to the end of summer when the males (drones) are evicted from the nest by the females (workers) – a gripe of many male beekeepers. I sensed bonding was occurring.

Unconcerned by the fate of their brothers, a few workers were flying in and out of the entrance, perhaps on cleansing flights or to stretch their wings on a clear day. I asked Hjalmar if his bees were good natured and he nodded, ‘Except one time when I opened the hive too early in the year. They weren’t ready for me’.

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Image by John Maund

Leaving the bees to enjoy their winter break, we took a stroll along the path to a salmon river – an oasis of calm outside the city populated by dog walkers, ramblers, birds, and salmon. Birdwatching is another passion of Hjalmar’s along with a growing interest in photography and blogging. And he was very pleased to show us the untouched beauty of his country as we drove to see a vast mirror-like lake – Iceland is a land of incredible natural beauty.

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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

Another surprise was waiting – a visit to a farm in the suburbs where the farmer has been keeping bees and growing apple trees, which, like many trees, are scarce in Iceland.

We were warmly greeted by the farmer’s daughter who was keen to show her father’s hives. ‘We make mistakes and we are learning all the time.’ They were learning fast and their happy, healthy bees suggested they didn’t make many mistakes. Two rows of Langstroth hives were situated under a wind shelter with bees contentedly floating around jars of sugar syrup warming in the sun outside the entrances.

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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

There were even thermostats on the roofs, so while we were shivering in 2–3°C outside, I could see that the bees were a snug 22°C inside.

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Image by John Maund

Having grown up on a farm in Hereford, John was keen to look around and we were treated to more Icelandic hospitality with a tour of the greenhouse apple orchard and egg factory. We even left with organic apples in our pockets to eat later.

Iceland is a relaxed country to put it mildly, and Icelanders have a quiet, dry humour that I was only just beginning to appreciate. So when Hjalmar told us we were going to see the president of Iceland, I thought he was joking. He was, sort of.

It is possible to drive up to the President of Iceland’s house, which is white, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík. The residence is surrounded by mountains and sea and overlooks a view of the city. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his very popular First Lady Dorrit Moussaieffare are said to sometimes enjoy strolls with visitors in the grounds. You can read more about it on this blogger’s visit. Amazing. It gave me a real sense of the closeness and ease of the Icelandic community, which I liked very much.

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I took this one. Behind the church is the house of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík.

After all that bee-ing and sightseeing, it was time for a trip to the oldest coffee house in Reykjavik. If you ever visit, you must go there. Mokka-Kaffi opened in 1958 from its beginnings as a place for artists to meet and today is famous for its hot chocolate. Hjalmar nodded towards a man sitting by the window sketching into a notebook.

As our day was drawing to an end, Hjalmar drove us to the harbour ‘and to take photos’. Hjalmar is practising photography for his blog, which I hope to post a link on these pages soon. The city looked even more picturesque from the other side of the harbour with the sea sparkling across the bay.

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Image by John Maund

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My lovely boyfriend John and official photographer for the day!

John and I had been overwhelmed by the Icelandic hospitality and generosity we had received that day and as Hjalmar dropped us off at the Aurora Borealis museum, I said that we hoped to see him in London next year to visit our hives.

We have kept in touch since and as Hjalmar said, we were very lucky with our visit to Iceland. This was only part one of our holiday, part two including bubbling hot springs, rumbling mountains, waterfalls and glaciers was yet to come…

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Image by John Maund

Further reading

I suspect the farm Hjalmar took us to visit was the same as featured in BeeCraft magazine: ‘Beekeeping in the land of fire and ice’.

You can read more about Icelandic beekeeping on the association website.

A great blog/website with a personal view of all you need to know about a trip to Iceland

Trick or treat bee!

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